President Obama and Muslims

By John Borelli
Most of us probably heard his words, “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers.” Two sentences later in his inaugural address, President Obama signaled a shift in foreign policy, “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”
This is the first time the word “Muslim” has been in an inaugural speech. In 2001, President Bush mentioned “mosque” when he foretold a White House program for faith-based initiatives, “Church and charity, synagogue and mosque, lend our communities their humanity and they will have an honored place in our plans and in our laws.” Of course, after 9/11, President Bush had numerous occasions to talk to and about Muslims. In his 2005 inaugural address, he even referred to the Qur’an, “That edifice of character [governance of the self] is built in families, supported by communities with standards, and sustained in our national life by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran, and the varied faiths of our people.” In the next sentence, he affirmed values gained from the Qur’an: “Americans move forward in every generation by reaffirming all that is good and true that came before: ideals of justice and conduct that are the same yesterday, today and forever.” While he spoke often in such positive ways, his administration eventually alienated itself from Muslims at home and abroad.
Barack Hussein Obama in his person speaks volumes to Muslims worldwide: Muslim father, Muslim name, sojourned and educated for a time in the most populous Muslim nation, now President of the United States.
While President Bush followed the usual ways in listing the three major U. S. faith traditions, either by involvement in the U.S. political and social arena, “church and charity, synagogue and mosque” or by traditional order, “Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran,” few American Muslims missed President Obama’s order, “Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus . . . .” Separation of church and state prevents the counting of people by religious faith in the decennial census, but many who do keep count believe that Muslims surpassed Jews years ago. The U.S. Jewish community has been stable at slightly less than 6 million for at least two decades while the Muslim community has been steadily increasing since immigration reform in 1965.
Between his two references to Muslims, President Obama spoke eloquently on January 20 about how “we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united” and how we, as a people, “cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass” and “that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve” so that “our common humanity shall reveal itself.”
Then, he referred to “the Muslim world,” as the first of four groups addressed. It was monumental for him to address Muslims across the globe in the first place, but it was disheartening to hear a standard and divisive cliché. As Aloysius Mowe, SJ put it in a January 26 posting on the “On Faith” website, “It may be convenient to speak of the ‘Muslim world’ in a speech, but there are dangers in painting with so broad a brush when it comes to the articulation and implementation of policy.” In short, there is no “Muslim world.” Mowe is a Jesuit from Malaysia and a Woodstock International Visiting Fellow this year. Just substitute “Christian” or “Hindu,” he suggests, and you see the problem. From the start, this administration needs to demonstrate a beginner’s knowledge, beyond generalizations and monolithic misunderstandings, that the world’s Muslims live in a variety of nations and cultures, most of whom live in democracies or should be governed through free elections and hold a variety of political, social, and religious views.
On February 4, Georgetown University’s Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding hosted a panel, “Obama’s Challenges in the Muslim World.” Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya, the Dubaibased satellite channel, and to whom President Obama granted his first face-to-face interview on January 26, praised the new President for these and other initial steps. He was less upbeat about how much needs to be undone. He noted on the positive side that the President is willing to hear proposals from leaders in the Middle East but on the negative side the long-standing U.S. commitment to Israel often incapacitates any proposal from fulfillment.
Aaron David Miller, after two decades in the State Department, was more specific. He warned how the Middle East hates big ideas and how U. S. policy, guided by a “split the difference” approach, fails every time. He recommended two courses: make success an ideology and support conflict-ending resolutions that address nagging issues, like borders, refugees, land, water, and adjudication. Paula Newberg, newly appointed Professor of Diplomacy and Director of Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, addressed principally Pakistan and Afghanistan. She cautioned the new administration to realize differences between local agenda and an international agenda and between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. While 19th century British history may be useful, she suggested, it is more important to consider mistakes of the past 15 years. Weak leadership and a vulnerable economy to sustain the population should be of principal concern. She was followed by John Esposito, founding Director of the Alwaleed Center. He reviewed the findings in Who Speaks for Islam?, which he published a year ago with Dalia Mogahed of Gallup. He urged the President to take note of what the Gallup World Poll had discovered, particularly the “counterintuitive discoveries”: Muslims focus on better economic times and jobs, not on fighting jihad; they are as likely as Americans to reject radicals and terrorism; they admire western technology and democracy and least admire western moral decay and the breakdown of traditional values—in the same numbers as Americans.
All this reminds me of how Nostra Aetate called on all of good will to forget the past and join in dialogue and cooperation for the preservation and fostering of social justice, moral welfare, and peace and freedom. Pope John Paul II amended that Vatican II message in his post 9/11 World Day of Peace 2002 message, “No peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness.” Old hatreds and divisions may dissolve, but only through the kind of sustained reconciliation that got Barack Obama to the presidency. Now, more than ever before, with his help, there is opportunity for crossing thick barriers of misunderstanding with deep pilings in our religious and political history.
John Borelli, special assistant for interreligious initiatives to President John J. DeGioia of Georgetown University, is the U. S. Jesuit Conference’s National Coordinator for Interreligious Dialogue and Mission.

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