The XX Factor

Obama in Cairo: Channeling MLK in the Land of the Pharaohs

Like you, Anne , I’ve been wondering what kind of big, concrete policy changes will come out of Obama’s Cairo speech yesterday. The specific programs he spoke of-far down near the end of the hour-long address -seemed soft-focus and shallow compared to the gigantic arc of intercultural understanding traced by his rhetoric. But I want to spend a moment here on Obama’s language, which, as always, rewards close reading. This was evidently the 2004 Democratic convention speech for the Muslim world-“there is not a liberal America and a conservative America-there is the United States of America,” he said then, and yesterday: “the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart.” But what struck me most powerfully was an echo in the section on Israelis and Palestinians of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech , an unlikely allusion in the context of previous foreign policy speeches but a fitting one for Obama in speaking of the Holy Land that had such metaphorical value for King. In appealing to Palestinians to model their quest for statehood on the nonviolent struggle for desegregation in the South, Obama internationalized the tropes of America’s Civil Rights movement in a way that I think King would have deeply admired. In August 1963, King said:

I have a dream that … one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers … I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

Compare this with Obama’s Cairo riff:

Too many tears have flowed. Too much blood has been shed. All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear; when the Holy Land of three great faiths is the place of peace that God intended it to be; when Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra, when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed (peace be upon them) joined in prayer.

Seeing these two passages side by side, there’s clearly more to the echo than the hope of a future when two peoples divided by hatred, pain, and mistrust will watch their children walk together in peace. There’s also the reach for transcendence that comes, in King’s speech, with a reference to Biblical salvation and, in Obama’s, with an allusion to the 17th sura of the Koran, a story that’s as obscure to most Americans as it is familiar to Muslims. The story of Isra is a dreamlike account of a journey Mohammad takes at night from Mecca to Jerusalem and then to heaven. In Jerusalem, he prays the other prophets (Moses and Jesus). In heaven, he sees them again, and on the way back from his meeting with Allah, he runs into Moses, who tells him to try to get Allah to reduce his people’s prayer commitment from 50 times a day to something more manageable (after much bargaining, Allah finally cuts it to five).

It’s funny to think of the archetypal Jew and the holy prophet of Islam collaborating to prevent Muslims from having to spend an inordinate amount of time praying, especially in the context of current Arab-Israeli relations. But the important thing about Obama’s reference here is the way it displays his penchant for mixing the political and the spiritual in a manner utterly different from that of his predecessor, who used the Biblical rhetoric of good and evil to polarize, not to unite. Obama is the kind of leader who calls unabashedly for God’s help with problems that are too big for men to solve and who speaks openly, as he did in that 2004 convention address, of “a belief in things not seen” as “God’s greatest gift to us.” If nothing else in Obama’s speech resonates with the Muslim world, this impulse to believe in the unseen most certainly will. In voicing it, Obama has brought us closer to a meaningful connection with Muslims than any other leader in my lifetime.