So, here comes Barack Obama’s long-awaited speech to the Muslim world, to decidedly mixed reaction. I am not going to dwell at the moment on the specifics of his Israel policy (for a very pessimistic assessment see this post by Ron Radosh, though there are many Israel supporters who do not share Ron’s endorsement of the settlements). I also agree that the part of the speech dealing with Iran was rather weak, full of lofty sentiment signifying nothing. But some of the scathing criticism directed at Obama strikes me as rather misguided. For instance, Charles Krauthammer found it to be infected by “self-absorption”; but was Obama’s talk of the aspects of his personal story that were relevant to the issues at hand all that different from what, say, Ronald Reagan did?
Does it really matter that Obama never used the words “terror” or “terrorism,” referring instead to “violent extremism”? The power of the T-word has been somewhat diluted by overuse; besides, to many (non-terror-sympathizing) Muslims it is undoubtedly a red-flag word, due to their common belief that the West looks at a Muslim and sees a terrorist. I think it was a positive thing to say, and drive home the point, that terrorism by any other name would smell as foul.
The President’s powerful affirmation of the memory of the Holocaust, and firm condemnation of Holocaust denial, was a key part of the speech. Some believe that, by transitioning immediately to the plight of displaced Palestinians, Obama drew a moral equivalence between the Holocaust and Palestinian displacement. Re-reading the speech, I see no such equivalence (though someone who wants to believe the two tragedies are equal could read it that way). I think Obama was simply saying that the Palestinians have their own history of suffering which cannot be denied. Should he have said more to acknowledge the Palestinian (and Arab) leaders’ own responsibility for perpetuating this suffering? Probably. Did he go too far in suggesting that each side’s view of the conflict was equally valid? Probably. But here’s an important point: the speech was intended as outreach to the Muslim world. To say “Israel is 100% right and the Palestinians bear 100% of the blame,” even if it were true (and I don’t believe it is) would not be very productive. Confronting a Muslim and Arab audience with the fact that Israel’s stiff-necked stance has something to do with “the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders as well as beyond” is a pretty good start.