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As Obama gives tough speech, audience is thinking: Yes, but

In his speech to the Muslim world last week, President Barack Obama certainly hit many key points: democracy, religious freedom, women's rights, the need to confront violent extremism, and end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But the president was often circumspect despite his admonition that "we must say openly the things that too often are said only behind closed doors.'' Here are some of Obama's remarks — and some of the things many in his global audience were probably thinking as he made them:

Issues of women's equality are by no means simply an issue for Islam.

Yes, but there's probably no country on earth where women have fewer rights than Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam. Saudi women can't drive, they can't travel without permission of a male "guardian,'' they can't play sports in school and not a single woman sits on the 150-member Shura Council, the closest thing Saudi Arabia has to a parliament. (And it's not very close, given that Saudi Arabia is also one of the world's least democratic countries.)

Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance.

Yes, but wouldn't it be nice if the Saudis, custodians of the holiest sites in Islam, could be a better role model? Their country bans all other religions and, as countless Christian visitors have discovered, even confiscates Bibles and Christmas music at the airport. The terribly intolerant strain of Islam known as Wahhabism — exported to Pakistan and Afghanistan — had its roots in Saudi Arabia.

It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra, our magnetic compass and tools of navigation, our mastery of pens and printing, our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed.

Yes, but those innovations were centuries ago. In recognizing the top 50 contributions to science and technology in 2008, Scientific American did not list a single noteworthy breakthrough in any of the world's 48 Muslim-majority nations, encompassing more than 1 billion people. One reason for the paucity of innovation: madrassas, or schools, that stifle creative thinking in favor of rote learning.

Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed.

Yes, but it was continued attacks by Hamas and other radical groups that ultimately convinced Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Israel could no longer afford to keep its settlers and soldiers in the Gaza Strip. And a year after Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, it fought a war with Hezbollah that helped strengthen that group's image in Lebanon and the rest of the Arab world.

The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.

Yes, but what can it do about them? For decades, U.S. presidents have criticized the spread of Jewish settlements as impediments to creation of a Palestinian state. But the settlements continue to mushroom — some 250,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank, and the settler population is growing at a rate, 5.6 percent, that far exceeds the Israeli average of 1.8, the New York Times recently reported.

As reaction to the speech poured in, it was clear that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains one of the world's most contentious issues. Many Israelis accused Obama of making a "moral equivalence'' between the Holocaust and the plight of displaced Palestinians. Many Muslims rapped him for not going far enough to condemn Israeli aggression and occupation.

But as Obama said: "The Arab-Israeli conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems.'' What he meant was: The conflict has been a convenient safety valve for Muslim dictators, who would rather see their citizens protesting against Israel than their own autocratic and oppressive governments.

Of course that's a tough message to deliver when you've just come from Saudi Arabia, where elections have been postponed for the umpteenth time. Or when you're speaking at a university in Egypt, where the same man has been president for 28 years.

Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at

As Obama gives tough speech, audience is thinking: Yes, but 06/06/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 6, 2009 7:17pm]
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