The Anti-Politician in Cairo

By Al Giordano

Politicians, in general, are a reactive caste. They look at things as they are, and opportunistically seek out and study the cracks and weaknesses in society in order to put themselves at its helm. Most believe (and those that don’t believe, pretend) they are doing this in service of a higher ideal: right or left, liberal or conservative, progressive or religious, whatever, but because the great majority of them are essentially reacting to the same set of seemingly inexorable current events, the sum of their actions is that of constructing individual fiefdoms that look much the same no matter what ideology or flag flies over them.

And then there are the rare historical figures that appear now and then in human events to disregard those base reactive impulses with enough discipline to first develop their own idea of how things ought to be. And only after developing a detailed yet clear vision for society do they then enter the political fray. Probably the best example in the last century of such an anti-politician was Mohandas K. Gandhi, who returned home to India at the age of 46, after winning civil rights for immigrants in South Africa. He found a homeland thirsting for independence from the British Empire and its impositions. A media hero and cause celébre upon his return to Indian shores, the pro-independence advocates and parties sought Gandhi out to lead a revolution against the Crown.

Gandhi – conscious that after being away for 27 years in London and South Africa he did not know his native country well enough to lead it – instead imposed upon himself a moratorium against speaking to the press, and embarked upon a listening tour through the forgotten and impoverished regions of India in order to first understand what the real yearnings and realities of its people were. Only after he felt he had a comprehensive enough vision for what kind of better society was possible there did he enter the fray that, as history knows, won independence for the region, while showing the world a new way to fight for freedom.

Listening to the President’s remarks in Cairo this morning – billed as a speech to all the Muslims in the world – it is clear that in Barack Obama our moment in history has one such transcendent leader.

This is an admission that infuriates some of my friends when I say it (it bothers them to distraction because it challenges so many presumptions that were accurate until he came along, but that they cynically thought reflected the permanent state of man and woman). The admission – Obama is that kind of great historical figure, one, perhaps, like Gandhi – is filled with paradox, as he achieved that standing through the messy art of electoral politics (in a country where the voting system is severely retarded by money, which is to say, capitalism) and he now heads what is still an Empire and the most powerful one in human history.

Obama’s rise to power does not erase that the Empire he commands grew through many atrocious acts of war, domination and economic pillage of other lands and peoples even as it began as the first and greatest model of how to cast off imperialist chains. The good and the bad of the United States of America grew up together, coiled around each other like DNA helixes, simultaneously making the country both an engine for human progress but also for unprecedented harm all at once. The debate is not, and correctly should never be, a question of “is America good or evil,” but, rather, which side of its schizophrenic split personality wins the upper hand in each moment.

The best side of America appeared today in Cairo. And it feels like it has been so long since it has materialized that one’s windpipes must share the gasp of shock with the exhale of great relief. Is that really us? Oh my, it is. Or it still can be.

All those words are preface to some annotations I made regarding the President’s speech, which he began, first, by acknowledging how Muslims and their nations have been shat upon historically so many times by US policy:

The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of coexistence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars.  More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations...

I do not claim to be an Islamic scholar, and I might be wrong about this, but it is my sense that Islam, in general, shares a major character trait or flaw with the other large monotheistic sects, especially with the many diverse branches of Judeo-Christianity. Monotheism seems, to me, to share residence with a kind of dual inferiority-superiority complex that believes its own belief system to be the best or “only” true path and whose collective ego is wounded, again and again, when it feels that its superior contributions to human progress are disregarded by the believers in a different god.

We can observe this troubled dynamic in the fundamentalist strains of most faiths, including Judeo-Christianity. Islam, estimated to be the second largest religion in the world, and its peoples have more often than not been on the wrong end of the gun and the short end of the stick. It is that reality that caused the cauldron of resentment to boil over in the sheer destructive rage of terrorisms now divorced from any coherent path of insurgency toward liberation.

The monotheistic ideologies also share this dogma, applied against each other: We created human progress. We are the great inventors. We did it best, better than you. And if you disrespect us for it, fuck you.

This is exacerbated, in the case of Islam, because Islam really did perfect the monotheist model in ways that Judeo-Christian ideologies had not. (I’m not choosing sides here: I’m offering the perspective of an atheist who doesn’t “believe” in any of their leaps of faith. These are merely the observations of an outsider from all of them.) It is also my sense that Islamic culture, in general, speaks in more direct terms than the euphemisms so common in Judeo-Christian culture, where prejudices are so painstakingly masked with pretty words to disguise the bigotries and hatreds that underlie them. The President has clearly studied this more direct Islamic way of speaking, and adopted it for his speech today:

I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly to each other the things we hold in our hearts and that too often are said only behind closed doors.  There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground. As the Holy Koran tells us, "Be conscious of God and speak always the truth."  (Applause.)

He then spoke directly to that part of Islam that has felt wounded by the disrespect and disregard that Judeo-Christian society has so often heaped upon it:

As a student of history, I also know civilization's debt to Islam.  It was Islam -- at places like Al-Azhar -- that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe's Renaissance and Enlightenment.  It was innovation in Muslim communities -- (applause) -- it was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed.  Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation.  And throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality.  (Applause.)

And he shared, in words, quoting John Adams - "The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims" – and Thomas Jefferson - "I hope that our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be,” noting that Jefferson kept a copy of the Holy Koran “in his personal library” - some of the common philosophical underpinnings that American culture shares with Islam.

In doing so, he demonstrated it also in deed: Paying homage to what were essentially the secular prophets of Western democracy, Adams and Jefferson, he demonstrated that another shared cultural commonality is to state aloud the respect and debt a culture has to its founding prophets. I found that move quite impressive: the choice of secular, rather than religious, prophets to cite was so cleverly slipped in as a disarming measure.

He continued, speaking of the aforementioned “good” side of America:

I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed.  That experience guides my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn't.  And I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear. (Applause.)

But that same principle must apply to Muslim perceptions of America.  (Applause.)  Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire.  The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known.  We were born out of revolution against an empire.  We were founded upon the ideal that all are created equal, and we have shed blood and struggled for centuries to give meaning to those words -- within our borders, and around the world.  We are shaped by every culture, drawn from every end of the Earth, and dedicated to a simple concept:  E pluribus unum -- "Out of many, one."

And the President kept at it, noting that the USA “includes nearly 7 million American Muslims in our country today who, by the way, enjoy incomes and educational levels that are higher than the American average,” and that it is home to 1,200 mosques, and that “the United States government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab and to punish those who would deny it.” He also mentioned the genocides of Bosnia and Darfur as “a stain on our collective conscience,” provoking strong applause from the Egyptian university students in the audience.

Then he got down to addressing specific fault lines in US relations with parts of the Islamic regions.

On Afghanistan:

Now, make no mistake:  We do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan.  We see no military -- we seek no military bases there.  It is agonizing for America to lose our young men and women.  It is costly and politically difficult to continue this conflict.  We would gladly bring every single one of our troops home if we could be confident that there were not violent extremists in Afghanistan and now Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can.  But that is not yet the case.

In making his case against violent terrorism, he cited the Holy Koran:

The Holy Koran teaches that whoever kills an innocent is as -- it is as if he has killed all mankind.  (Applause.)  And the Holy Koran also says whoever saves a person, it is as if he has saved all mankind.  (Applause.)  The enduring faith of over a billion people is so much bigger than the narrow hatred of a few. Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism -- it is an important part of promoting peace.

On Iraq:

Today, America has a dual responsibility:  to help Iraq forge a better future -- and to leave Iraq to Iraqis.  And I have made it clear to the Iraqi people -- (applause) -- I have made it clear to the Iraqi people that we pursue no bases, and no claim on their territory or resources.  Iraq's sovereignty is its own. And that's why I ordered the removal of our combat brigades by next August.  That is why we will honor our agreement with Iraq's democratically elected government to remove combat troops from Iraqi cities by July, and to remove all of our troops from Iraq by 2012.  (Applause.)

On the attacks of September 11, Washington’s violent response, and his actions now to correct the wrongs committed in reaction:

Nine-eleven was an enormous trauma to our country.  The fear and anger that it provoked was understandable, but in some cases, it led us to act contrary to our traditions and our ideals.  We are taking concrete actions to change course.  I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States, and I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year.  (Applause.)

On Judaism and Israel:

Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust.  Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich.  Six million Jews were killed -- more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today.  Denying that fact is baseless, it is ignorant, and it is hateful.  Threatening Israel with destruction -- or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews -- is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.

On Palestine:

On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people -- Muslims and Christians -- have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.  For more than 60 years they've endured the pain of dislocation.  Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead.  They endure the daily humiliations -- large and small -- that come with occupation.  So let there be no doubt:  The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable.  And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.  (Applause.)

And, specifically, on the emerging US policy toward the Israel-Palestine conflict:

…if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth:  The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.  (Applause.)

I would call this next passage the “money ‘graph,” that part of the speech that carried the kernel of the President’s vision for society, one formed as a community organizer and youthful observer of the US Civil Rights movement:

Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed.  For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation.  But it was not violence that won full and equal rights.  It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding.  This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia.  It's a story with a simple truth:  that violence is a dead end.  It is a sign neither of courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus.  That's not how moral authority is claimed; that's how it is surrendered.

He spoke of nuclear proliferation, specifically regarding Iran, and acknowledged the United States’ role in creating the Petri dish out of which fundamentalist theocracy gained public support in that country:

This issue has been a source of tension between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is in fact a tumultuous history between us.  In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.  Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians.  This history is well known.  Rather than remain trapped in the past, I've made it clear to Iran's leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward.

And he repeated a key point of the Obama Doctrine that he has stated with different words at other times, that democracy, by its very definition, cannot be imposed:

I know -- I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq.  So let me be clear: No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other.

That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election.  But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things:  the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose.  These are not just American ideas; they are human rights.  And that is why we will support them everywhere.  (Applause.)

The President’s unique role in history is largely derived from the paradox that he is a politician who is also an anti-politician, underscored here:

This last point is important because there are some who advocate for democracy only when they're out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others.  (Applause.)  So no matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who would hold power:  You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party.  Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Barack Obama, we love you!

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Thank you.  (Applause.)  The fifth issue that we must address together is religious freedom….

Those words, above, were pitched directly at the youth of Egypt and of other less-than-democratic Islamic majority countries many of whom, after today, will likely and openly refer to themselves as Obamists. The ju-jitsu of today’s speech came in the transformation of the US presidency from a force long regarded as oppressive and intrusive to, rather, an ally in their own aspirations for liberation in their own lands. There is not a nuclear bomb or weapon of mass destruction ever made that could have possibly had such an impact. I am certain, based on my own lifelong study of social movements and their relationship to leaders, that very soon, in different parts of the Islamic world, we will see evidence of the shift that took place today. I wrote, yesterday, that the President would likely aim for the “hearts and minds” of Islamic youth. But what occurred today exceeded even my own out-on-a-limb expectation, another "three point shot" on the global basketball court.

Again and again throughout the 55 minute speech, the President kept hammering at the theme of praising and recognizing the accomplishments of Islamic peoples, and finding commonalities, where he could, with those of the United States. Here, on the principle of Freedom of Religion:

Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance.  We see it in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition.  I saw it firsthand as a child in Indonesia, where devout Christians worshiped freely in an overwhelmingly Muslim country.  That is the spirit we need today.  People in every country should be free to choose and live their faith based upon the persuasion of the mind and the heart and the soul. This tolerance is essential for religion to thrive, but it's being challenged in many different ways.

Among some Muslims, there's a disturbing tendency to measure one's own faith by the rejection of somebody else's faith.  The richness of religious diversity must be upheld -- whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt.  (Applause.)  And if we are being honest, fault lines must be closed among Muslims, as well, as the divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence, particularly in Iraq.

Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together….

On women’s rights:

The sixth issue -- the sixth issue that I want to address is women's rights.  (Applause.)  I know –- I know -- and you can tell from this audience, that there is a healthy debate about this issue.  I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality.  (Applause.)  And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well educated are far more likely to be prosperous.

Now, let me be clear:  Issues of women's equality are by no means simply an issue for Islam.  In Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, we've seen Muslim-majority countries elect a woman to lead.  Meanwhile, the struggle for women's equality continues in many aspects of American life, and in countries around the world.

I am convinced that our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons.  (Applause.)…

And then back to his wider vision for global society:

I know there are many -- Muslim and non-Muslim -- who question whether we can forge this new beginning.  Some are eager to stoke the flames of division, and to stand in the way of progress.  Some suggest that it isn't worth the effort -- that we are fated to disagree, and civilizations are doomed to clash. Many more are simply skeptical that real change can occur.  There's so much fear, so much mistrust that has built up over the years.  But if we choose to be bound by the past, we will never move forward.  And I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country -- you, more than anyone, have the ability to reimagine the world, to remake this world…

It's easier to start wars than to end them.  It's easier to blame others than to look inward.  It's easier to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share.  But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path.  There's one rule that lies at the heart of every religion -- that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.  (Applause.)  This truth transcends nations and peoples -- a belief that isn't new; that isn't black or white or brown; that isn't Christian or Muslim or Jew.  It's a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization, and that still beats in the hearts of billions around the world.  It's a faith in other people, and it's what brought me here today.

We have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning, keeping in mind what has been written.

The Holy Koran tells us:  "O mankind!  We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another."

The Talmud tells us:  "The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace."

The Holy Bible tells us:  "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God."  (Applause.)

The people of the world can live together in peace.  We know that is God's vision.  Now that must be our work here on Earth.

Thank you.  And may God's peace be upon you.  Thank you very much.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

Those were the words, bringing with them the deeds, of the President of the country we wanted to grow up in, but had until recently been denied.

But since we are still growing up – as individuals and as peoples – we can hopefully recognize that we have begun to obtain so much of we had missed: that which is good about America, finally, overcoming so much that was so terribly and harmfully done in our name.

Obama, the anti-politician, has tricked us today into listening to a speech we were told was directed at all the Muslims in the world. Truth is, it was just as much directed at us, the citizens of his own country. Today's words offered a guide to what the United States of America should have been, and might still become, if we apply its vision from the grassroots up at this moment rife with the potential for historic human progress.

Update: Field Hand Laura M. Poyneer has assembled a wonderful set of annotations for the various references to Islam scripture and culture in the speech. Check it out.


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About Al Giordano


Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.

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