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Following the President’s Cairo University speech a number
of journalists commented that it was a political speech and not very “religious.” Indeed, one referred to his policy remarks
as “wonky” in which he primarily addressed seven areas of tension that exist
between the United States and Muslims around the world.
The President moved the discussion ahead to shared political
concerns relating to peace, economic development, and human rights. And the tone was different,
too. In the Bush administration,
speeches were often directed to Muslim
people instead of coming from among them. Patronizing language was banished from
these remarks–as were such offensive concepts as crusades, fascism, competition,
and “a clash of civilizations.” As
I watched, my main feeling was of relief–and good riddance. Let’s get back to the mutually human
business of building a peaceful world with maximum respect for all people.
In shifting the focus to policy, however, religion was
present in a more subtle and helpful way than in the past. President Obama moved the discussion of
religion away from beliefs toward practices–away from creeds toward deeds. The tone for this was set in the
speech’s first paragraph:
I am honored to be in the
timeless city of Cairo, and to be hosted by two remarkable institutions. For
over a thousand years, Al-Azhar has stood as a beacon of Islamic learning, and
for over a century, Cairo University has been a source of Egypt’s advancement.
Together, you represent the harmony between tradition and progress. I am
grateful for your hospitality, and the hospitality of the people of Egypt. I am
also proud to carry with me the goodwill of the American people, and a greeting
of peace from Muslim communities in my country: assalaamu alaykum.
It is possible to read this as
a rather perfunctory greeting, but that would be a mistake. This opening paragraph was a nuanced
piece of religious reflection that frames a Christian-Muslim dialogue differently
than in the past. It lifted up
three spiritual practices shared by the two faiths: 1) learning as a path to both God and the good life; 2) the
practice of hospitality; and 3) the exchange of peace.
The first practice–that of
learning as a path to God and the good life–is one long honored in Islamic and
Christian traditions. A number of
recent histories have argued that medieval Spain managed to create a relatively
harmonious pluralism through the leadership of its religious scholars. There, Jewish, Islamic, and Christian
scholars sought commonality on the basis of new learning and intellectual
curiosity rather than discrediting one another on their distinctive truth
claims. At their best, the
monotheistic faiths share the heritage of “tradition and progress” affirmed by
President Obama–a practice that both stands within a faith and yet lovingly
pushes it at the same time. Good,
honest, open intellectual endeavor is part of the faithful life.
practice–hospitality–is the heart of all three monotheistic faiths. In Genesis 18, Abraham and his family
welcomed three strangers to their tents.
The three strangers were, according to the story, actually angels who
affirm God’s promise to make Abraham a nation of blessing to the whole
earth. Thus, in an act of
hospitality was born Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–the act of welcoming the
stranger both birthed and binds the three faiths into a single moral vision of
reaching beyond fear and human barriers to welcome the stranger. To praise
people for their hospitality is far more than saying, “thanks for the tea and
cookies.” Rather, it is to affirm
the deepest spiritual dimensions of religious identity.
The third practice–the exchange
of peace–is a symbol of reconciliation in Judaism, Islam, and
Christianity. To extend one’s
hand, open and without a weapon, is an ancient rite of trust and forgiveness. “The peace of God” is an
expression of the hope for a time when war shall be no more and that all God’s
people will live in harmony and unity. The exchange of peace recognizes that we all called to
live out the greater destiny of the universe to bring together of that which
has been divided.
Thus, the wonky policy speech
was framed by the first paragraph’s religious vision. Obama essentially said, “We will no longer let our differing
interpretations of truth divide us; rather, we will seek the common spiritual
practices on which we can build a better world.” It is no longer
about which one of us is right, and which of us is wrong. Rather, a generative religious vision
builds on faithful practices of people who honor each other’s integrity. And, the three core practices are:
intellectual curiosity, hospitality, and reconciliation.
Seems like a very good new
beginning for all of us.