June 5, 2009
Obama Speech Draws Strong Reactions
Analysts and leading evangelicals are reacting pretty strongly to specific concerns about President Obama's "speech to the Muslim world" in Cairo on Thursday, including his definition of democracy, persecution by Muslims, support of Israel, and use of religion to support his goals.
National Review Online asked religious freedom activist Nina Shea, "Is there an 'Arab world' approach to religious freedom?"
None of the Arab countries is ranked as "free" in the Center for Religious Freedom survey, though the degree of repression varies. Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia are the worst, while Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon, and Oman are relatively better. All restrict minorities in varying degrees, and virtually all officially sponsor anti-Semitism. And all are intolerant of and punish apostates, heretics, blasphemers, and those who "insult" Islam. This has resulted in repressing converts from and critics of Islam as well as writers, scholars, artists, journalists, democracy activists, reformers, women's rights proponents, and others who exercise the right to free speech. This has contributed to the political, intellectual, and economic stagnation of this part of the world, as observed in the U.N.'s Arab Development Report.
Freedom House issued a statement applauding Obama's commitment to democracy. However, American Values President Gary Bauer, writing for Human Events, thought that Obama's stance for universal values was too broad:
Somewhere lost in all of the hype over Obama's outreach to the world is a sense that he stands most proudly as the American President. It's time for the president's soaring rhetoric to be applied in support of this great nation and its Judeo-Christian heritage.
Bauer also criticized Obama for neglecting to mention persecution by Muslims. Prior to the speech, Bauer had hoped that Obama would address the persecution of Christians in many Muslim countries. Bauer noted Obama singled out Saudi Arabia as a good example of "interfaith dialogue" even though last March the State Department placed the country on its list of severe violators of religious freedom. Bauer was disappointed that Obama worked harder to "ingratiate himself to Muslim leaders" than to criticize their faults:
[T]he president could have said so much more. The suppression of basic human rights is a fact of life throughout much of the Islamic world, and Muslim nations make up a large percentage of the State Department's list of the world's most severe violators of religious freedom. That list includes Saudi Arabia, and its dictator, King Abdullah, whose "counsel" Obama sought earlier this week in a trip to Riyadh.
Some in mainline Protestant circles found much to like in the Obama speech.
Reverand Mark S. Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), specifically praised Obama's use of the phrase "interfaith dialogue." The ECLA press release noted "the president's acknowledgment of the difficulty Palestinians - including Palestinian Christians - face because of the Israeli occupation. He said Obama challenged those who deny the Holocaust and called for Hamas to recognize Israel."
At Israel's Jerusalem Post, David Horovitz analyzed Obama's speech, and the applause he garnered, as a hopeful sign for Obama's goal for "a new beginning," but was less encouraged by Obama's repetition of his goal for peace through a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine.
Watching from here, his even-handed attribution of blame for the failure of peace efforts to date was jarring indeed. "For more than 60 years," the president declared, the Palestinian people "have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead."
To which most Israelis, having now witnessed even Ehud Olmert's ultra-generous two-state terms being derisively brushed aside by Mahmoud Abbas, would retort: "And whose fault is that?"
Horovitz also expressed concern regarding the president's "strikingly brief" discussion of Iran. In the speech, Obama repeated the stance he indicated on Tuesday to The Washington Post that Iran has "legitimate" use for nuclear power, so long as it's meant for energy not weapons. The issue is of particular concern for Israelis - who consider Iran's quest for nuclear power an heightened threat to their survival - and Gary Bauer has frequently raised the alarm in the conservative community regarding both Iran's and North Korea's intentions, saying that "it will take more than eloquent words to compel America's enemies to behave." The Christian Science Monitor has questioned whether Obama's hands-off stance toward North Korea's nuclear ambition could embolden Iran.
Finally, Obama's use of quotes from the Quran, along with his frequent references over the past week - and in the speech itself - to his personal experience with the Muslim faith, has also attracted attention. From the CatholicPRWire, columnist Chris Benguhe observed that compared to the way Obama "unequivocally supported Islam and the Muslim faith" in his speech in Cairo, his support of Christianity at Notre Dame last month was less apparent. Benguhe appreciated that the president acknowledged the importance of religious freedom, and added:
But now I wish our president would show the same respect and consideration for the religious convictions and sensitivities of us Christians here at home in his own country, and I really wish he would acknowledge how important Christianity is to this nation.