Obama’s message to the world’s Muslims


by Dr. Ghulam M. Haniff | May 10, 2009 • In recent months President Barack Hussein Obama has delivered two messages, one after another, aimed at Muslims, designed to indicate that the U. S. foreign policy towards them is changing. The first one took place through an interview with correspondent Hisham Melham of TV Al-Arabiya and broadcast to the countries in the Middle East. The second one, carried by many television networks throughout the world, was a speech on the floor of the Grand National Assembly, the Turkish parliament.

Minnesota Muslims are finding themselves voiceless, discussed, defined, categorized, psychoanalyzed, talked at and talked about without a serious attempt at inclusion. Muslims, and friends of Muslims, would like to change this climate. Engage Minnesota is a blog that begins that effort.

Each one conveyed almost identical messages. The gist of each message was that America is reaching out to the Muslims and that the current administration would take concrete actions to engage the followers of Islam in building bridges of understanding and partnership.

In one of this speech he put it as follows: “To the Muslim World,” he began “we seek a new way forward.”

Obama explicitly spelled out that the new policy is not one that includes demonization of Islam, a style chosen by the previous administration to further their agenda of confrontation, but dwelt on the theme of seeking engagement with the followers of Islam. He particularly noted that the “United States has been enriched by American Muslims.”

President Obama made it clear to the listeners across the globe that “My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that Americans are not your enemy.”

On this point he emphatically pointed out that “many other Americans have Muslims in their families or have lived in a Muslim-majority country – I know because I am one of them.” This was perhaps an indirect reference before the Turkish parliament, where this speech was given, that Obama embodies an Islamic heritage being that his father was a Muslim from Kenya.

Early in his interview with the Arab news network Al-Arabiya he had declared: “I believe that all the world, whether they be Muslim, Christian, or any other religion, pray to the same God. That’s what I believe. I believe that Islam is a great religion that preaches peace.”

Obama was the quintessential candidate of change when he ran in the last presidential election. In his first trip abroad he was giving a new message, a reinvigorating one, which people were eager to embrace and relate to with considerable gusto. Though he had been in the White House only for three months he was making it clear to the global community that his rhetoric would be followed by actions seeking changes to accommodate to the realities of the emerging world order.

The remarks delivered in Ankara were closely monitored not only in the Middle East but in the entire world of Islam. Undoubtedly, the most refreshing and reassuring part of the Obama message was this single statement: “Let me say this as clearly as I can: The United States is not – and will never be – at war with Islam.” Hearing such a declaration by the top occupant of the White House must have been a sheer magic to the ears of most Muslim listeners wherever they happen to be. However, local media in many places indicated that there were also some skeptics disinclined to put trust in the new president in view of the poisoned relationship with the Islamic world during the eight years of Bush administration.

While most Muslims are willing to give the benefit of doubt to Obama, and willing to accept his reaching out as a sincere attempt, many people nevertheless want to see some concrete actions taken that would indicate that new policies are indeed being pursued. In view of repeated promises, and the invasion and killings of countless Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, words are no longer enough to mollify a suspicious population.

Muslims around the world have repeatedly said that they want not only words, having had their ears full of those from the last President, but deeds as well.

And in fairness it is patently clear that since Obama became President the level of anti-Islam rhetoric has substantially subsided in official Washington. We hardly ever hear the repulsive phrase “Islamic-terrorism” which was the specialty of Bush and many of his cronies, or “Islamo-fascism” the term relished by Senator Joe Lieberman, Rudy Giuliani and even Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

In the U.S. Senate only the rabid Arab-hater, Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), dared to seek actions against the Palestinians while the killings in Gaza were under way. However, his three amendments to the extension of humanitarian assistance in Gaza, all designed to place drastic restrictions on Gazans, were defeated.

Because he is backed by the powerful conservative elements in his home state of Arizona, Jon Kyl organized an anti-Islam panel, after his failure to punish Palestinians, in the Senate building featuring the wild-eyed Geert Wilders, the producer of Islamophobic movie “Submission.” However, on the same day, Senator John Kerry (D-MA), presented a panel in the same office complex on “Engaging the Muslim communities around the world” consisting of three experts, Rashad Hussain, the deputy associate counsel in the Obama administration; Dalia Mogahed, the head of the Gallup Center for Muslim studies; and Eboo Patel, the founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core.

Each one brought a wealth of information to the forum, and Geert Wilders’ patently negative diatribe was no match to the words of these activist American Muslims who had considerable experience in community organizing at the grassroots.

The Islam-bashing game in Washington is indeed changing as a popular president, with a global outlook and a vision for a more humane world, begins to consolidate his power in the nation’s capital.

While Muslims may chafe over the Palestinian issue and several other long-held grievances, one of the first appointments of President Obama was George Mitchell, making him a special envoy to the Middle East. Mitchell lost no time in getting to work and recently declared that the only solution to the Palestinians conflict is to have two sovereign states side by side living in peace.

When he began his Al-Arabiya interview, the first item Obama discussed was the issue of Palestine, and in that context he emphasized the importance of peace for finding common grounds, by stating: “The future must belong to those who create, not those who destroy. That is the future we must work for, and we must work for it together.”

Ghulam M. Haniff teaches at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minn. This article is adapted from a version that first appeared on the web site of the weekly newspaper Pakistan Link. Dr. Haniff has served on the board of the Minnesota Academic Excellence Foundation, a state agency.

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