Young, Jamaican and Muslim:
receiving others with tenderness and mercy

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 democra-

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This page last updated: October 9, 2009

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