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Avoiding the Taboo Questions: Obama in Cairo

In his June 4 speech to an assembled audience in Cairo,1 President Obama envisioned a new start between America and the Islamic world. He focused on seven key themes: violent extremism, the Israeli-Palestinian/Arab conflict, nuclear proliferation, democracy, religious freedom, women’s rights, and economic development and opportunity.

To be fair, much of what President Obama had to say made perfect sense. Who could disagree when he called upon Muslims and Americans “to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground”? He took Muslims to task for portraying America in terms of a “crude stereotype”; he stated unambiguously that al Qaeda was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, a fact still disputed by millions of Muslims around the world; he warned of the “decisive point” now reached on the question of nuclear proliferation, with particular reference to Iran; and he spoke out forcefully on the issue of religious freedom, pointing to the abuse of this right by some Muslim groups and regimes. Similarly his comments on women’s rights and economic development and opportunity also mixed a tone of robust critique with openness to partnership.

However, underlying the persuasive eloquence that is the hallmark of this president are two seriously flawed assumptions. The first is his approach to the history and teaching of Islam. His statement that “Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance” beggars belief. The statement drew applause from his Muslim audience in Cairo, but one could almost hear the groans of anguish from Coptic Christians living not far from the site of his speech, or indeed Christian minorities who have suffered the infamously intolerant face of Islam in recent years in Sudan, Iraq, Gaza, Iran, Pakistan, and eastern Indonesia – without even beginning to think about Muslim discrimination against and persecution of non-Muslims down the ages.

The second major flaw in the president’s speech is his parroting of the mantra that Islam is a religion of peace. “Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism – it is an important part of promoting peace,” declared the president, either unaware or deliberately ignoring the solid support for jihad-driven violence found in both the Qur’an and Hadith, the two bodies of sacred text in Islam, and modeled by Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Of course, millions of Muslim people do not follow calls to jihad against the infidel, but as long as Muslim leaders, supported by President Obama, whitewash the primary texts and prophet of Islam on this score, violent extremism will continue to find fertile ground among some of the world’s Muslims.

Time will tell whether this speech serves as a blueprint for action during the Obama presidency. It is to be hoped that the president and his team show an openness to more politically incorrect viewpoints than was suggested by the content of the Cairo speech. Asking hard questions of Muslims about Islam’s sacred texts, prophet, and history need not lead to a relational breakdown. Indeed, an inability to discuss such questions with Muslims can only indicate a relationship lacking in substance.


For a transcript of this 2009 address, see “Remarks by the President on a New Beginning,” June 4, 2009, The White House Website, (accessed June 9, 2009).