Special to the AmNews
As expected, when addressing the U.N. General Assembly Wednesday morning, President Barack Obama had a full agenda of crucial items, but the bulk of his more than 40-minute speech was directed to the current crisis in the Middle East. Watching the ribbon of news running under his image on CNN, it was telling to know that as he spoke, U.S. airstrikes may have been occurring in Syria and Iraq to root out the “violent cancer of extremism.”
From the very beginning of his address to the world body, he posed a set of opposites: the “crossroads between war and peace; between disorder and integration; between fear and hope.” And at the end of his speech, he returned to these crossroad, informing all that America “will not be distracted or deterred from what must be done. We are heirs to a proud legacy of freedom, and we are prepared to do what is necessary to secure that legacy for generations to come.”
But there was a lot of important, troubling ground to cover before he brought these crossroads together, none more challenging than the conflict now raging against the forces of “evil,” represented by the Islamic State group, or ISIS or ISIL. After touching briefly on the Ebola virus ravaging West Africa, Russia’s advance into the Ukraine, the nuclear threat posed by Iran and seemingly endless turmoil between Israelis and Palestinians, the president warmed to his topic.
He said there were four areas that the international community must contend with in the push for world peace, and terrorism was at the top of the list. “This group,” he said, referring to the Islamic State group, “has terrorized all who they come across in Iraq and Syria. Mothers, sisters and daughters have been subjected to rape as a weapon of war. Innocent children have been gunned down. Bodies have been dumped in mass graves. Religious minorities have been starved to death. In the most horrific crimes imaginable, innocent human beings have been beheaded, with videos of the atrocity distributed to shock the conscience of the world.”
Obama said that 40 nations are now part of the coalition to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State group, and five of them—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Jordan—are in some way part of the current airstrikes by U.S. warplanes and missiles from ships.
Secondly, he said, “it is time for the world—especially Muslim communities—to explicitly, forcefully and consistently reject the ideology of al-Qaeda and ISIL. It is the task of all great religions to accommodate devout faith with a modern, multicultural world. No children anywhere should be educated to hate other people. There should be no more tolerance of so-called clerics who call upon people to harm innocents because they are Jewish, Christian or Muslim. It is time for a new compact among the civilized peoples of this world to eradicate war at its most fundamental source: the corruption of young minds by violent ideology.” At the end of his speech, he would return to the children to emphasize his message of education over ignorance.
His third point was the need “to address the cycle of conflict,” particularly sectarian conflict “that creates the conditions that terrorists prey upon.” He said there was nothing new about wars within religions. “Christianity endured centuries of vicious sectarian conflict,” he noted. “Today, it is violence within Muslim communities that has become the source of so much human misery.”
“My fourth and final point is a simple one,” he said. “The countries of the Arab and Muslim world must focus on the extraordinary potential of their people—especially the youth.” He then expressed an interest to speak directly to the young Muslims across the world. “You come from a great tradition that stands for education, not ignorance; innovation, not destruction; the dignity of life, not murder. Those who turn you away from this path are betraying this tradition, not defending it. You have demonstrated that when young people have the tools to succeed—good schools; education in math and science; an economy that nurtures creativity and entrepreneurship—then societies flourish. So America will partner with those who promote that vision.”
Although this address was clearly an opportunity for the president to speak about the global problems, there was a quick nod to some of the trouble on the home front.
“I realize,” he began, “that America’s critics will be quick to point out that at times we too have failed to live up to our ideals, that America has plenty of problems within our own borders. This is true. In a summer marked by instability in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, I know the world also took notice of the small American city of Ferguson, Missouri, where a young man was killed, and a community was divided. So yes, we have our own racial and ethnic tensions. And like every country, we continually wrestle with how to reconcile the vast changes wrought by globalization and greater diversity with the traditions that we hold dear.”
And this mention of Ferguson was underscored by the breaking news that a memorial for Michael Brown, the young man killed there, had been burned.