President Barack Obama delivered his long-awaited speech to the Muslim world at Cairo University in Egypt today. As has become his pattern, Obama did not shy away from the stickier points of the relationship between Muslims and the United States. Law students who had Barack Obama as a lecturer at the University of Chicago have commented on his ability to lay out the facts of a situation or a case in a thorough, impartial way that gives a full airing of the grievances felt by all sides in a dispute. The same was true of his speech in Cairo today.
He talked about America’s “unbreakable bond” with Israel, but also spoke of the “daily humiliations” suffered by Palestinians living under occupation. He said that to deny the holocaust is “baseless, ignorant, and hateful,” but he also spoke of “Palestine” instead of the usual American Presidential equivocation of “a future Palestinian state.”
When Obama gave his “A More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia last spring, I knew right away that he was something special—a politician willing to treat people like they are capable of hearing hard truths about complex, nuanced issues. He knows that we can hear the truths because we all live the truths every day. He knows that to deny the truths, while easy, will never lead to real progress.
Blacks and whites in America KNOW race relations are often not good. Catholics at Notre Dame KNOW that good-hearted people of faith can disagree about abortion. Arabs, Israelis, and Americans KNOW the truth about the conflict in the Middle East
is somewhere in the middle of their many deeply held myths, legends, histories, and explanations.
President Obama seems to truly want the nation and the world to make progress on some of the problems we have been stuck with for generations. He also seems to understand that no progress can be made without recognition of the truth, no matter how complex and unflattering it can sometimes be.
So, he went to Philadelphia and spoke the truth about race relations in America. He went to Notre Dame and he spoke the truth about abortion. And now he has gone to Cairo and spoken the truth about the relationship between Muslims and the United States.
When his speech was over, my first thought was, “He is not long for this world.” If a seeming-crazy person speaks a hard truth that challenges the status quo, that is easy to ignore. But when the President of the United States starts to upset the apple cart, many people firmly entrenched on all sides of these issues can feel threatened. If a politician pisses off one group of the fringe element, it is easy enough to protect against. But when a President takes on as many sacred cows as Barack Obama seems intent on doing, I worry that too many extremists will be coming at him from too many angles and he will be killed. I hope that I am wrong, but as the Greek philosopher Bias of Priene said over 2000 years ago, “Truth breeds hatred.”