When President Obama gave his Cairo speech in June 2009, I awakened early to listen to it live sitting on the edge of my son Shibli’s bed, as my son, then 6, slept beside me. I felt history in the making, and I had to be near my son, because, born in 2002, he was part of the first generation born after the 9/11 attacks. His generation inherited the extremist interpretation of Islam expressed on 9/11 and the drumbeat of war that followed.
This time, I watched a PBS recording of Obama’s Cairo 2.0 speech, hours after delivery, as I made dinner, my laptop on the kitchen counter, the YouTube audio barely decipherable over the sizzling of bison burgers on the stove. PBS NewsHour read the video clip. My son, now an erstwhile 8-year-old wordsmith, had a laugh: “New sHour? New shower?” (He then read it “right.”)
In that moment, listening with my other ear to Obama’s narrative of the history of the Middle East, I realized that, like words, we can so often read history very differently. That has been the reality of the gap between the West and so much of Muslim world for centuries, but most immediately over the past 50 years. While the U.S. has made advances in politics, science, and business, Muslims around the world have collected grievances against the West for undermining democracy in their countries and supporting dictators, despots, and dynasties. I know, because I grew up in my Muslim family listening to the uncles debating these grievances for hours on end. My mother would task me to go from the impromptu aunty’s section in the kitchen to quiet my father in the living room where the uncles sat.
While America saw an ally in the Shah Reza Pahlavi until the Iranian 1979 Revolution, there was one name that defined the uncles’ memory of Iran’s history:
Mohammad Mosaddegh, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran from 1951 until 1953, when he was overthrown in a coup d'état orchestrated in a CIA scheme, “Operation Ajax,” led by the chief of the CIA's Near East and Africa division, Kermit Roosevelt, Jr., a grandson of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.
There is no doubt that a people have to accept responsibility for their hand in their own destinies, righting wrongs, as the people of Tunisia and Egypt did earlier this year overthrowing their dictators. But, in several turns in the speech, Obama alluded to these grievances. He talked about the people of North Africa and the Middle East “casting off the burdens of the past.” He urged folks to “look to the future,” not be “trapped by the past.” He laid out a choice for folks in the region between “the shackles of the past” and “the promise of the future.”
I couldn’t believe that Obama had dared to deny the tyranny that exists in a country where half the population (women) can’t vote, drive or run for elected office.
So much of our Muslim society is a culture of grievances, and Obama effectively—and appropriately—tipped his hat to many of those grievances and laid balm on one of the deepest grievances of many Muslims: the cause of the Palestinians. He did the right thing.
While the West called the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict a “war of liberation” for Israel, Obama acknowledged that the conflict “has cast a shadow over the region.” He acknowledged “the humiliation of occupation,” experienced by Palestinians, “never living in a nation of their own.” Obama set the stage for a new future by setting forward a plan for “two-states for two peoples” and by stating, “The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.”
But when the speech had ended, I did a search of two words, “Saudi Arabia,” because I couldn’t believe that Obama had dared to deny the tyranny that exists in a country where half the population (women) can’t vote, drive or run for elected office. Indeed, in my search, I got a clear message: “No matches found.”
Obama said: “We support a set of universal rights. Those rights include free speech; the freedom of peaceful assembly; freedom of religion; equality for men and women under the rule of law; and the right to choose your own leaders – whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus; Sanaa or Tehran.” What about Jeddah? Or Riyadh? Or Mecca?
In pulling his punches for a supposed ally of the U.S., Obama, alas, perpetuated America’s track record of contradiction in the region. And, for those who seek real justice in Muslim countries, at least one grievance survived.
Asra Q. Nomani is the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam. She is co-director of the Pearl Project, an investigation into the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Her activism for women's rights at her mosque in W.V. is the subject of a PBS documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown. She recently published a monograph, Milestones for a Spiritual Jihad: Toward an Islam of Grace. firstname.lastname@example.org