Commentary

Obama's Speech Fails to Inspire Confidence in the Region

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Last week, in a gathering at the White House aimed at tackling violent extremism, U.S. President Barack Obama tried to put forward a more nuanced and historically grounded understanding of violent extremism and its sources. Even though his approach to tackling radicalism and violence has won him some supporters, many in the region, and especially at home, consider Mr. Obama’s position as deeply flawed. Even among those who feel that the U.S. president is right to make the distinction between Islam and violent extremism and to remind the West of its own violent past, many harbor doubts about President Obama’s ability or willingness to match his words with deeds.

One of the first to express support for Mr. Obama’s speech, James Zogby characterized the U.S. president’s speech, in a recent op-ed on the pages of The National, as ‘pitch perfect,’ noting: “Mr. Obama continued his tough rhetoric against ISIL and was forceful in his resolve that they be defeated. But he also made clear that in targeting violent extremist ideology, the U.S. and the West were not at war with Islam, since this is exactly how ISIL and Al Qaeda want to frame the conflict.... Mr. Obama’s message was both tough and smart. He has built a coalition that has mobilized most of the Muslim world, involving them as partners in the fight against violent extremism. He has chosen a path designed to isolate and ultimately destroy what he has referred to as a ‘death cult’.”

Unfortunately, by trying to draw a comparison between the Crusades and the current violence caused by Islamic militants, Mr. Obama’s overall message about freedom was drowned out. At least that is the argument put forward by the Iran Times editorial staff who in a recent commentary on the speech wrote: “Obama, however, was stressing the difference between those who perpetrate violent acts of terrorism—he said ISIS represents not the religion of Muhammad but “a death cult”—and peaceful Muslims. It was a distinction his critics did not choose to grasp...Obama’s comments also put him at odds with Pope Francis, who has urged that all religious faiths, including Islam, be protected from criticism. But Obama’s key remarks about the two freedoms went largely ignored, overtaken by the uproar over his passing mention of the Crusades, Inquisition and slavery.”

Many observers question whether Mr. Obama’s nuanced worldview might be ‘nuanced to a fault’. For example, in an op-ed for Al Arabiya, Hisham Melhem faults the U.S. president for not acknowledging the theological roots of the violence perpetrated by ISIS and other similar organizations: “President Obama is the President who lives in a parallel territory where words and their meanings are at best implied and much more elastic and nuanced to a fault....By not acknowledging the “theological” underpinnings of ISIS, perverted as they may be, President Obama’s academic approach and evasive vocabulary muddies the intellectual and religious counter-narrative that should accompany the military assault on ISIS.”

Then there are those who, while in complete agreement with Mr. Obama’s rhetoric and historical analysis, harbor serious doubts about the U.S. president’s courage to follow through on his rhetoric. Writing for Arab News, Hassan Barari expresses relief at Mr. Obama’s nuanced worldview, but demands action from the president: “While Obama said the right words about terrorism, his administration should not be oblivious to the fact that the hesitance of his administration in supporting the Syrian revolution has contributed to this mayhem in Syria....In his speech, Obama did not even refer to his failed strategy of leading from behind at a time Iran and Hezbollah are having boots on the ground. To defeat IS, there should be a strategy that is based on deeds rather than rhetoric....It is no longer comfortable to hear Obama say the right words without translating these words into action.”

Others have expressed similar sentiments. Given the enormity of the challenge ahead, argue Hardeep Singh Puri and Omar El Okdah in an op-ed for Gulf Today, the U.S. president ought to lead a ‘serious and frank conversation’ on the root causes of the violence on display in the Middle East today: “This is a clarion call that fighting extremism is anchored in human rights. But it is also a reminder that violent extremism is a symptom of an underlying cause and a physical manifestation of governance deficits....But to go beyond the symbolic pageantry of a street rally and a political summit requires a serious and frank conversation that addresses how best to implement and frame the question within the lens of social inclusion and effective governance, and one that acknowledges the troubling disconnect between so-called national interests and global security when it comes to violent extremism.”

Finally, Asharq Alawsat’s Tariq Alhomayed urges Mr. Obama to follow his words with deeds, reminding him that no amount of abstract theorizing can make up for the damage that mistaken policies, such as what he considers as cozying up to the Muslim Brotherhood, can do: “In a recent speech, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke about the need to confront extremism and terrorism, while defending Islam and calling for the need to correct misconceptions about it. For all its truth and nobility, what Obama said amounts to nothing more than a theoretical argument....What is required today are deeds not words. The fight against terrorism cannot be achieved through a theoretical approach as is followed today, particularly since there are certain facts on the ground, blood being spilled and nations destroyed....Therefore, the issue is not about having good intentions or making efforts to defend Islam, particularly since there are groups in the region exploiting the religion. The Obama administration has failed to realize this and instead has chosen to deal with Islamist groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, the root cause of national fragmentation, as rife examples testify to this fact from Sudan to Egypt.”


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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.