The old lady and the prophet

Could Obama quell the outrage over the anti-Islamic film with an elegant and decisive speech, as he did with the reverend Wright controversy four years ago?

It seems like his­tory is repea­ting itself. The Moham­med carto­on con­tro­ver­sy, the seventh anni­ver­sa­ry of which is right around the cor­ner, star­ted out with innocent enough dra­wings in the Danish new­spa­per Jyl­lands-Pos­ten. But these were quick­ly put to poli­ti­cal use by the Danish right-wing govern­ment on one side, and con­ser­va­ti­ve Mus­lim popu­lists on the other, to crea­te a con­flict that could have been avoi­ded, with only a small measure of wil­ling­ness to meet and discuss mat­ters of reli­gion and free­dom of speech open­ly on both sides.

Too many stake­hol­ders had an inte­rest in crea­ting con­flict, not sol­ving it. Seve­r­al peop­le were kil­led in vio­lent pro­tests, and the level of trust betwe­en our cul­tu­r­es decreased. In western Euro­pe we had, and still have, a lar­ge, unsett­led and con­fu­sing deba­te about whether or not one can hurt people’s reli­gious feelings in the name of free­dom of speech. In the Mus­lim world we still have lar­ge groups of peop­le who feel hatred towards the west. In fact, on both sides, we have a deep skep­ti­cism towards each others’ values.

As the world is glo­ba­lized, it is not pos­sib­le to sepa­ra­te and deli­nea­te cul­tu­r­es and reli­gions. It beco­mes increas­ing­ly ina­ppro­pria­te to make one uni­ta­ry set of rules define what is “accep­tab­le” in art or opi­nion. That’s why we need to pro­tect and stand by Danish or Swedish carto­o­nists, or Sal­man Rush­die for that mat­ter. But we must at the same time be able to sta­te the obvious: a film like “The innocen­ce of Mus­lims,” its sole pur­pose being to insult and pro­vo­ke, does not stand in the libe­ral tra­dition of Locke, Mill or Rousseau, but is clo­ser to the illi­be­ral tra­dition of Juli­us Streicher and Der Stür­mer.

We have free­dom of speech so that we can cri­ti­cize and develop our own socie­ty and cul­tu­re. Not to mock peop­le in the stre­ets of Cai­ro. Becau­se tole­ran­ce and respect for each others’ beliefs is as impor­tant an Enligh­ten­ment inhe­ri­tan­ce, as free­dom of speech.

Pre­si­dent Obama’s first respon­se to the attack in Ben­g­hazi was appro­pria­te, honou­ring the lost lives, taking action to secu­re other diplo­mats and com­mit­ting him­self to hol­ding ter­ro­rists respon­s­ib­le for their acts. But the more pres­sing issue right now, as we see riots from Bang­la­desh to Morocco, is how he should deal with the deeper cul­tural con­flict under­ly­ing the cri­sis, the con­flict betwe­en con­ser­va­ti­ve Mus­lims and the west. Can he start trans­for­ming this con­flict as we approa­ch the peak of election fever in the US?

A form of speech – the now infa­mous YouT­ube clip – star­ted this con­flict, and is at its heart. Despi­te all the geopo­li­tics, eco­no­my and his­tory which under­lie the cur­rent clashes, this is a com­mu­ni­ca­tion pro­blem. The right speech made at the right time by the pre­si­dent could begin to trans­form the con­flict. And Oba­ma excels at this kind of deci­si­ve speech.

One place to look for inspi­ra­tion, could be in what was may­be his finest speech: ”A More Perfect Union”, from the 2008 pri­ma­ries.  The chal­len­ge is simi­lar, not in the essen­ce of the inci­dent, but in the struc­tu­re of the con­flict it repre­sents.  Many of us remem­ber the scan­dal and uproar when the Ame­ri­can pub­lic saw videos of Obama’s for­mer priest, Jere­mi­ah Wright, descri­bing 9/11 as being, “Ame­ri­ca’s chick­ens… coming home to roost» and say­ing, «… not God Bless Ame­rica. God damn Ame­rica.»  The media, the com­pe­ting Repub­li­cans, and sup­por­ters of Hila­ry Clin­ton, all tried to:

a) for­ce Oba­ma into denoun­cing his for­mer reve­rend, or

b) defend him, and in that way alie­na­te him­self from the Ame­ri­can main­stre­am.

The geni­us of Obama’s respon­se was that he did neit­her.  He went to the heart of the con­flict: America’s his­tory of slave­ry and racism. And from that point, he was able to tran­scend the con­flict, offe­ring a “new poli­tics”, whe­re Ame­ri­cans could move for­ward step by step. He did cri­ti­cize Wright’s state­ments, like this:

Reve­rend Wright’s com­ments were not only wrong but divi­si­ve, divi­si­ve at a time when we need uni­ty; racial­ly char­ged at a time when we need to come together to sol­ve a set of monu­men­tal pro­blems (…) that are neit­her black or whi­te or Lati­no or Asi­an, but rat­her pro­blems that con­front us all.

At the same time, he placed them and his own respon­se into con­text, like this:

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black com­mu­ni­ty. I can no more disown him than I can my whi­te grand­mot­her – a woman who hel­ped rai­se me, a woman who sacri­ficed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves any­thing in this world, but a woman who once con­fessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the stre­et, and who on more than one occa­sion has utte­red raci­al or eth­nic ste­reo­ty­pes that made me crin­ge.

As the cog­ni­ti­ve lin­guist Geor­ge Lakoff wro­te in his excel­lent ana­ly­sis of the speech: ”The true power of the speech is that it does what it says. It not only tal­ks about empat­hy, it crea­tes it.” And empat­hy is exact­ly what we need now.

It did not work well for Mitt Rom­ney when he tried to exploit the trage­dy by say­ing that Oba­ma, “apo­lo­gizes for Ame­rica.» But peop­le in the west still need to hear pre­si­dent Oba­ma defend the values of democracy and free­dom of speech. Peop­le in the Mus­lim world still need to hear that the pre­si­dent of the US respects them and their reli­gion.

What it takes is a speech that has the coura­ge to del­ve deep into the con­flict and the rea­sons why peop­le are ang­ry. A speech that is honest about how dif­fe­rent­ly we look at things like “honour”, “free­dom” – or “art” for that mat­ter. And a speech that shows that it is still pos­sib­le to figu­re out these things.

Per­haps he could start out with tel­ling the story I‘ve heard from many Mus­lims, about the old lady who used to throw gar­ba­ge at the prop­het Moham­med eve­ry day, as he passed on his way to the mos­que. One day, the lady did­n’t come out to throw the gar­ba­ge. The prophet‘s respon­se was to knock at her door and ask for her. When he came to know that the old lady was ill and lying in bed, he hel­ped her out in the house. The prop­het did not set fire to her house for showing dis­re­spect, he look­ed after her.

Four years ago Oba­ma also created a story. About how a peop­le with one of the most hurt­ful cul­tural scars in the his­tory of the world, Ame­ri­can slave­ry, could move for­ward together, look­ing after each other. The same kind of will to move for­ward, the will to over­come his­to­ri­cal trau­ma and resent­ment born from power­lessness, will be neces­sa­ry to end this con­flict. The work will have to be done on a small sca­le, a chan­ge in the way our cul­tu­r­es com­mu­ni­ca­te and under­stand each other. But the right speech by Oba­ma could, as it did in 2008, help that chan­ge to begin.

It could be a his­tory worth repea­ting.

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arack O




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