“We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.”

I admire Obama’s speech in Cairo yesterday. The quote above was one of my favorite moments, though not the most important in the speech by any means. His gestures toward cooperation, mutual understanding and respect and his ability to speak to his audience, using terms of importance to them and addressing issues of importance to them were most impressive.

Sticking points are still there for me: The distinction between wars of choice (Iraq) and of necessity (Afghanistan) is facile. All wars are wars of choice. And his statements on nuclear weapons are all hard to swallow given the overwhelming size of our arsenal. The analogue to his statement “no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other” doesn’t hold for our nuclear policy – we seek precisely to impose on others a vision of how that technology is used that the US will likely be the last to embrace.

For better commentary than mine, however, see Andrew Sullivan’s response, David Brooks, and as usual, useful reports from the News Hour with some American and world Muslim reaction.

I can’t help but notice, however, a major player in Obama’s speech:

But I also know that human progress cannot be denied. There need not be contradiction between development and tradition.

Progress is invoked throughout the speech — Obama’s faith in progress seems paired to his faith that mutual understanding leads to a better world. Progress, though, is defined vaguely or not at all. What happens when Obama confidently asserts this idea? Is it clear at all that there is no contradiction between development and tradition?  He supplies examples of Japan and South Korea, Kuala Lumpur and Dubai – but aren’t these mostly shining examples of a combination between development and tradition precisely because tradition has not, in these places, strongly put the question to fast-paced economic development and acquisitiveness? I think he vastly oversimplifies.

I need to find out more about how American law makes it hard for Muslims to practice zakat, but might this stand as an example of how American-style progress and tradition have been incompatible?

If there’s hope to negotiate well between tradition and progress there must be dialogue on the substance of ‘progress’ and any faith placed in it.  This seems to happen somewhat in Obama’s treatment of equality for women in the speech. To advocate at once an unconditional promotion of education and to recognize that a woman’s choice to cover her hair need make her in no sense less equal shows a hint of a dialogue between traditions on what sorts of progress are really good. Exposing the American faith in ‘progress’ to the critique of Islamic traditions would be a really good thing and would give hope for a cooperative and peaceful future even better that an undefined hope in this ideal.


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