Stretching My Gambes

Obama’s language

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Obama’s speech at al-Azhar University in Cairo illustrated his well-documented ability as a masterful orator, reminiscent of his earlier speech on race during the US elections. However, how excited can we get about words?

Whilst there are many important and interesting aspects of Obama’s speech, incorporating policy and philosophy, I will leave these aside here. I found Mark Lynch’s blog a particularly worthwhile read. I am in agreement with Lynch that ‘this speech is an essential starting point in a genuine conversation, a respectful dialogue on core issues.’

However, there were no tangible commitments in terms of policy or timeframes in the speech. A continued military presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan may have been the only exception. Obama maintained his stance on illegal Israeli settlements, but did not illuminate as to how this issue was to be dealt with; further the American–Israeli bond was highlighted. However, whilst not wishing to develop this point too much here – the very fact that he called the Palestinian situation an ‘occupation’ is unprecedented for a US politician. Further, he emphasised that the security of ordinary Israelis and Palestinians are intimately tied up with each other.

Whilst it is easy, albeit correct, to claim that rhetoric needs to be supplemented with action…

Khaled Meshal (HAMAS leader) made this point when speaking to Time: ‘[undoubtedly] Obama speaks a new language. We are looking for more than just mere words… We are keen to contribute to this. But we [believe that this cannot happen] merely with words.’

…one should not ignore the importance of words.

The way Obama has framed the debate, and the nature of the discourse he is attempting to establish, changes the nature and terms of cultural, political and social engagement. Rather than the bellicose and fear-inducing language of Bush and his ‘Global War on Terror’, there is an inclusive and respectful dialogue emerging that rightfully locates violence on the fringe of Islamist politics, and recognises the important contemporary and historical contributions of Muslims and Islamic history, rather than buying into the notion that buying into the neo-con/religious right myths about the barbarity and violence of Islam.

However, I believe that this shift has been apparent before Obama’s inauguration. Almost five months down the line, there has been little tangible change to accompany the rhetorical break with the Bush administration. Thus, whilst it is hard to get too over-excited by words, especially when one observes the recent history of Western Asia, I do feel that this speech is clearly part of a discursive shift in the White House; and whilst we shouldn’t sniff our noses at it too quickly, let us hope that Obama’s actions do not go one to give us good reason to.


Written by Henry Smith

05/06/2009 at 11:56

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