City of Brass

In the opening to his Cairo speech, President Obama said that he brought not just the goodwill of the American people as a whole with him, but also “a greeting of peace from Muslim communities in [our] country: assalaamu alaykum“. This was one of the themes in his speecch as a whole, that Islam and America are not separate entities but bound together – and the glue that binds are we muslim-Americans ourselves.

Here are some relevant excerpts from his speech in which Obama referred to American Islam:

obama_cairo.png I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.

[…] I know, too, that Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second President John Adams wrote, “The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.” And since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States. They have fought in our wars, served in government, stood for civil rights, started businesses, taught at our Universities, excelled in our sports arenas, won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building, and lit the Olympic Torch. And when the first Muslim-American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Koran that one of our Founding Fathers – Thomas Jefferson – kept in his personal library.

[…] Much has been made of the fact that an African-American with the name Barack Hussein Obama could be elected President. But my personal story is not so unique. The dream of opportunity for all people has not come true for everyone in America, but its promise exists for all who come to our shores – that includes nearly seven million American Muslims in our country today who enjoy incomes and education that are higher than average.

Moreover, freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one’s religion. That is why there is a mosque in every state of our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders. That is why the U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it.

So let there be no doubt: Islam is a part of America.

This is a reversal of the dynamic where muslims in America seek to challenge the perception of themselves as Other by their non-muslim fellow citizens – Obama is trying to challenge the perception of America as Other to the Islamic world. Obama made a good start here but there is much more he could have said in this regard – the critical point is that Islam thrives in America, because of religious freedom which is compatible with Islamic ideals as well as western freedoms.

The muslim-American community are the living proof of the truth behind these principles, comprised of immigrants from every corner of the Ummah. The diversity of American Islam is so rich that in some cases it’s begun to reflect the divisions of the Ummah itself – for example, in Hawai’i, where the local muslim community has had some difficulty in forging a cohesive common identity. Even these growing pains are valuable, however, in fostering the recognition that a broader and authentic muslim identity is necessary and possible. In that regard, the crucible of American Islam may well be where reform within the broader Ummah as a whole is forged.

The risk that President Obama takes is that in relying on muslim-Americans and American Islam as evidence for his intentions towards the Ummah, he invites analysis of his personal relationship with the domestic muslim community – a relationship that thus far has been strained, largely by sins of omission. On various issues, particularly including the continuation of Bush Administration policies regarding detention and trial, as well as the controversy over new photos from Abu Ghraib, Obama’s credibility is weakened. And as the audience reaction to his speech indicated, Obama’s comments about the injustice of killing innocents and benefits of nonviolent resistance fell flat, given the stark reality of collateral damage in Obama’s escalation of the Afghanistan campaign.

Ultimately, the burden falls on us, muslim-Americans, again – to not only represent our nation to the Ummah but also to convey the concerns of the Ummah back to Obama himself. Obama has begun a dialogue, for which he deserves commendation. But the speech was titled, A New Beginning – not an end, and now actions must follow words. Only by raising our voices can we help ensure that the actions are the right ones.

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