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How Obama Should Speak to the Muslim World

Author: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
June 1, 2009
Wall Street Journal


The President has not done himself any favors by committing to do this speech. This is his third public statement to the Arab and/or Muslim worlds, and expectations will be high. He will be speaking in Cairo, but everything he says will be heard around the world, and there is a limit on how much he can tailor remarks for local consumption. He also must deal with the reality that any generalization about the Arab and Muslim worlds is bound to be misleading given the range of circumstances in which Arabs and Muslims live.

That said, any speech needs to address the Israeli-Palestinian issue, which will be uppermost on the minds of many in Egypt and beyond. The President should underscore his commitment to bringing about a lasting peace that would ensure Israel's future as a secure, Jewish, democratic state and that would create a viable state of Palestine based on the 1967 borders with compensation for necessary territorial adjustments. Arab and Palestinian moderates need a credible argument they can point to that they can deliver more through restraint, compromise, and acceptance of Israel than those who embrace guns, radicalism and rejection.

President Obama must also challenge Arab and Muslim societies and leaders. It is correct to point out that the overwhelming number of Arabs and Muslims everywhere reject terrorism-but it is no less true that a high percentage of today's terrorists are Arab and Muslim. Something is deeply wrong. Educational reform is a must. Literacy is necessary but not sufficient. Questioning must become the norm. Reform is also essential in the schools training those who preach in mosques. The vision of Islam that is tolerant cannot continue to lose out to a strident closed interpretation.

There are also several things the President should not do. He should not present a detailed blueprint for Israeli-Palestinian peace. It would be inappropriate to do so in an Arab capital. It is also premature to do so. Second, he should not hype elections; electocracy is not democracy. What is needed is more civil society, independent institutions, and checks and balances. And third, he should not apologize. The United States has given billions in dollars in assistance over the years to Arab and Muslim societies. Many Americans have risked or lost their lives defending Arabs and Muslims in Kuwait, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. We are not perfect, but American was and remains a powerful force for good in the world.

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