Much has been written about Muslim responses to Obama’s Cairo speech and how it has resonated across the Muslim world. Many have commented on the new President’s skillful handling of the political issues that have so deeply affected US-Muslim relations. However, an underappreciated but equally important dimension of his speech involves its widespread religious appeal. As the Gallup world poll of some 35 Muslim countries has documented, vast majorities of Muslims see religion as an important component in their lives and a critical element in the future progress of their societies. Muslims who are not particularly religiously observant nevertheless identify with their Islamic heritage. Therefore, although the majority of those polled said they admired many things about the West, and in particular about America (its technology, work ethic, freedoms, democracy), Muslims’ major grievance against the West is what they identify as the denigration of Islam and Muslims, as well as the extent to which Arabs and Muslims are seen by the West as inferior and not of equal value.
Obama offset the suspicion and belief that American foreign policy was influenced by the beliefs and designs of the Christian Right, intent upon spreading its version of God’s message and rule. Bush used the phrase “Crusades” (for which he later apologized) and in later years commonly spoke of Islamofascism; the Pentagon employed the term “Infinite Justice” as its code name for the war against terror, Franklin Graham, who had delivered the invocation prayer at George Bush’s inauguration and insistently labeled Islam as an evil religion, had also been invited to deliver a Good Friday sermon at the Pentagon. Many in the Muslim world and in Europe and elsewhere had wondered about the extent to which born again Christians in the Bush administration (Bush, Ashcroft, members of the senior military) and Congress were influenced by their Christian fundamentalist and Hardline Zionist Christian Right beliefs and supporters.
Many in the Muslim world and in Europe understandably wondered about the extent to which the Bush administration (Bush, Ashcroft, members of the senior military and Congress) was influenced by their Hardline Zionist Christian Right roots and supporters. The tendency of some Christian fundamentalist missionaries to celebrate the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan as an act of God, and rush to convert Muslims exacerbated the belief that American foreign policy was fulfilling a Christian fundamentalist agenda.
In stark contrast, Barack Obama was now dramatically reflecting a different kind of Christianity, an empathetic understanding that paves the way for accepting Muslims in America as valued citizens who have fought in our wars, excelled in businesses, universities, and sports, who won Nobel prizes and lit the Olymbic torch. He creatively noted that the first Muslim American recently elected to Congress took his oath to defend our constitution using the Koran that Thomss Jefferson kept in his personal library.
In Cairo, Obama demonstrated his personal knowledge and experience of Islam, as well as his appreciation of Islamic religion and culture. He addressed his audience with the traditional Muslim greeting, asalaam wa alaykum (Peace be upon you). He spoke glowingly of Islamic civilization, identifying Cairo’s Al-Azhar University as the oldest and most authoritative seat of Islamic learning that he said “carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment.” He praised the innovation of Muslim communities concretely citing numerous achievements, including development of “the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation, our mastery of pens and printing, our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed.” He noted the” majestic arches and soaring spires, timeless poetry and cherished music, elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation” that Islamic culture has contributed to the world. Finally he held up the “symbol of Andalusia, a period when Jews, Christians and Muslims lived together under Muslim rule and culture flourished”, concluding that “throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality.”
Nothing could have been more welcome for many Muslims frustrated with the equation of the their faith with the rants and acts of terrorism of Osama and other terrorists and the growth of Islamophobia in America and Europe, than to hear Obama call for a partnership between America and Islam “based on what Islam is, not what it isn’t” and to assert his responsibility as President of the States “to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.”
Obama spoke both as American president and a Christian believer. But he also described his personal connections to Islam, his Muslim father and members of his family, his schooling, memories of hearing the call to prayer and experiencing Muslim culture in Indonesia. Obama deftly cited the Koran, spoke of Islam as one of the three Abrahamic religions and respectfully referred to the linkage between Muhammad, Moses and Jesus, seen by Muslims as the bearers of God’s revelation in the Torah and gospels. In naming these prophets Obama followed Muslim practice by adding the phrase, “Peace and blessings be upon them.” As he spoke I remembered vividly the frustration of a major American Muslim leader after hearing Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell denounce the Prophet Muhammad. Extremely upset, my friend said. “They denounce and damn our Prophet but we cannot respond in kind. We also love Moses and Jesus, They are also our prophets.” My friend’s two sons are named Musa (Moses) and Issa (Jesus), which are very common Muslim names.
Perhaps the most striking statement, one that would echo across the Muslim world was Obama’s mention of Jerusalem, one of the great sacred cities of Islam and a major hurdle in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. Only shortly after Benjamin Netanyahu appealed to a belief that Jerusalem is the eternal capitol of Israel and will remain solely under Israeli control, Obama described the Holy Land of three great faiths, the place of peace that God intended, and identified a radically different goal, a Jerusalem that is the secure and lasting home for Jews, Christians and Muslims, a place for all of the children of Abraham.
To speak most convincingly to Muslims globally requires recognition of the importance and role of identity politics. While one can compares the distinctive elements of Barack Obama’s speech with those of his predecessors in the White House, there can be no comparison when it comes to the ground-breaking, and powerful religious dimension of Obama’s address to the Muslim world.