The anticipation is mounting for President Obama’s speech to the muslim world tomorrow in Cairo, Egypt. Obama himself gave a round of interviews to various media prior to departing Washington, to help promote the speech and do some expectaions management and message framing. Among these interviews where Obama made a remarkable statement:
In an interview with Laura Haim on Canal Plus, a French television station, Mr. Obama noted that the United States also could be considered as “one of the largest Muslim countries in the world.” He sought to downplay the expectations of the speech, but he said he hoped the address would raise awareness about Muslims.
[...] “What I want to do is to create a better dialogue so that the Muslim world understands more effectively how the United States, but also how the West thinks about many of these difficult issues like terrorism, like democracy, to discuss the framework for what’s happened in Iraq and Afghanistan and our outreach to Iran, and also how we view the prospects for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” Mr. Obama said.
The president said the United States and other parts of the Western world “have to educate ourselves more effectively on Islam.”
“And one of the points I want to make is, is that if you actually took the number of Muslim Americans, we’d be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world,” Mr. Obama said. “And so there’s got to be a better dialogue and a better understanding between the two peoples.”
That’s a bit of hyperbole on his part – unless he’s talking about land area rather than muslim population. But it’s still an important rhetorical reframing of the relationship between America and Ummah, placing us firmly within it rather than opposed. America is unique in the muslim world by virtue of its sheer ethnic diversity, with immigrants from virtually every muslim country settled and thriving as citizens but also preserving their own cultures. In many cases, the muslims in America are freer to practice their faith (not to mention enjoy political and economic freedom and opportunity) than in their homelands. And, muslims here are at the forefront of the evolution of Islamic culture and philosophy, arguing for the compatibility of Islam with democracy, science, and human rights – and often invoking the great classical Islamic jurists and theologians of centuries past. It is for these reasons that I have been calling America “the greatest Islamic country in the world” for years.
Admittedly, President Obama’s formulation rests on more superfifical arguments about population. But it’s still worth broaching the topic of how the dichotomy between “America” and the “Muslim world” is misleading. It’s very encouraging to know that Obama will say these crucial words tomorrow, because then further comparisons can be made between muslims here and muslims elsewhere. Obama has taken pains to emphasize that his speech will be about America’s values, to define who we are and what we stand for. There’s no better proof of this than the muslim-American community itself, as ambassadors between our nation and our homelands.