An Acceptable Unilateral Action

President Obama speaks in Cairo

“So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. This cycle of suspicion and discord must end.”

This is an excerpt from President Obama’s speech in Cairo. It is a fairly straightforward statement that most reasonable people would agree on. Obama also understands that it is not enough to simply want an end to conflict and to develop trust. We must also work towards these goals. However, prior to the delivery of this speech many American politicians and pundits criticized President Obama about the first steps towards a more peaceful, just and trusting world. These first steps are acknowledgment of dignity and an authentic apology.

“I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” From the start of his presidency, President Obama has taken steps to show both the United States citizens and the rest of the world that the United States cannot exist without the rest of the world, that the United States is not a nation of one religion and one people–that our relationships are intertwined and our people are diverse originating around the globe.
“I do so recognizing that change cannot happen overnight. No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, nor can I answer in the time that I have all the complex questions that brought us to this point. But I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors. There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground. As the Holy Koran tells us, “Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.” That is what I will try to do – to speak the truth as best I can, humbled by the task before us, and firm in my belief that the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart.”

President Obama’s apologies for the actions of the past on behalf of the United States are nothing to be ashamed of. Apology, while a humbling gesture, is an important tradition in most of the world’s religions, and is a central position of all three Abrahamic faiths. President Obama, while not running for office on a religious platform, has not shied away from the positive use of religion while in office, and has done so with more respect towards religion than the so called “religious” candidates. His apologies have been respectful and deep. Beyond just acknowledging past wrongs, he has expressed remorse and has started a process of showing the rest of the world that it will never happen again: working to close Guantanamo and ending torture. Furthermore, President Obama has shown a desire to deepen the level of apology even more by seeking justice, through partnerships and mutual gain.

We cannot undo what has been done. History moves in one direction. We can however, heal emotional traumas and repair damaged relationships. The first step is acknowledging the dignity of those we have wronged. The second step is an honest and deep apology that acknowledges our wrongdoing and attempts to serve justice. Justice is a key component, without it the apology is a hollow gesture.

Unlike war and military action, an apology can make positive progressive change. An apology is also an acceptable unilateral action.

By Jay Filipi: MS Candidate,  Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (ICAR), George Mason University. Arlington, VA

© Marc Gopin