State Of Muslim Relations A Year After Obama Speech

One year ago today, President Obama gave a controversial speech in Cairo aimed at mending U.S.-Muslim relations. In the speech, he said he wanted to seek a new beginning "based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition." Robert Siegel speaks with Reza Aslan, a contributing editor at the Daily Beast, and Ahdaf Soueif, an Egyptian novelist and political commentator, about where U.S.-Muslim relations stand today.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

I'm Robert Siegel.

And now we're going to hear from two Muslim commentators, writers, about the speech that President Barack Obama gave one year ago today. He spoke at Cairo University.

President BARACK OBAMA: I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect.

SIEGEL: In the Cairo speech, Mr. Obama focused on sources of tension between the Muslim world and the United States, beginning with violent extremism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He also spoke of women's rights, democracy and the need for economic development in majority-Muslim societies.

Well, joining me now to discuss the speech's impact a year later are Reza Aslan and Ahdaf Soueif. Welcome to both of you.

Mr. REZA ASLAN (Author, "Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Globalized Age"): Thank you.

Ms. AHDAF SOUEIF (Egyptian Novelist; Political Commentator): Hi.

SIEGEL: And we'll start Reza Aslan, I should say, is a contributing editor at the Daily Beast, the author most recently of "Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Globalized Age." And Ahdaf Soueif is an Egyptian novelist and political commentator. She was in Cairo for the speech last year and wrote about it for the British paper The Guardian.

And I'd like to start with you, Ahdaf Soueif. Last year, you described that speech as lawyerly and clever, but you'd have to wait and see if President Obama would deliver. A year later, what do you say?

Ms. SOUEIF: I was uncomfortable with one central aspect of the speech, which is the whole notion of addressing to the Muslim world, of sort of placing the locus of conflict in religion rather than in politics and economics.

But then there were things in it that were good. When President Obama talked about having to put a stop to the settlements; when he spoke about if you see things only from one side and not the other, you will be blind to the truth.

Now, he was actually speaking about seeing things from the Israeli side, but I think that is still pertinent. But there was a certain amount of promise, but really, it's not been delivered on.

SIEGEL: Reza Aslan, President Obama did speak about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at length. He called upon Palestinians to abandon violence and Israelis, as Ahdaf Soueif says, to stop settlement activity. How do you think he's done with that?

Mr. ASLAN: I think thus far, his handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been disastrous. You know, when it came to the Bush administration, at least the world knew what to expect. His policy was very much favoring Israel, regardless of Israeli actions in the occupied territories.

When it came to President Obama, I think that the expectation was so great, the fact that he has in many ways achieved as little as George Bush has achieved, particularly with this latest row over the Gaza flotilla tragedy, has essentially brought Obama back to the same place as his predecessor, George Bush.

SIEGEL: Now, another subject that the president addressed was democracy, and he drew a strong response from the crowd in Cairo when he said this.

President OBAMA: You must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

Unidentified Man: (Shouting) We love you.

President OBAMA: Thank you.

(Soundbite of applause)

SIEGEL: Someone shouting we love you from the crowd. Ahdaf Soueif, your country, Egypt, has been ruled for three decades by Hosni Mubarak. There are parliamentary elections coming up. Would you say that the U.S. over the past year has either helped, hindered or ignored democratization in Egypt?

Ms. SOUEIF: Basically, there is no way that the U.S. administration now would really like to see a democratic Egypt because a democratic Egypt could not tow the line with regard to American policies concerning Israel and with regard to Israeli policies in the region.

So if you had a government in Egypt that was governing according to the will and the interests of the Egyptian people, it would not be building a steel wall between itself and Gaza. It would not be providing cover for the Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla.

SIEGEL: Reza Aslan, thoughts on U.S. policy and democratization in Islamic societies?

Mr. ASLAN: I do think it's important to recognize that this was the largest and most sustained applause line of the entire speech. The overwhelming majority of people in the Middle East, 78 percent, according to a recent Gallup International poll, consider democracy to be the best form of government and continue to clamor for greater political freedoms. And unfortunately, I think we've abandoned this policy of promoting greater political participation...

SIEGEL: Just yes, Ahdaf Soueif?

Ms. SOUEIF: I think a great many of us don't actually want America to promote democracy in our region. We would rather they just didn't promote anything, do you know what I mean? I mean, one thing that it could do would be to stop funding Israel and to stop funding the Egyptian government, and then we could sort ourselves out.

Mr. ASLAN: Ahdaf, neither of those things are remotely possible. But I do think it's quite clear that unless the United States is going to pressure its dictatorial allies in the Arab world, then there is no real hope for political development.

SIEGEL: We've called upon the two of you to assess what's happened in the year since President Obama made a speech to Muslims because you are both intellectuals and Muslims. Does all this fit together into a reasonable policy outreach, or should we be thinking about the Islamic world as varied and as different as Christendom, which nobody talks about having an outreach to the Christian world from other countries.

Ms. SOUEIF: There you have it, really, don't you? I mean, these are all states with their own histories, their own interests, their own, you know, outlook for the future.

Mr. ASLAN: I think that it's a mistake to think about that speech a year ago as a speech to the Muslim world. I don't think it was ever intended as such. That was a speech directed at a region of the world, the Middle East, and more specifically to Arabs. That's why it was in Egypt.

In the 21st century, the Middle East is not the Muslim world any longer. Of the top 10 most populous Muslim-majority states in the world, only two are Arab.

SIEGEL: Just to sum up, both of you, Reza Aslan and Ahdaf Soueif, if you were to try to say in a nutshell how you believe President Obama is viewed, let's say, in the Middle East. Is he seen, Reza Aslan, as any different from any of his predecessors in the White House?

Mr. ASLAN: Unless President Obama, he's willing to break from his predecessors and deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a proactive way and make sure that there are absolutely consequences to both sides not living up to their obligations, then I think the trust factor, which is so important, is just simply not going to be there for President Obama to make a real difference in the Middle East.

Ms. SOUEIF: I think people are very disappointed. It's very different from President Bush, and people with active dislike. Nobody actively dislikes President Obama. It's more sorrow. It's more a belief that he actually does know better, and yet for some reason, he is unable to perform, and that is very, very sad.

SIEGEL: Ahdaf Soueif and Reza Aslan, thanks a lot for joining us, both of you.

Mr. ASLAN: My pleasure.

Ms. SOUEIF: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Ahdaf Soueif is an Egyptian novelist and political commentator. Reza Aslan is the author of "Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Globalized Age."

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: This is NPR News.

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