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Jonathan Power: Can Obama Marry the History of Islam with the Politics of Today?

Dante’s portrayal of Muhammad in hell is one of Western literature’s most egregiously racist, not to mention blasphemous, offerings. It leaves Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” in the shade. Still, until the post-September 11 anti-Muslim backlash and Germany and France’s block on Turkey’s accession to the European Union, there might have been good reason to think that the West was slowly, but surely, getting over its long-rooted prejudice.

Under President George H. W. Bush and his successor, Bill Clinton, America began its earnest attempts, after years of neglect, to woo the Arab peoples. George W. Bush undid all that. Now, in his masterful speech at the University of Cairo, President Barack Obama has not just turned the clock back to better days; rather, he has pushed it forward as fast as anyone could have imagined a year ago. It was a personal triumph for Mr. Obama and, judging by the audience’s reaction and that of millions of Muslims around the world glued to their television sets, a triumph for all living Muslim people. At last, the West’s most important leader has put them on parity with Christian and Jewish peoples. The Muslims themselves may never have doubted the profound intrinsic qualities and virtues of their faith, but Westerners long had. Indeed, Obama’s speech was as much aimed at a home audience as it was to the Islamic world.

David A. Andelman: Strawberries Beneath the Chadors

The pair of Iranian women, clad head-to-foot in black chadors are sitting on the floor in the ante-room waiting patiently, hopefully, desperately for the audience with their president that they hope might lift a tiny corner of the curtain of poverty that had enveloped them. Hours had passed and they are becoming increasingly frustrated. “I swear on the Koran, I can’t afford strawberries,” moans one. “I swear on the Koran, my child wanted strawberries. I had to save three weeks to buy them.” “You have to put on a strong face for your children,” says her friend. “Like a movie actress.” Then it all begins pouring out. The frustration, the panic, the desperation. Three weeks to wait for strawberries, and then $4 a kilo. I wait three weeks to go to the government subsidized store. It’s cheaper. Bananas are $2 a kilo. No milk, no yogurt, no meat. What should we eat? Yesterday, I was on the bus. Someone had bought some meat. And I wanted it. I asked her 'how much'? She bought it for $17. That little meat in her hand cost $17. We are retired with just $200 a month. So Mr. Ahmadinejad, what should we eat?” This dialogue was at the heart of an extraordinary documentary record assembled by the international filmmaker Petr Lom, whose “Letters to the President” will be shown on June 10 on HBO. That’s two days before voters will go to the polls in Iran to elect their new president, or re-elect the incumbent. The documentary revolves around one central component of the re-election strategy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—the letters that two million or more people have sent, e-mailed, or simply flung at him in his barnstorming trips around the nation. Nearly all the letters have one overwhelming theme: help me. I have no money, no job, my family is in desperate straits. Few receive any help or even real encouragement. Most will receive a reply. In a handful of cases, there is money attached. But for most, it is like the lottery. A few win. Most lose. But will hope spring eternal?

Jonathan Power: Can the European Parliament Help Change Europe?

Welcome to the new era of democracy. Elections for the European Parliament, whose 736 elected members represent the 500 million citizens of the 27 member states of the European Union, take place at the end of the week.

Not since the time of the Roman Empire has there been such an agglomeration of the peoples of the world. This election will be the biggest transnational election in the history of humanity.

But a tower of Babel it is not. The Parliament is the under-reported Cinderella of the European Union. When the Treaty of Lisbon comes into effect, after what seems likely to be a successful Irish referendum in October, a re-ordering of the governance of the EU will give the Parliament more power, and will strengthen the authority of the Council of Ministers with a permanent president. (Finally, as Henry Kissinger wryly observed, he'll only have only one phone number to dial). To some it appears to be a contradictory development, but there is no reason why both should not be able to tolerate each others' new powers.

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