Obama at the Mosque

President Obama’s visit to a Baltimore mosque on February 3 2016, and his speech there, were meant to set him and his party apart from the ugly political rhetoric circulating in America. But like his equally well-intentioned Cairo speech on June 4 2009, the result has not lived up to the desired goal. One of his Republican critics, Governor Jeb Bush, praised his visit. Another, the intellect-starved Senator Marco Rubio, denounced it in incoherent terms. One American Muslim, Asra Nomani, who waged a struggle to liberalize her Muslim congregation, pointed out the implicit endorsement of gender asymmetry in the President’s visit; a stark departure from his stated objectives for American women. One newspaper gave lurid but cherry-picked details of the Mosque’s association with radicalism. The possible involvement of the unctuous organization CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations), as well the one-time Obama aide, Dalia Mogahed, in the selection of the venue, cast a shadow over the entire event.

It is possible that President Obama could have chosen a different mosque. All possibilities would have raised one objection or another. He could have a chosen a Shi’a mosque with an Iranian-American congregation, most of whom escaped the Iranian revolution and had since proven to be model immigrants. But that likely would have drawn fire from the usual anti-Iran channels. He could have sought, with some difficulty, to find a liberal mosque with a less visible signifier of social differences than little girls in head scarves. But again, the choice would have been criticized as unrepresentative. As any venue would have been a target of criticism, we need to move past focusing on the venue to look at the speech itself.

There is much to like in the speech, if read in isolation from actual events. Like the Cairo speech it is heavy on optimism, on declarations of belief in liberal values and tolerance, and on deep faith that fundamental forces will force a happy outcome. In short, that we are destined by the arc of history to a fair, just and tolerant outcome in any struggle. The trouble with that view is that it offers no guidance to short-term policy that will actually lead to such outcomes in the long run. Even worse, he drew invalid analogies between the status of American Muslims, and the problems they face, and that of other religious groups such as Mormons, Catholics or Jews. Inasmuch as the Cairo speech hinted at a future policy that would not be able to deal with the dissolution of countries and communities in the Middle East, the Baltimore speech does American Muslims injustice by lack of acknowledgement of real barriers that stand between their desire to conform to a conservative version of their faith and yet integrate effectively into American society. Obama is capable of giving a searing, honest and direct speech on such matters, as he did in the aftermath of the Reverend Wright controversy in 2008. His speech on race then stands as a unique guide post to race relations in America, with all their pain and promise. Here he seems far less passionate about, or desiring of, a similar engagement. This oversight is incomprehensible from a man who values the complex interactions between public policy and Christian belief enough to value the thoughts and advice of Marilynne Robinson. She is the author of profound essays reconciling American Calvinism and liberalism, and one admired enough by Obama to travel to her hometown to interview her in September 2015.

Had the President been willing to be as honest and direct about the status of Muslim Americans in 2016 as he did about race in 2008, he would have asked difficult questions from the conservative congregation. There are major differences between the ethos of conservative Islam with its backward glances and emphasis on community sovereignty and the liberalizing trend of American society with its emphasis on the liberation and autonomy of the individual. Glossing over these differences leaves all exposed when the conflicts inevitably come to the surface. Bigots among American non-Muslims will insist that Muslims can never be “full Americans”, while bigots among American Muslims will insist that such differences are merely manifestations of irrational hatred of Islam. This is a disservice to any effective understanding and outreach between faiths. Like the Cairo speech, the Baltimore speech was a feel-good moment that provides no guidance to navigate the roiled seas ahead. On the important matter of creating and sustaining a respectful, inclusive and healthy community of Western Muslims, the Baltimore speech will be counted as yet another missed opportunity.
— Maged Atiya

2 Comments on “Obama at the Mosque”

  1. […] Maged Atiya suggests that no matter the mosque the venue would have been criticized as unrepresentative. But he […]

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