And Obama gave them a lot to listen to in his 55-minute speech at Cairo University, with a sprinkling of allusions, phrases and references that may have flown by many Western viewers – but were aimed at the heart of the Islamic experience.
“Very small things, like saying shukran (thank you) or salaam aleikum (peace be upon you) or quoting from the Koran … these are hugely significant things,” said Munir Jiwa, director of the Center for Islamic Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.
Obama’s speech, delivered while most Americans slumbered, was billed as an open hand to the Islamic world, was wide-ranging, touching on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, globalization and modernity, women’s rights, history, war and stereotypes many Americans hold of Muslims – and vice versa.
But threaded through the address were words that resonated with many Muslims – references that are elementary and familiar to even young students of Islam but that were surprising to many when coming from a U.S. president.
President George W. Bush, Obama’s predecessor, also made speeches seeking to bridge the gap to the Islamic world but he is remembered more for gaffes – such as referring to the war on terror as a “crusade” or dubbing the military response to the Sept. 11 attacks as operation “Infinite Justice,” which Islam teaches is the province of Allah alone. The name was changed to “Enduring Freedom.”
By contrast, Obama’s allusions were positive and relatively sophisticated, said Georgetown University professor John Esposito, author of “Who Speaks for Islam?”
“It’s what a good speaker ought to be able to do. You don’t just take your message, you craft the presentation to your audience,” he said. “(The speech was) clearly written by a president with a group of advisers who understand what Muslim concerns are, what Muslim hopes are.”
Some allusions were simple: Obama opened his speech with salaam aleikum and closed with “may God’s peace be upon you,” bookends commonly used by many in the Muslim world. He cited several Koranic phrases and recounted the history of American-Islamic relations, from Morocco’s recognition of America in 1776 to the modern experience of Islamic Americans.
Some experts also noted what Obama did not say: While he referred to extremists he did not use the word terrorism. Nor did he mention jihad, a complicated term that for many Americans is synonymous with terrorism to the frustration of Muslims who often use it in a positive sense of struggling for a personal goal.
“Jihad is a term of honor, and for many, many young Middle Easterners who yearn to fight what they see as oppression, to be a mujahid is a term of honor, of courage, of valor,” said Donna Lee Bowen, an expert in Islam and politics at Brigham Young University. “And we in the west use it as a derogatory term.”
Among Obama’s more sophisticated references was his mention of “Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition.” The president did not elaborate but many Muslims would have recalled stories of the centuries when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in relative harmony in Islamic Spain.
“That’s exactly the resonance it has, some kind of golden age when everybody goes along,” said Nathan Brown, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “That’s how it’s remembered.”
Similarly, Obama’s closing reference to the Islamic story of Isra would have resonated in many Islamic ears. A popular tale often mentioned by Muslims in interfaith contexts, the story tells how the prophet Muhammad rode a magical steed – called al-Buraq– on a tour of heaven where he meets with Jesus and Moses.
In mentioning the three prophets’ names, Obama used the phrase “peace be upon them,” which several Islamic experts said showed not only familiarity with traditional Islamic honorifics, but also bridged the three faiths.
“It’s amazing. It’s an acknowledgement that Islam is part of this Abrahamic tradition, that it’s continuity and that he recognizes that (Jesus and Moses) are also prophets of Islam,” Jiwa said. “These things resonate with people.”
That could be seen in the nearly two-dozen times Obama was interrupted with applause, Esposito said, especially for his religious references. Thursday’s release of a new tape from Osama bin Laden was a coincidence that Esposito said suggests extremist groups are displeased with Obama’s efforts at bridge-building.
“They’re going to be apoplectic,” he said. “(The Bush administration) was a dream for jihadists who just said, ‘Look, this guy talks like a neo-colonialist hegemonic leader ….’ You can’t say any of that about the way the Obama administration is moving forward.”
But celebration of Obama’s speech was not universal in the Islamic world. While many bloggers and commentators cheered it, some said pretty words are meaningless unless they are followed by concrete policy changes in Iraq, Afghanistan and especially the Middle East.
“They throw in some Koranic quotations, and everybody is yeah, yeah, yeah … but in the meantime people are dying,” Bowen said. “Expectations are very, very high for Obama. And I think that cuts both ways…. They’ll say this is a good first step but they’re also going to say, where have you been?”
E-mail Matthew B. Stannard at firstname.lastname@example.org.