Is there meaning and power to Barack Obama's address without President Obama? Is this solely Obama's text or is it America's new text, whoever the president might be? The answer is twofold. Obama did not have to make his Cairo speech to alter U.S. policy. Anyone looking for a policy change could have found it in his earlier declarations supporting dialogue with Iran and opposing settlements, as well as in his announcements that he would bolster the Afghanistan campaign and speed up the pullout from Iraq. Obama the politician could have allowed his actions to draw Arab and Muslim support, and show the rest of the world where he is headed.
But Obama did not plan merely to announce political change and redefine U.S. interests in the Middle East, or offer American-Muslim reconciliation. You don't need an appearance at a dim hall at Cairo University to do this. Obama is a political philosopher who seeks to forge a new constitution of international politics that can replace the old paradigm, which drew a line separating Islam from the West. The old paradigm also built the temples of Orientalism, where the Middle East was researched as a holding area of natives, which attributed wisdom to the West and backwardness to "Islam," and juxtaposed a West of diplomatic finesse and honest handshakes with an Islam of fraud and violence.
Obama, as he explained in a press interview, removed the masks in Cairo. No one is absolutely right and there are no clear villains. There are no good and bad religions. No part of the world is entirely good, with another being an axis of evil. Just wars and wars of no choice are not solely things of the West, and premeditated, bad wars are not solely those of Islam. There are good and bad people, some in the East and some in the West.
These distinctions were not self-evident to the latest U.S. presidents or the American public, which still lives under the trauma of 9/11. The old paradigm served all sides well in the pre-Obama United States and Middle East. Israel, for example, hid its idleness and refusal to carry out diplomatic initiatives behind a veil of self-righteousness. As long there was no democracy in the Middle East, it would be impossible to make peace, the old Benjamin Netanyahu argued.
George W. Bush bought into this claim. After all, the only democracy in the Middle East can carry on with the occupation but cannot make a mistake in determining the appropriate values. On the other hand, as long as the United States supports Israel, it cannot be an honest broker, the Arabs claimed, and Muslim intellectuals saw as their mission the blocking of the Zionist-American cultural invasion.
The "enlightened and good" West linked up with the "moderate" Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar and Kuwait, and with Israel, rejected "extremist" Syria and Iran. "Islam" was cut up in slices along the lines of a Western menu. Standards of values were set in Washington and the natives were ordered to take entry exams, except for the ones who had an inside track, oil, strategic importance or money for buying American weapons. "Islam" responded with hate lessons and explosives, and the paradigm remained unchanged, the lethal competition was perpetuated.
Using rhetorical skill that will be quoted extensively, Obama smashed the old paradigm to bits and breathed independent life into his text. Using teleprompters, a measured tone and well-considered hand gestures, he gave life to a new worldview meant to dictate new policy and create a different reality. The competition between Islam and the West has been canceled. The American player announced that he is stepping down. Power will henceforth be found in the greatest superpower's humility as one among equals.
This looks like a sure recipe for isolation and a political hiatus, but Obama does not intend to avoid being tested. The opposite is the case, because his worldview is optimistic, the kind that does not consider Islam as being guided by extremist DNA, a religion that responds to every attempt to change it with venom. This approach requires a great effort to identify the opportunities and use them, because Obama has assumed the burden of proof while placing a historic challenge at the doorstep of Muslim politicians and intellectuals, as well as Israelis. Obama's text is a new reality.
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