Obama in Cairo: High Words, Low Truths

As they drafted his speech to the Muslim world, delivered in Cairo on Thursday, President Obama’s speech writers strove to suggest that cordiality towards Islam is soundly embedded in America’s cultural history. The first Muslim congressman, Obama confided to his vast audience across the Muslim world, was sworn into the House of Representatives with his hand on Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Koran.

No names were mentioned, but this would have been Keith Ellison of Minnesota, a Democrat elected in 2006. On his victory night rally the local crowd shouted “Allahu Akhbar!”. During the race Ellison understandably downplayed past associations with the Nation of Islam.
Obama also reminded the world that Morocco had been the first nation to recognize the infant United States, signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, which declared in its preamble that the United States had no quarrel with the Muslim religion and was in no sense a Christian country. The second US President, John Adams said that  America had no quarrel with Islam.

It’s a stretch. As my father Claud said, Never believe anything till it is officially denied. Adams and Jefferson both saw it as a vital matter of national security to settle accounts with the Muslim world, as represented by the Barbary states.

America needed free access to the Mediterranean and the Barbary “pirates” controlled the sea lanes and, furthermore, supposedly had some Christian slaves, all no doubt using the opportunity of captivity to imbibe the first principles of algebra, whose invention Obama took the opportunity in Cairo correctly to lay at the feet of the mathematicians of Islam, though ancient India deserves some credit too, or at least the Chinese thought so. He also credited Islam with the invention of printing and navigation which should surely require the Chinese People’s Republic to withdraw its ambassador in Washington DC. in formal diplomatic protest.

An early version of the “Star Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key, written in 1805 amid the routing of the Barbary states, offered a view of Islam markedly different from Obama’s uplifting sentiments in Cairo:

In conflict resistless each toil they endur’d,
Till their foes shrunk dismay’d from the war’s desolation:
And pale beamed the Crescent, its splendor obscur’d
By the light of the star-bangled flag of our nation.
Where each flaming star gleamed a meteor of war,
And the turban’d head bowed to the terrible glare.
Then mixt with the olive the laurel shall wave
And form a bright wreath for the brow of the brave.

In 1814 Key rehabbed this doggerel into the Star Spangled Banner. So America’s national anthem began as a gleeful tirade against the Mahommedans.  And of course every member of the U.S. Marine Corps regularly bellows out the USMC anthem, beginning “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.”

In short, America’s march to Empire was minted in the crucible of anti-Islamic sentiment. (One admirer of this early chapter in America’s imperial confrontations with Islam  is that ardent Crusader, C. Hitchens who cites  Joshua London’s Victory in Tripoli: How America’s War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation, on the origins of the Star Spangled Banner.)

This is not to detract from Obama’s laudable efforts to rewrite history into a parable of tolerance and mutual respect. And some of the history Obama did get right. He’s surely the first president to state before several million people that the United States did play a role in overthrowing Mossadegh in Iran in 1953.  But his address signals the problem with presidential speeches professing moral purpose of the purest ichor. The higher the phrases soar, the more people start reminding themselves of the facts on the ground.

Probably Obama’s speech will be most vivid in its impact not across Islam but throughout the large portions of America that remain Christian in basic assumption. I spent a large portion of Wednesday in a car radiator repair shop in a small town here in northern California. The proprietor is a man of conservative views. As he dunked a radiator in a tank of terrifying green liquid on which floated a small wooden duck, he said with gloomy glee, “You see that Obama’s saying America isn’t a Christian nation? You see that? Well, the Founders were Christian! The pledge of allegiance calls us ‘One nation under God’! And, it says right here on the dollar bill, ‘In God we trust.’” He winched the radiator out of the green poison and the duck bobbed up and down.

Though I forbore to point it out, his facts were a bit off, just like Obama’s. Many of the Founders, Jefferson preeminently,  were Deists at most. The phrase “one nation under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance (written by Francis Bellamy in 1892) in 1954, amid the Cold War. President Eisenhower explained that “in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peaceand war.” Bellamy’s version, written for a children’s magazine to celebrate Columbus Day, said simply, “I Pledge Allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”

“In God we trust” was first put on coins in the early 1860s amid a surge of religious sentiment in the Civil War. A pastor from Pennsylvania successfully urged the phrase’s addition “to relieve us of the ignominy of heathenism”. It disappeared and reappeared on metal money down the decades. Teddy Roosevelt thought it was cheap hucksterism, writing that “it seems to me eminently unwise to cheapen such a motto by use on coins.” In 1955 Congress passed a law requiring the phrase to be on all US currency since “In these days when imperialistic and materialistic Communism seeks to attack and destroy freedom, it is proper” to “remind all of us of this self-evident truth” that “as long as this country trusts in God, it will prevail.”

Obama, who can parade his Christian beliefs when it suits him, was on track historically by quoting in Cairo what was in fact America’s unofficial motto in the early years, “E pluribus unum: Out of many, one.” Given the tirades of my radiator man and of right-wing radio commentators  on Obama’s speech, it was certainly bracing to listen to a black American president evoke his childhood in Indonesia: “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.”

But Obama’s initial, irreproachable calls for mutual tolerance and respect gave way to boilerplate about America’s greatness and the need for an alliance of tolerant religions (Christianity, Islam and Judaism, in case you’re wondering) against “violent extremism”.
“I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States, “ Obama declared in Cairo, “and I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year.” Vivid in the minds of many Muslims listening to this passage would have been the fate at the start of this week of Muhammad Ahmad Abdallah Salih — a 31-year old Yemeni who had been in a wire  cage since February, 2002 (more than seven years) without charges  and declared by his U.S.  military jailers “an apparent suicide”.  Salih, on hunger strike, was down to 85 pounds. Torture is certainly the label any morally balanced person would attach to his travails and it’s quite reasonable to speculate that his end came amid yet another attempt to forcibly feed him.  Air Force One headed for Cairo with one Muslim barely in the ground after having been tortured to death in a US prison. Many in Obama’s audience would have been well aware too that even if – a big “if” – Guantanamo does get shut down, its inmates will endure similar horrors in Bagram, and that Obama favors imprisonment, permanent if necessary, of enemy combatants, without charges or trial.

Obama’s talk of the evils of Al Quaida’s “violent extremism”  will have fallen ironically on the ears of Palestinians who endured Israel’s monstrous and criminal onslaught in Gaza earlier this year, or of  Afghans still seething at the loss of civilians in US bombing raids. The noble pledges about economic assistance to the Muslim world sound hollow against the realities of how US aid really gets administered, starting with the huge sums filched by the “non-profit” aid agencies.

Least credible to any Muslim would have been the “balanced” passages about Israel and Palestine and the measured calls to Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza to disdain violence and swap formal recognition of Israel for… for what? Pledges by the Netanyahu government to build more settlements?

“Among some Muslims,” Obama declared, there is a disturbing tendency to measure one’s own faith by the rejection of another’s. The richness of religious diversity must be upheld…Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together.” This came at the end of a week in which, as Uri Avnery detailed on this site this week the Israeli Knesset voted by a large majority (47 to 34) for a law that threatens imprisonment for anyone who dares to deny that Israel is a Jewish state.

The private member’s bill, proposed by MK Zevulun Orlev of the “Jewish Home” party, stipulates one year in prison to anyone who publishes “a call that negates the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State”. “One can foresee the next steps,” Avnery wrote. “A million and a half Arab citizens cannot be expected to recognize Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State. They want it to be “a state of all its citizens – Jews, Arabs and others. They also claim with reason that Israel discriminates against them, and therefore is not really democratic. And, in addition, there are also Jews who do not want Israel to be defined as a Jewish State in which non-Jews have the status, at best, of tolerated outsiders.”

The bill now goes to the Legal Committee of the Knesset. Avnery says that within a few weeks or months it will be the law of the land.

The bill, Avnery notes, does not single out Arabs explicitly – “even if this is its clear intention, and all those who voted for it understood this. It also prohibits Jews from advocating a change in the state’s definition, or the creation of a bi-national state in all of historic Palestine or spreading any other such unconventional ideas.” Avnery concludes, “One can only imagine what would happen in the US if a senator proposed a law to imprison anyone who suggests an amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America.”

There are fine words. There are facts on the ground, and they often strayed far from each other in Obama’s big speech.  One 1000-pound bomb or remote-controlled drone trumps 10,000 words on rhetoric about peace.

For his next address on this theme let me offer a very inspiring illustration of inter-confessional tolerance at work in a great cause. Around 930 AD the dowager Queen Toda of Navarre, a Christian, appealed to the caliphate in Cordoba, beseeching ‘Abd al-Rahman III to help her slim down her son Sancho I, who had been abandoned by his subjects in  Navarre  because he was too fat to ride a horse and thus unable to display himself properly as a kingly warrior. The caliph sent word he had this terrific Jewish doctor and promptly dispatched to Navarre his top court physician, a Jew called Hasday b Shaprut. The Shaprut Diet did the trick. A year later Sancho was back on the throne. E pluribus unum; i.e., out of many, many pounds emerged one thinned down Sancho. A Christian, a Muslim and a Jew, working together.  But that was a thousand years ago and the reconquista of Al-Andalus was already under way, with the Crusades waiting in the wings.

The Muslim world no doubt thinks that in the broadest sense, Obama’s speech was a laudable effort. On this site this weekend, Franklin Lamb has a very funny account of a bunch of heavily armed gunmen in the Bekaa Valley shouting “Qwess! Qwess!” (Good, good). Back in the USA there are many Christians and Jews shouting “Bad! Bad!”  This most certainly spells trouble for Obama. On September 12, 1991, in the third year of his presidency, George Bush Sr publicly denounced the Israel lobby, which was storming around the halls of Congress with the intent of forcing through loan guarantees for Israel. The Bush administration was holding up  the guarantees in an effort to induce Israel’s Shamir government to stop planting illegal settlements. Bush went on tv and said he was “up against some powerful political forces. I heard today there were something like a thousand lobbyists on the Hill working the other side of the question. We’ve got one lonely little guy down here doing it.” There’s a good case for saying that with those words Bush Sr signed the death warrant for his re-election. True, he had Ross Perot winning 19 per cent of the vote as a third party candidate but he also  lost the Jewish vote and his son never forgot it. I’d guess that much earlier in his presidency Obama is on his way to losing it too. The guy must know what he’s doing, and if he doesn’t, there’s always Rahm Emanuel at his elbow to remind him.

Cars and Journalists: Why Detroit Went Broke

I’ve got seven old cars out there in the driveway, going back to 1959, and up to 1989, four of them Chryslers or Plymouths, three of them Fords. Not a single one from GM – though it’s not a matter of principle for me. If someone wants to deed me an SS from the old days I won’t say No. And now Ford is the only one of the Big Three left standing.

How did the collapse come about? There’s plenty of blame to go round, but almost no one has pinned the badge of blame where it partly belongs, on the elite corporate press which year after year has misrepresented the enormous trade advantage the US and British governments gave the Japanese and Korean auto industries. As each successive U.S. Congress and each successive U.S. President slit Detroit’s throat, the reporters and editorial writers of the Wall Street Journal, of the New York Times, of The Economist unleashed paeans to “free trade” and recycled claptrap written for them by lobbyists working for Japan and Korea. It’s an outrageous saga that is detailed in a thrilling narrative by Eamonn Fingleton in our latest newsletter. A few years ago Eamonn wrote a fine book In Praise of Hard Industries: Why Manufacturing, Not the Information Economy, Is the key to Future Prosperity. These days he’s based in Tokyo. He knows the auto industry. He knows the press. He knows the inside story of the trade wars. Don’t miss his CounterPunch report in our newsletter.

When you’re done with Fingleton you can read Bill Hatch’s hilarious report from Merced, Caifornia, of Michele Obama’s recent visit to the Central Valley and the new campus of the University of California.

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A slightly shorter version of the first item appears in The First Post.

ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at alexandercockburn@asis.com


Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.