Much has already been written, Twittered and spoken about “the speech”. There’s no denying it was a good one and an important one. It is significant for what it says and the clarity with which it sets out the difficulties we face.
But perhaps more importantly, it gives real prominence (because of who Obama is and where he said what he said) to the fact that there is a group of forward-thinking western leaders trying to grapple with one of the most complex problems we face. How do we overcome the misperceptions between the West and Islam which foment or are cynically used to foment such inhuman violence?
These leaders are sincere in their effort and are working on a shared agenda. But they can’t make the running alone. Gestures need responses. In everyday life, gesture and response contain the risk of embarrassment and rejection. But if you sit on your hands or never open your mouth but to say “not interested, don’t believe you”, think how mad you’d go. Moreover, it’s not natural.
Obama’s speech did not come from a blue sky. His team have been building up to it. On the British side, the Prince of Wales in 2006 (at Al Azhar of course) and David Miliband over the past months have been talking very openly about it. David Miliband even advanced the revolutionary idea that we should get away from seeing Muslims as Muslims, but rather as people who are occupied in a variety of activities. My first thought about someone is not to say “Oh, she’s a Muslim” and then “she’s also a journalist”. My first thought is “she’s a journalist”. My second thought may be “I’d better be careful what I say!” I genuinely do not think what religion she is. That’s not lessening the importance of religion in any way. It’s merely refusing to let a set of preconceptions affect how you respond to someone.
What was odd about the day of the speech was the contrast between the event itself – an extraordinary example of mass communication thanks to modern technology and the draw that Obama manages to have for so many millions of people – taking place in a city that was eerily silent. What happened to 17million Cairenes? As one Egyptian said to me that day, “What will Obama think? It’s as if Cairo is under siege.”
But there was another really peculiar feature that day. Why were the only protesters I saw a dozen foreigners outside the gates of the University, who sounded American? They appeared rather tired and bored. I didn’t get the sense their heart was in it. One message of the speech was to face tensions squarely and with candour. To speak clearly and plainly. It is certainly an extraordinary day when the presence of the President of the US, however charismatic and popular he may be, draws no crowd protesting enthusiastically.