Obama, Religion and Ramadan

While George W. Bush started cabinet meetings with prayer and encouraged the formation of Bible study groups inside the White House, since taking the office, President Barack Obama has expanded the White House’s faith-based activities in a more visible way than any other president in recent memory. In addition to helping social service groups get federal aid–”the office’s sole purpose under Bush–”Obama has tasked it with reducing demand for abortion, promoting responsible fatherhood, and facilitating global interfaith dialogue.

There is no denying that Obama is a deeply religious man. He is also very liberal on social issues. He caused uproar among homosexuals and liberals when he invited evangelical mega-pastor Rick Warren–”an outspoken opponent of gay marriage and abortion rights–”to give the opening prayer at his inauguration. And yet, he had the clarity of purpose when he reversed President Bush’s limits on federal funds for embryonic stem cell research, a move which has the support of most Americans. Scientists say the research may yield treatments or cures for debilitating diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Obviously, pro-abortion groups, esp. within the conservative Catholic community, were not happy with Obama’s move. They voiced objections to his appearance on May 17 to give commencement address at the University of Notre Dame, a Catholic university that is directly affiliated with the Vatican.

Obama’s vice president Joe Biden is a Catholic, only the second person of Catholic faith to occupy one of the nation’s top two posts (the other being John F. Kennedy). Last February Biden’s public appearances with an Ash Wednesday smudge on his forehead showed how comfortable Catholic politicians have become in expressing their faith in this Protestant-majority country.

Last April when Obama visited Turkey, he reached out to the broader Islamic world. "Let me say this as clearly as I can," he said in an address to the Turkish parliament, "the United States is not at war with Islam." That was before he gave his famous speech in Cairo where he tried to mend the troubling relationship with the world of Islam.

Ramadan is the Muslim month of fasting when able bodied adults (who are not sick or on journey) are required to fast from dawn to dusk. This is a month of devotion, reflection, spiritual recharge, charity, and giving and community service. As part of White House’s commitment to promoting inter-faith dialogue and easing tensions along the religious fault-lines, especially, with the Muslim world, President Obama sent a message of Ramadan Kareem to the Muslim world. In that speech, he said:

"On behalf of the American people –” including Muslim communities in all fifty states –” I want to extend best wishes to Muslims in America and around the world. Ramadan Kareem. Ramadan is the month in which Muslims believe the Koran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, beginning with a simple word –” iqra. It is therefore a time when Muslims reflect upon the wisdom and guidance that comes with faith and the responsibility that human beings have to one another, and to God. "

Like many people of different faiths who have known Ramadan through our communities and families, I know this to be a festive time –” a time when families gather, friends host iftars, and meals are shared. But I also know that Ramadan is a time of intense devotion and reflection –” a time when Muslims fast during the day and perform tarawih prayers at night, reciting and listening to the entire Koran over the course of the month.

"These rituals remind us of the principles that we hold in common, and Islam’s role in advancing justice, progress, tolerance, and the dignity of all human beings. … And the support that Muslims provide to others recalls our responsibility to advance opportunity and prosperity for people everywhere. For all of us must remember that the world we want to build –” and the changes that we want to make –” must begin in our own hearts, and our own communities.

"This summer, people across America have served in their communities –” educating children, caring for the sick, and extending a hand to those who have fallen on hard times. Faith-based organizations, including many Islamic organizations, have been at the forefront in participating in this summer of service. And in these challenging times, this is a spirit of responsibility that we must sustain in the months and years to come.

"Beyond America’s borders, we are also committed to keeping our responsibility to build a world that is more peaceful and secure. That is why we are responsibly ending the war in Iraq. That is why we are isolating violent extremists while empowering the people in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. That is why we are unyielding in our support for a two-state solution that recognizes the rights of Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace and security. And that is why America will always stand for the universal rights of all people to speak their mind, practice their religion, contribute fully to society and have confidence in the rule of law.

"All of these efforts are a part of America’s commitment to engage Muslims and Muslim-majority nations on the basis of mutual interest and mutual respect. And at this time of renewal, I want to reiterate my commitment to a new beginning between America and Muslims around the world.

"As I said in Cairo, this new beginning must be borne out in a sustained effort to listen to each other, to learn from each other, to respect one another, and to seek common ground. I believe an important part of this is listening, and in the last two months, American embassies around the world have reached out not just to governments, but directly to people in Muslim-majority countries. From around the world, we have received an outpouring of feedback about how America can be a partner on behalf of peoples’ aspirations.

"We have listened. We have heard you. And like you, we are focused on pursuing concrete actions that will make a difference over time –” both in terms of the political and security issues that I have discussed, and in the areas that you have told us will make the most difference in peoples’ lives.

"These consultations are helping us implement the partnerships that I called for in Cairo –” to expand education exchange programs; to foster entrepreneurship and create jobs; and to increase collaboration on science and technology, while supporting literacy and vocational learning. We are also moving forward in partnering with the OIC and OIC member states to eradicate polio, while working closely with the international community to confront common health challenges like H1N1 –” which I know is of particular concern to many Muslims preparing for the upcoming hajj.

"All of these efforts are aimed at advancing our common aspirations –” to live in peace and security; to get an education and to work with dignity; to love our families, our communities, and our God. It will take time and patient effort. We cannot change things over night, but we can honestly resolve to do what must be done, while setting off in a new direction –” toward the destination that we seek for ourselves, and for our children. That is the journey that we must travel together.

"I look forward to continuing this critically important dialogue and turning it into action. And today, I want to join with the 1.5 billion Muslims around the world –” and your families and friends –” in welcoming the beginning of Ramadan, and wishing you a blessed month. May God’s peace be upon you." [1]

This past week, on Sept. 2, President Obama hosted an Iftar party in the White House. He spoke of a Muslim American soldier (Kareem Khan) killed in Iraq whose grave at Arlington National Cemetery bears a crescent, an Islamic symbol. He applauded the courage of a Muslim female student (Nashala Hearn) in Oklahoma who fought for her constitutional right to wear a hijab, a traditional Muslim head scarf, to school–”and won. And he told of a Muslim high school girl (Bilqis) from Massachusetts who broke her state’s record for the most career points scored by a high school basketball player. She is barely 5 feet 5 inch tall.

As noted by Dan Gilgoff of the U.S. News & World Report, through such speeches, President Obama is trying to appeal to two very different audiences: Muslims abroad and non-Muslims at home. For the international Muslim audience–”much of which has come to see the United States as an anti-Muslim Crusading state because of its ruthless murderous actions in its global war on terrorism–”the stories spotlighted Muslim Americans whose struggles, accomplishments, and contributions have been acknowledged and rewarded by their country –” the USA. For the domestic audience, mostly non-Muslims, those same stories served to normalize a community that is often perceived as the "other" people.

As I have noted earlier, President Obama seems genuinely engaged in improving bilateral relationship with the Muslim world, greatly tarnished since 9/11. It is not an easy task mending that relationship — after all, while America lost thousands, the loss in the Muslim side has been at least hundred times. During the Bush-era, America and its Christian allies (from Europe and Australia) killed more than a million Muslims (mostly civilians) in Iraq and Afghanistan and destroyed scores of cities and towns, and have also overlooked Israel’s war crimes against the Palestinian people. With the expanding wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the tension is still high on both sides. There are many unanswered difficult questions. Will Obama end up following President Johnson? Will he be able to bring all the American troops back home? Will he learn the wisdom of disengaging from Afghanistan and leave the matter to the Afghans to sort it out for themselves? Will America’s option to disengage troops then further destabilize the region? Will he be able to solve the Palestine problem by reining on the "Amen Corner" inside the Capitol Hill and the war criminals ruling Israel that had hitherto piggybacked on the USA to extend their illegal occupation almost indefinitely and unopposed? Will he be able to bring peace on earth? And so on and so forth.

While we may not have definitive answers to many such questions now, there is little doubt that President Obama is trying hard and seems genuine in his efforts to see a better world. That in itself is a big plus from the days of Bush. Brilliant as he is, Obama knows that relationship cannot be based on political and security concerns alone. True partnerships also require cooperation in all areas –” particularly those that can make a positive difference in peoples’ daily lives, including education, science and technology, health, and entrepreneurship – fields in which Muslim communities have helped play a pioneering role throughout history.

Through his Ramadan speech, President Obama has shown that he understands what it will take to improve the relationship with the world of Islam. Thus far, he enjoys a very high approval rate amongst Muslims –” domestic and international. Let’s hope that he is able to translate his words into actions, thus dawning a new era in improved bilateral relationship between the United States and the Muslim world.


[1]. The text of full speech can be read at http://www.state.gov/p/nea/rls/rm/2009/128227.htm