Barack Obama’s Cairo Vision vs. The European Right – Column 6.6.09


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 6.6.09

SO FAR AS THE BULK of the British media are concerned, there’s no other front-page story, this weekend, than the continuing agony of Gordon Brown, and the likely demise of his government.   But as the Westminster village writhes through one of its periodic spasms of destruction, out there in the wider world a battle-line of historic importance has been drawn this week; and all our futures are likely to be heavily dependent on the outcome of what is developing into a titanic battle between profoundly different value-systems.

For on one side, we can see ranged the forces of darkness and organised ill-will, as represented by the ultra-blonde  Dutch politician Geert Wilders, whose Freedom Party has emerged as the second strongest force in Dutch politics following this week’s European elections.  The British government incurred some well-deserved ridicule, recently, when it banned Mr. Wilders from the UK for his blatant incitement of anti-Islamic hatred; it’s usually unwise, in my experience, to offer representatives of the far right any chance to play the free-speech martyr.

But no-one, nonetheless, should doubt what kind of politician Mr. Wilders is.   He has built his career on the deliberate fomentation of hostile and inflammatory enemy-images not only of Islamic extremism, but of Islam in general.   He appeals – without much rational argument – to a base form of knee-jerk anti-European nationalism; and he consciously foments poor relations among the various ethnic groups living in the Netherlands.

Of course, Mr. Wilders has a good right to advance his views, as does any citizen of a free country.  But to choose Mr. Wilders is to choose a dark, tribally-divided view of humanity, in which cultural cohabitation inevitably decays into conflict.  And the fact is that he is not likely to be alone in his European election success.  Here in Britain, the BNP has high hopes of winning European seats for the first time; and the same picture is mirrored across the map of the EU, as – in true 1930’s style – parties of the hard right try to turn the fear and misery created by economic depression to their electoral advantage.

And then, on the other side of the argument, we find President Barack Obama of the United States, who on Thursday in Cairo gave what one senior Arab academic described as “possibly the best speech ever delivered by a President of the United States.”   Written with great energy and lucidity, in the kind of complete, reasoned sentences and well-balanced paragraphs that almost disappeared from world political discourse during the soundbite age of Tony Blair and the stammering reign of George W. Bush, President Obama’s speech set out to review the troubled history of relations between the United States and the Islamic world, and to offer a new beginning.   And to judge by the enemies that the speech has roused to special rage – including the leadership of Al-Quaeda, among others – it has struck a note so truly progressive that it has caused serious alarm among some of the ugliest political forces on the planet.

For where politicians like Geert Wilders seek to create enemy images, to emphasise difference, to encourage fear, to discourage empathy, and to create the impression that extremist attitudes are the norm in the “other community”, President Obama set out – with a rare combination of rhetorical grace and intellectual precision – to do the exact opposite.   He made repeated demonstrations of his ability to see the situation in the round, empathising with both Arab and western heritage, and with both views of recent history.

He recognised the great cultural and scientific contribution of Islam to world civilisation.  He sought to emphasise the common ground between the world’s great faith and cultural traditions, and the human values they share, many of them also enshrined – to the President’s obvious pride – in the Constitution of the United States.   And above all, he sought to marginalise those extremists who replace those common human aspirations with creeds of death, destruction and sacrifice that most human beings find both frightening and repellent.  For better or worse, he declared himself a believer in the possibility of peace and co-operation.   And as a man who, in his own person and life story, embodies the multicultural pluralism of the American dream, he set himself up as the living refutation of the kinds of lies on which politicians like Geert Wilders build their careers.

And of course, this is a hazardous position to take.   For one thing, it makes President Obama himself  a prime target for the merchants of hate across the planet.  And for another, even if the President himself survives to pursue his aims, the chance of failure in projects like the Middle East peace process is always high.

But human history clearly shows two things.   First, it suggests that the planet has always been shared by peacemakers and warmongers; and that the warmongers have always tended to wield disproportionate power over a peaceful majority.   And secondly, it suggests that despite that power, the warmongers are not the ones who create those great flowerings of invention, commerce, intellect and civic life which push human civilisation forward.   That task belongs to those – the consitution-makers, the builders of cities, markets ands universities – who believe in the power of human beings to create rather than destroy, and to meet strangers in the excitement of mutual trade and discovery, rather than in the horror of the battlefield.

This week, on the world stage, President Obama has declared himself as a passionate and insightful friend of that kind of enlightenment.   And whether or not he finally succeeds in delivering on his high hopes and fine words, it’s surely a moment to pause and be grateful, for the presence in the White House of a man who sees so clearly which path we should be on; and who can at least offer us an inspiring vision of it, in words with the power to change the world.


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