The communication with the Arab and/or Muslim World looks like being a conundrum for the Western World. The way George W. Bush adressed some issues related to the Arabs/Muslims is maybe the perfect example on what to not say to them. Obama speeches were always clean of the obvious mistakes of his predecessors and this 2011 speech on the Middle-East was even cleaner. The 2009 Cairo speech was actually so brillantly written that it really raised hopes in the Middle-East for a change. But alas, from 2009 to 2011, these high expectations were disappointed, not only because of Iraq and Afghanistan wars or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also because of the attitude towards the Arab dictators facing street protests: the support to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt came too late, only when it was clear to the US that they can dump their dear allies (Mubarak, Ben Ali, Gaddafi,…) because they were already almost toppled.
Thus, it is in this mindframe of scepticism that most of us, Arabs, listened to this Middle-East Speech. We kind of all had our “checklist”: some were waiting how Obama will mention Bahrain, some others how is he to address about Israel and Palestine, etc. None of us was really waiting for anything interesting and special to be said, most of us were just looking for a renewed confirmation of a new form of the good old hypocrisy: same old routine, only covered with more elegant words than his predecessors would have used.
What I was personnally interested in was in fact the difference between the Cairo speech of 2009 and this speech of 2011 on Middle-East, not in terms of the content itself, but in terms of the form, the strategy of communication. Although the latter was pronounced from the White House, it is quite obvious that it was prepared with the intention to address to the Arab World. The decision to not hold this speech in front of an Arab audiance in an Arab country proves there is a hesitation to face directly Arabs, as there is no certainty on the welcoming it would have had (after all Clinton was boycotted in Egypt by youth and hooted by Tunisians to the point she had to cancell her speach in Tunis). As the changes go in the North African and Middle Eastern region, the”West” adapts its communication.They are totally aware the Arab revolutions were the occasion of multiple failures in communication and decisions, and that this caused a great damage on the trust the Arab and Muslim World have on them. Not only they want to restore that trust (surprisingly they seem to think that regaining it needs only to adapt the way of speaking, instead of admitting it needs a complete change of policy, what will apparently never happen), but also they are in high need of understanding the new Arab references.
The main differences between the two speeches are:
- The Storytelling: in Obama 2009 speech, there were very few of the “storytelling” US rethoric is normally full of (emphazing arguments with an example of a person’s life story), besides the very brief mention to his own story linking him to Africa, while in the 2011 Speech, many mentions were done: Rosa Parks, Muhammad Bouazizi, Wael Ghonim (indirectly, by mentionning his position at Google), some Israeli father whose son was killed by Hamas starting a peace NGO. The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions certainly made realize to Obama, Clinton and their team how important will be now the ordinary people of the Arab World. Instead of talking about elites, refering to great places or figures of History, the ‘normal’ people (including women) that achieved great things with almost nothing were mentioned. The storytelling, that ensured Ronald Reagan with a great popularity in his country as a president and was so to say the standard of communication of George W. Bush (and Nicolas Sarkozy), is a very classical technique to reach the very general audiances: (over)simplifying in talking with images instead of building a consistant chain of arguments.
- Erasing American references: only with the “told stories” one can see that they refer all but one (Rosa Parks) to Arabs. But the shift goes beyond this. In 2009 speech, there was a point about stressing on the fact that Islam was part of American History, about the fight for civic rights of African Americans, about the Cold War, etc, while in 2011 speech the direct references to American History are completely erased (except for the reference to the American Revolution where Patriots refused to pay taxes to a king). Even the cited locations were chosen to fit to the Arab perspective (Cairo, Benghazi, Sanaa). In two words, we are moving here from speeches where we talk about “American values to export” to speeches where we talk about “universal values”, that happen to be shared by America as well as by other parts of the world, worth fighting for, although America didn’t create these values. US want to give a more “modest” image of themselves, they don’t anymore commit the mistake to pretend they are bringing democracy/peace/hope as global leader (although Hillary Clinton in the few words preceding Obama speech expressed her views about the need of an American strong “leadership”). On the contrary they emphazise on the fact that these values are wanted and activelly won by the Arabs themselves. Americans want now to endorse the more “neutral” role (in surface only of course) of those who will just propose help (economical, G20, technological, etc) and let free the Arabs to decide if they want that help or not (of course it is just a very hypocrit way of presenting things).
- Avoiding religious references: of course, 2009 was technically a speech to the Muslim World, while 2011 is a speech on the Middle-East, but no one will deny how much entangled are Middle-East and Islam. 2009 was not only refering to Al-Azhar, the Quran or Obama’s own Christianity, it was also speaking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of Jews and Shoah, Muslims and Christians. In the 2011 speech, he prefered to talk Israel-Palestine in terms of frontiers, security and official mutual recognition, Bahrain in terms of Iranian strategic political interest, and Arab revolutions in general in mentionning freedom, economy, technology, information. The only explicit references were made were the “region that was the birthplace of three world religions” and the Muslim/Copt violence in Egypt and the offered solution to take the Iraqi “multi-ethnic multi-sectarian democracy” as an example (what a strange idea by the way to take this as an example). In erasing the reference to religion and particularely to Islam, it is quite clear that the United States want to enter in a new phase of their relation with Arabs where they can close the Islamism/extremism/Al-Qaeda chapter. In a way, by saying that Al-Qaeda was against democracy, that it lost its revelancy in the region, that more has been done in six months of civil unrest than in decades by terrorists, but also by not referring to the recent choice of a new head for Al-Qaeda and denying the Ossama Ben Laden’s posthume message praising Arab revolutions, US call for having the right to “move to something else”: US wants to make known that they want to make politics, business (a lot of business in fact), partnerships; they don’t want anymore to be seen as the oppressor of Muslims around the World. As if there was any chance that Arabs could forget the military support of Israel anyway (clearly mentionned in the 2011 speech).
- Adopting Arabic rethoric: the only concession done to arabic language in 2009 speech was the opening “Salam Aleikom“. In 2011, there is a will to “speak the way Arabs speak”. Some linguistic specifities of the Arabic language are adopted. For example, the repetition of terms, very classic in arabic, but avoided as much as possible in english is clear in a sentence like “Square by square, town by town, country by country” (unfortunately for Obama, his advisors do not seem to have noticed the similarity that each Arab will notice with Gaddafi murderous speech “Zenga zenga, bit bit, dar dar“, meaning “street by street, house by house, room by room“). Another flagrant example is the sentence (actually the answer to the non-asked question) where he says: “Bin Laden was no martyr“, the word martyr being extremely often used not only in Islamic lexical field, but also in general Arab’s (for example, the people killed on Tahrir Square, regardless of their religion, are referred as martyrs by Egyptians), while it is totally absent from previous American official speeches. Adapting arabic rethoric is a way of looking “more familiar”, or “more comprehensive”.
I see the 2011 speech on the Middle-East as being a “grammatical contortion”: US diplomacy makes moves that are unnatural to them, not because they are taking a new orientation with us, Arabs, but because they think that if they want to continue to pursue the goals they always pursued in the region (oil, Israel and capitalism), they just have to make it a bit more subtly. With this Obama speech we officially entered in the era where the United States understand Arabs are not just parameters to adjust and fine tune, but a whole part of the world with 400 million people with real personal expectations and real intention to be sovereign. Let’s be clear: that’s only plastic surgery. If there was any real consideration to Arab aspirations, a word would have been adressed to the aspirations of the people living in the most repressive country of the region governed by a medieval feodal system, Saudi Arabia, and more firm positions would have been taken to condemn what happens in Syria and Bahrain.
Mimmicking our way of building sentences and arguments and using our own references is not enough and will never be; in fact it is even almost a bad idea from an American perspective for it makes it even easier for us to detect where exactly there is hypocrisy,emptiness or offense. It is as if President Obama tried to cook for us a couscous or any other Arab dish and really thought we won’t be able to make the difference with our own cooking. The thing is, sadly for Americans and luckily for Arabs, very, very few of us were fooled by this new way of addressing us.