On June 4, 2009, a newly inaugurated President Barack Obama delivered a speech at Cairo University addressing the Muslim World. Co-hosted by Al-Azhar University, the oldest and most renowned center of Sunni Islamic learning, the speech was entitled “A New Beginning,” and its aim was to mend the United States’ relationship with the Muslim world, which had been “severely damaged” during the Bush years. It was celebrated by some as indicative of a new approach and shift in American foreign policy, and dismissed by others as more empty political rhetoric.
On February 3, 2016, a now-outgoing President Obama threw another bone to the Muslim world, this time addressing Muslim Americans at an Islamic center in Baltimore. It marked his first (and presumably last) visit as president to a U.S. mosque. He used the occasion both to condemn discrimination, hate crimes, and anti-Muslim rhetoric, as well as to reaffirm the “responsibility” of Muslims to condemn crimes committed in the name of their faith.
Before the speech, the President met with a roundtable of prominent Muslim Americans including NYU chaplain Imam Khalid Latif, Dr. Suzanne Barakat (sister of Deah Barakat, one of the three Muslim students murdered in Chapel Hill, North Carolina last year), and Olympic-qualifying fencer Ibtihaj Mohammed. Dr. Barakat told The Islamic Monthly that the conversation revolved around social justice issues and rectifying double standards:
I think the theme that was stringing throughout was social justice, and the importance of distinguishing this double standard that we have, where anytime someone who is Muslim or Muslim appearing or has a Muslim-appearing name, we try to attribute any act of violence as one of terrorism. But when someone who is white, we call him mentally ill, or if you’re in Oregon, we call him an activist. And their security is important and we just need to continue to uphold to the same standard for all people.
While many of those in attendance remarked that Obama’s speech was a step in the right direction and seemed to indicate a greater understanding of, as Imam Latif put it, “where Muslims are experientially in the United States right now,” the President was sure to emphasize, as he has numerous times in the past, that “Muslims around the world have a responsibility to reject extremist ideologies that are trying to penetrate within Muslim communities.”
Though he acknowledged the double standard, and recognized that “sometimes that doesn’t feel fair,” he continued to place the onus on Muslim communities to prove their peacefulness, intelligence, and accomplishments “on a consistent basis,” to show “that it is possible to be faithful to Islam and to be part of a pluralistic society, and to be on the cutting-edge of science, and to believe in democracy.” He urged Muslims to view the incessant insistence we prove our humanity not as a burden, but rather as a “great opportunity and a great privilege to show who you are.”
Obama’s argument, sandwiched in between comments about the long history of Muslims in this country (never mind the violence, namely slavery, that brought them here) and the fundamental importance of religious tolerance and freedom, reinforced more of the same condescending, patronizing, good Muslim versus bad Muslim narrative, which undergirds the suspicion and constant surveillance of American Muslim communities.
Though Obama claimed to reject “securitizing” the relationship between government and Muslim Americans or dealing with them “solely through the prism of law enforcement,” this is exactly what has happened throughout his presidency – through expansion of NSA surveillance, the use of undercover informants and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and counterterrorism initiatives like Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA under George W. Bush, has observed that, while there is “remarkable continuity” between the two administrations, the government’s surveillance programs have actually expanded under Obama.
Muslims seem to be divided in their opinions on the President’s mosque visit and speech. There are those who say better late than never, that this speech was needed now more than ever, that their children can find solace in the comforting words of the U.S. president.
Then, there are those expressing discontent with the hashtag #TooLateObama. Many of these individuals have pointed out that the speech was too little, too late – that it came at a time when Obama’s term is winding down, after seven years of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and the failure to close Guantanamo Bay.
One Facebook friend noted that the visit occurred in the week between the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, when media outlets were focused elsewhere, and that there was very little news coverage of Obama’s speech.
— Darakshan (@DarakshanRaja) February 3, 2016
Years of surveillance, drone strikes and negligence and a visit to a Masjid is supposed to mean what? Fix what? #TooLateObama
— Different Somali™ (@AfrixaAF) February 3, 2016
Writing in Al-Jazeera, commentator, Mehdi Hasan, defended Obama’s speech, characterizing such support as “the only sane response” from Muslims who care about racial equality and religious liberty:
A belated denunciation of anti-Muslim bigotry from the president of the US, in front of a Muslim audience in a mosque, is a denunciation nevertheless. A much-needed denunciation from the most important public figure in the land. Would some of his Muslim critics, I wonder, prefer it if he had not given the speech?
As I have argued elsewhere, Obama’s own official statements and policies on counterterrorism and civil liberties issues have been far from perfect. From NSA spying on Muslim Americans to drone strikes in Pakistan, from anti-Muslim profiling at US airports to support for Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, the president has undoubtedly upset, frustrated and angered millions of Muslims at home and abroad.
Some might justifiably argue that his administration’s militarism and surveillance helped to incite the fear of, and hatred towards, Muslim Americans that he so eloquently rebuked in his speech on Wednesday.
Cynics, therefore, may dismiss Obama’s mosque speech as mere rhetoric. But rhetoric matters. Those who argue that the president’s speech won’t, or can’t, have an impact are either naive or disingenuous.
NSA surveillance of Muslim communities, drone strikes killing innocent civilians, racial profiling, Israel’s bombardment of Gaza – are these really minor things we can dismiss and set aside because Obama is an eloquent, articulate, and impossibly charming orator?
What is truly disingenuous is not the belief that rhetoric does not matter, but that Muslims in the United States are being fed the language of belonging and appreciation, when on-going deprivations of their privacy and bombing of their ancestral homelands prove otherwise. Like President George W. Bush, who gave a heartwarming speech of his own shortly after 9/11, Obama speaks one reality while enacting another. The bombing, surveilling, imprisoning, and deporting have all continued and will remain unabated, no matter how many beautiful speeches he delivers.
At a time when politicians seem to be competing over who can out-Islamophobe the other, and anti-Muslim hate crimes are on the rise, I can understand that, for young Muslim Americans like Sabah Mukhtar, the college student who introduced Obama at the Islamic Center of Baltimore, the president’s words may feel important and necessary. Many Muslim Americans are seeking solace and support, and, in some ways, Obama’s speech provided that.
But, in my view, we cannot and should not overlook the damage and destruction that has led up to this point. Words are powerful, yes, but policies are even more potent, and this administration has shown which has the greatest impact on people’s lives.