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Obama in Cairo: Praising Islam to keep the people of the Mid East down

8 June 2009. A World to Win News Service. "The streets surrounding the university and across the city were largely quiet and empty on Thursday. Many workers in this Egyptian capital on the Nile had been told to stay home. The sidewalks were closed to ordinary people but lined by hundreds of soldiers – some dressed in black, others in white – who had been standing in place for hours before Mr Obama arrived." (The New York Times, 5 June) The Great Father had come from Washington to lecture some of America’s subject peoples.

The whole framework of Barack Obama's carefully crafted speech at Al-Azhar University in Cairo 4 June was meant to keep people's eyes focused on the surface of things. "We meet at a time of tension between the United States and Moslems around the world," he said. But is the basic problem a misunderstanding about religion and values, that people don't get that "America and Islam... share common principles", or is it deeply grounded in the material world and its economic, social and political relations – oppression, inequality and injustice?

These are the facts: control over the "Greater Middle East" stretching from North Africa to Afghanistan is a central requirement for consolidating American global hegemony in the world. All the countries in this vast region are dominated by foreign capital and their economic development subordinated to the interests of the imperialist powers. The regimes that rule over the people largely reflect these interests and where they don't, war is often waged or threatened. These foreign interests and powers have allied with reactionary local ruling classes to impose lives of frustration at best and misery for the vast majority of the people.

Obama stands at the head of the country that's the boss of the imperialist system and its local allies standing on the people's backs. That, for instance, is why the Egyptian police had to empty the streets when he came to a country whose despised American-dependent despot ("a stalwart ally", Obama called him) has ruled by emergency rule and torture for decades and is now preparing to turn over the palace keys to his son. And Obama thinks that the reason so many of the region’s people hate the U.S. is because they think in "stereotypes"?

He said, "I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear. But the same principle must apply to Moslem perceptions of America. Just as Moslems do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire." The truth is just the opposite – America is a "self-interested empire" and the enforcer of untold suffering, and that suffering is a very major component – if not the whole explanation – for the rise of today's anti-Western Islamic fundamentalism. In a nutshell, Obama praised Islam as a religion but defended (and is working to intensify) the oppressive imperialist relationships without which Islamic fundamentalism would have far much less attraction.

People's ideology – how they see and understand the world – is very important in its own right, and an active factor in shaping the world situation. It matters very much – it's a serious obstacle to the liberation of the world's people – that Islamic fundamentalism has been able to grab the banner of opposition to foreign oppression. Once again it has to be pointed out that in supporting Islamic fundamentalist forces for its own interests – against the rival Soviet Union, to weaken secular forces among the Palestinians and in other ways undermine movements for national liberation – the U.S and its allies greatly contributed to the rise of a movement that has now become a problem for them. Even now, framing Middle Eastern “tensions” in religious terms is advantageous for both the imperialists and their Islamic fundamentalist opponents.

Further, even while changing the tone of the Bush days and suspending the rhetoric of a Christian crusade against Islam, Obama followed in his predecessor's footsteps in moving toward putting religion at the heart of public affairs. His speech was full of references to "our God", "God's vision", what "God intended" and the need to "be conscious of God". Even his mandatory mention of women’s rights was "holy Bible-" and "holy Koran-" (not to mention Torah)-compatible. (He made the argument, dear to apologists for patriarchal religions East and West, that women can continue to play "traditional roles" in society – presumably as wives, daughters and mothers – and still be fully equal human beings.)

Some people want to see this speech as a sign that the U.S. has gotten over 9/11 and the "war on terror" is history. It's true that Obama can reach out to allies and seek to calm the waters in a way that Bush could not. Maybe that's why he replaced "terrorists", Bush's favourite epithet for enemies, with "extremists". But any changes he may represent are simply modified answers to the same problem: how to best serve the same world-grabbing, soul-crushing imperialist system. And just as Obama has brought more continuity than rupture with Bush administration domestic policies justified by the "war on terror" – from the treatment of "enemy combatant" prisoners and his protection of those responsible for torture to the persistence police-state "security" measures – these changes in rhetoric do not amount to a change in basic stance.

Like Bush, Obama emphasized that "It is my first duty as President to protect the American people," citing "the events of 9/11" as if they had happened without context, as if it were not the U.S. that had been invading, occupying and otherwise controlling countries, imposing its will and humiliating whole peoples for more than a century, including in the Middle East. Nowhere was Obama more like Bush than when he claimed that his country "did not go by choice, we went by necessity" in invading Afghanistan.

"Let us be clear: Al-Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 people that day," he said. That may be so, but when the U.S. leader goes on to say, "the Holy Koran teaches us that whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind", referring to those American dead, we can only conclude that the villagers murdered by American aircraft in the Western Afghanistan 4 May (140 according to the Afghan government, in only the latest among many such incidents) were not human beings at all in Obama’s eyes. When he says, "we will, however, relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security. Because we reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject: the killing of innocent men, women and children" while his government backs Israel's doing just that in Gaza, we can only conclude that the ordinary people of countries the U.S. wants to control are all guilty until proven otherwise.

The same applies to Pakistan, where thanks to the impact of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan and the horrors of U.S.-imposed regimes on Pakistan, 2.5 million people are currently displaced in fighting between the American-directed government and fundamentalists. As for Iraq, all the families left decimated – first by the U.S.-led invasion and then by the sectarian fighting promoted by the occupiers' divide-and-rule policies and reactionary alliances – are supposed to be grateful to the U.S. After all, Obama says, maybe the U.S. should have paid more attention to the need for "diplomacy and international consensus", but "the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein." Where, Mr Obama, did your country and its allies ever apply "the principles of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings" that you claim that your religion and Islam share?

But Obama was not simply preaching hypocrisy for its own sake. He was clear on the political goals he intended to advance. "As somebody who ordered an additional 17,000 troops into Afghanistan," he told columnist Thomas L. Friedman before this speech, "you would be hard pressed to suggest that what we are doing is not backed by hard power. I discount a lot of that criticism. What I do believe is that if we are engaged in speaking directly to the Arab street, and they are persuaded that we are operating in a straightforward manner, then, at the margins, both they and their leadership are more inclined and able to work with us." (International Herald Tribune, 4 June)

The phrase about "their leadership" being more "able to work with us" is a key indication of what this speech is about. Again and again he appealed to the pragmatism of Arab rulers: because I'm not Bush but an American president with an Islamic name, I represent the best chance you'll ever get, so you better take it. This is the meaning of his admonitions to "stop pointing fingers" and harping on past injustices committed by the U.S., and his call to "say openly the things... that are too often only said behind closed doors." Chief among these is that "privately many Moslems recognize that Israel will not go away" (because the U.S.'s "bond" with Israel as a "Jewish homeland" is "unbreakable"). So Arab rulers had better give up pretending otherwise, take whatever the U.S. will give them and just tell the people that licking American boots is nourishing.

Obama's proposal for a two-state solution to the Palestinian "source of tension" was at centre stage in Cairo. This reflects the centrality of Israel for American domination of the region and the centrality of Israel's oppression of Palestinians in the hearts of the region's people. Strikingly, this was the only topic on which Obama promised something concrete: that he would   "personally pursue this outcome" [two states].

"Now is the time for Palestinians to focus on what they can build," Obama declared, with the implicit threat that it's now or never. What is the content of this offer? A Palestinian state cut into tiny, discontinuous pieces, in a sliver of historic Palestine and a small portion of the lands that remained Palestinian before the 1967 Israeli invasion. A country with no economy of its own, no real army, in the shadow of one of the world's best-armed militaries, and therefore no possible real sovereignty. A variation on what Palestinians already have: a West Bank surrounded by a wall, whose government survives by the grace of the U.S. and Israel, and whose police have the right to use their guns only against other Palestinians, and a Gaza not currently occupied but repeatedly invaded, with its land and sea borders and air space under Israeli military control and not a soul allowed to enter or leave unless Tel Aviv says so – as a collective punishment for electing Hamas.

As Ali Abunimah warned in The Electronic Intifada he co-founded5 June, Obama "may have more determination than his predecessor, but he remains committed to an unworkable two-state 'vision' aimed not at restoring Palestinian rights, but preserving Israel as an enclave of Israeli Jewish privilege. It is a dead end." Yet, Abunimah remarks, "Some people are prepared to give Obama a pass for all this because he is at last talking tough on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank," referring to this passage in the speech – the one many people will remember: "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop."

Indeed, although Bush spoke the same words as Obama, and made the same personal commitment, he made a secret agreement with Israel authorizing them to ignore them. Now Obama's administration says it has repudiated that deal. On the eve of the Cairo speech, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton stated that there would no longer be any exceptions for "natural growth" (a doctrine authorizing the building of a new housing unit every time a settler family has a child). These might seem like the toughest words any U.S. president has ever had for Israel.

But no new settlements and land appropriations wouldn’t change much in practical terms. About 72 percent of the West Bank is already considered "Israeli state lands... The settlements, the infrastructure serving them and the security system necessary to protect them have carved the Occupied Territories into dozens of isolated, impoverished enclaves. Palestinians are forbidden to travel between these enclaves without military permission, thus turning their own towns and villages into prisons." (Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, quoted by Stuart Littlewood, The Palestine Chronicle, 4 May). What Obama is offering is actually less previous than U.S. positions (going back to Reagan) and UN resolutions demanding that Israel pull back to its 1967 borders – which Obama is now saying it will never have to do. He has implicitly guaranteed the permanence of the almost half a million settlers in annexed East Jerusalem and the 121 other Jewish settlements on the West Bank officially recognized by Israel but illegal under international law.
Israel might or might not accept Obama's demands. Either way, Obama has made it clear that the U.S. will never turn off the billions in yearly economic and military aid that keep the Zionist state alive and subsidize settler families. Ideologically, it might be difficult for the Israeli government to take measures even against all of the 102 so-called "illegal" settlements. Members of an ultra-Orthodox settlement near Nablus (established in 1975, under Israeli army protection) rioted 1 June to protest government plans to dismantle a few tiny and largely uninhabited outposts. The armed masked men turned their violence not against the Israeli authorities but against Palestinian workers they happened to come across on a nearby road. Two Palestinians were hospitalised and four others injured. The people who did this believe that God promised them every last inch of the West Bank. They are not likely to listen to calls for even symbolic compromises. Their numbers are a minority in Israel, but they are increasingly the backbone of the Zionist armed forces and the current government.

The truth is that the most important thing, in Obama's calculations, is to be seen as talking tough to Israel. This is his calling card, his attempt to appeal to what he calls the "Arab street", and far too many Arabs and other people who should know better reacted by saying that Obama's speech was good but that the Israelis will never listen. The fact is that it might even be better for what Obama has in mind if the Zionists don't. If some daylight seems to appear between the U.S. and Israel, this might best suit American imperialist interests, since pulling the plug on the U.S.'s Zionist gendarme is not even a question.

 It's worth analysing why Obama is pursuing this mini-state idea right now, even after the Bush attempts to bring it about came to nothing.

Oxford University professor Hussein Agha and Robert Malley (former U.S. President Bill Clinton's Special Assistant for Arab-Israeli Affairs and now with the International Crisis Group) discussed this in an authoritative article published on the eve of Obama’s Middle Eastern trip: "Today, the idea of Palestinian statehood is alive, but mainly outside of Palestine. Establishing a state has become a matter of utmost priority for Europeans, who see it as crucial to stabilizing the region and curbing the growth of extremism; for Americans, who hail it as a centrepiece of efforts to contain Iran as well as radical Islamists and to forge a coalition between so-called moderate Arab states and Israel; and even for a large number of Israelis who have come to believe it is the sole effective answer to the threat to Israel's existence posed by Arab demographics. Those might all be good reasons, though none is of particular relevance to Palestinians... [It] might give American diplomacy a further, notable lift... A state packaged by Bush is one thing. Wrapped up by Obama, it would be something else altogether.”  (New York Review of Books, 11 June)

These writers have the advantage of speaking for the ears of imperialist rulers and not the people, and they have put it plainly. Obama's declaration that Palestinians need "a state of their own" will not radically change what he piously called their "intolerable situation”. As long as Israel exists, as long as there is a state that by definition can be Jewish only by denying the rights of the people who used to live there and the Palestinians who still do, any Palestinian "mini-state" can only be another circle of hell for the Palestinian people. What the mini-state proposal can do is to serve, even if only "at the margins", as Obama put it, U.S. efforts to produce a regional realignment, including blunting the Islamic fundamentalist thrust against the empire's interests.

Without analysing the complex range of possibilities between the U.S. and the Islamic Republic of Iran, one of the far too many issues addressed in the Cairo speech to be discussed here, the least that can be said is this: Obama warned "when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point" – Iran would not be allowed to develop them. Why not? Not to "prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East", as he claimed, since Israel already has hundreds of nuclear warheads and missiles given to them by the U.S. to deliver them. Not to "seek a world in which no nations have nuclear weapons", which remains a vague "commitment" on Obama’s part – the U.S. imperialists are unlikely to ever give up their nukes. They’re the only ones who have ever used them and openly base their military doctrine on their first use to defend their empire. The real point is that the U.S. will not allow Iran to challenge the "balance of power" in the Middle East in which Israel, as the U.S.'s most reliable junior partner and gendarme, holds the ability to wipe out everyone else.

This puts Obama’s "tough talk" to Israel in perspective. It could better be called "tough love" – talking tough to Israelis for the mutual benefit of the Zionist enterprise and the greater American empire.
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