June 5, 2009
Cooperation and Conflict: Obama's Cairo Speech—A Commentary by Aaron Zelinsky ’10
The following commentary was published on The Huffington Post on June 5, 2009.
Cooperation and Conflict: Obama's Cairo Speech
By Aaron Zelinsky ’10
In Cairo, President Obama employed a variety of historical, liturgical, and political references to express America's hope for a new beginning with the Islamic world.
Obama also noted that, "The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of co-existence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars." His speech's references embody this tension, containing potential for both cooperation and conflict.
Here are ten critical lines from Obama's Cairo speech and the potential for cooperation and conflict they embody:
1. "I am also proud to carry with me the goodwill of the American people, and a greeting of peace from Muslim communities in my country: assalaamu alaykum."
Obama opens by invoking the customary greeting, "Peace be upon you," and he uses the appropriate plural ending. He also sets the cooperative tone of the speech, in which he hopes for a new beginning of peace.
2. "As the Holy Koran tells us, 'Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.' That is what I will try to do - to speak the truth as best I can[.]"
This line, from Surah al-Ahzaab, illustrates the admirable desire to speak freely and frankly. However, the Al-Ahzaab focuses on the confederacy of the non-believers that the Muslim armies fought. Surrounding passages describe the "Fire" awaiting non-believers and the leaders who have misled their people.
3." I know, too, that Islam has always been a part of America's story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second President John Adams wrote, 'The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.'"
The history of the Treaty of Tripoli exemplifies the history of cooperation and conflict between America and the Islamic world. On the cooperative front, the Treaty's signature line reads: "Signed and sealed at Algiers, the 4th day of Argill, 1211--corresponding with the 3d day of January, 1797."
However, Obama quoted only the second half of the first sentence of Article 11 of the Treaty, likely because of the contemporary domestic conflict the full sentence would engender. The first sentence of Article 11 reads in full: "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility of Mussulmen." Mindful of the domestic conflict the opening line may bring, Obama avoids its discussion.
Additionally, Obama does not provide the Treaty's complete title: "Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary." There are at least two reasons for Obama's truncation. First, the full title is too cumbersome. Second, and more significantly, the complete title reflects the troubled aftermath of the Treaty: The Barbary War against the Barbary Pirates. In 1801, the Treaty was broken by the Pasha of Tripoli, and Thomas Jefferson responded with war. The conflict lives on in the opening lines of the Marines' Hymn: ""From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli."
4. "We are shaped by every culture, drawn from every end of the Earth, and dedicated to a simple concept: E pluribus unum: 'Out of many, one.'"
These words appear on every coin minted since 1873 and on the Seal of the United States. While the phrase originally referred to the political unification of the thirteen disparate colonies into one nation, Obama employs it to reference the pluralistic and multicultural nature of America. The famous phrase echoes a tension between cooperation and conflict present in both federalism and pluralism: How much must the individual surrender to become part of the collective? How much power should states retain, and what restrictions can society place on individual autonomy?
5. "The Holy Koran teaches that whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind; and whoever saves a person, it is as if he has saved all mankind."
Here, Obama quotes a famous passage from Surah Al-Maidah, This Surah is also cited by extremists, who point to the later verse: "Surely (as for) those who disbelieve, even if they had what is in the earth, all of it, and the like of it with it, that they might ransom themselves with it from the punishment of the day of resurrection, it shall not be accepted from them, and they shall have a painful punishment."
6. "Indeed, we can recall the words of Thomas Jefferson, who said: 'I hope that our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be.'"
The preceding line in Jefferson's letter of June 12, 1815 is more ominous and less multilateral: "Not in our day, but at no distant one, we may shake a rod over the heads of all, which may make the stoutest of them tremble."
7. "All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when . . . when the Holy Land [is] . . . a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra, when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed (peace be upon them) joined in prayer."
The Isra is documented in the Surah Al-Isra, and is more widely explicated in the Hadith, the Islamic oral tradition. The Isra (together with the Mi'raj) is known more widely in English as the Night Journey, when Mohammed's journeyed from Mecca to Jerusalem, ascended to heaven, and returned in a single night. The Surah Al-Isra also contains the more divisive phrase: "And that (as for) those who do not believe in the hereafter, We have prepared for them a painful punishment."
8. "There is also one rule that lies at the heart of every religion - that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This truth transcends nations and peoples - a belief that isn't new; that isn't black or white or brown; that isn't Christian, or Muslim or Jew."
Here, Obama references Luke 6:31: "Do to others as you would have them do to you," which he also referenced at Notre Dame. Luke 6:49 is less supportive: "But he that heareth, and doeth not, is like a man that without a foundation built a house upon the earth; against which the stream did beat vehemently, and immediately it fell; and the ruin of that house was great."
9. "The Holy Koran tells us, 'O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.'
"The Talmud tells us: 'The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace.'
"The Holy Bible tells us, Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.'"
First, Obama quotes the Surah Al-Hujurat, which earlier declares: "He has made hateful to you unbelief and transgression and disobedience." Second, Obama references Talmud Gittin, which, on the proceeding page, refers to Solomon's execution of his teacher, Shimei Ben Gera. Finally, Obama references the Book of Matthew, which contains harsher words later in the chapter: "But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell."
10. The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God's vision. Now, that must be our work here on Earth. Thank you. And may God's peace be upon you.
Obama ends the speech with the English translation of his opening "assalaamu alaykum," which is also the traditional departing greeting. Thus, while Obama's speech contains the echoes of cooperation and conflict, he opens and closes with an unambiguous hope for a new beginning of peace, cooperation, and co-existence.
Full disclosure: I have checked all Aramaic, English, Hebrew, and Latin references myself; for the references to the Koran I have used an English translation.