Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Obama's greatest speech

At the UN yesterday Barack Obama delivered what might turn out to have been his greatest ever speech.  He does a mean bit of oratory, of course: not quite up there with Bill Clinton at his schmaltziest, but streets ahead of anything that any British politician has to offer (sorry, Nick).  And any Obama speech is a reminder of what we'll miss if, despite his best efforts to sabotage his own campaign, Mitt Romney gets elected in November.  Yesterday, however, saw something far better than the president's over-praised and apologetic speech in Cairo a few years ago, to say nothing of the hopey-changey vacuities that got him to the Whitehouse.  It had real substance. 

It's worth reading in full, especially for the moving tribute to murdered ambassador Chris Stevens that frames it.  The whole speech was celebration of his life and the values that he embodied, and included a stronger defence of those values than I've ever heard Obama make before.  Large parts of it could easily have been delivered by Tony Blair or even George W Bush, except that Obama still has a credibility in much of the world, especially the Middle East, that those two gentleman lack.  Indeed, in its optimistic interpretation of the Arab Spring as a triumph of democracy and progress it sounded more like a Neo-Con prophecy circa 2002 than a description of actual events.  Nevertheless, it dared to tackle head-on the big issue that everyone has been trying to avoid recently, which is the outrageous double standard exhibited by countries such as Pakistan when it comes to issues of religious offence.

Here's a key passage:

Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views, even views that we profoundly disagree with. We do not do so because we support hateful speech, but because our founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views and practice their own faith may be threatened. We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities.

We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression; it is more speech -- the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.

And a bit later:

There is no speech that justifies mindless violence. There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. There’s no video that justifies an attack on an embassy. There’s no slander that provides an excuse for people to burn a restaurant in Lebanon, or destroy a school in Tunis, or cause death and destruction in Pakistan.

In this modern world with modern technologies, for us to respond in that way to hateful speech empowers any individual who engages in such speech to create chaos around the world. We empower the worst of us if that’s how we respond.

Obama pointed out the obvious but often overlooked fact that it is Muslims who have suffered the most at the hands of extremism, and continue to do so.  His assertion that "the future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam" upset some of the Christian right back home, but it was only preliminary to his main point, which was that "to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see in the images of Jesus Christ that are desecrated, or churches that are destroyed, or the Holocaust that is denied." 

Of course he might have gone further.  He might have wondered about the "credibility" of a country where a Christian housewife can be thrown into prison under sentence of death for alleged "blasphemy" after an argument with neighbours, where a politician who speaks out about her treatment is murdered, while another politician who offers money for the murder of a foreign citizen keeps his job.  He might have mentioned Rimsha, the young girl with learning disabilities held for three weeks in a squalid jail while angry mobs demand her blood and that of her family.  He might have asked how Pakistan can presume to lecture the rest of the world about respect for religion when it shows so little respect for the religious rights and basic human freedoms of its own people.  Or Saudi Arabia or Iran, for that matter. 

But I suppose he went about as far as he could have done.  And at least he left his audience in no doubt about what he was talking about.  Some might find the onwards-and-upwards rhetoric a tad over-optimistic ("history is on our side, and... a rising tide of liberty will never be reversed").  But it was good to hear such a resounding celebration and defence of core democratic values, especially at a time like this, and especially coming from him.