A Postcolonial Overview of the
"Cairo speech"
Introduction
“Salamu Alaykum” greeted Barack Obama, the President of the United States, the
world’s leading nation, while addressing more than one billion Muslims around the
globe, during his Speech at the University of Cairo in June 2009. "I have come here to
seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world;"1 His
words were followed by frequent applause from his audience.
The Cairo speech evoked numerous political reactions. World leaders tried to analyze
United States' new position in the International arena; regarding the mediation process
between Israelis and Palestinians, American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in
relation to war against terror. Even intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky, regarded the
essence of the speech as political and practical and analyzed the President's
perception of the Middle East, in terms of a political “act” rather than in terms of
philosophy and ethics.
There is no doubt that the standpoint of a new president in the white house, at an era
in which the United States makes great efforts to preserve its status as the world’s
superpower and leader of war against terrorism, is more tangible than deconstructive
observation of the hidden subtext behind the words. Nonetheless, the premise of this
paper is that in Obama’s historical speech, beyond its apparent direct political
meaning, lays inherent premises, which for years had been defining the world's
1
Barack Obama, A new beginning, Cairo Egypt, June 42009.
1
cultural balance of power. Specifically, these inherent premises define the cultural
balance of power, between the USA – as the undoubted leader of the west and “Free
World”, a Christian country in its nature - and the Middle East and Islam – which are
different in their religious, cultural and political life perceptions. These inherent
premises supposedly intensified after the Twin Towers attack, after which Islam was
identified with terror.
In this paper, I will use postcolonial tools to analyze the world’s perceptions inherent
in the Cairo Speech, which according to the Postcolonial theory, express the historic
attitude of the west towards the east. In this paper I will also analyze another central
factor- the speaker himself, Barack Obama, a complex character to measure with
postcolonial tools: a black man, whose biography includes strong “black” elements as
well as “white” ones, who rose to become head of the leading nation of the "white”
world, as Postcolonial theories claim.
The main question that will be raised in this paper is whether Obama’s character and
his American- Islamic reconciliation speech, indeed brings change, or rather returns to
its initial cultural assumptions, which perpetuate the American and western
superiority over the Middle East, not only from a political aspect but also from the
cultural one. This paper will also question the relevance of Obama's "blackness" to his
speech in Cairo. Walter Benjamin claimed that every cultural creation is a process of
transcription of relationships in society 2. Following this claim, we will examine the
speech of the first "black" American President in Cairo last year.
The analysis in this paper will be based on three main thinkers: Frantz Fanon, one of
the most prominent Postcolonial thinkers, Edward Said who defined the term
“Orientalism” and Homi Bhabha who established the “Hybridization” argument in
relations between two cultural forces.
2
Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age Of mechanical Reproduction" in Walter Benjamin, Hannah
Arendt ed. Illuminations. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968
2
“New beginning”– Obama’s Speech in Cairo
According to "Orientalism" methodology, whoever approaches the orient places
himself in comparison to it, and thus determines his narrative. Each writer has
previous knowledge upon which he relies. He uses language in an organized way to
communicate messages. Information is compressed into standard patterns which
reinforce existing perceptions3.
Obama aims to reformulate discourse structure between the United States and West,
and the Islam and Arab world. In this framework he desires to address the main
dispute issues, and demonstrate how compromises, based on common interests, can be
reached. At the same time, Obama intends to change the prevailing power-based
interaction, where one side applies military and economic power, while the other
utilizes the weapons of terror and oil. Instead he aspires to implement interaction
based on contradicting -ideas which pollinate each other. He relates to this speech as a
first step to initiate dialog, not an obligating action plan. Obama’s speech at Cairo
University on June 4th, 2009 was intended for the "other’s" ear, but an analysis of the
writing templates and the selection of words, one can argue that the inherent
concessions were oriental and postcolonial by nature, preserving the existing political
and cultural power structures.
Choosing the Name and Place
The Cairo speech was titled “new beginning” and its purpose was to turn over a new
leaf in relationship between the United States and Islam. Already at this point, the
imbalance of the equation is noticeable. On one hand stands the United States – a
Country, even though a world leader in the international arena, and one that is
3
Edward Said, Orientalism, New York, Pantheon, and London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.
3
considered the leader of the “free” world, still – just a Country. On the other hand,
stands no particular country but an entire religion; one of the three most significant
religions in the world. The background of this speech is the tension between the
United States and numerous Arabic and Islamic countries. This tension exists due to
American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan since events of September 11th 2001,
tension from Iran’s nuclear expedited development, and due to known interests of the
United States in the Middle East. Even so, alongside the USA and its struggles, stand
various other countries that had sent their soldiers as well, to fight in Iraq and
Afghanistan, and who participate in taking sanction decisions against Iran. Obama
allegedly does not allow himself to speak in other countries' name, nor on behalf of
Christianity. still, as the head of the leading country of the West, he creates a form
which empowers his culture, as he places it in the equation opposite to an entire
religion, of approximately a billion and a half believers throughout the world.
Robert Gibbs, White House Press Secretary, indicated that Egypt was elected as the
location for the speech since it is “a country that in various aspects represents the
heart of the Arab world. In addition, Egypt is considered as a main factor of the peace
process in the Middle East, and also receives substantial military and economic
assistance from the United States
4
". When referring to the second part of Gibbs
comments, it is evident that Egypt, even though located in the center of the Arab
world, is in fact economically and politically dependent upon the United States. Thus
raises the question: according to American perception- how significant is Egypt as
"the heart of the Arab world", given its dependency upon the USA's superiority.
Based on Gibbs comments, one can understand United States' start point, which
perceives the Middle East as dependent on it, since the country that is "the heart of the
Arab world" depends on it. Gibbs's comments suggest that the USA preconceives the
4
Office of the Press Secretary (2009-05-08). Briefing by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
4
Middle East as dependent upon it, since the country at the heart of the Arab world is
itself dependent upon it. This can indicate the oriental notion according to which, “the
East” should be controlled either by research and development, or by military
occupation, due to the need to characterize it and also due to the fear of it 5.
Tradition vs. Progress
"I am honored to be in the timeless city of Cairo, and to be hosted by two remarkable
institutions. For over a thousand years, Al-Azhar has stood as a beacon of Islamic
learning, and for over a century, Cairo University has been a source of Egypt's
advancement .Together, you represent the harmony between tradition and progress"6
This was the opening paragraph of the speech and to my analyze a completely
Orientalistic expression. Obama chooses to explain the reason for the location
selected for his speech – University of Cairo, but does not forget to collimate it to a
much more important institution- in terms of the Islamic culture - Al-Azhar. Al-Azhar
is nowadays considered the most important learning institution of Sunni Islam, in
charge of scholastic Islam and Arabic language training, in order to become religious
judges in their countries. The institution is considered adjudicator of all religious
aspects for Sunni- Muslims, who constitute as majority of Muslims in the world.
Obama's collimation compliments the importance of the university, but at the same
time, creates a characteristic Orientalistic observation by identifying the Islamic
institution with “tradition” rooted for thousands of years (despite its great importance
to the Islamic life today), whereas the university, an institute more familiar to the
5
6
Edward Said, Orientalism, New York, Pantheon, and London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.
Barack Obama, A new beginning, Cairo Egypt, June 42009.
5
West, where in resemblance to "western" parts of the world, scientific -universal
disciplines are taught, is introduced as "progress". The motif of progress vs. tradition
reoccurs variously throughout the speech. Another example exists towards the end of
the speech: "This change can bring fear. Fear that because of modernity we will lose
of control over our economic choices, our politics, and most importantly our
identities, those things we most cherish about our communities, our families, our
traditions, and our faith, But I also know that human progress cannot be denied"7
Obama introduces fear of progress as if it's the cause of identity lost, but claims it is
inevitable. The perception of progress as opposed to tradition, expresses the western
diachronic perception of time, which uses the timeline to construct social order. The
mere perception of time and attempt to implement a timeline between past, present
and future in relation to other cultures is a colonial perception, by which the West
perceives the East as if it lives in the past, whereas the present (progress) is presented
as better. The perception of time as presented by Obama suggests that there is a need
to take advantage of time, and not waste it on fears from the present, meaning, an unsynchronous perception which does not grasp, that different cultures have different
timelines, and human progress does not necessarily require movement from one place
to another but can also be a circle movement8.
Choice of Words
In the continuation of its first paragraph Obama reads in his speech: "I am also proud
to carry with me the goodwill of the American people, and a
greeting of peace from Muslim communities in my country :assalaamu alaykum9."
7
Barack Obama, A new beginning, Cairo Egypt, June 42009.
8
Bhabha Homi, "Disemenation:Time,Narrative and the Margins of the Modern Nation". In: Homi Bhabha, The
location of culture, London, Routledge,1994.
9
Barack Obama, A new beginning, Cairo Egypt, June 42009.
6
Obama symbolically utilized Arabic words, which mostly won the applause of his
audience. Some words were mere rhetorical gestures, used to add some colure to the
speech. Other words dealt with religious termination, and were intended to emphasize
his profound understanding of the problems Muslims face. For example, when he
discussed the difficulty Muslim charitable institutions faced in the United States, he
chose to use the Arabic word for charity “Zakat”. Use of these words was not
common in Obama's speech, but they were perfectly places to show that he is familiar
with the material and feels comfortable with the language. Usage of concepts,
expressions and words borrowed from the dominated party's language, constitutes an
entire world of cultural meaning. On one hand it can be perceived as an expression of
integration, but on the other hand it can also be perceived as an expression of
superiority. The dominator demonstrates to the dominated, that he is familiar with its
language and can speak it 10 .
Fanon regards language as defining identity. "White" people talk to "black" people in
a stuttered language assuming they can only stutter. On the other hand, "black" people
attempt to excel at speaking the dominant language, as they consider it the means to
social mobility. Fanon regarded language as a political and oppression tool, as violent
as the military and the police, since the language contains an entire world of values 11.
As far as speech style, Obama preserved his regular speech style yet was cautious
with his words selection (for example, refraining from the word “terrorism”) Even
though it is not clear how fluent in English were the listeners in the crowd, Obama
preferred accuracy of words over crowd accessibility. We can confront this fact with
his use of Arab words, as we analyze his rhetoric using Orientalistic tools.
10
Edward Said, Orientalism, New York, Pantheon, and London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.
11
Franz Fanon, Black Skin White Mask, New York, Grove press, 1967.
7
As far as his vocabulary goes, we can say the key words in his speech are “on the
other hand”. Obama’s message constantly transmitted openness and acceptance of the
other, therefore he cautiously presented each standpoint from its two sides – the West
and the Islam have had years of cooperation, but also of conflict. Iran is entitled to
nuclear energy, but not to atomic weapon. Obama had adopted the vocabulary and
narrative of the American liberal left party, where he had developed. He spoke
without a blink of “the occupation” and of “the Palestinian aspiration for respect,
opportunity and independence” and promised that America will not turn its back on
the Palestinians. Obama called Hamas to “show responsibility” and recognize Israel's
right of existence, and did not refer to it as a terrorist organization, but as a popular
supported movement.
The word “respect”, another recurring motif, appeared in various contexts. Such
examples are: "one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect ... America and
Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead ,they overlap, and
share common principles, principles of justice and progress ;tolerance and the dignity
of all human beings" ."I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United
States and Muslims around the world;" "There must be a sustained effort to listen to
each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common
ground". "The rights of all God's children are respected."12
There is a paradox when referring to this motif. On one hand, I made an assumption
that President Obama deliberately chose to stress this motif since he believed it was
valuable and meaningful to his audience. This choice derives from an Orientalistic
standpoint and is originated in the desire to speak in the audience’s language, in order
to clarify the message in the cultural context that the audience is familiar with.
Nonetheless, this assumption regards the “honor” element as more important in the
Arab world than in other places. Therefore I draw attention to the existence of this
12
Barack Obama, A new beginning, Cairo Egypt, June 42009.
8
motif in the speech, but I am cautious to presume the reason for its existence, for fear
of making a similar mistake to the one I am raising in my assumption.
Christianity vs. Islam
Following the analysis of the words selections and use of local language, Obama
chooses to utilize in his speech many expressions from the Quran: "As the Holy
Qoran tells us, 'Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.' That is what I will
try to do , to speak the truth as best I can, humbled by the task before us, and firm in
my belief that the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the
forces that drive us apart." "The Holy Qoran teaches that whoever kills an innocent, it
is as if he has killed all mankind; and whoever saves a person, it is as if he has saved
all mankind."13
Obama’s speech ends with quotations from sources relating to the three main
religions: "The Holy Qoran tells us,'O mankind! We have created you male and a
female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one
another.' The Talmud tells us :'The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting
peace.' The Holy Bible tells us ,'Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called
sons of God.' "14 As a matter of principle, one can attribute the same Orientalistic
meaning to the use of quotations from the Quran as to Obama’s choice to open his
speech with the “Salamu Alaykum” greeting, but at the same time one should pay
attention to the rooted Orientalistic attitude of Christianity towards Islam. Christians
faced difficulties understanding Islam since they assumed that Muhammad meant to
the Islam the same as Jesus meant for Christianity and therefore they even described
him as an impostor. Islam was not presented in itself but rather represented to the
Christians during the middle Ages. Every Christian representation of Muhammad was
13
Barack Obama, A new beginning, Cairo Egypt, June 42009.
14
Barack Obama, A new beginning, Cairo Egypt, June 42009.
9
created to serve an internal western need –he was perceived as an impostor, reckless,
homosexual, a devious atheist and his mere mimicry symbolizes that Jesus is the great
source everyone should follow
15
. It is visible that the appearing quotations from the
Quran are indeed taken from the Quran but express values valid also in Christianity
and in Judaism. This is emphasized in the quotation finalizing the speech in which
Talmudic and New Testament cited quotation, deal with the same issue and written in
a similar spirit. Thus, in the end, universality can on one hand eliminate the need for
distinction between races and religions but on the other hand, can annul the need for
uniqueness of one religion over another. Therefore, one can infer that by attributing to
the Quran the same universal values, Obama aims to justify his true moral values and
his superiority over his audience.
Colonialism
Already at the second paragraph of his speech Obama directly refers to the colonial
period: "We meet at a time of tension between the United States and Muslims around
the world, tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy
debate. The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of coexistence and cooperation ,but also conflict and religious wars. More recently,
tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many
Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated
as proxies without regard to their own aspirations. Moreover, the sweeping change
brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile
to the traditions of Isla16 "
Apparently one can interpret the direct reference to colonialism in such an early stage
of the speech as a historic apology for the consequences of the direct occupation era.
15
16
Edward Said, Orientalism, New York, Pantheon, and London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.
Barack Obama, A new beginning, Cairo Egypt, June 42009.
10
That implies disregarding the continuance of the control existing today in less direct
means. One can see how structuring strategic relationship between the West and the
East still exist in the apologetic tone. On one hand, there is recognition that the
aspirations of the subordinate countries are not taken into consideration but on the
other hand, there lays another comparison between the Western modernization and
globalization as opposed to the Islam that is still considered “traditional” and is
immediately positioned as the opposite of modernization. As Said claims, the Orient
investigators focused in emphasizing the differences between the familiar Western to
the foreign. The strong culture can penetrate the mysterious Eastern in order to learn
how to deal with it, and by that it gives it form and meaning. The result is a
polarization of the perception – the Oriental becomes even more Oriental and the
Western becomes even more Western and creates categorization in thought.17
Many times throughout the speech Obama refers to the difference between the West
and the East in order to find the common ground: "So long as our relationship is
defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace,
and who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people
achieve justice and prosperity..."."Recognizing our common humanity is only the
beginning of our task. Words alone cannot meet the needs of our people. These needs
will be met only if we act boldly in the years ahead; and if we understand that the
challenges we face are shared...". "For human history has often been a record of
nations and tribes subjugating one another to serve their own interests. Yet in this
new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world
order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So
17
Edward Said, Orientalism, New York, Pantheon, and London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.
11
whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners of it. Our problems must be
dealt with through partnership; progress must be shared."18
On the surface it seems like a call to eliminate the subordination but at the same time,
towards the end of his speech, it is clear to which common denominator Obama refers
to when he speaks of the road to such closeness: "We will expand exchange programs,
and increase scholarships, like the one that brought my father to America, while
encouraging more Americans to study in Muslim communities. And we will match
promising Muslim students with internships in America; invest in on-line learning for
teachers and children around the world ;and create a new online network, so a
teenager in Kansas can communicate instantly with a teenager in Cairo". "On science
and technology, we will launch a new fund to support technological development in
Muslim-majority countries, and to help transfer ideas to the marketplace so they can
create jobs. We will open centers of scientific excellence in Africa, the Middle East
and Southeast Asia"19
The United States, as a powerful country politically and culturally, creates cultural
socialization for those students and teenagers who are educated and exposed to the
American perception. The desire to find the common denominator creates a
representation as if there is a place where the “West” and the “East” will meet in the
middle. It ignores the fact that in this globalization age where the western cultural
superiority is kept, the definition of a relationship of similarities rather than
differences will be similar to the western values promoted and force to begin with.
Even Homi Bhabha that called for "Hybridism" – such that the margins can move and
become the center – recognized that this concept may turn out as weakening and not
necessarily strengthening from a political standpoint 20.
18
Barack Obama, A new beginning, Cairo Egypt, June 42009.
19
Barack Obama, A new beginning, Cairo Egypt, June 42009.
20 Yhouda Shenhav, " The hybridization and purification, Orientalism as a discourse with Wide margins" on
Theory and critics, Vol.26. Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the Vanleer institute, 2005.
12
It is most likely that an adolescent from Cairo will have to learn to speak English in
order to speak to another adolescent from Kansas and that their topics for
conversation will be closer to the cultural world of the adolescent from Kansas than of
the one from Cairo. The heroes from the movies and TV series, pop and sport stars
mostly arrive from the West. Even the internet by which the adolescents communicate
and the technical information required, enable the dominant culture to propagate its
messages and to culturally control various places.
At some point in his speech, Obama makes a comparison to other type of colonialism,
one that is closer to his and America’s history. He turns to the Palestinians and offers
them to conduct their struggle without violence and compares it to the struggle of the
black slaves in the United States and in South Africa. According to Obama, the
Palestinians’ struggle for national liberation is justified and it reminds him of the
renouncement of the colonialism. In this rhetoric that compares the Palestinians to the
black people there is recognition of Ela Shojat’s theory that sees the State of Israel as
a colonial branch of the West that was established by expulsion of the local
population, the Palestinians, from their land and from their rights 21.
Fanon’s criticism of the local bourgeoisie of the "black" people who cooperated with
the "white" people and in that way preserved the colonial status, is also reflected
here22.
Another issue that must be taken into account is the comparison that Obama creates in
advance in his speech, in order to prevent anyone from accusing him of hidden
colonialism: "But that same principle must apply to Muslim perceptions of America.
Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a
self-interested empire. The United States has been one of the greatest sources of
progress that the world has ever known" 23
21
Ella Shohat, Forbidden reminiscences. Tel Aviv, Bimat kedem, 2001.
22
Franz Fanon, The wretched of the Earth, New York, grove weidenfeld, 1963.
23
Barack Obama, A new beginning, Cairo Egypt, June 42009.
13
Obama creates a comparison between the stereotype of the Islam in the West and the
stereotype of United States in Islam, but does not forget to shatter this comparison as
if we are dealing with equal power forces. By using the word “progress” he reminds
us who is the superior and who is the one responsible for the progress in the world.
To conclude this section, I will draw your attention to another sentence from the
speech: "Americans are ready to join with citizens and governments ;community
organizations, religious leaders, and businesses in Muslim communities around the
world to help our people pursue a better life
24
". The hidden assumption here is that
the “better life” is as it is perceived by the United States. It presumes to determine
what is considered good and what is not and to promote everyone to what it believes
to be good.
The Perception of the State and Society
Let’s mention that Obama’s era in the White House arrives after eight years of NeoConservative Republican leadership that aimed to propagate democratic and liberal
values around the world. Obama’s platform supposedly oppose the Neo-Conservatism
but part of his need for real politics in his speech derives from American steps that
were taken by his predecessor in the name of democracy and liberalism. His first
reference to this issue appears in the middle in his speech: "Today, America has a
dual responsibility: to help Iraq forge a better future, and to leave Iraq to Iraqis...
Iraq's sovereignty is its own... That is why we will honor our agreement with Iraq's
democratically-elected government…" "I know there has been controversy about the
promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to
the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be
imposed upon one nation by any other...That does not lessen my commitment,
24
Barack Obama, A new beginning, Cairo Egypt, June 42009.
14
however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to
this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America
does not presume to know what is best for everyone ,just as we would not presume to
pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all
people yearn for certain things... you must maintain your power through consent, not
coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities ,and participate with a spirit of
tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the
legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these
ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy"25 .
On one hand Obama obligated himself to leave Iraq to the Iraqis and on the other
hand conditions it, in an implied form, in the existence of a democratic government.
He claims that no other country can impose a certain government structure on
another’s but he is obliged only to democratic governments. America does not pretend
to know what is best for others but specifies a list of liberal values that are universally
desired by all people in all the countries in the world. In addition, he succeeds in
defining what a real democracy is.
Said claimed that the entire political examination of the Orient by the West is based
on Western notion, a factor that makes the empirical logic and reality to a bundle of
desires. The assumption is that knowledge is derived from a certain political charge to
examine the other with superiority
26
. It is proper to mention Fanon in this context,
who claimed that the "White" culture presents itself as progressive and universal but
needs a mask to hide the power struggle between the "White" and the "Black". While
examining the American history and the citizenship discourse in this federation, he
presents himself as a liberator, liberal and democratic but completely ignores with
25
26
Barack Obama, A new beginning, Cairo Egypt, June 42009.
Edward Said, Orientalism, New York, Pantheon, and London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.
15
historic manipulation in disguise, the immoral acts that he has done against the
other27.
Subsequently, Obama raises the issue of women’s rights, the sixths topic in his
speech, one of the last ones in the order of his speech. One can appreciate the raising
of the point of women rights, in a speech in which it is not necessary. At the same
time, one can wonder about the implication of women’s status derived from the order
in which this issue was raised in the speech. There is a very active discussion about
women’s permissible attire in the Arab world today, especially due to the prohibition
of private attire of the Burqas and Hijabs in European countries such as France and
Switzerland. This prohibition raises a lot of questions regarding the liberal nature of
those countries but clarifies the differences between the Muslims and the others.
Seemingly, Obama refers to this subject from a standpoint that enables a full choice
for Muslim women to determine what to wear: "It is important for Western countries
to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit, for
instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We cannot disguise
hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism ...I reject the view of
some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal,
but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality. And it is
no coincidence that countries where women are well-educated are far more likely to
be prosperous... Our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons... I
do not believe that women must make the same choices as men in order to be equal,
and I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it
should be their choice."28
Fanon claims that the veil is a translation of the new local nationalism that causes, in
its most absurd way, to fall in love with the exterior characteristics and adopt them as
27
Franz Fanon, Black Skin White Mask, New York, Grove press, 1967.
28
Barack Obama, A new beginning, Cairo Egypt, June 42009.
16
exotic. This is the aspiration to be "black, not like the rest of the others, but an actual
black, a black animal as perceived by the white person, to return to your own people
means becoming an Arab and as native as can be". But who sets the criteria as to how
a native looks like? Again it is the West, the colonialist
29
. Spivak claims that when
the West controls the East and is interested in changing specific Eastern customs
which hurt the heart of the Western consensus (such as women’s circumcision,
murders of widowers, etc.) we need to treat the disease, not the syndrome. That is, not
to impose abolishment of the phenomenon but to act by means of empowerment of
the injured, so that they can deal with the phenomenon. Likewise, when a subordinate
speaks for himself it is better than the ruler imposes on him a process. The essence is
not important in this case – coercion is coercion. The mediation by which the ruler
speaks on behalf of the subordinate, even in the case of a necessary intervention,
causes subordinate silence (and clears the ruler’s conscience) and by that, in fact,
mediation is created empowering the ruler.30
The Speaker’s Personality
At a very early stage (at the second page of the speech) Obama uses his Hybridist
character as an example and as a rhetoric approval to the truthfulness of his intentions
and his opinions. Throughout his entire speech he goes back to his biography and
refers to the Islamic part of his biography and to him being "Black": "Part of this
conviction is rooted in my own experience. I am a Christian, but my father came from
a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. As a boy, I spent several years
in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk.
As a young man, I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and
29
Franz Fanon, The wretched of the Earth, New York, grove weidenfeld, 1963.
30
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak,"Can the Subaltern Speak?", in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Cary
Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg eds., Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1988.
17
peace in their Muslim faith... So I have known Islam on three continents before
coming to the region where it was first revealed. That experience guides my
conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam
is, not what it isn't... As a student of history ,I also know civilization's debt to Islam. It
was Islam, at places like Al-Azhar University, that carried the light of learning
through so many centuries ,paving the way for Europe's Renaissance and
Enlightenment. It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of
Algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and
printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed..."31
Obama clarifies the contribution made by the Islam, from his own experience, to the
revival of Europe, of science and of medicine – in other words, to the values that the
West sanctifies and to the “whitest” continent in the world. According to my
understanding, Obama comprehends that his Hybridist character might bring closer
the “Black” Orient to the “White” West. He uses his skin color and his "black" past as
a means to create solidarity (even if he is on top of the “white” world and his
character is not typically “black”). Even so, from the moment that he uses his
“blackness”, it is clear that he maintains his dichotomy in his diagnosis and that it is
obvious to him that he stands in front of a “black” audience that needs to be reminded
by rhetoric means of the “blackness” of the speaker. In fact, in that way, the
postulation of “white” and “black” is maintained in his perception.
The postcolonial argument is that "black" and "white" are unessential. If we analyze
it, we can observe that in every place and in any situation exist part of the “black” and
part of the “white”. Therefore, instilling these concepts and creating this binary in
itself constructs power relations. Obama also demonstrates from his own personal
experience as a “Black” person that one can achieve significant "White"
achievements. He stands as “Black” in the top of the “White” world and he recognizes
the scientific contribution of the Islam to the “White” culture. That is – if he made it –
31
Barack Obama, A new beginning, Cairo Egypt, June 42009 .
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so can his audience. The conclusion is that the white superiority perception declares to
the black of his weakness.
Summary
The speech in Cairo attempted to blur the differences and crack the boundaries
between the United States and Islam. In the hall, the audience applauded Obama and
affirmed “we love you”, this reaction illustrates the extent of the expectation and the
hopes the audience have from the first "black" President of the United States. Even so,
the media analysis of the reactions to the speech indicates that the Arab world doubted
Obama’s messages. The Arab world does not forget that beyond words that deal with
culture, society and spirit, political and economic interests exist. Once we neutralize
the global political interests raised in the Cairo speech, we can observe it in a Post
colonialist and deconstructive approach in order to analyze the strategic relationships
inherent in it. We can see that in spite of the speech’s name “new beginning”, the
speech lays out old and familiar premises of cultural superiority and an interest to
maintain it instead of changing and blurring boundaries.
In a personal note, I would like to restrict this assertion of mine, that is derived from a
basis of Post colonialist analysis and disregard the complexity of the relations within
the Islamic world, within the Middle East and within the United States and the
American interests to maintain its power in the global arena. This paper aims to point
out those inherent assumptions of superiority in order to draw our attention to what
stands behind the rhetoric of change.
* This was a brief of a 12,000 words dissertation which also included: theoretical
introduction and discussion of the used theories, a wide analysis of president Obama's
character according to Postcolonial point of view, a long description of Arabic
intellectuals and media's responds to the speech and a chapter of criticism about the
theories and analysis. The original text leaned on more than twenty different sources
and references.
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Cairo speech - Georgetown Digital Commons