A remarkable moment occurred early on in President Barack Obama’s recent speech at Cairo University. The audience gasped, then burst into wild applause, not over an idea or a proposal, but over a phrase. They were cheering something commonplace in any Muslim culture, the use of the Arabic words meaning “peace be with you”— Salaam Aleikum.
The very idea of an American president speaking in Arabic, even if it was to repeat a familiar greeting in Muslim societies, was an arresting moment. They same can be said about Obama’s use of the term, “the Holy Qur’an,” rather than simply, “the Qur’an;” about his several references to Qur’anic verses; and about his invocation of the phrase “peace be upon him,” after mentioning the name of the Prophet Mohammad. Well, to be precise, he said “peace be upon them,” since he had mentioned several religious figures including Moses and Jesus, as well as the Prophet Mohammad, and the invocation of this Jewish-Christian-Muslim trio might have been intended to defuse any criticism that he had lost his faith.
Still, in a sense, Obama was acting like a Muslim, or at least like someone who honored the Muslim culture in the region in which he was speaking. This admiration of his hosts’ culture, along with the acknowledgment that today Islam is part of the fabric of American religiosity, gave this very American president—with Muslim family members and a Muslim middle name—the license also to be critical of some of the failings within Islam. He mentioned specifically the intolerance toward minority religious communities such as Maronite Christians in Lebanon and Coptic Christians in Egypt, the conflict between the Shi’a and Sunni branches of Islam, the presence of religious extremists such as al Qaeda, and the persistence of unequal rights for women in some traditional Islamic societies.
Yet even these criticisms were couched in measured language, and salted with quotations from the Qur’an. Far from apologizing or pandering to his audience in Cairo and throughout the Muslim world, the speech was straight talk among equals, the respect that friends show to one another’s backgrounds. In fact, one might say that Obama was simply expressing good manners. After all, most of us as individuals go out of our way to be welcoming and generous to people from other cultures and religious traditions, especially when we are on their home turf.
What is remarkable is how remarkable this seems, that an American president would be seen as courteous and respectful of the cultures of other countries, insistent that the strength of global society—as well as American society—is in this variegated religious landscape. In all its simple decency, it was a proud moment for America, for Egypt, and for the world.