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The President Speaks Arabic: Obama’s Address in Egypt PDF Print E-mail
Saturday, 06 June 2009 00:00

By Jenn Young
Exclusive for Al Waref
To hear the president of the United States speaking words of peace in Arabic and finding a warm reception from Egypt—from the world, tells me that the damage that has been done over the past decade is not irreversible and that the United States and the American public can reaffirm its dedication to tolerance, pluralism, and justice.

The brave and important distinction President Obama made between extremists that “exploit” present tensions and the Muslim world laid a foundation of understanding that has been lacking in too many aspects of public American politics and society for too long. The messages he took from the Quran and the respect he showed to the values, legacy, and present day strength of Islam marks a shift in the way our leadership views and speaks about one of the world’s most important and influential religions and cultures.

He said, “I come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interests and on based on respect.” He noted the shared principles of “justice and progress, tolerance, and the dignity of all human beings” that are valued in Islam and also in the United States. Finding universality in our “collective conscience” of the past and looking towards a future in which all citizens of the world are closely linked—President Obama inspired hope and continued activism within myself, as I’m sure he did many others.

More specifically, President Obama stressed the mutual benefit that would come from cooperation in terms of ending terrorism, finding a two state solution for Israelis and Palestinians, and abandoning the use of violence. Drawing a parallel between the fight of African Americans in the United States and the fight of several other marginalized and tormented groups the world over, President Obama affirmed that violence has been to the detriment, not the success, of many struggles for sovereignty and human rights. 

Obama spoke of goals many of us can relate to. The striving for religious freedom, racial equality, education, and democracy is not new to us. He exulted the qualities of the United States that make me proud to be an American and he illuminated universal qualities of humanity that made me hopeful for the future.

However, it is important that the inspiration and hope that Obama generated in his speech does not overshadow the many important tasks that he has laid upon the feet of us all.

This responsibility, that we all have, is to open ourselves to the “other” and work together for peace. These words have filled us with hope but without acting on these ideas with full force, they will leave us all hallow. We must work now, harder than ever before, to care as much about the future of Israeli children as we do Palestinian children as we do American children as we do Egyptian children as we do all children. We must use every outlet available to us to continue using intercultural, interfaith, and interpersonal dialogue as a means of generating ideas and connecting as people.

Much of President Obama’s speech led to cheers, and tears, and standing ovations. I myself was filled with much pride for two countries I love very much, Egypt and the United States. I got chills from the moment he greeted the people with “salaam alaikum” and they stayed with me until he closed with “peace be upon you all.” But I know that this peace cannot be realized without hard work.

What will be difficult now is to look beyond these words that have given us hope and towards the sentiments behind the words—the messages that received less praise and applause. The messages of opening our eyes to the legitimacy of both Israelis and Palestinians, the messages of working together to marginalize violence, and the messages of looking into the face of the “other” and seeing possibilities for friendship and cooperation rather than difference.

The message of President Obama was clear. It will be hard work to see the changes we need—but it is possible because of the strength of values and mind that we, as humans, share. While I am reinvigorated and reenergized by President Obama’s ideas, I sincerely hope that the applause of his hope does not drown out the message that there is hard work ahead, and we must all be prepared to fight for the peace and tolerance that can be achieved.

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