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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