The Story Behind Obama’s Cairo Speech

by Bud Goodall, Angela Trethewey, & Steven R. Corman

President Barack Obama’s historic speech in Cairo yeserday represents a welcome break from the former President George W. Bush administration’s approach to strategic communication.  Bush’s rhetorical strategy was to divide the world into opposing forces of Good and Evil, and then demand that Muslims choose sides. By contrast, Obama tried to reframe the challenges facing America and the Muslim world as one of rejecting that division in favor of a story of shared progress.

Other commentators have already analyzed the political details of the speech.  In this post we look beneath the surface of what Obama said to comment on his message strategy.  We observe that while Obama’s policies are not so different from those espoused by Bush, there is significant shift in the  narrative framing of those policies.  In effect, his speech offered the Muslim world a new way of narrating a common U.S. and Muslim history centered on the idea of joint progress.

Acknowledging “tensions” in the world, Obama established tribal conflict as a backward way of dealing with cultural, political, and religious differences.  He said:

For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes subjugating one another to serve their own interests.  Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self defeating.  Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.  So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners of it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; progress must be shared.

As this quote indicates, Obama’s alternative storyline draws upon a theme of progress that operates as a narrative archetype.  He proposes  a progressive, forward-looking, historical scenario grounded in the Enlightenment.  It emphasizes a theme of continual improvement and development. This progress archetype manifests itself repeatedly in several themes in Obama’s speech.

He grounded “progress” in the very existence of the university setting from which he speaks:  “As a student of history, I also know civilization’s debt to Islam.  It was Islam–at places like Al-Azhar University–that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment.”  As Laila Abdel Meguid, Dean of the Faculty of Mass Communication at the University of Cairo expresses it, “The choice of Cairo University is also very significant; it represents a major hub for culture and science in Egypt and the Middle East and has always been a forum of dialogue between cultures and civilizations.”

Obama made progressive use of culture specific language.  He greeted Muslims in their own language with the  expression “assalaamu alaykum” (peace be upon you).  By using Arabic he establishes common ground through shared language, which undoubtedly was read as a sign of progress.  He also used three specific Koranic references throughout the speech, each one designed as an authoritative referent for his views.  This pattern of invoking the Koran for just such purposes is a widely understood rhetorical technique throughout the Muslim.  Again this represents “progress” through evolution of sacred authoritative texts used by American presidents.

Obama also tied his personal story to the progress archetype by emphasizing his Muslim roots, Kenyan father, years in Indonesia, and work with Muslims in Chicago.  This connection of the personal history to the shared culture and history of Muslims creates a sense of identification between speaker and audience that is amplified, no doubt, by his appearance as a Black man serving as President of the U.S.  Hence, he stands before the Muslim world as the literal embodiment of progress.

Obama announced a

new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition.  Instead, they overlap, and share common principles–principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.

By focusing his address on what we share rather than on what divides us, Obama makes clear his progressive view that our nations and peoples work toward similar goals and hold the same values.

Obama also emphasized the relationship of Muslim history to American history, noting that Morocco was the first nation to recognize the United States, that the Founding Fathers recognized the importance of Islam in his country, and that individual Muslims have played important roles in America’s story.    By linking our history to the inclusion and contributions of Muslims, Obama incorporates all Muslims into the progress archetype, not as an invitation or an afterthought, but instead as a natural part of our historical progression.

Obama distinguished between “violent extremists” and Muslims, and accused the former of “exploit[ing] … tensions in  a small but potent minority of Muslims.”  From a Muslim world perspective, his ability to distinguish between all Muslims and those who choose violent extremism affords a progressive view of the complexities of identity associated with religious faith and cultural traditions.

In other parts of the speech Obama also invoked the progress archetype.  He focused  on the Palestine-Israel conflict as a nexus of tribal divisions that marks an outmoded way of thinking, and linked progress in resolving that conflict to support for two states.  In briefer segments dealing with nuclear proliferation, democracy, women’s rights, and economic development, there were less explicit but still clear appeals to progressive ideals.

What is strategic about these rhetorical choices is that Obama attempts to reframe Western and Muslim relations outside of the tribal conflict narrative and instead recapture the joint historical progress of Muslims and the Western world.  In practical terms, Obama uses this opportunity not to create an entirely new narrative but instead to remind listeners of an older and more powerful story that includes, rather than excludes, Muslims.

What remains to be seen is whether the target audience for this speech will embrace his storyline.  Obama’s progress archetype automatically resonates with Western audiences.  But it is  not necessarily embraced by everyone he was addressing.  Many Muslims feel threatened by modernity and its indifference to tradition.  Violent extremists and radical clerics play on this fear with stories like Sayyid Qutb’s New Jihiliyya, which portrays the West a a source of Islam’s gradual decay–not its partner in progress.

Such storylines are rooted in a picture of decline that “emphasizes deterioration … often coupled with a deep sentimental attachment to the ‘good old days'” (Zerubavel, 2003, p. 16).  Obama’s speech can be considered a strategic success if we begin to see evidence that his counter-narrative of progress is being embraced by the ordinary Muslims who were his primary audience.

UPDATE 12:30 MST

Here are some other notable comments on Obama’s speech: