Hirsh: Obama’s Speech a Start to Repairing Muslim Relations

Barack Obama had a head start when he stepped onto the stage in Cairo on Thursday. He had already pledged a "new beginning" to the American people, and now the same grand concept was on offer to the Muslim world: the policies of the Bush administration, in other words, were history. The symbolism was better too. It wasn't just the fact that an American president whose middle name is Hussein was extending a hand to his father's coreligionists, but also that among those in attendance in Cairo were representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as some Egyptian dissidents. Both groups had been conspicuously absent from Condoleezza Rice's 2005 speech in Cairo, which was delivered at American University (Obama's was staged at prestigious Cairo University).  (Story continued below...)

The president also came off much better than George W. Bush did with his own big outreach speech in January 2008, delivered from the opulent Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi to an audience of sleepy petro-moguls. Obama's choice citations from the "holy Qur'an"—"Whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind"—worked well. So did his deft historical references to Islam's role in "paving the way for Europe's Renaissance and Enlightenment." To loud applause, he even pronounced "Assalamu alaikum" correctly.

Still, as Obama himself seemed to acknowledge, his speech won't have a shelf life of more than a few days unless it is accompanied by real policy changes. There have been some signs of that, notably the administration's stark rhetoric toward Israel about freezing West Bank settlements and the president's commitment to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011. But this is really only the beginning. For if Obama's outreach is ever to amount to anything more than swiftly forgotten words, he needs to begin to roll back nearly a century's worth of Arab-Western history.

Let's start with now. Israel and the Palestinians are still dug in against each other, and Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri seized the moment to remind their fellow Muslims that Obama's "elegant words" can't disguise the fact that the president is pushing Pakistan to drive Muslim militants out of Swat. Beyond that, the Muslim Brotherhood and other dissident groups are still banned from politics. Obama's glad-handing with Saudi King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak were reminders that the fundamental political structure of the Arab world hasn't changed.

Obama delivered some fine-sounding sentiments on how governing through "consent, not coercion" and providing "the freedom to live as you choose ... are not just American ideas. They are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere." But that sounded all too similar to Bush's oft-repeated assertion that democracy is not "America's gift to the world, it is God's gift to mankind," and Rice's declaration in Cairo that "democracy is the ideal path for every nation."

The president was right to focus on the essential "truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap and share common principles, principles of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings." Despite bin Laden's rants about grievances going back to the Crusades, the enmity between the West and the Arab world is a relatively modern phenomenon. As Fawaz Gerges, a scholar at Sarah Lawrence College, told me a few years back, there have been many "interalliances between the world of Islam and the West. There has never been a Muslim umma, or community, except for 23 years during the time of Muhammad. Except in the theoretical minds of the jihadists, the Muslim world was always split. Many Muslim leaders even allied themselves with the Crusaders."

No, the enmity between the West and the Arab world really began nearly 100 years ago with the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, by which the British and French agreed to divvy up the Arabic-speaking countries after World War I. Things got progressively worse after the creation, by the Europeans, of corrupt, kleptocratic tyrannies in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan; the endemic poverty and underdevelopment that resulted for most of the 20th century; the U.N.-imposed creation of Israel in 1948; and finally, in recent decades, American support for this status quo.

Obama can't begin to undo even a little of this, which means that his fine words in Cairo are likely to be remembered as just that—words.