Page last updated at 17:58 GMT, Saturday, 30 May 2009 18:58 UK

Why Obama's Cairo speech matters

Muslim demonstrators burn a US flag (library image)
President Obama wants to rebuild relations with the Muslim and Arab world

Barack Obama travels to the Middle East next week for an event of huge importance to him and his presidency. Officials promised that early on, he would travel to a Muslim nation and make a speech redefining US relations with Islam. It could be a turning point, says BBC North America editor Justin Webb.

I cannot remember where I was - it is a blur now, the election - but somewhere out in the middle states, the "flyover states" they call them, an incident occurred which has direct relevance to Thursday's presidential speech.

The Republican candidate John McCain was holding a cosy town hall chat during which supporters were primed to throw wicked questions - "Why are you so wonderful? Why is your health plan so superior?" etc.

On this occasion a woman made her way to the stage and sat just inches from the candidate. She did not have a question, she had a statement.

Barack Obama, she said, is a danger to America - he is an Arab. Mr McCain, who has a short temper at the best of times, lunged at her.

Fundamental prejudice

I can still see the move as the audience froze in horror. He grabbed the microphone off her and then uttered these immortal words: "No Ma'am, he is a family man!"

McCain on Obama 'Arab' comment

Of course the whole of sophisticated America laughed - not just at the woman but at Mr McCain as well, who had intended to rebuke his supporter but in fact had rather given wings to her fundamental prejudice that Arabs (Muslims is what she meant) are not family men and women.

That is a strand of American thinking about the Muslim world, it is undeniable. Out in Nowhereville they do not have a high opinion of the culture of Islam. Part of it is inspired by America's own intense religious belief.

'My God is bigger'

President Bush referred at one stage to the Iraq conflict as a "crusade". He quickly withdrew that description but it was a useful reminder that American Protestants do not shrink from violent conflict.

Students in front of Cairo university, where President Obama is to speak
Mr Obama vowed to make a speech on Muslim ties early in his presidency

In one of the more bizarre episodes of the Iraq debacle it was reported that the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, had his intelligence briefs for President Bush plastered with biblical verses: "Open the gates that the righteous nation may enter" etc.

One of Mr Rumsfeld's most senior generals was on record as saying that, during a previous battle with a Muslim warlord in Somalia, he knew he would win because his God was bigger than the warlord's!

Lt-Gen William Boykin also believed that the 9/11 attacks on the US came because America was a Christian nation. In other words he embraced, and presumably still does, the idea that Islam and Christianity are at war.

Going too far?

All of this Mr Obama will address in Cairo on Thursday.

Again the headlines from this speech will be about the outreach

I doubt Mr Boykin will get a mention, but the simplistic attitudes will. In effect, Mr Obama will tell the Muslim world: "We accept that you are family men [and women]."

And yet. There is a danger here. A danger that is being pointed out with ever increasing vigour by domestic critics of the president, a danger that he goes too far.

Go to Wichita, Kansas, ground zero of Nowhereville and the heartland of American Evangelism, fizzing with creationists and crusaders, and what do you find? A mosque.

Here in the centre of the nation, the Kansas tornado belt, Dorothy's home in the Wizard of Oz, a gentle acceptance of religious pluralism. A day-to-day rubbing along.

Such pluralism can be found in parts of the Muslim world of course, but is absent in much of it. Mr Obama visits Saudi Arabia next week where apostasy is punishable by death.

Then Egypt, for the big speech, where a recent culling of pigs - swine flu was the excuse - was widely believed to be an attack on the Coptic Christians who tended them.

President Obama visits a Washington hamburger restaurant
Advisers say the president will not shy away from "tough issues" in Cairo

And it is not just religious freedom. Egypt is a politically repressive nation where a democracy movement flourished briefly with support from the Bush White House, but has now been cut loose by Mr Obama and his secretary of state, Mrs Clinton, who said recently that she considered Egypt's autocratic leader, President Mubarak, to be a family friend.

Mr Obama's critics ask: "What's wrong with freedom, with democracy, with pluralism and the rule of law? Why should we go to Cairo (of all places) and apologise for these things?"

Challenge to Muslims

Of course he is aware of that, and I expect this speech to be thoughtfully weighted. There will be an acceptance that the "family man problem", as we might term it, must be addressed: America needs to respect Islamic culture.

But I suspect as well that there will be a challenge to Muslims in the speech, a passage that says you, too, have your share of work to do if this relationship is to change for the better.

He did it in Europe when he told French youngsters that it was time to stop sneering at America. They heard him in silence and the passage did not make news.

Again the headlines from this speech will be about the outreach but it seems to me the real story is the reaction.

Change has come to America but for it to work, others need to notice and bring it to their worlds as well.

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