President Obama gave quite a speech in Cairo today. Running nearly an hour, it was an extremely ambitious attempt to identify difficulties plaguing the relationship between the U.S. and Muslims, and to begin to frame some solutions. It was a brave and humble speech, and it is sure to freak out people who are set in their belief that Islam is inherently dangerous (and especially those who think that Obama is a closet Muslim who is somehow in cahoots with Al Qaeda). Not surprisingly, Hamas militants and Israeli settlers were not impressed. And Osama bin Laden is probably not having second thoughts about the message he sent this week.
My own concern about the speech is that it sounded a bit like it came out of nowhere, when it actually builds upon a lot of powerful reconciliation that has been happening at the grassroots.
Obama rightly identified the issue as one of compromise, in which most Muslims and most Americans must reach a sort of detente. To that end, he missed a few opportunities. One of these was theological. He quoted the Qur’an several times, but skipped what is probably the most relevant message for this kind of speech: “And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is for Allah. But if they desist, then let there be no hostility except against wrong-doers.” (2:193)
If Obama had cited this verse, it would have essentially called the question of whether the U.S. has really “desisted.” It might be a little early to make that claim, but it would have at least triggered conversation within Muslim communities about whether that is the case.
But the bigger opportunity was to connect this speech to some very productive developments that have occurred over the last couple of years. As it was, the speech could be dismissed as somewhat naive and disconnected from reality. But if Obama had acknowledged some other developments, it might have come across as an important part of a bigger movement toward reconciliation. This would also have the benefit of providing more tangible ways for the average listener to join the engagement.
For example, Obama could have acknowledged the great bravery and wisdom (and success) of the authors of “A Common Word Between Us and You,” a 2007 message from 138 Muslim leaders to the Christians of the world. It essentially observed that both religions share the same two commandments to love God and love our neighbors; it went on to suggest that perhaps we all had better work on that second part. It was met by a prompt response calling for concrete action, was signed by hundreds of Christian leaders including the president of the National Association of Evangelicals (who signed as an individual out of his conviction that this was too important to wait for organizational process). Since then, there have been dozens of warm responses, including three from Jewish leaders. The Vatican has even hosted a delegation from the authors of the message. Anyone who wants to claim to understand the complexities of Islam simply must read this document; it is not the only view, of course, but it is an essential thread in the great tapestry.
I can see why Obama might have stuck to the political and economic realms, but even here the speech was short on details about how the average person can contribute to this “new beginning.” It may be that these are coming later, but they are urgent, because unless people are tangibly involved with each other, there is little hope that we will simply adjust our attitudes.
There were two specific points at which he could have engaged the grassroots: His fourth challenge was democracy, and his final challenge was economic development. Islamic communities have created some of the world’s best models for a just system of financing and insurance, which are often based on democratic principles and avoidance of speculation. It should be noted that Islamic finance has done better in the financial crisis (and trouble has seemed to follow in the footsteps of Western practices which have infected many Islamic organizations). It seems rather inappropriate for the U.S. to be telling Muslims how to do business so soon after its adventures nearly wrecked the global economy.
I have done substantial research on cooperative models found in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These are available in a report that I presented last fall to the International Cooperative Alliance Research Conference in Riva del Garda, Italy; as well as a short version covering the topic in less detail. They outline a number of projects within each tradition, as well as interfaith efforts to create a more just and cooperative economy. Some of these people, like the coffee farmers of Mirembe Kawomera or the craftswomen of Sindyanna are in need of support and business from us in the more wealthy parts of the world.
Senator George Mitchell – who knows a thing or two about peacemaking from his decades of experience in Northern Ireland, the Balkans and the Holy Land – has observed that real peace is dependent on economic change.
I encourage everyone to learn more of these cooperative efforts, both spiritual and economic, in order to find a way that you can personally step up to the urgent task of peacemaking.