Engaging Muslim Communities: Challenging Journeys

By: Katherine Marshall

June 3, 2024

Obama’s Cairo Speech at 15

Madeleine Albright famously observed that she considered herself an optimist who worried a lot. Rereading President Barack Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech evokes similar sentiments, reflecting my own comparable tendencies and biases. In many respects the “New Beginning” speech title and language read today as hopeful and refreshingly honest. The speech highlights what I at least see as deeply positive American values that include a willingness to look our flaws in the face. The approach to the complexities of “religious diplomacy” embedded in the whole Cairo event is refreshingly open and fairly nuanced. There’s a pretty plausible balancing of hope and concern, “common interests” and tensions, and ideals and hard realities. It sets out a robust, if general, action agenda.

A historical look back does not encourage the hopeful optimist. The bitter disappointments around the Arab Spring, problematic U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Donald Trump era in the United States with its aggressive Muslim bashing, the challenges to democracy today, and violent conflicts in the Middle East dampen assessments of 2009 hopes. There were new beginnings, then reversals, good starts followed by broken promises. But even so, history surely can “accentuate the positives” without “eliminating the negatives.”

Looking with the inevitably worried mirror of 2024, how far then and now has Obama’s call that “We must face these tensions squarely” reflected both a hard appreciation of tensions and meaningful efforts to face them? That takes us to a slew of questions about how both the United States and “the Muslim World” have evolved since 2009, especially in terms of policy and relationships. If President Joe Biden were to deliver a similar speech today, how might it reflect current realities and ideals? At a minimum, a more sober overall view notwithstanding, similar agendas would dominate the script.

Others who “lived” the Cairo speech and who are immersed in today’s Middle East crisis will comment on how Obama’s speech themes have aged over 15 years. My comments center on three topics that preoccupy me today and color my “worried optimism.” Let’s start close to home, with the Berkley Center.

Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs began its life in 2006 as a multisectoral venture with a university-wide, ambitious agenda. I joined at the very start. Some years had elapsed since the terrible shock and trauma of 9/11, but in many respects the center was born in the shadow of those events and their intellectual and practical aftermath. A central question, then and now, has centered on understanding and appreciating how religious roles are, should be, could be better integrated in various topics—diplomacy and development among them. Then and now these were not abstract questions but reflected a sense of urgency. We needed and still need better ways to think and act on religious roles in world affairs.

With the 9/11 shadow, Islam was in the spotlight in the Berkley Center’s early years (though the development program I led was not similarly constrained). A consuming activity from 2006 centered on the World Economic Forum’s “Council of 100” (C100) on “Islam and the West,” of which I was a member. The Berkley Center took on a project to prepare a report for the council and the WEF. Berkley Center Founding Director Thomas Banchoff and I thus immersed ourselves in that effort. The questions we wrestled with—bolstered by work by Gallup, reviews of media coverage, and conversations with the C100 members—started with “what’s Islam,” “what’s the West,” and why this odd juxtaposition of religious identity and geography? There was never a satisfactory response, and the common, problematic acceptance of the contrast came up time and time again, as we noted the fallacies of the contrast that fudged vital and deep diversities on both counts.

Surveys pointed sharply to the issue of respect, mutual perceptions, and their roles in shaping narratives. The problem was that not only were Muslim results showing deep concern at perceptions of a lack of respect for their religion and society; “Western” responses seemed to show that indeed respect was strikingly weak. Diplomatic initiatives at the time promoted “dialogue” of civilizations, leading to the creation of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations. “Changing the narrative” was an idea threaded through much discourse. Various task forces grappled with similar issues at different levels.

There’s far more to explore in the events and discourse that in many respects led up to Obama’s Cairo speech, but the themes posed by the focus on a “Muslim World,” addressing the “respect” question, and managing (harnessing?) the narrative continue to challenge policy and perceptions at many levels. In a real sense that’s what Obama set out to address in Cairo, and the very challenge and narrative are still as complex and challenging today. Should we really be thinking and talking about a “Muslim world”? And if not, how do we “move on”?

A second theme is related to the “tensions” that Obama referred to: how far was and is there indeed some “clashing” of civilizations, or are dialogue and alliance truly feasible? That takes us to the infamous “Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs article by Samuel Huntington that has been the publication’s most read article over the three decades since its 1994 publication. In discussions and in teaching, the arguments Huntington made—that culture and religion were redefining conflict after the end of the Cold War—crept into discussions, implying deep divisions and blocs bound more by religious culture than by interests or ideology.

A recent article by Jordan Michael Smith argues from its headline that Huntington was simply wrong and that his purpose was to head off such a clash, not to embed or celebrate it. But Smith also notes the stubborn persistence of the idea and above all its often malicious adoption by authoritarian-inclined people and movements. The idea has in many senses taken on far more life than was intended and is partly to blame, he argues, for the current forces of Christian, Islamic, and other “religious nationalisms.” In a “Huntington 2.0” event at the Berkley Center in 2015, we were much struck by how far framings of contemporary conflicts were colored by a rather distant intellectual debate that was too often taken for granted and far over-simplified. To an extent the “Muslim World” framing that was central to the Cairo speech is part of that overall phenomenon and problem.

The Cairo speech spoke to global as well as Middle Eastern Muslim countries and communities in a framing that gave little service to the diversity of Muslim-majority countries. Obama did not dwell on the huge differences between a West African or East Asian Muslim community and the one he spoke to in Cairo. In that sense, the speech built on the definition many accepted of a “Muslim World” and, by implications, the question of how far there was indeed a clash of values that somehow could be pinned to “the West” and “Islam.” I personally rebel against the generalization and thus worry that framing the “clash” and “values” questions that flow from a “Muslim World” assumption, even when set in a context that argues that common humanity “wins” over difference, can lead to traps in understanding and discourse. Working in West Africa and South and East Asia argues in many respects for sharper differentiation among Muslim-majority countries and regions.

Efforts to highlight common interests and fraternity and, sometimes, to work towards addressing or easing specific tensions are a live part of diplomacy, scholarship, and peacebuilding. These include global efforts like the UN Millennium Declaration, the Global Ethic, the Punta del Este Declaration on Human Dignity, and many others. Interreligious declarations include the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together signed by Pope Francis and Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the Marrakech Declaration that focused on minority communities within Islam, and others. The succession of declarations has prompted what is termed a “Dialogue of Declarations,” with an ideal both of defining a common agenda and moving beyond promise towards implementation.

The many reconciliation efforts reflect both goodwill but also an underlying sense that the path towards harmony and action is strewn with boulders and unbridged gullies. The efforts reflect a sense, perhaps unease, at the gaps between rhetoric and action. The continuing Dialogue of Declarations effort also serves as a reminder of some real underlying problems. Three of the seven sections of the Obama speech focused on democratic practices, women’s rights, and religious freedom. Looking from the vantage point of 2024 there is far to go on all three, as under what may appear to be noble statements lie some significant differences in approach and even underlying philosophy.

Third, in reflecting on the path from Obama’s Cairo speech and its promise and hope for a “new beginning,” my starting and ending point is a focus on the vital need to achieve progress towards better life opportunities for all. My optimistic view puts the premium and hopes for sustainable, positive peace on progress on the basic issues of governance and services. Progress there must underlie peace and development. Successful governance and development mean “leaving no one behind,” safety nets in bad times, good education, and universal health care. It means dealing with fears (a word scattered throughout Obama's speech but pervasive today). A human rights framework that honors the truly universal aspirations the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights enunciated while working to address tensions and difference is the necessary foundation for action, and Obama and his team set out to do just that.

The extraordinary progress that human communities, individually but also collectively, have made towards offering better lives for all is grounds for hope, as are the deep reality of shared aspirations and life challenges that youth delegates express in countless meetings. But there are plenty of grounds for worry in persistent conflicts that defy resolution, in looming climate challenges and in tendencies towards authoritarianism across countries of different cultures and religions. We need perhaps not a “New Beginning” but solid commitment both to positive achievements and to forthright willingness to address tensions and complexities. We have work to do.

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