Not since the Sermon on the Mount has a speech in the Middle East been so anticipated.
In "The Muslim Speech," as it is being called, President Obama will, of course, restate his desire to engage "based upon mutual interests and mutual respect," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Friday. He will also discuss how the U.S. and Muslim communities can "bridge some of the differences that have divided them," focusing on such "issues of concern" as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and "violent extremism" -– note the absence of the adjective "Islamic" before extremism. Gibbs said that Obama would also talk about "new areas for partnership…that serve the mutual interests of our people."
Let's hope that The Speech will shed more light on the content of the policies that have heretofore been shrouded in the lofty conceptual fog of Mr. Obama's awesome speechifying. But here's what some of us don't want to hear at Cairo University on Thursday.
1) No more apologies for America please.
An apology is precisely what an Egyptian blogger and member of the Muslim Brotherhood has demanded the president deliver. "The war on Islam by your predecessor President George Bush was repugnant to both the Arab and Muslim people, who continue to be misrepresented, and are all examples of the suffering to which the U.S. has turned a blind eye," wrote AbdulRahman Mansour in Al-Arabiya newspaper on Saturday. Guantanamo detainees also await an apology, he added, urging the president to disavow America's "Islamophobia.".
Yes, a majority of the American people now believe that the war to topple Saddam Hussein was an ill-conceived, poorly implemented catastrophe. But Obama should not apologize for the decisions of his predecessors. His challenge is to build support among Muslims for his effort to stop Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other like-minded Islamic radicals from taking over Afghanistan and Pakistan.
2) Don't talk about the "Muslim world."
Having grown up partly in Indonesia, President Obama of all people should know that you can no more talk about a "Muslim world" or even an "Arab world" than of "the African world" or what Asians, Christians, or women want. Yes, Islam provides the vocabulary of everyday life in many countries with Muslim majorities. And since the most recent resurgence and proliferation of extremist Islamic groups, Islam has been reshaping not only the language of politics but long-standing national traditions. Yet in 1996 as part of my initial effort to understand the militant Islamic movements — "God Has Ninety-Nine Names" — I made only one prediction: Despite Islamic militants' use of a common Islamic jargon, imagery, and slogans, there would not be a single, unified Islamic "umma," or community, even if Islamic radicals toppled every quasi-secular government in the region. That view has not changed.
A careful politician and highly intelligent man, Obama must sense the danger in overstating the role of Islam in political and public life. He has chosen, astutely, to deliver The Muslim Speech in Egypt, an ancient civilization that considers itself not only the "mother" of all Arab countries (especially when Egypt is leading the Arabs) but modestly, "Um al Dunya," or the "mother of the world." Surely he knows that most Egyptians tend to be Egyptians first, and Muslims second, or not Muslim at all, as in the case of the country's traumatized Coptic Christian minority. One hopes the speech Obama gives will resonate with all of Egypt's citizens. Americans, who favor the separation of church and state, should not kowtow to those who seek to define their citizens by their religion.
J. Scott Carpenter, a former State Department official in the Bush administration now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, also warns that the phrase plays into the "narrative of al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups that aim to unite the Muslim world in a new Caliphate under sharia (Islamic law)."
3) Do not suggest that a rift might be developing between the United States and Israel because Obama disapproves of some of the new Israeli government's policies.
Nothing could be more counterproductive than giving Muslims the impression — which many of them, particularly Arabs, yearn to believe — that Washington will abandon Israel or no longer see our two nations' interests as strategically aligned because Obama strenuously disagrees with Bibi Netanyahu's policies on settlements or a two-state solution. While Obama seems determined to press Israel to change such positions, those who seek a break in relations are bound to be disappointed.
4) Don't seek to be loved or popular.
As Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, argues, the United States remains a rich and powerful nation, and hence, bound to be resented. Some of America's unpopularity in Muslim states "stems from policy choices that we've made that we won't change and, quite frankly, we shouldn't change," he says. Such policies — including America's support for Israel — reflect "our interests and our alliances."
Alterman urges Obama to speak not about "democracy" but about "justice" and to tell his audience that on some key issues: "We're going to have to agree to disagree." A president's first task, he argues, is "to frame U.S. policy in a way that takes some of the passion out of widespread hostility to the United States."
Given the current antipathy toward America, that, indeed, would be progress.