President Obama spoke directly to the world's billion and a half Muslims today and his widely-anticipated speech is now being debated.
Hisham Melhem is Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya. He spoke to John Roberts on CNN’s “American Morning” Thursday.
John Roberts: What did you think of the president's speech?
Hisham Melhem: I think it was very well-crafted, eloquent. He did a good job in fusing history, culture, politics, and personal narrative. And I think he boldly discussed some thorny, tough, sensitive issues that sometimes Muslim leaders and Arab leaders don't like to hear and he asked them somewhat to engage in introspection. I think he was very honest with both Israelis and Arabs. He clearly defined America's objectives in the war against al Qaeda and…he didn't talk about the war on terrorism in general.
He was thoughtful when he talked about democracy and human rights and he did not use the Messianic, metaphysical, theological language that his predecessor George Bush used to use. There were no combustible phrases like “Islamo-Fascism.” I just wish that he went a little bit further and was a bit blunter when he was addressing the Arab and Muslim leaders on the issue of democracy and human rights. You know John, Arabs always complain about Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and for the right reasons, like everybody else. But Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib pale in comparison to what takes place within Arab and Muslim prisons. We are talking here about political repression en masse. We are talking about imprisoning activists, journalists and lawyers, not violent people. And we're talking about basic denial of basic human rights.
And if I were one of his speech writers I would have added a paragraph where the president would say “I'm doing my share to start this new beginning between us and you. You have to do your share.” And he should have been a little bit more blunt about the responsibility of Arabs and their need to engage in introspection and self-criticism the way he was doing.
Roberts: The president made women’s rights one of the focuses of his speech. Yet, the day before, he was in a country where a judge said at a meeting on domestic violence, a conference on domestic violence, that it's okay to slap your wife if she spends too much money. Where do you draw the line between coming out forcefully to tell the leadership this is what you need to do and practicing the fine art of diplomacy?
Melhem: Absolutely. This is the challenge and this is the right man to do it. And it's always difficult to balance in your international relationship between the requirements of bilateral relationships, in the case of Saudi Arabia it’s oil and security and same thing with Egypt to a lesser extent, as well as sticking to principles. The president doesn't talk about ideology, correctly so, he talks about certain principles that are universal principles. And I think they should be applied to Muslims and non-Muslims.
I admit this is a very difficult balance but the president should engage the Arabs in…frank talk. Since he is engaging in some sort of self-criticism when he even said that we overthrew a government in Iran in 1953, when he said you also did certain wrong things. He should tell the Arabs, should tell the Muslims, as a friend, as someone who is trying to start a new beginning based on mutual interest and respect, you have to do your share, too. And that you are in the end responsible for the sorry state of governance that exists in your societies and stop blaming the west for it.
Roberts: He did challenge them to do that, to say in public what you say in private, you know, in regards to Israel and Iran. Do you expect that is going to happen? Or will there continue to be this dichotomy between the public face and what is said in private?
Melhem: Well look. I don't expect autocrats to change. But, look. If you go back to the encounter between France and Egypt more than 200 years ago, sometimes western pressure or outside pressure when you have these encounters between powers, you jolt these ossified societies. And maybe the Arabs and the Muslims need to be jolted on some issues. Autocrats don't change but the audience of the president of the United States today was not only the autocrats of the Arab and the Muslim world, they were the people of the Muslim world. They were the democrats with a small “d.” They were the reformers.
Of course they applauded him when he talked of the Koran. Muslims love to hear that. But the point is, they applauded him well on the issue of democracy. There is that yearning for democracy, there is yearning for human rights and all of these principles we talk about and cherish and issues of tolerance. And he was good in trying to remind the Arabs and Muslims in the by-gone days…and medieval times there was a great deal of tolerance. And he was right to say this. Islam is not the source. It's how you interpret Islam. We are talking about issues of politics in governance. Not theology. Although extremists use theology to justify political ends. So on the whole, he was excellent. And I think people needed to hear what the president articulated forcefully and eloquently.