Obama's Cairo Speech, One Year On: 'A Perceived Lack of Follow-Up'

One year ago, President Barack Obama delivered a powerful address in Cairo aimed at improving America's relations with the Muslim world. Dalia Mogahed, who helped draft that speech, spoke to SPIEGEL ONLINE about its impact, Obama's waning support in the Arab world and the difference between words and action.

Obama in Cairo. How times have changed. Zoom
REUTERS

Obama in Cairo. How times have changed.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: It was exactly one year ago that President Obama delivered his Cairo address, in which he sought to improve the relationship between the US and the Muslim world. Has there been any measurable improvement?

Dalia Mogahed: Yes. Overall there has been an improvement in the relations between the United States and Muslim-majority societies. However, some of the goodwill that was built up by Obama's election and later by the Cairo address has been lost because of the perceived lack of follow-up on that speech.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: A lot of Arab commentators seem to agree that while Obama may have said all the right things, he hasn't delivered. Is it not more than just a perceived lack of follow-up?

Mogahed: It is not up to me to judge. Many people in the administration would make a strong case that there have been a lot of things that have happened as part of a follow-up on the Cairo address. They would point to partnerships that have been built in the field of science and technology and work that has been done on entrepreneurship, loan guarantees and partnerships to address health problems like polio. So there are definitely two sides to this issue. But what is clear is that, from the point of view of the Arab public, especially, not enough has been done.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you have numbers to show how relations have developed over time?

Mogahed: Yes. We did research that shows that there was a bump in Arab public opinion after the election of Obama, another rise after the Cairo speech and then earlier this year many of these numbers have come down. Not to their 2008 levels, though.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why have the poll numbers come down again? According to a number of editorialists and pundits, the lack of progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict plays a large role.

Mogahed: That definitely plays a part. One study showed that, after the Cairo speech, the Egyptian public thought that the most important issue covered in the speech was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The impression many Egyptians now have is that the president hasn't done enough to improve the situation.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Would a clear increase of US pressure on the Israeli government lead to a rise in approval ratings again?

Mogahed: There are several things that people have told us would improve their opinion of the US. In the Arab world, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a very important issue. But in other parts of the world it may be things like technology transfer or humanitarian aid. It depends a lot on the region. It is therefore incorrect to say that all Muslims around the world consider the conflict to be the most important issue. Interestingly, one of the most important things overall is actually pulling out of Iraq, even among Palestinians. The pullout, as it continues to happen, may alter these numbers again.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: A well-prepared speech like the Cairo address can be an effective tool of public diplomacy and improve relations. But is there a specific risk involved if results are perceived as disappointing?

Mogahed: It is difficult to speculate whether or not doing the speech without follow-up is worse than not doing it at all. I do think, though, that the Cairo address set a new tone for the dialogue between the US and Muslim societies around the world. It took some of the fuel away of the narrative of a war against Islam. It brought the discussion back to the arena of policy and politics rather than a war of religions. This is an important shift.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How does this new tone affect efforts by terrorists to portray Obama as Bush III?

Mogahed: I think it is harder for them to incite people against the US, because we see that the approval ratings are higher today than they were under the old administration, despite the ongoing attempts to discredit President Obama. These people are on the defensive now, they actually have to make a case for all the bad things they say he is doing -- rather than these being self-evident.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Al-Qaida and their affiliates go out of their way to use America's ongoing reliance on drones in Pakistan and Afghanistan as an issue against Obama. Is this something that Muslims have strong feelings about?

Mogahed: Our research clearly shows that Muslim communities are deeply concerned with civilian deaths generally. They are among the most likely publics in the world to condemn attacks against civilians. So, yes, this would make them angry.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How about the attitudes of Muslims inside the US? Have they changed, too?

Mogahed: The Muslim American community has very high regard for the president. The approval rating is around 85 percent, which is among the highest of any group in the US and higher than that of any other faith-based group. Is has remained stable throughout 2009.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Incidents like the recent terror plot on Times Square have made the prospect of home-grown terrorism a major issue in US public debate. Do you have any indication that Muslims in the US are radicalizing?

Mogahed: We have found that Muslim Americans are significantly less likely than the American public in general to condone terrorism and more likely to condemn civilian deaths both by militaries and non-state actors. So there is no evidence that the US Muslim community at large is building a hospitable environment for terrorists.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You are a counsel to the White House and you helped draft the Cairo address last year. Looking back today, was it a success?

Mogahed: The Cairo address was a success because the words of a president are historical mileposts that cannot be changed. They also foreshadow political changes or shifts in approach. To say the president is all words and no action ignores the fact that his words -- because he is the president -- are action. What he said in Cairo is a very significant action, and the significance of that speech probably won't be realized for many years to come.

Interview conducted by Yassin Musharbash

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Dalia Mogahed is the director of the Center for Muslim Studies at the American pollster Gallup. She is also the author of the book, "Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think," and an advisor to the White House on issues of interreligious dialogue. Born in Egypt, she emigrated as a child to the United States and later completed a degree in chemical engineering.


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