Creating people's geographies
In scanning the progressive press, I’d like to add an observation to Idrees’ survey of the online reaction to Obama’s speech about an interesting pattern that seems to have emerged. A list follows by way of illustration, and then I’ll draw out why I think a significant attitudinal divide may exist and speculate about why it is there.
Somewhere in between
The import of Obama’s speech is certainly to be measured as much in the whole world as in the Middle East and in the all-important, nay critical, political epicenter and constituency of the United States. As Yaman @ Kabobfest notes, “Obama’s speech is probably more important for non-Muslims in the West to hear than for Muslims either in the West or elsewhere”, at the same time acknowledging that in many of his comments, “Obama normalized the Muslim presence in American discourse. … Even the Arabic word for school (madrasa) has been criminalized in this country. That we need this kind of intervention in the first place reflects more poorly on American society that it does positively on Obama, but his words may have these effects nevertheless.”
That Obama’s speech was pitched as much for those outside the Middle East and especially in the States as it was for people in the Middle East is also explicitly acknowledged by Philip Weiss, who opined that the speech was pitched to American Jews.
It is interesting then that the selective scan of the Anglophone progressive press (above) reflects this. Those who generally, albeit cautiously, laud Obama’s speech in my sample above all happen to be American Jews. They have been prominent as among the earliest endorsers and most effusive in their praise of Obama’s Cairo address, noting such things as the fact that Obama did not mention the words ‘terrorism’ or ‘global war on terror’ as his predecessor did, that he proffered some acknowledgment of the plight of Palestinians for justice and statehood as legitimate and that he made mention of the illegal israeli settlements.
That this is taken to represent such praise-worthy progress arguably reflects a great deal about the climate of opinion in the US and how, on this issue, it may still be significantly out of synch with, rather than leading, the rest of the world.
In contrast, those largely skeptical and who proffered more critical analyses are more likely to be Arabs or have Muslim or Middle Eastern backgrounds. I base this on my sample above as well as my own observations (see also Juan Cole‘s round-up of reaction in the Syrian and pan-Arab press as compiled by the Open-Source Centre). In an excellent piece already highlighted by Neil and Robin for example, Ali Abunimah rightly points out that the blindspots are still very much there, on Palestine, as well as the continuity of policy disasters, on Iraq, on Afghanistan. Writers in the skeptic’s camp express mostly respectful skepticism (more scathing in Abu Khalil’s case) and disappointment in Obama’s address, in his silence on Gaza, in his failure to bring Israel to account, in his prescriptions for a Palestinian state that will require not just criticism of settlement expansion, but evacuation of existing illegal settlements.
Certainly, the significance of Obama’s speech, and that it is seen to represent substantive progress by our friends above, is best understood in relation to the context from which it emerges. On one reading, that Obama’s speech is more strongly praised within American and specifically progressive Jewish American circles may simply reflect just how lopsided the narrative still is in mainstream US media — in large part because of the Israel Lobby — or simply the fact that Americans are more likely to come out in support of “their man.”
Another hypothesis about this apparent division into optimistic (naive?) or skeptical (jaded?) positions is that a perspectival dissonance exists that might in part simply be a function of hegemony. The view from the political margins is very different from that of the epicenter of privilege and influence, notwithstanding the fact that Abu Khalil and Abunimah, for example, both currently live in the United States, the point about marginalization still applies. (Contrast their views with New York-born founder of the Arab-American Institute James Zogby in ‘Right Man, Right Place, Right Time‘). Note also that I am basing this specifically on the Anglophone progressive press, not on vox pop opinion that might be randomly recorded.
It is true that the positives ought not be unduly dismissed, and that some progress in transforming the framework of debate may yet yield substantive results given that the US is the most consequential climate of opinion in the world. Yet the dangers of reading too much into Obama’s speech and overstating the extent to which it represents a real shift are also there. MJ Rosenberg’s comments illustrate this tendency to read what he wishes into Obama’s address, in his statement that “Not only did the speech specifically reject western (and American) colonialism, its entire tone was the antithesis of colonial.” [!]
In virtually the same breath, Rosenberg then exercises rather than exorcises that colonial attitude, by rather patronisingly proclaiming that:
Arab leaders who were listening to this speech might want to consider a similar speech of their own to their people. That is not going to happen. But they have to realize that this speech will significantly raise expectations among their own people. This is the kind of speech they have never heard before, and they will expect something like it, but from their own potentates next time.
What they might expect, Mr Rosenberg, is that their freedoms might not be clamped down by regimes that are propped up with US military aid. Is that going to happen from your ‘potentates’? Who have underwritten and excused Israel’s potentates?
Let’s continue to work for justice, but not succumb to hopenosis. Dispensing with the overt and vestigial ‘othering’ will help bridge this divide too. Yalla!
See comments for additional links.