It’s worth taking a closer look at President Obama’s speech at the University of Cairo, June 4, 2009. Obama’s greeting of peace, assalaamu alaykum (peace be upon you) was loudly cheered because it signalled he knew where he was and that he had respect for the place and the people. But his speech was more than a tip of the hat to a potentially hostile audience. It was a speech from America to the Muslim world, from one people to another, and the President did something I’ve never heard a national leader do before: he started with stories.
I don’t mean stories from the rubber chicken circuit (“Hey, did you hear the one about the Jew the Muslim and the Christian …”) I mean the stories of nations.
To quote from his speech:
The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of co-existence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars. More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations.
In other words, he fessed up to the history of the West’s colonial adventures in the Middle East and, later in the speech, of his own countrymen in Iraq. It was more than an
acknowledgment of history; it was a validation of the Muslim story as told by
Obama then acknowledged the value of Islam and the West’s ancient debt to the Muslim world:
As a student of history, I also know civilization’s debt to Islam. It was Islam – at places like Al-Azhar University – that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment.
It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation … And throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality.
Obama was applauded for that statement and many similar, but he did not purchase his applause at the expense of his own country, for he was as adamant about the contributions of America:
The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known.” And he also made it clear that, “it is my first duty as President to protect the American people.
Do you see what he was doing? Obama was telling the stories of both Muslim nations and America with respect and accuracy and asserting the intrinsic value of both. He was charting a course in parallel to the Other in which both are to be allowed to plot their own futures in peace
This method was never clearer than in the part of his speech that dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He acknowledged the suffering of both the Jews in the Holocaust and
the Palestinians in the refugee camps on the West Bank. Neither denying Israel
the right to exist, nor colonizing Palestinian lands will dissolve the hated.
Again he reached for stories – the ancient myth of three peoples whose common
ancestor is Abraham. And again the lesson is taken from Islam, from “the story
of Isra, when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed (peace be upon them) joined in prayer.”
As the President pointed out, the separate stories of Jews, Christians and Muslims – our cultural myths (“myth” is just an old Greek word for “story”, albeit a story of defining power for a people) – are not all that different. They put all three peoples on ground that
is surprisingly solid. From this common ground, he addressed several difficult
matters: democracy, religious freedom, nuclear weapons, women’s rights, the
developed world and the developing world.
In his concluding paragraphs, he demonstrates what Muslims, Jews and Christians have in common by quoting from our separate mythologies:
The Holy Koran tells us, ‘O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.’
The Talmud tells us: ‘The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace.’
The Holy Bible tells us, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.’”
So, the mid-East is the birth-place for three great cultures and, for better or worse, we have at least that much in common. If stories are the starting point for understanding a people, then place is the starting point for understanding their stories – Moses, Jesus and Mohammed prayed together in the same land in which God created Adam and Eve. As the sign at the entrance to the Ziibiwing Heritage Centre of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe
in Michigan says, “All creation myths are true.”
I would go further: all myths are true. I don’t mean all stories: hockey does not define Canadians, well not all of us anyway and certainly not as a people. I mean myths that arise from being in a particular place and that define who we are. If you think about it, most
of those are stories about spirit and its connection with place. I can hear the
old Celtic as well as the not so old English ideas of land and spirit in our modern
Canadian plays, novels, court rulings and legislation.
In this regard, Canada is a difficult country. Most of our mythologies come from somewhere else. They are all as true as anyone else’s, but here is not their birth-place. And the languages we use to tell them (French, English, Polish, Greek, Chinese, Urdu, Yoruba,
Tamil and a whole lot more) are also rooted in lands other than North America.
Those whose stories and spirit and languages do come from this place are Aboriginal, literally “from the beginning.” Aboriginal peoples are our Other. Even more so than the French for the English or the English for the French, for both have been dealing (and not
well) with Turtle Island peoples for 400 years. And now Chinese, Jamaicans, Tamils, Indians – the real ones, from India – are also not dealing very well with Turtle
Island peoples. Turtle Island is what Aboriginal peoples call North America – the source of
their stories, spirit and language. The name itself, Turtle Island, has its origins in Aboriginal myths.
If President Obama is on to something – if we can begin to understand the Other from their mythologies – then we must ask, how well do we know the stories at the heart of Aboriginal culture? For their myths – those stories that define a people – are very
different from ours. There is, I think, more that separates us from First
Nations than from Muslim nations. But that’s all the more reason to start with the
stories of Turtle Island.
“How well do we know their stories” is not an idle question. We are about to hear their stories yet again – from the new Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Shawn Atleo, and from residential school victims during the Truth and Reconciliation hearings. Some of what they tell us we won’t want to hear. But listen we must and, this time,
try to understand them from their point of view – from the point of view of Aboriginal
I hope the media is prepared to do as good a job in teaching us about Aboriginal culture
as they have been about Muslim culture. We all know stories about land claims and
Aboriginal rights because the media has reported the facts of the disputes; but
do we understand what it is about Aboriginal culture that sets First Nations so
at odds with the rest of Canadian society?
We know about residential schools and we know that they have done harm, but do we know why? What is it, exactly, about Aboriginal ways of raising children, of seeing
the world, of knowing the spiritual, of relating to one another and to the land
that was so damaged by residential schools? And why is it that our governments’
policies and practices continue to offend and seem to have no effect on the
well-being of Aboriginal peoples?
I suspect the answer lies somewhere in our separate mythologies. All myths are true, but they are not all the same. Perhaps giving people the room to be different by
starting with their stories as they wish them told is to let peace settle upon us all.
July 1, 2009
© David McLaren