Obama’s Historic “Children of Abraham” Speech

Obama’s Historic “Children of Abraham” Speech

President Obama’s speech in Cairo was nothing short of remarkable. The issue of interfaith dialogue is dear to my heart, and his speech deserves to be studied and discussed far and wide. I cannot think of a more important message about the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world in American history.

If you have an hour, I strongly recommend watching the video. If you only have fifteen minutes, read the transcript. It is an historic speech, one that deserves a name for easy reference. I would call it the “Children of Abraham” speech, based on this soaring rhetoric:

Too many tears have been shed. Too much blood has been shed. All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear; when the Holy Land of the three great faiths is the place of peace that God intended it to be; when Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra — (applause) — as in the story of Isra, when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, peace be upon them, joined in prayer. (Applause.)

I have been doing research lately on Woodrow Wilson’s remarkable speeches of 1917 and 1918. When Wilson finished those speeches (Peace Without Victory, Fourteen Points, Four Principles, etc.) everyone immediately knew they were historic and openly said so. His populist appeal generated enthusiasm for a war-weary world to look to a better day that moved beyond the old system of imperialism, militant nationalism, and the balance of power. I cannot help but see the strong parallels with Obama. He has the genuine ability to speak directly to the people, and appeal to a better future, creating momentum for change that cannot be ignored by the stale leadership of the Middle East.

Here is my outline of the seven key issues he discussed, together with the applause lines (averaging one per minute):

Violent Extremism: We’re not at war with Islam, we are at war with extremists. Terrorism is inconsistent with Islam. This explains our actions in Afghanistan, but not Iraq. Iraq is now better off without Hussein, but we will soon leave Iraq to govern itself. She will be our partner, not our patron. We have lost our way in responding to violent extremism and I have called upon the end of torture and the closing of Guantanamo Bay. Bottom line: America will defend itself, but do so respectful of the sovereignty of other nations and the rule of law.

Israel and Palestine: America’s ties with Israel are unbreakable. Jews have been persecuted for centuries, culminating in the Holocaust. Denying the Holocaust is ignorant and hateful. On the other hand, Palestinians have suffered at the hands of Israel and the current situation is intolerable. Palestine deserves statehood and Israel deserves recognition. Palestinians must abandon violence and Israel must stop the settlements. The Holy Land must again become a place of peace for the great religions of the world.

Nuclear Weapons: The United States wants to move forward with Iran and stop looking at our past divisions. But we cannot allow a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. No nation should hold nuclear weapons; every nation—including Iran—should have access to nuclear power.

Democracy: Democracy cannot be imposed. Governments should reflect the will of the people. Free speech, self-governance, the rule of law, transparency: these are human rights that deserve support everywhere. Governments elected by the people will have our support even if we disagree with them.

Religious Freedom: Islam is a tolerant religion and has a long tradition of tolerance. Freedom of religion is central to the ability of people to live together. Faith should bring us together. Women should have the freedom to be traditional without hostility from liberalism.

Women’s Rights: A woman who chooses to cover her hair is not less equal. Women must have access to education. Equality for women makes a country more prosperous. We should promote literacy, education, and employment for Muslim women.

Economic Development and Modernity: Globalization is a mixed blessing. Trade creates opportunity and disrupts communities. Modernity creates fear that we will lose control over our identities. But progress cannot be denied. There is no inherent contradiction between development and tradition. Education and innovation is the currency of the 21st century.

Applause Lines: Arabic greeting; Koran quote; Muslim roots of Enlightenment; Muslim influence on religious/racial tolerance; Muslim roots in America; the need to fight against Islamic stereotypes; the need to fight against American stereotypes; reference to Barack Hussein Obama; above average income and education of American Muslims; American protection of right to wear traditional Muslim clothes; struggle against murder of Muslims in Darfur and Bosnia; the importance of dealing with problems through partnership; America is not at war with Islam; Koran prohibits killing innocents; Koran praises the saving of lives; Iraq reminds America of importance of diplomacy and consensus; we must leave Iraq to Iraqis; our troops must leave Iraq; we must close Guantanamo; the struggle for Palestinian statehood; reference to two-state solution; personal commitment to solving Israel-Palestine crisis; U.S. rejects Israeli settlements; Israeli settlements must stop; we should say in public what we say in private; Jerusalem should be a place for all children of Abraham; the story of Isra where Moses, Jesus and Mohammed join together in prayer; no nation should hold nuclear weapons; reference to democracy; reference to human rights; hypocritical democratic leaders; elections alone are not enough; Muslim religious tolerance; reference to women’s rights; reference to women’s education; daughters are as important as sons; young women should pursue innovation; Obama’s father on scholarship to America; every religion embraces the Golden Rule; quotes from sacred texts about peace. Thank you.

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[…] directed at the “Muslim World” entitled “A New Beginning.” Opinio Juris’s Roger Alford favorably compares the address to Woodrow Wilson’s famous speeches and distills the message to seven key issues. The New Republic’s William Galston concurs, […]

Charlie Martel
Charlie Martel

Hi Roger:  I’m with you in that I thought President Obama’s speech addressed complex issues in a compelling way.
I am a supporter of the President and agree with what he had to say and how he said it.

Regardless of whether one agrees with him or not, I think it would be interesting from an academic perspective to study the President’s style of discourse.  Both in terms of substance and methodology, he is a very keen student and practitioner of discourse and has a very acute understanding of its impact.