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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Echoes of Cairo

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Slim as an iPhone and just as adept at communication, U.S. President Barack Obama gave a speech in Cairo that has changed the game. His words were blunt but even-handed. Insincere rhetoric always rings hollow, but truth has its own timbre. People can feel it and they respond to it.

Afterward, the predictable grumbling was that words are one thing, deeds another. But simply traveling to Cairo was a bold act when he could have just as easily sent a video or invited Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to the White House.

There were immediate practical repercussions in the June 7 Lebanese parliamentary elections, where, surprisingly, the pro-U.S. coalition defeated the one led by Hezbollah. His words were also closely heeded by the young Iranian voters who turned out in droves on June 12.

Not all the response has been positive. Osama bin Laden tried to upstage Obama by releasing an audio cassette a few days before the Cairo speech. Some Turkish nationalists, for example, were skeptical, comparing Obama to Napoleon, whom they say also respected Islam but still sought to conquer and dominate it. Obama's speech may have two distinctly different consequences -- it may cause the Muslim majority to shift away from passive, tacit support of radical Islam and for that very reason may motivate the extremists to take even more drastic, polarizing acts.

In this shift of atmosphere and direction, there are dangers and opportunities for Russia. Unlike the United States, which has a less than 1 percent Muslim population, Russia has at least 10 percent, or some 14 million. That community is at the moment hardly serene. Though the campaign against the Chechen separatists has now been officially declared won, as recently as late May, thousands of Chechen policeman accompanied by federal troops were still tracking the "illegal armed formations" in the Assa river valley near Ingushetia, where much of the action has moved. Last Wednesday, an anti-Islamist senior judge there was assassinated across from the kindergarten where she had just dropped off her children. On June 5, Dagestan's interior minister, a man with many and varied enemies, was assassinated by a sniper at a wedding.

Street-level Islamophobia continues to run high, with skinhead attacks on Central Asian gastarbeiters hardly ameliorated by the economic crisis. Under pressure from the Russian Orthodox Church and nationalists, the construction of mosques continues to be highly restricted in big cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, which have burgeoning Muslim populations. This, of course, alienates Muslim moderates, as does the fact that their political representation remains disproportionately low.

The Kremlin's attempts to re-exert influence on many Central Asian nations that were once part of the Soviet Union have caused them to bypass Russia in favor of the U.S., EU and China. Russia seems to be in the process of alienating both its own Islamic population and its Islamic neighbors.

President Dmitry Medvedev had a perfect opportunity to make a major address to his Muslim constituency in the aftermath of the assassination of Dagestan's interior minister. Instead of establishing a new level of communication, he fell back into the tired rhetoric of blaming murky unnamed foreign forces. The Russian leadership has yet to realize that it is not enough just to control the means of communication. The Muslim world has shown itself to be avid for a voice that speaks to it and of it. And that includes Russia's Muslim community. The echoes of Cairo will yet reverberate in Grozny and Kazan.

Richard Lourie is the author of "The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin" and "Sakharov: A Biography."