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Reconciling Hegemony and Mutual Respect: Obama's Muslim Outreach

Barack Obama's speech in Cairo on 4 June 2009 was a balancing act that reconciled US interests with a new effort at reaching out to the "Muslim world". The priorities of the US and its interests in maintaining its hegemony in world affairs are interspersed, with emphases on making a break from the more confrontational positions taken by his predecessor George Bush's regime vis-a-vis the Muslim majority nations.


Reconciling Hegemony and Mutual Respect: Obama’s Muslim Outreach

Riaz Ahmad

t ranscending his domestic limitations and reorienting US policy in accordance with his vision, or about both. The speech will perhaps be a frequent reference point in future too.

Widely Discussed Speech

This speech, delivered at Cairo University, Egypt, was received widely with curiosity

Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo on 4 June 2009 was a balancing act that reconciled US interests with a new effort at reaching out to the “Muslim world”. The priorities of the US and its interests in maintaining its hegemony in world affairs are interspersed, with emphases on making a break from the more confrontational positions taken by his predecessor George Bush’s regime vis-à-vis the Muslim majority nations.

Riaz Ahmad ( is currently with the Council for Social Development, New Delhi.

he US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent India visit has clearly shown the US government’s inability or even unwillingness to initiate a policy shift on terrorism, suggesting the continuation of US hegemony instead of its government’s acceptance of a world characterised by mutual respect. US President Barack Hussein Obama’s speech dated 4 June 2009 that gave hope of a more h umane and peaceful world since his a scension to his post, therefore, has to be revisited and examined in the light of US policy in south and west Asia.

Hillary Clinton’s stand on counterterrorism and her expectation that the US demand for international action against terror should not be taken lightly has given yet another jolt to those who hoped that the US would reorient its policy of “war on terror” that had been actively pursued by the administration of former US President George W Bush. Her position, however, seems to be in sync with the escalation of US military engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan that has been justified in the name of counterterrorism. The issue of terrorism certainly needs to be tackled with urgency and earnestness. Nonetheless, the US anti-terror campaign looks more self-serving. It seems to have been designed to hype the issue to the extent that US acquires a handle to intervene anywhere in the name of counterterrorism. This counterterrorism strategy is clearly counterproductive. It boosts up anti-US feelings and disrupts peoples’ struggles against terrorism, intolerance and authoritarianism. The continuation of such an anti-terror campaign and policy indicates US government’s keenness to maintain its hegemony, which in turn r aises doubts regarding Obama’s seriousness either about his own world view as it got reflected in his aforementioned speech, or about his own efforts for

august 29, 2009

and interest, and created ripples across the globe. Discussed extensively for the i ssues it raised and the language and idiom it used, it provoked varied responses: e uphoric, censorious, and a few, lukewarm and guarded. Most responses were triggered by the receivers’ own approach to one or more components of the speech, depending upon how such bits and pieces of the speech fitted with their own p erceived reality. If the speech earned Obama admiration for seeking, in his own words, “a new beginning between the US and the Muslims around the world...”,1 it also opened him to the charge of being an ardent Muslim appeaser and for making the Muslim appeasement a global p henomenon. There is a need to analyse the speech in its totality and come out with a comprehensive response to find if it offers any hope for a more peaceful, egalitarian world. Its proper analysis requires due attention to its own components on one hand, and to its milieu on the other.

Obama, whose election as US president had symbolically marked the possibility of the arrival of the marginalised at the hub of power and thus enthused millions of them worldwide to identify with him, seemed inspired by a vision informed by peoples’ myriad struggles for justice, dignity and equity waged through centuries in various parts of the world. His world view, as reflected in his speech, included elements that could collectively turn this world into a better place to live. He showed respect for the values of peace, prosperity and progress, thus underscoring the futility of conflict and violence. The subtext of the speech suggested that the “peace, prosperity and progress” of his vision were not hegemonic, as he categorically emphasised the significance of recognition of diversity, mutual respect, cooperation and tolerance. In the context of governance, he highlighted the relevance of democracy, rule of law and transparency,

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simultaneously acknowledging that the a ssumptions, Obama seemed positioned p rinciple of governments reflecting the on the opposite end of the same theoreti-


peoples’ will could well be grounded by a country in the traditions of its own people. The subtext of his speech also indicated his keenness for furthering the liberation process of individuals, groups and n ations.2 He stressed on human, minority, and women’s rights, with simultaneous show of respect for local traditions, and also underlined the principles of freedom, equality, justice and dignity. This vision definitely held a promise for a better g lobal future and gave hope to those who identified with him. On the other hand, it also shaped a yardstick for evaluation of his future performance against it.

Earning both bouquets and brickbats for its language and idiom, this Obama speech, in a certain way, was definitely in sharp contrast with the mainstream r hetoric of the era of his predecessor George W Bush. This rhetorical shift, widely acknowledged, was surely a remarkable feature of the speech. He used kind words for his hosts: Al Azhar, Cairo University, the city of Cairo, and the Egyptians, relied on the Islamic way of conveying greetings of peace, cited past achievements of Islam and the Muslim communities, talked about Islam as being a part of America’s story, mentioned that US had over 1,200 mosques with each of its states having at least one mosque,3 d escribed his select biographical details to indicate his affinity with Islam and Muslims, called for fighting negative s tereotypes of both Islam and the US, broached seven issues of contemporary relevance, suggested that the cycle of suspicion and discord between Muslims and the US must end, and referred to the Holy Koran four times. The language and i diom of the speech were conspicuous for the subtext they generated: Obama w anted to approach his addressees with friendliness, warmth and respect and d esired to create an atmosphere of m utual trust and goodwill.

However, the language and idiom of the speech, indeed its construction as a whole, accorded a central place to faith in order to reach out to Muslims around the world, thus feeding to the myth of a pan-Islamic Muslim identity. In the process, instead of challenging his underlying cal continuum where Bush, inspired by the clash of civilisations theory, was l ocated. It would be naïve to believe that Obama and his advisers who helped him prepare his speech did not know that e ssentialising Islam and homogenising Muslims was historically untenable, and that the myth of a pan-Islamic Muslim identity could be appropriated by the hate mongers of all hues to their respective p olitical advantage. It was perhaps a c alculated risk, taken in view of the political expediency of r eaching out in a single attempt to Muslims of all geographical r egions, cultures, religious schools and political preferences, trying to undo what Bush had done, seeking to assuage their hurt feelings.

Political Pragmatism

This political pragmatism seems to have guided him in choosing his language, i diom and content throughout. Without suspecting his avowed intentions of seeking an end to the “cycle of suspicion and discord” and of looking for “a new beginning ...based upon mutual interest and mutual respect”, it needs to be acknowledged that no head of a government/ state can afford the liberty of ignoring the structural context at the national level. In his keenness for the quest of a new beginning, he declared that US was not “a self-interested empire.” It is however d ifficult to unlearn the basic lesson of i nterstate relations that foreign policy of every state is guided by its national selfinterest, as perceived and projected by its ruling classes.

Obama, in the course of his speech, brought up seven issues, in this order: v iolent extremism, the situation between Israe lis, Palestinians and the Arab world, rights and responsibilities of nations on nuclear weapons, democracy, religious freedom, women’s rights, and economic development and opportunity. All these issues have notable contemporary r elevance. However, the time devoted to the discussion of each one, as measured by the relative word count, is a truer r eflection of his prioritisation of these i ssues for the sake of making political choices. Recast in consideration of the

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The North East Centre for Research and Development (NECRD) Guwahati, an Academic Research Institute of Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), is going to organize a national conference on “Indigenous Technology, Livelihood Options and, Habitat Utilization: Concepts and Perspectives of Development” at Guwahati on 23rd and 24th Nov, 2009. in &

Guidelines for participation

The conference is open to academics, professionals, social scientists, environmentalist and technocrats working in the relevant fields. The participants for the conference are invited to submit abstract of about 500 words in both soft and hard form with full postal address and contact number by 30th September, 2009. The abstract can also be sent through, rtanecrd@,
Conference Themes ◙ Development and Post-Development- Issues, Paradigms and Challenges ◙Perspectives on Sustainability-Indigenous Technology and Indigenous Knowledge, Livelihood Options, Habitat utilization etc. ◙The New Industrial Revolution”- Waste Management, Renewable Sources of Energy, Transportation and Locomotive substitution ◙Perspectives of differential Social Categories: Redistribution, Equity and Social justice. ◙Resource Mapping of North East India, Case Studies and New initiatives. ◙Sustainability and North-East India-Balancing environment, society and economy
Postal Address

Abstract/Paper for 1st annual National Conference NECRD, IGNOU House No.71 Christian Basti, G.S. Road, Guwahati, Assam

Important Dates Conference: 23rd & 24th November, 2009 Abstract Submission (Soft and Hard copy): 30th September, 2009 Finalization of the abstract and notification 15th October, 2009. Last date of registration 1st November, 2009 Last date of submission of full length Paper (Soft and Hard copy): 15th November 2009

Abstract of all papers accepted for presentation will be published in the conference Souvenir and selected papers for in an Edited volume. Travel support and accommodation will be provided to Paper Presenters

Registration Fee Rs. 100/- to be paid through bank draft in favour of Deputy Director, NECRD (IGNOU) payable at State Bank of India, Geetanagar Branch, Guwahati-21. Last Date is 1st Nov.2009.

Contact Address Dr Sujata Dutta Hazarika, Dy Director (Convenor) Ph. No: 0361-2343797/8 Fax No: 03612343798 Mobile no: 94351-49505

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r elative time/words spent on them, the list of issues indicates his political p references in the following descending order: the situation between Israelis, P alestinians and the Arab world, violent extremism, economic development and opportunity, democracy, rights and r esponsibilities of nations on nuclear weapons, religious freedom, and women’s rights.

It may be argued that the Israel-Palestine issue, violent extremism and economic development and opportunity were the three major thrust areas in his speech. Important as these issues are, he talked about them at some length, but confined himself to their description in the light of his own perspective, without proposing any concrete action plan. The absence of any tangible proposals however cannot be regarded at this stage as a colossal mistake. In all relationships, schemes for solving problems must be evolved mutually by the concerned parties in an atmosphere of shared respect and goodwill. Obama looked more focused on making a giant leap in the direction of generating an environment of mutual respect, trust and goodwill. In a situation characterised by unequal power relations on one hand and an atmosphere of ill will, fear and suspicion on the other, even well meaning proposals coming from someone perceived as powerful and dominant may be seen as steps directed at strengthening the existing power structure.

Obama’s keenness to reach out to Muslims globally, more particularly to the Arab world,4 was however conditioned by the complexities of contemporary public opinion and politics in the US. Hence, despite a sharp departure from the language and idiom used during the Bush era, his speech exhibited remarkable continuities too. He invoked the infamous 11 September 2001 attacks thrice: to explain demonisation of Islam and Islamophobia, as even to justify the US engagement in Afghanistan. Although he was generous enough to make an occasional mention of US misadventure in the past, he could not afford to try any explanation of 9/11 with reference to the US foreign policy. Without justifying the attacks that remain one of the most heinous examples of extremist violence, it is possible to explain them, to some extent,

Economic & Political Weekly

august 29, 2009

in the context of the US foreign policy as it unfolded through the decades preceding them and, more particularly, the Bush push, the rhetoric and policy of the Bush era. Obama abandoned the rhetoric of “global war on terror” and “Islamic terrorism” in favour of a more neutral expression “violent extremism”, projected Islam as an important part of promoting peace, but affirmed his resolve to relentlessly confront violent extremism. He declared that the US did not want to keep its troops in Afghanistan, simultaneously suggesting that these troops would return only when there were no violent extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He said that the Iraq war reminded US of the need of using diplomacy and building international consensus for resolving problems, but mentioned 2012 as the year by which to expect the final withdrawal of US troops from there. He indicated that Iran could have access to peaceful use of nuclear power, but added a rider that such access was conditional and depended on Iran’s compliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. He displayed sensitivity for both Palestinian and Israeli sensibilities, but gave the same two-state solution5 that had emerged in US early in the last decade. There was nothing new in his p osition on the Arab-Israel issue. On the political appro priation of violent extremism/terrorism, on US engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, on Iran’s access to peaceful nuclear power, and on the two-state solution of the Palestine-Israel issue his conformity with the policies pursued before him was noteworthy. The pressures of domestic politics may provide some explanations for such conformity. It is however simultaneously clear that he wanted to build bridges with the Muslim

Opening for the post of Executive Director for Partners for Law in Development, a women’s rights NGO in New Delhi. The full text of the advertisement is available at our website under tab-heading “Get Involved” (

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communities, more particularly in the Arab world. It was therefore a balancing act; it was a case of tight-rope-walking.

Domestic Considerations

The urge to build bridges with the Arab world can also be explained in terms of the global financial meltdown that has its epicentre in the US financial system (Bhaduri 2009). The crisis in the US economy is worsening by the day. Its indicators in terms of gross domestic production, industrial production, consumer confidence, house foreclosures and the ensuing shifting of people into rented living spaces, vans or shelters are worrisome (Wade 2009). An appropriate handling of this crisis has to be a priority of any US government.

Friends of capitalism have come out with many suggestions to save it from its current global crisis. One such proposal is restructuring the financial regime so that it seeks profit in real economy rather than speculation. This scheme pushes for a vital role of the state in effecting a change in favour of production capital, deployment of the transformative information, computers and telecommunications technologies worldwide, and expansion of environmental and lifetime education activities as two big growth sectors. This proposal advises the state in the developed countries to support innovation in areas like biotech, nanotech, new materials, new transport systems, and healthcare, which will help the growth of environment and lifetime education (ibid).

Obama’s agenda for economic development and opportunity, in the framework of the above scheme, looks like an attempt to steer the US out of the current econo mic crisis. While acknowledging


that globalisation could generate fear of losing identity and control over economic and political choices, he argued that d evelopment and tradition need not be contradictory. In a sense, he tried to dispel the apprehension that globalisation could harm the interest of any nation and then went on to list many areas of possible cooperation between business e ntrepreneurs, community organisations, c itizens and governments in US and M uslim communities. He emphasised Muslim communities’ need for investment in education and innovation, and indicated that US now sought engagement not merely in oil and gas, but also in other a reas. Expansion of exchange programmes with increased scholarships to attract Muslim students to US, internships to the promising amongst them, and investment in online learning were i ncluded in his offer in the field of education. He further highlighted the need for partnership for economic development, and in science and technology, for transferring ideas that create more jobs, for d eveloping new sources of energy, creating green jobs, digitising records, cleaning water, growing new crops, and promoting public health. It could be argued that Obama’s speech was an attempt at exploring for US greener pastures in the era of global meltdown. He looked i nspired by the thinking reflected in such a scheme.

This, however, need not send any automatic warning signals to his addressees; an outright rejection of the proposed partnership and cooperation would be wrong. The Muslim communities are l ocated in states. Each of these states must consider Obama’s proposals in the light of its interest and decide on merit the issue of desirability of any partnership and c ooperation with US and its business and social entrepreneurs. The response of these states would be conditioned by their respective political, economic and social circumstances. Such aspects notwithstanding, the nature of partnership and cooperation must be guided by the principles of equality and mutual respect. This is Obama’s vision too. Inequality and lack of mutual respect in such programmes, despite declared noble intensions, would prove counter-productive, opening new avenues of neo-colonialism and US hegemony.

Thus, the departures and continuities in Obama’s speech could be located in the context of US political economy. The political spectrum there is marked by the presence of various powerful lobbies like liberals, neo-conservatives, Marxists, pro-Israelis, pro-Palestinians, pacifists, warmongers, human rights groups, environmentalists, racists, etc. The US economy is passing through serious crisis, with various economic actors having their own lobbies. These lobbies, like their counterparts in other liberal democracies, have been and are working as push and pull factors in the context of governmental policy. Obama, in making his speech, was constrained by such factors. Despite his l audable vision, he was watchful of his domestic constraints. It was indeed a b alancing act between his vision and domestic limitations.

While the domestic factors, along with the international, would constantly continue to influence Obama’s policy, there is always a possibility of trying and changing the objective conditions through human effort. And, this is going to be a litmus test of Obama’s commitment to his own vision on one hand and of his leadership qualities, on the other. He could mould public opinion more and more in favour of his worldview and work out bold initiatives for making the new beginning real. This is his future challenge. The global civil s ociety would also do well to constantly remind Obama of his vision and assess his policy accordingly.


1 See the text of the speech at http://www.america. gov/st/texttrans-english/ 2009/June/200906031 71549eifas0.6576807.html

2 Here rights are seen as useful tools of furthering the liberation process through provision of opportunities and resources necessary for the fullest development of creative potential.

3 Being Muslims in America, a document published by the US Department of State/Bureau of International Information Programmes and circulated by the American Centre at New Delhi however lists Alaska and Vermont as states without any mosques. It also mentions the total number of mosques as 1,018. See pp 50-51. The possibility of Obama speaking with updated information cannot however be ruled out. Either way, the discrepancy has no bearing on the argument developed here.

4 He ignored the Muslims belonging to the south Asian and south-east Asian countries.

5 The experience of India and Pakistan however indicates that a two-state solution may prove to be a grave human tragedy that divides families, may fail to promote peace automatically and may indeed, in certain circumstances, be a cause of further rancour and distrust within and across borders.


Bhaduri, Amit (2009): “Understanding the Financial Crisis”, Economic & Political Weekly, 28 March. Wade, Robert (2009): “Steering Out of the Crisis”, Economic & Political Weekly, 28 March.

Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai

V.N. Purav Marg, Deonar, Mumbai - 400088

Seminar on “Socio-Economic and Educational Status of Muslims in Maharashtra”

Call for Papers

Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai in collaboration with the Maharashtra State Minorities Commission, Government of Maharashtra, is organising a Two-Day Seminar on the “Socio-Economic and Educational Status of Muslims in Maharashtra”, on 21st & 22nd December, 2009 to be held at TISS. The Seminar invites papers concerning the themes mentioned below preferably on Maharashtra. However, papers based on other States will also be considered. Papers are invited on the following themes:

  • Economic Status, Employment, and Institutional Credit
  • Educational and Health Status
  • Demography, Urbanization and Ghettoisation
  • Access to Public Infrastructure, Housing, and Public Programmes
  • Status of Muslim Women
  • Identity Stereotyping and Politics of Violence
  • Crime and Punishment
  • Political Participation and Representation
  • The Muslim OBCs: Status and Way Forward Abstracts of around 300 words should be submitted to latest by 30th September, 2009. Full paper should be submitted by 20th November, 2009. AC two tier train or AC bus fairs for the shortest routes will be reimbursed and hospitality will be extended to the participants. Contributors will be communicated about the acceptance of their abstracts by 10th October 2009. For details see the website
  • Contacts:

    Dr. Abdul Shaban, Associate Professor, TISS, Mumbai-400088 (e-mail: Mr. Rahul Pathak, Research Associate, TISS, Mumbai-400088 (e-mail:

    august 29, 2009 vol xliv no 35

    Economic & Political Weekly

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