President Barack Obama called his address to the Muslim world at Cairo University “A New Beginning.” It comes at just the right time. According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 48% of Americans polled “have unfavorable views of Islam, the highest such percentage since 2001.”
As a first generation Syrian- and Muslim-American (a “hyphenated” American, if you please), I listened intently to his 55-minute address, flashing back to a series of memories that have defined how and why I would choose to become an activist and as Langston Hughes taught me, wear my identity as a “banner for the proud, and not like a shroud.”
As Obama opened his remarks by uttering the words “Assalaamu alaykum” (peace be upon you in Arabic), my mind transported back to growing up in Southern California feeling like “the other,” ashamed of my identities during the third grade after some students called me a “Saddam Hussein worshipper” at the start of the Gulf War because my last name, “Hassen,” resembled his. I remembered making my first pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia while in high school, amazed at the sight of Muslims from across the globe coming together as one, while simultaneously feeling disgusted at the religious police for threatening to kick out my mother, sister, and me from a supermarket because my sister and I had committed the egregious “sin” of not covering our heads. (Hey, grandma said we didn’t have to, since we weren’t even teenagers!)
When Obama shifted his positive, reaffirming words regarding Islam’s contributions to civilization, including “It was Islam — at places like Al-Azhar — that carried the light of learning through so many centuries,” to remind the world that “al-Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 Americans” on 9/11, I too reverted back to that day. I still recall looking at my mother in the eye, and thinking, “Life has just become more complicated if you’re a Muslim” — or even look like one. President George W. Bush’s wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, under the “War on Terror,” ensued. And Obama has magnified the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In his speech, he cited “violent extremists in Afghanistan and now Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can.” A total of 21,000 additional U.S. troops will be deployed to Afghanistan to provide security ahead of the presidential elections scheduled in August. He conceded that “military power alone is not going to solve the problems” and mentioned plans on investing $1.5 billion a year in Pakistan for schools and hospitals and refugee assistance, and “more than $2.8 billion to help Afghans develop their economy.” The $97 billion supplemental budget for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — which awaits final congressional approval — however, would allocate more money for military spending than on civilian needs.
Then, as Obama delved into the challenges confronting Islam and the West, starting off with the need to confront “violent extremism in all of its forms,” I revisited being in Damascus in the Summer of 2006, as war waged between Israel and Hezbollah in nearby Lebanon, when an initial 100,000 Lebanese fled to Syria for relief. During the war, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice equated the war to symbolizing the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.” At a shelter where I helped serve food, a Lebanese woman fleeing the war with her family said, “I hope my children will not grow up to hate America.”
By the end of Obama’s speech, after notably acknowledging in words once considered sacrilegious (at least during the George W. Bush administration) that the “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements,” that the “situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable” and further noting the U.S. role in overthrowing in 1953 the “democratically elected Iranian government,” I had to wonder: “Does a ‘new beginning’ mean the ending of longstanding U.S. policy and interests in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan?”
Obama’s words alone can’t answer this question, looming in the minds of Iraqis, Palestinians, Afghans, and Pakistanis whose destinies have been altered by wars and occupations waged directly or sanctioned by U.S. policy, regardless of the president in charge. Obama more than once, in the framework of boldly declaring it “a responsibility as president of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear” and repeating as he did in his April 6 speech in Turkey that the United States “is not — and never will be — at war with Islam,” offered support to Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab.
But what about lifting the veil on the reality of U.S. policy on the ground? In speaking about Afghanistan, Obama justified the widening of the war and emphasized, “We do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We see no military — we seek no military bases there.” He failed to acknowledge the growing civilian casualties due to increased U.S. drone attacks ostensibly aimed at dismantling the Taliban — a reality that only increases the risk of blowback against the United States, as opposed to winning the hearts and minds of Afghans, of Muslims, alike. Indeed, a military investigation concluded the U.S. made mistakes after the May 4 airstrikes in the western province of Farah that killed dozens of civilians
On a larger level, he portrayed the context for discord between Islam and the West rooted solely in the acts of violent extremists, instead of pointing to the need to shatter structures harder to break, but that would yield change — war and occupation, political, social and economic inequities.
But like his interview with Al Arabiya in January, his address to the Iranian people in March on the Nowruz holiday and his first address to the Muslim world in Turkey, Obama reiterated his administration’s approach with the Arab and Muslim world based on “mutual respect and interest.” These words soothe the ear, but demand full realization through meaningful change in U.S. policy.
Obama did recognize the nearly seven million Muslims living in America. It’s up to us, along with our allies in the peace and justice movements, to continue holding the President accountable to his promises if we truly seek a “new beginning” in U.S. relations and policies toward the Muslim world.