Saturday, June 6, 2009

Robert Fisk: Words That Could Heal Wounds of Centuries

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 (UK)

June 5, 2009


Preacher, historian, economist, moralist, schoolteacher, critic, warrior, imam, emperor.

Sometimes you even forgot Barack Obama was the President of the United States of America.


Will his lecture to a carefully chosen audience at

Cairo University "re-imagine the world" and heal the

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 America. Did we know that

there were seven million Muslims in America, that there

were mosques in every state of the Union, that Morocco

was the first nation to recognise the United States and

that our duty is to fight against stereotypes of

Muslims just as Muslims must fight against stereotypes of America?


But much of the truth was there, albeit softened to

avoid hurting feelings in Israel. To deny the facts of

the Jewish Holocaust was "baseless, ignorant and

hateful", he said, a remark obviously aimed at Iran.

And Israel deserved security and "Palestinians must abandon violence..."


The United States demanded a two-state solution to the

Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He told the Israelis

there had to be a total end to their colonisation in

the West Bank. "The United States does not accept the

legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements."


The Palestinians had suffered without a homeland. "The

situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable,"

Obama said and the US would not turn its back on the

"legitimate Palestinian aspiration for a state of their

own". Israel had to take "concrete steps" to give the

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 Israel had to take this kind of

criticism from a US President. It sounded like the end

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

United States - and this was awesome - admitted his

country's failures, its over-reaction to 9/11, its

creation of Guantanamo which, Obama reminded us all

again, he is closing down. Not bad, Obama...


We got to Iran. One state trying to acquire nuclear

weapons would lead to a "dangerous path" for all of us,

especially in the Middle East. We must prevent a

nuclear arms race. But Iran as a nation must be treated

with dignity. More extraordinarily, Obama reminded us

that the US had connived to overthrow the

democratically elected Mossadeq government of Iran in

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 Egypt;

even the Christian Maronites of Lebanon got a look in.


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

hasn't mentioned Iraq - and then he did ("a war of

choice... our combat brigades will be leaving"). But he

hasn't mentioned Afghanistan - and then he did ("we do

not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan... we will

gladly bring every one of our troops home"). When he

started talking about the "coalition of 46 countries"

in Afghanistan - a very dodgy statistic - he began to

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

excoriation of Iran - of Israel's estimated 264 nuclear

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

mention of Israel's violence in Gaza, just of the

"continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza". Nor was there

a mention of Israel's bombing of civilians in Lebanon,

of its repeated invasions of Lebanon (17,500 dead in

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 Buchenwald

concentration camp today.


For a man who is sending thousands more US troops into

Afghanistan - a certain disaster-to-come in the eyes of

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 America and

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

Gettysburg. Not exactly Churchill, but not bad. One

could only remember Churchill's observations: "Words

are easy and many, while great deeds are difficult and rare."



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