Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo last week was, of course, addressed as much to Americans as to Cairenes (or for that matter Muslims). The crowd hardly needed to be reminded of their civilisation’s accomplishments in maths, science and learning; but many Americans could surely benefit from the history lesson the president so succinctly and eloquently provided. Likewise, most Egyptians know that there are worse places to be Muslim than the US: that’s why so many of them are desperate for American visas. Europeans, on the other hand, could learn something from American tolerance of the hijab. People in Kansas may have an irrational fear of terrorists flying planes into their corn fields, but most Americans just aren’t afraid of girls who cover themselves, or of visible signs of religious observance.
Obama paid his respects to cultural difference with his usual sophistication (and impatience with Western secular fundamentalism), dismissing the ‘view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal’. But he pointedly added that ‘a woman who is denied an education is denied equality. And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well-educated are far more likely to be prosperous.’ One country that has benefited from the progress of women is Iran, where more than 60 per cent of university students are female, and where women have come to play an increasingly prominent role in civil society – in contrast with, say, ‘moderate’ Saudi Arabia. Obama didn’t mention this, but he did make an example of Iran in less flattering ways, as he did in his speech at Buchenwald the following day, where he indirectly criticised Ahmadinejad’s revisionist pronouncements about the Holocaust.
It would be easy to say Obama puts the cart before the horse in talking about violent Islamic extremism (though not Jewish or Christian extremism) before addressing the question of Palestine. But Palestine isn’t the only cause of jihadism, even if it’s an inescapable grievance and a major ‘recruiting tool’, as the pundits say. And Obama was much franker on the nature of the conflict than he’s tended to be, referring matter-of-factly to the ‘displacement brought by Israel’s founding’, and to the ‘intolerable’ occupation. As the son of a Kenyan man and a student of American history, Obama knows something about the Mau Mau rebellion, and about Nat Turner – not to mention the American civil war, in which more than a half million people died before slavery was abolished. So he can’t possibly believe his fable that black Americans won their rights through ‘peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the centre of America’s founding’. Still, it would have been shocking, and politically suicidal, for him to say the Palestinians have a right to resist occupation by force of arms. And it wasn’t surprising that the country most conspicuous by its absence from his remarks on nuclear weapons was Israel.
Obama has rejected the messianic American ‘project’ for the Middle East, which was a gift to authoritarian leaders like Bashar Assad in Damascus, who can point to Iraq as an example of the good democracy will do. Still, human rights activists in Egypt – where there are 17,000 political prisoners, and the president hasn’t faced a serious election in three decades – couldn’t take much comfort from the fact that Obama devoted twice as much time to ‘violent extremism’ as to democratic governance. To be sure, a reproach to Mubarak could be heard when he said: ‘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.’ But Obama was too polite to mention that his host had prevented the Egyptian opposition movement Kifaya from holding a protest the night before, or that he’d ordered Cairo University to be emptied of students: both vivid tributes to the most efficient branch of the Egyptian state, the security services.
America’s special relationship with the Mukhabarat state in countries like Egypt – as much as its support for Israel – has made it a target of popular anger, and of attacks by radical Islamists. Obama’s rhapsody in green, with its repeated invocations of the ‘holy Koran’ and its blunt inventory of the crimes of Western colonialism in the Middle East, certainly sets a new tone in relations between the West and that imaginary, impossible monolith known as the Muslim world. But the perception that the US is an enemy won’t fade among Muslims until America overhauls its policies in the region, no matter how much Obama praises the finer aspects of Islamic civilisation, no matter how thorough his account of the abuses of colonialism. Obama surely knows this. Whether he can act on it remains to be seen.