Obama and the Muslim world

Washington, May 30: US President Barack Obama will deliver his long-awaited speech to the Islamic world on 4 June in Cairo.

Already in his inaugural speech, he clearly stated the United States’ desire for a renewed relationship with the Muslim world, based on mutual interests and mutual respect.

This message was touched on once again in an interview with satellite broadcaster Al Arabiya, and in a video message to Iran, and finally during a speech to the Turkish parliament at the beginning of April. Mr Obama stressed that it was not his country’s intention to wage with Islam, neither now nor at any other time.

This is an important signal, coming from a president who has inherited a slew of conflicts directly linked to the Islamic world: the war on Al-Qaeda, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (which are quickly spreading into Pakistan), the Iranian nuclear conflict, and the virtually hopeless Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


And yet, President Obama made a point of saying that the speech in which his ideas for a fundamental new start in his relations with the Islamic world would be articulated was still to come.

This has resulted in high expectations for his speech this coming Thursday -a dangerous situation for the president if he fails to meet them.

In previous speeches, he managed to find just the right words. That won’t be the problem this time either. And although the right rhetoric is very important when addressing the Arab and wider Muslim world, it will come down to actions, and the actual politics being practised in the region.

One of the biggest grievances of the Arab and Muslim world is the double standards applied by the West, under US influence. They have always been frustrated by the way in which the West deals with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: employing military force or sanctions to enforce UN resolutions in the case of Iraq and Iran, but looking the other way when Israel ignores UN resolutions.

President Obama has said from the very beginning that he will try to bring Israel and Palestine closer to a resolution. The first step will be a complete halt to Israel’s expansion in the West Bank. And this means an to all settlement – not just the so-called illegal outposts – including new homes to accommodate the natural population growth, as Obama’s Foreign Affairs Minister Hilary Clinton recently made clear.

Two-state solution

Yet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the White House did not result in his acceptance of a two-state solution. And the Israeli PM is also strongly against the idea of the US warming up to Iran, a move intended to help Obama out of his troubles in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But this political overture also worries Arab countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Before delivering his speech, President Obama will be visiting Saudi King Abdullah and President Mubarak of Egypt to discuss Iran and the Arab peace plan with Israel.

This plan would offer Israel peace with the Arab States and all other Islamic countries, in return for its withdrawal from the occupied territories and its acknowledgement of the creation of a Palestinian state. At the same time, spokespeople for the president have said that he is not going to Cairo with a detailed peace plan, only a number of universal principles for a possible solution.

President Barack Hussein Obama will need all his rhetorical powers to be able to convince a sympathetic yet sceptical audience that his intention of turning over a new leaf in his relations with the Islamic world is true. But without concrete and visible actions to go along with those powerful words, the effect of his good intentions will be hard to see.