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The power of words:

Understanding Obama's Cairo speech

Chaiwat Satha-Anand, Bangkok*

July 2, 2009

On June 4, Barack Hussein Obama, the American President, delivered an important speech at Cairo University. After laying the grounds for his speech which included his life experience with Muslim societies in three continents – Kenya in Africa, Indonesia in Asia and Chicago in North America, and the place of Muslims/ Islam in American history and society, he addressed 7 main issues of global significance: violent extremism, Israeli-Palestinian deadly conflict, nuclear weapon and Iran, democracy, freedom of religion, women’s rights, and economic development/opportunity.
As expected, millions of people around the globe paid due attention to this historic speech.  It was reported that 200 million in India watched the speech live. An opinion poll indicated that more than 75% of respondents in Muslim countries viewed it positively while some Palestinian factions based in Syria viewed it as “an attempt to mislead people and create more illusions” to improve America’s image. (Bangkok Post, June 7, 2009) Obama’s aides believed that it was a victory since he has “cleared the debris” that stand between the US and ‘the Muslim world’ (Bangkok Post, June 8, 2009). There are those who were critical of his speech for different reasons. For example, while he spoke about Iran’s attempt to go nuclear, he did not mention Israel’s possession of more than two hundred nuclear warheads. Quoting historical figures such as Churchill, others pointed out that it is deeds - difficult ones at that - which will genuinely change the course of history rather than mere words.

It is important to confront the tension between the power of the words spoken by President Obama and the structure of economic and militaristic power that exists in the world, from which he could hardly escape even if he so wishes. I would argue here that in the context of the Abrahamic religions - Judaism, Christianity and especially Islam, at a time when the whole world could be profoundly connected with a speed of light through words electronically spoken - the power of words shall never be underestimated. This article begins with a brief discussion of the structural impediments to the promise of Obama’s speech. Then the cultural power of words grounded in the wisdom of Abrahamic religions will be suggested.


Violence and Economic Structures

In his speech, Obama talked about violent extremism first and economic development/opportunity last. It was as though the two issues were not related. Numerous research has shown that in a chain of causes, a strong link can be made between poverty resulted from economic injustice and violence. Two years ago, the British foreign minister, Margaret Beckett, spoke in Berlin warning the world that lack of water in Northern African countries including Egypt would contribute to poverty, migration, unemployment, conflict and eventually violence.

Raymond Fisman from Columbia Business School and Edward Miguel from the University of California, Berkeley recently argued that when failing rains create economic hardship, war is likely. They found that drought and the resulting economic hardship do matter in understanding conflict in Africa. Together with other researchers, they found that an income drop of 5 %  increases the risk of civil conflict in the following year to nearly 30%. (See, November 29, 2008).

More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that when a deep economic recession looms large, adversely effecting airlines and aerospace companies, among other things, defence giants such as Boeing or Northrop Grumman could continue to enjoy a reliable revenue from countries which have been increasing their military might. It is a curious fact that defence spending tends to rise at a time of economic difficulties and that some $2.4 trillion or 4.4% of global economy is dependent on violence (See Global Peace Index, 2009). In fact, some may consider defence spending useful to shore up the economy and fend off recession. Therefore resisting violence in the Middle East, or elsewhere in the world, should also mean calling the global economic structures responsible for its sustenance and growth into question.
But it is not only the economy that constitutes the existing structure. There are also other forms of structural relationship which can make it difficult to move from such words to practices. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why - Obama’s intention and sincerity notwithstanding - his officials would consider measure such as withholding economic support as a way to pressure Israel stop its settlement project “not under discussion”, and that any pressure on Israel relating to this would be “largely symbolic”. (New York Times, June 1, 2009).

But then on the other hand, no one would say that Obama’s mission as outlined in his Cairo speech will be easy. Given the structure of the world, it is extremely difficult. That this mission may not be impossible depends on how the power of words work in the world, especially in the cultural context of the Abrahamic world. 


The power of words

When President Obama spoke his words and was heard, something has been created into being. The people who specialize in crafting words are poets. In ancient Anglo-Saxon, the word for poet was “maker”. This term, influenced by its Biblical root, blends the meaning of weaving words with that of the material world. In fact, according to Bible, the “Word” and God can not be separated. The first line of the prologue to John’s gospel in the Bible reads:

 “In the beginning was the Word:
The Word was with God
And the Word was God.” (I: 1)

But the power of the words is nowhere clearer than in the story of Adam as told in the Qur’an. For the power He gave to the first man was the naming of things in the world. It is this power of words that set him apart from the angels and responsible for the first Fall, that of Satan when he refused to bow to a being created from lowly clay.

The Muslims believe that there is a difference between good and bad words. The Qur’an says:   

“Seest thou not how Allah sets forth a parable?
A goodly Word like a goodly tree whose root is firmly fixed and its branches (reach) to the heavens, 
It brings forth its fruit at all times by the leave of its Lord. So Allah sets forth parables for men in order that they may receive admonition.
And the parable of an evil Word is that of an evil tree.  It is torn up by the root from the surface of the earth: it has no stability.
Allah will establish in strength those who believe with the Word that stands firm in this world and in the Hereafter; but Allah will leave to stray those who do wrong: Allah doeth what He willeth.”
(Surah (chapter) Ibrahim (14): 24-27)

There were several things the American President said in his Cairo speech that ring powerfully to all those who heard them. Though he said them in the context of the 7 issues he chose to elaborate, I will choose to underscore only a few that I heard which directly relate to violence.

  1. Provoked by the terror of September 11, 2001, the US has acted contrary to its ideal because of fear and anger.
  2. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians are people with painful histories, but both have legitimate aspirations.
  3. Violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. It is a dead end.
  4. Terror – shooting rockets at sleeping children or blowing up women in buses signifies the surrender of moral authority.
  5. The US is committed to seek a world in which no nation holds nuclear weapons.

Hearing President Obama’s view on issues related to violence, I feel that his words are beautiful, a feature of a good tree as well as word.


Why Obama's words are beautiful

For  these words signify extremely important shifting trends. They show the world that a country with the greatest military might knows when it has forgotten its ideals out of fear and still has the will to regain its courage to live up to them by announcing the closing date of the abomination that is Guantanamo.

His words teach the world that to transform conflict, there is a need to see both conflicting parties’ aspirations as equally legitimate, and therefore it is a conflict between two human communities, not between angels and demons. They categorically remind the world that violence is a dead end and that there exists nonviolent alternatives as events in American history and elsewhere have shown us.

They insist on the importance of moral authority for everyone, state as well as non-state actors, and that it will evaporate the moment when violence is used without regard to the innocents. Then they remind the world that the fate of humanity cannot be guaranteed under the deadly shadow of nuclear weapons. This is not only about Iran or Israel or Pakistan, but also China, UK, France, India and the US itself.

In the minds of so many Muslims, and others of the Abrahamic faiths, listening to President Obama, his words like a good tree are good, whether they will remain firm, provide shade and give sustenance to those in need of a world freed from violence and its threats, depends on the ways in which the existing structures could be called into question. But it seems that the seeds of a good tree have already been planted.


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* TFF Associate & Director, Peace Information Center, Thammasat University & Senior Research Scholar, Thailand Research Fund.



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