Commentary: When Obama speaks to the Arabs

Special to McClatchy NewspapersMay 19, 2011 

When President Barack Obama speaks this week to the Arab and Muslim world, addressing the uprisings of the Arab Spring and trying to reach out and end the wave of hostility between the Muslims and the West, he needs to know to whom he speaks.

These are not Americans or Europeans with centuries of experience in writing and observing and counting on laws to protect them as individuals and as a nation.

He will be speaking to people who have lived all their lives in constant fear — never saying exactly what they think, never opening up with strangers, never daring to compete with the established elites in business and organizations or ideas.

Life in the shadows of the secret police and the intelligence agencies creates a mentality of subservience, fear and caution.

When the Hebrews left slavery in Egypt and followed Moses into the desert, they immediately began to complain about the lack of food and water. They were afraid of the people of Moab, Amnon and Edom who lay in their path.

So the Bible tells us God told Moses to let the Hebrews wander for 40 years in the wilderness so that all those brought up with the mindset of slavery would die out. Only then would he allow the Hebrews to enter the promised land of Canaan.

Perhaps the Arabs of Tunisia and Egypt have begun their own 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. Perhaps the majority of the people in those countries will need to pass away before a new generation can arise that does not fear to speak out, to question authority, to mold with their own hands the clay of a new society.

President Obama, do not ask them to do what cannot be done. Perhaps all one can ask is that the elders and the elites and the militaries of these countries maintain peace and allow the new voices to strengthen and create the new institutions that will be hothouses of new thoughts — untainted by the decades of dictatorship.

Above all, Mr. President, please tell the Arab peoples that this is their moment to act, in small as well as big ways. We can’t do it for you. America is often accused in Cairo and Sana and Baghdad of manipulating the Arab world and propping up dictators. Let us not be also accused of propping up those who would replace the dictators.

Please, Mr. President, remind the Arab nations — the ordinary people who will make or break these revolutions as well as the leaders — that America cannot and must not be involved in shaping their future.

The Arab people know all too well that insecurity becomes a hothouse of its own kind, letting the thorny weeds of crime, religious hatred, ethnic conflict, corruption, fraud and terror overrun the nobility and decency that we all saw on display in Tahrir Square and elsewhere.

For more than 30 years, I’ve made visits to Arab and Muslim lands and learned how to touch the warm heart that beats under the gelabas and other robes we sometimes unfortunately see only as exotic garb, obscuring the humanity underneath.

If you want to reach out as a friend to these people, Mr. President, remind them that they must ask: “is the time right?” Can change take place right away? Is there a period in the desert before Egyptians and Tunisians will be able to respect their neighbors and trust each other so that a common social value can rule – in place of the secret police?

When an old man walking in the public street leans down to pick up a piece of paper trash and drop it in a garbage bin — taking responsibility for the common ground — then the Arab world will be close to the promised land.

When the young men in leather jackets and hard faces on street corners and in alley ways rush forward to help a young family with their baby carriage, or direct a tourist with cameras and cash towards a market or museum, the promised land is not so far away.

America cannot change the Arab world. Only the Arab world can do that.

When Alexander de Tocqueville, the French writer, visited America in the 1840s, he wrote of the unique American society in which ordinary people volunteer to form political and social institutions which produce a sense of citizen responsibility for the general values of all.

Mr. President, we who live inside the oxygen of liberty and self-responsibility and trust, are unaware that we do so. It is the air we breathe and the ideas we grew up with. But there are many places in the world where people grow up breathing the noxious gases of fear, domination, fraud, nepotism, insecurity and hostility.

Pledge to continue assisting the non-government organizations that call for human rights, democracy, the free press and justice. But expect a long a winding journey through the hostile desert of ideas that have dominated these countries for so long.

Let the Arab people know that one day all of us will meet in the promised land in which every individual knows freedom, education and a chance to add a bit to the collective edifice of human society.

We can’t do it for them. But we can urge them on. And let them know that watching their patriots perish in the streets of Syria and Yemen and Bahrain is touching our hearts too.


Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor,, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2011 by He can be reached at

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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