While Barack Obama's speech on race earlier this week was geared primarily toward domestic concerns, as an American of Middle Eastern origin, watching from a café in Jordan, I was struck by the possibilities it offered not only for race relations at home, but for our relationship with Arabs and Muslims abroad.
Obama declared that "the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding." He was speaking, of course, about the legacy of slavery and segregation. But he might as well have been talking about the burgeoning anger toward America felt by millions of frustrated Muslims around the world. And the conversation Obama tried to initiate -- contextualizing radicalism and seeking its source rather than merely denouncing it -- is the sort of conversation that could also lay the groundwork for a long-overdue reassessment of our approach to the Middle East.
Thus far, the national discourse on the question of Muslim anti-Americanism, and particularly the violence and terror perpetrated in the name of Islam, has been dominated by condemnation and denunciation. As it must be. Targeting innocents -- whether they are Israeli children on their way to school or the nearly 3,000 Americans who showed up to work one day and found it would be their last -- can never be excused. And we must unapologetically wage war on those who seek to destroy us.
At the same time, we can't simply wish future violence and terrorism away by relegating it to the domain of irrational, crazed fanaticism. We cannot say that "they hate us for who we are" and leave it at that.
Beyond the small hardcore of terrorists who slaughter innocents are tens of millions of Arabs and Muslims who sympathize with the terrorists' anger but disagree with their means of expressing it. This is not some nebulous group. It's people like my relatives in Egypt, who repeatedly tell me that we deserved Sept. 11. People like my friends in Egypt and Jordan, who feel that in my Americanness I have betrayed my brethren, the oppressed, and the humiliated.
We can call these people enemies and say they are lost to us. It would be easy, because these views are indeed reprehensible. Or we can articulate a new strategy, one which, without condoning violence, acknowledges their grievances and their very real sense of being wronged by history. We can seek to better understand why the Middle East has become a graveyard of shattered hopes and an open wound that threatens world security. And we can work to address the unacceptable fact that, while much of the rest of the world moves forward, many Arab and Muslim populations live in economic misery under brutal autocratic regimes -- many of which the U.S. supports with foreign aid.
That's not to excuse violence as a prerogative of the oppressed. Suggesting that Muslims have licence to kill due to the fact of their oppression is offensive and patronizing, for it expects less of them than we expect of ourselves.
Nor do I want to imply that all the anger toward America is warranted. Instead of blaming America (and Israel) for their problems, Muslims would be better off working to effect change in their societies. As Obama said in Tuesday's speech: "anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition."
But Obama is right that in order to address that anger and radicalism -- whether it comes from the young Muslim underclass or in a milder form from pastor Jeremiah Wright and others in the black community -- we must understand the context in which grievances came to be and target the conditions that continue to nurture those grievances.
On Tuesday, watching his speech from Jordan, I felt for the first time in a while that we could begin coming to terms with the past and accounting for the injustices committed against those at home, and those abroad, who are waiting to see what America will do next.