It’s mid-day on a hot June day in the busy city of Cairo, but the streets leading up to Cairo University are unusually quiet. A driving ban is in force and cars are being diverted from the venue where an important speaker is expected. The media has been abuzz with speculations about what will be said and people in the streets have their own ideas about what they will hear. The speech is being broadcast live into every tea shop and many households in Egypt and around the globe. The audience in the Grand Hall of Cairo University, who had to get through throngs of security checks to sit in the elegantly decorated hall, sits nervously in anticipation of what they know will become a topic of global interest to be debated and analyzed for weeks, if not months. They watch senior diplomats enter the hall and take their seats close to the front of the stage when suddenly, a man announces over the hall’s speaker system: “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.”
“… how did Obama’s Muslim audience perceive his speech and did it have the intended effect? Was it successful in reaching out to the Muslims and mending the gap between America and the Muslim world that existed during Bush’s presidency? The answer: it depends.”
Loud cheers and thunderous applause follows as he emerges from behind the maroon curtains, pausing briefly to lift his hand in appreciation of the adoration that fills the hall. Then, he makes his way to the podium, gesturing back to the crowd whenever he hears their applause get louder. Finally reaching the podium, he is set to deliver the speech everyone came to hear and check off a campaign promise made during his presidential campaign. But first, he thanks the crowd and asks them to be seated. They, of course, reply with more applause and shouts of “We love you Obama!” Without further ado, President Barack Obama begins his now famous speech, appropriately titled “A New Beginning.” He begins by speaking about the timeless city of Cairo and al-Azhar University, the centuries old center of Islamic learning. And, then, he effortlessly greets the audience with the Islamic salutation of “As-salaamu alaikum” (Translation: Peace be upon you) and the crowd goes wild with cheers.
When watching Obama’s speech in Cairo, one feels a calming reassurance that the White House of the last eight years is no more, and that the new American presidency will be different. The crowd is absolutely in love with this new American president and he seems to understand his unique position in history. But does the reception of Obama in the illuminated Grand Hall of Cairo University reflect the opinion of the average Muslim? From the importance of democracy and women’s rights in the Muslim world, to the legitimacies of each side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the speech did indeed cover many aspects of the issues that concern Muslims globally. But how did Obama’s Muslim audience perceive his speech and did it have the intended effect? Was it successful in reaching out to the Muslims and mending the gap between America and the Muslim world that existed during Bush’s presidency? The answer: it depends. On what? Read on below.
The effect of Obama’s speech, being referred to in the media as the “Cairo effect,” has affected the diverse Muslim populations varyingly—differing in opinion across political, ethnic and even sectarian lines. According to the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, however, a majority of the Muslim nations have more confidence in President Obama in world affairs than they had in former President Bush back in 2008—we all could’ve probably guessed that.
The study revealed that some Arab countries, such as Egypt and Jordan, where the view of the United States was already not very favourable, still showed a significant rise in confidence in Obama’s foreign policy judgements—42% of Egyptians and 31% of Jordanians have confidence in the U.S. under Obama in 2009, as opposed to 11% and 7%, respectively, a year ago when Bush was in power. However, the biggest rise in confidence has come from non-Arab states, such as Turkey and Indonesia, where 33% (an increase of 31% since 2008) and 71% (an increase of 48% since 2008) of the populations, respectively, said that they had confidence in Obama. Interestingly, the difference in opinion about President Obama also runs across sectarian lines. In Lebanon, Sunni Muslims were far more confident in Obama (65% of Sunnis) than were either Lebanese Christians (46%) or Shi’a (26%).
The reaction in Israel and the Palestinian territories was especially important since Obama had made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a main point in his speech. Israeli people’s confidence in Barack Obama’s leadership dropped from 60% to 49% after the Cairo speech; contrastingly, the Palestinian view of Obama’s leadership rose, albeit slightly, from 21% to 26%. Even though Obama took some very important steps when talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the effect of these steps did not significantly alter the opinion of the two populations—a majority of Israelis (63%) still held a favourable view of America, and an overwhelming majority of Palestinians (80%) still held an unfavourable view of America after Obama’s speech. But, interestingly enough, the percentage of Palestinians who feel that the current president will better consider their interests rose dramatically from 27% to 39% after the Cairo speech.
One other aspect of the study should sit very well with most Americans: the Bin Ladens and the al-Zawahiris of the world are becoming increasingly marginalized in the Muslim world when compared to Barack Obama. Last year, the Muslim world, on average, actually had more confidence in the terrorist mastermind Bin Laden than in President George W. Bush. This year, however, almost all Muslim countries surveyed (with the exception of Pakistan and the Palestinian territories) have more confidence in Barack Obama than they have in Osama bin Laden. Hence, at least one underlying goal of the Cairo speech has been achieved: the extremists and terrorists are losing their popularity as compared to the young, hip American president.
Although the Cairo speech surely marks a break from the Bush presidency, there’s a growing number of Muslims asking President Obama to follow through with his promises of even-handed diplomacy with the Muslim world. On the other hand, critics warn supporters of Obama and those on the fence to not put much weight in Obama’s words until he backs them up with actions. Whatever the case may be, the change in philosophy and tone that Obama has brought to the White House should be reason enough for optimism about the future, if not widespread Obama-mania in the Muslim world.