Robert Fisk: Words That Could Heal Wounds of Centuries
President Obama reaches out to the Islamic
world in a landmark speech
By Robert Fisk
The Independent (
June 5, 2009
Preacher, historian, economist, moralist, schoolteacher, critic, warrior, imam, emperor.
Sometimes you even forgot Barack Obama was the President of the
Will his lecture to a carefully chosen audience at
wounds of centuries between Muslims and Christians?
Will it resolve the Arab-Israeli tragedy after more
than 60 years? If words could do the job, perhaps...
It was a clever speech we heard from Obama yesterday,
as gentle and as ruthless as any audience could wish
for - and we were all his audience. He praised Islam.
He loved Islam. He admired Islam. He loved
Christianity. And he admired
there were seven million Muslims in
were mosques in every state of the Union, that
was the first nation to recognise the
that our duty is to fight against stereotypes of
Muslims just as Muslims must fight against stereotypes of
But much of the truth was there, albeit softened to
avoid hurting feelings in
the Jewish Holocaust was "baseless, ignorant and
hateful", he said, a remark obviously aimed at
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He told the Israelis
there had to be a total end to their colonisation in
legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements."
The Palestinians had suffered without a homeland. "The
situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable,"
Obama said and the
"legitimate Palestinian aspiration for a state of their
Palestinians progress in their daily lives as part of a
road to peace. Israel needed to acknowledge Palestinian
suffering and the Palestinian right to exist. Wow. Not
for a generation has
criticism from a
of the Zionist dream. Did George Bush ever exist?
Alas, he did. Indeed, at times, the Obama address
sounded like the Bush General Repair Company, visiting
the Muslim world to sweep up mountains of broken
chandeliers and shredded flesh. The President of the
country's failures, its over-reaction to 9/11, its
again, he is closing down. Not bad, Obama...
We got to
weapons would lead to a "dangerous path" for all of us,
especially in the
nuclear arms race. But
with dignity. More extraordinarily, Obama reminded us
democratically elected Mossadeq government of
the Fifties. It was "hard to overcome decades of distrust".
There was more; democracy, women's rights, the economy,
a few good quotes from the Koran ("Whoever kills an
innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind".)
Governments must respect "all their people" and their
minorities. He mentioned the Christian Copts of
even the Christian Maronites of
And when Obama said that some governments, "once in
power, are ruthless in suppressing the rights of
others", there was a roar of applause from the
supposedly obedient audience. No wonder the Egyptian
government wanted to select which bits of Obama's
speech would be suitable for the Egyptian people. They
were clearly very, very unhappy with the police-state
regime of Hosni Mubarak. Indeed, Obama did not once
mention Mubarak's name.
Over and again, one kept saying to oneself: Obama
choice... our combat brigades will be leaving"). But he
not want to keep our troops in
gladly bring every one of our troops home"). When he
started talking about the "coalition of 46 countries"
sound like his predecessor. And here, of course, we
encountered an inevitable problem. As the Palestinian
intellectual Marwan Bishara pointed out yesterday, it
is easy to be "dazzled" by presidents. This was a
dazzling performance. But if one searched the text,
there were things missing.
There was no mention - during or after his kindly
warheads. He admonished the Palestinians for their
violence - for "shooting rockets at sleeping children
or blowing up old women in a bus". But there was no
"continuing humanitarian crisis in
a mention of
of its repeated invasions of
the 1982 invasion alone). Obama told Muslims not to
live in the past, but cut the Israelis out of this. The
Holocaust loomed out of his speech and he reminded us
that he was going to the site of the
concentration camp today.
For a man who is sending thousands more
Arabs and Westerners - there was something brazen about
all this. When he talked about the debt that all
Westerners owed to Islam - the "light of learning" in
Andalusia, algebra, the magnetic compass, religious
tolerance, it was like a cat being gently stroked
before a visit to the vet. And the vet, of course,
lectured the Muslims on the dangers of extremism, on
"cycles of suspicion and discord" - even if
Islam shared "common principles" which turned out to be
"justice, progress and the dignity of all human beings".
There was one merciful omission: a speech of nearly
6,000 words did not include the lethal word "terror".
"Terror" or "terrorism" have become punctuation marks
for every Israeli government and became part of the
obscene grammar of the Bush era.
An intelligent guy, then, Obama. Not exactly
could only remember Churchill's observations: "Words
are easy and many, while great deeds are difficult and rare."