IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2010


Panorama: The Mediterranean Year

Economy and Territory

Culture and Society


Obama: From the University of Cairo to the Mavi Marmara

Randa Achmawi

Senior Diplomatic Correspondent to the Al Ahram Hebdo, Cairo

On my last visit to the United States this year, while en route to Rio de Janeiro to participate in the 3rd Alliance of Civilisations Forum, numerous questions on the state of relations between the West and the Muslim-Arab World naturally crossed my mind. In today’s American society, as in the majority of societies, a wall continues to separate citizens of both worlds, often sowing misunderstanding and causing defensiveness.

A year has gone by since Obama’s famous Cairo speech and clear, visible changes in the situation of the debate on relations between these two worlds continue to make way, although the situation seems not to have experienced major developments.

It is true that efforts are constantly being made for reconciliation between the West and Islam. Important forums such as the Alliance of Civilizations, Euro-Mediterranean Dialogue and institutions like the IEMed or the Anna Lindh Foundation are working tirelessly to promote meetings of intellectuals, journalists, women and young representatives of organizations from Western or Arab-Muslim countries, to establish mechanisms raising awareness of the importance of work conducted on this topic. Obama himself has recently joined the ranks of activism for better understanding between the West and the Muslim world, all the more important considering this issue is deeply rooted in the very fabric of American society.

Nonetheless, the state of affairs has not been evolving in the right direction. The tensions between the Arab and Muslim world and the West are still highly significant and there seems to be no sign of abatement visible at the end of the tunnel. Last year was marked by a series of incidents very eloquently showing that the gap between the two worlds remains wide, or is even expanding. Events such as the attack against the Egyptian woman, Marwa El Cherbini, murdered in a very Court of Justice in Dresden while testifying in a case of racism, or the bill of law to prohibit the construction of minarets in Switzerland, contradicting the basic principles of human rights, speak for themselves and reflect the rise of Islamophobia in many parts of Europe. In the Muslim world, the situation is no less difficult. The recent attempted bomb attack in Times Square in New York by an American of Pakistani origin illustrates that anti-Western sentiments still run very strong in certain parts of the Muslim world and the problem of relations with the West remains a serious issue that continues to have consequences that are, at times, tragic.

So, why is this? Obama’s objectives as expressed through his speech on June 4, 2009 seemed clear: to address the majority of Muslims, reach out to them and explicitly state his commitment, as president of the most powerful country on earth, to the cause of dialogue and understanding between the West and the Arab-Muslim world. Through his speech at the University of Cairo, the President of the United States wished to highlight the fact that in reality, Muslims and Westerners have more things in common than not. Dalia Mogahed, an American of Egyptian origin recently appointed by President Obama as advisor at the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighbourhood Partnerships always insists that the majority of Muslims are comparable to Westerners. She states that a great deal of studies and research carried out indicate through facts and figures that the majority of Muslims and Westerners share exactly the same objectives and ambitions insofar as, for instance, planning their lives. She also affirms that in both worlds, people’s main concerns are to afford their families better living conditions, have a decent job and give their children a better education. Some very powerful, persuasive remarks showing that differences, if there are any, are superficial rather than profound and that, whether in the Western or the Arab and Muslim worlds, we are all human beings guided by the same instincts and the same emotions. 

Convinced by the results of numerous polls and studies carried out by Gallup and acting on his own convictions, Obama went to Cairo with the intention of addressing the great mass of moderate Muslims who, beyond all doubt comprise the overwhelming majority of practitioners of that faith. According to Mogahed, the intention of the US President was actually to create a front uniting US Muslims with those from the rest of the world around moderate values and practices and attempt to exclude and marginalize extremists. Mogahed had contributed to the presidential speech, adding some of the proposals contained in the text. Obama is also perfectly aware that those who exploit Islam for political purposes and promote hatred and violence against others represent only a tiny minority of believers.

A year has gone by since Obama’s famous Cairo speech and clear, visible changes in the situation of the debate on relations between these two worlds continue to make way

In addition and to lend strength to his argument, Obama recalled in his Cairo speech that Islam also represents a large section of the population in the cultural and religious mosaic of his country, and stated that the 7 million American Muslims were no different from those living in the rest of the world.

But would this be sufficient to settle the problem of relations between the West and the Arab and Muslim world? Unfortunately, the answer to this question seems to be “no.” Why didn’t the strategy so carefully prepared by Obama and his team work?

Through his speech at the University of Cairo, the President of the United States wished to highlight the fact that in reality, Muslims and Westerners have more things in common than not

Considering the issue from the Muslim perspective, it can be said that President Obama initially managed to win over the public, especially when he committed to exert the greatest efforts in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian problem, so important to all members of the Muslim community. However, subsequent events demonstrated that the United States was not really sincere in its intentions, especially in its unconditional defence of Israeli practices against Palestinians. Over the course of the year following Obama’s famous visit to Cairo, Muslims have been repeatedly disappointed by the inconsistency between Obama’s words and American positions, always biased in favour of the Hebrew State. Once again, the United States has shown itself incapable of adopting any measures condemning Israel for the worst of its crimes, such as the blockade and collective punishment of the population of Gaza, or more recently, the attack against the flotilla of humanitarian activists during which nine people died under fire from Israeli commandos.