In 2007 I referred to the United States President as Barack Hussein Obama. This seemed to me to be nothing more than a statement of fact. But no. Writing in the Crikey newsletter (February 13, 2007) the experienced and usually sensible commentator Richard Farmer accused me of being sleazy and, by implication, racist.
That was then. Last January, the US’s 44th President took the oath of office as Barack Hussein Obama. While members of the Obama camp attempted to play down his part-Muslim ancestry before November’s election, with the support of the overwhelming majority of journalists reporting the campaign, this tactic has now been completely junked. Now Obama and the overwhelming majority of journalists, who happen to support his administration, speak proudly of the fact that the first black American president has a Kenyan-born father who was Muslim.
Indeed ancestry was at the heart of Obama’s historic speech at Egypt’s Cairo University last Thursday. He told the attentive audience and the millions who watched or listened to his address: “I am a Christian. But my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims.” He also mentioned that, as a young man, he worked in Chicago communities “where many found dignity and peace in the Muslim faith”. Obama said that, as a student of history, he was aware of civilisation’s debt to Islam. And he acknowledged that “much has been made of the fact that an African-American with the name Barack Hussein Obama could be elected president”. Quite so.
Without question, Obama is one of the finest orators of the modern age. As an exponent of the spoken English language, he ranks with Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. These days Obama rarely talks without the aid of an autocue. But he has the ability to read with considerable fluency. Moreover, Obama makes significant input to the final drafts of his speeches. This gives him ownership of the words he is uttering and enhances the authority of his message.
There is much that is new in Obama’s Cairo address. However, he did not make a dramatic break with the policy he inherited from his predecessors George Bush snr, Bill Clinton and George Bush jnr. Obama supported the US-led war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. While describing Iraq as a “war of choice”, he expressed the belief that “the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein”.
Obama confirmed that “America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known”, expressed concern about the plight of the Palestinian people and supported a two-state solution “where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security”. In an interview with Thomas Friedman before his speech (Herald, June 5), the US President joked, “We’re just going to keep on telling the truth until it stops working.”
What was new in the Cairo address turned on Obama’s statement that the US “does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements” and that the construction of these settlements should stop. He also argued that the Arab-Israeli conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations. Obama expressed long established American concern about Iran’s apparent development of nuclear weapons. What is more, he followed the policy of his predecessor in the Oval Office in advocating democracy, religious freedom and women’s rights.
For all that, Obama is perhaps the first American president to present himself as a kind of umpire between the US and its critics. In his relatively short domestic political career, Obama has seen fit to depict himself as capable of seeing both sides of the argument on such sensitive and contentious issues as abortion and race in America. This tactic works well within the US. But now Obama is head of state, head of government and commander-in-chief and there is enormous interest in the actual content of his beliefs.
The Australian-born James Wolfensohn, a former president of the World Bank, is a known Obama supporter. Interviewed by Geraldine Doogue on the ABC Radio National’s Saturday Breakfast at the weekend, he broadly endorsed the Cairo speech.
However, Wolfensohn was clearly disappointed that the message on human rights was not as strong as it might have been.
He drew attention to the fact that Obama had supported the right of women and girls to wear the hijab on no fewer than three occasions and refrained from expressing support for Muslim women who do not want to be forced to dress in this style.
There was a similar ambivalence about the relationship between the West and Islam. The Cairo oration began with the assertion that this is a “time of great tension between the United States and Muslims around the world”. But is it? As a sovereign state, the US deals with governments, not people and certainly not religions. Only about a quarter of Muslims live in Arab nations. In the Arab world, the US enjoys good relations with Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and some other nations. The same can be said for the Muslim majority nations of Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia. By focusing on prevailing tensions, Obama neglected to mention that, in recent memory, the US took military action in defence of Muslims living in Kuwait, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo and elsewhere.
In his Cairo address, Obama repeated his promise that Guantanamo Bay would be closed by early next year. Here Australia can make a contribution to the US relationship with Muslim majority nations by agreeing to accept some Chinese Uygurs who are currently detained in Gitmo.