US Foreign Policy: What Obama can learn from the hajj

It’s a miracle (Obama, that is)

The Hajj, the grand Pilgrimage to Mecca, has just ended after having attracted a record four million Muslims from all over the world for a week of worship in the vast Arabian desert. I attended this year for the first time and experienced one of the most remarkable and transformative events known to humanity. Believers of every race, nation and age brought together to transcend our differences and unite before God.

But there was one topic that was on everyone’s lips as we sat together under a tent in the pilgrim camp at Mina – the improbable election of Barack Hussein Obama to the Presidency of the United States. Everyone I spoke with expressed wonder at God’s will in bringing such remarkable change after eight years of George W. Bush. Most were hopeful that Obama could restore to America its prestige as the moral leader of the world, squandered so recklessly by an Administration that redefined the meaning of the word “hubris.”

There was much that I learned from the Hajj on a personal spiritual level. But I also gained insight on the state of Muslim public opinion toward US foreign policy. These are lessons that would be helpful for our incoming President to keep in mind as he attempts to re-imagine America’s relationship with the Islamic world. Here are some of my thoughts:

Muslims are America’s allies against Al-Qaeda

One of the most consistent themes that I heard during the weeklong vigil at Mecca was the profound abhorrence for violence against civilians in the name of Islam. Whether I spoke with a Syrian neurosurgeon or a Saudi taxi driver, a deep-rooted rejection of Al-Qaeda and its brand of extremism was evident. This was particularly poignant due to the horrific events playing out in Mumbai at the height of the Pilgrimage. Indian pilgrims I met sorrowed for their besieged countrymen, many expressing horror that the streets they regularly walked in Mumbai had become a battlefield.

President Obama must recognize that the vast majority of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims reject murder in the name of Islam and are America’s allies against terrorism. The United States must engage with this not-so-silent majority and work with it to defeat the extremists. Part of that engagement process will be to listen to these Muslims as well and address their grievances. My conversations with fellow believers at the Hajj reaffirmed that Muslims reject terrorism – and they also reject political oppression. Whether it be the suffering of innocent Muslims in Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya, or at Guantanamo Bay, Muslims have valid grievances that are too often ignored by Americans. Obama must understand that the security of America requires a two-pronged approach – allying with mainstream Muslims against Al-Qaeda, while addressing the political grievances that are allowing extremists to recruit among the disenfranchised.

Saudi reform should be encouraged

As an American Muslim raised in Brooklyn, Saudi Arabia is another planet as far as I am concerned. The Kingdom’s synthesis of modern skyscrapers and medieval ideology is mind-boggling. And yet the nation is changing for the better. The new king Abdullah has proven to be a wise statesman, working to disempower the old fundamentalist elites who have been enemies of reform. King Abdullah surprised and delighted the Muslim world in March 2008 when he held a conference in Mecca inviting religious scholars of every branch of Islam, both Sunni and Shia, to work together to promote an Islam of compassion and human brotherhood. A few weeks later, he stunned the world by hosting an interfaith conference in Madrid, bringing together Jews, Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus with Muslims to work toward global peace. And he is beginning to rein in the mutawwin, the feared religious police who serve as the fundamentalists’ enforcers.

The King is slowly but surely pulling his country into the 21st century. But the fundamentalists should not be counted out just yet. The religious establishment may strike back against the Abdullah’s efforts to liberalize the Kingdom, and the prospect of civil war in Saudi Arabia one day is not impossible. What President Obama will have to do is work with King Abdullah to strengthen the modernizing elements within his regime. The most important reform Obama can encourage is to break the monopoly of fundamentalist religious scholars on interpreting Islam inside the Kingdom. The Kingdom must welcome Muslim thinkers of every school of thought into its Council of Senior Ulama, the clerical body that is the final authority on religious matters.

The believers I met on Hajj were united in their desire to see Saudi religious scholars bring their interpretations more in line with mainstream Muslim thought, especially in the area of women’s rights. One of the reasons I wrote my novel Mother of Believers about the Prophet’s wife Aisha was to show how active and influential women were during the birth of Islam, a tradition that has been ignored and suppressed by modern fundamentalists. Aisha was a scholar, a poet and a warrior who led armies into Iraq on an armored camel. She would have been shocked by the extreme limitations on women’s rights in the Kingdom.

President Obama will be in a position to help King Abdullah’s reform efforts. As someone who has known Muslims since childhood, Obama should be well aware that the fundamentalists are a small, if troublesome, minority in Islam. Now that King Abdullah has begun the long and painful process of moving his country out of the Middle Ages, he must be supported by the United States.

The center of Muslim power is moving East

One of the most remarkable things I noticed during the Pilgrimage was how many believers had come from Southeast Asia. I was delighted by the presence of huge numbers of faithful from Indonesia and Malaysia, which are rapidly becoming the future centers of Islamic influence. Speaking with many Southeast Asian Muslims, I realized that cultivating Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation with over 200 million believers, will be pivotal for America’s relationship with Islam. The fact that Obama studied in Jakarta as a child is a remarkable basis to solidify a strong friendship between our countries. Indonesian Muslims embrace a deeply tolerant interpretation of Islam and the White House must promote Indonesian voices in its efforts to build bridges with mainstream Muslims. There have been reports in recent days that Obama is planning to give a speech in a major Muslim country, and Indonesia should be placed at the top of the list of candidates.

Similarly, Obama should reach out to Malaysia, another Southeast Asian Muslim country with a moderate religious outlook. Malaysia will be particularly helpful in helping the United States to learn from the lessons of Islamic finance. Malaysia pioneered the idea of Islamic investment, which rejects the principal of interest that has been the cornerstone of Western finance – and will possibly be its death knell. As the world reels from the collapse of the interest-based lending system, Islamic alternatives will become increasingly popular. The Malaysians have been leaders in this now $700 billion dollar industry, and their adherence to a dual system, allowing Islamic banks to operate seamlessly alongside the traditional Western system, has many lessons for Americans seeking to find alternatives to the current financial malaise. President Obama should sponsor a conference on Islamic investment, bringing together Islamic finance experts from Malaysia, Dubai and the Persian Gulf states to work with Wall Street and develop new ways for American investors to prosper.

The Hajj represents the best of Islam

The Hajj is a chaotic event, with millions of people who speak different languages and have different cultural traditions thrown together in relatively close quarters. And yet I was heartened to see how gracious and patient people were with each other, merchants from Ghana helping elderly villagers from India perform rituals that transcended the differences between them. This was the Islam that I loved, the religion of peace and human cooperation that is almost never depicted in the media. It would be hard for any observer to imagine that the same religion that inspired millions of human beings to meet in the wilderness and embrace each other with love could also be used as the rallying cry for murder and madness. The fundamental disconnect between Al-Qaeda’s cruelty and the joyous heart of Islam was nowhere more evident than in the countless acts of kindness and generosity that I witnessed in Mecca.

President Barack Hussein Obama has the chance to ally with this Islam of joy and peace, for the good of the United States and the world. Let’s hope he takes it.

Kamran Pasha is a Hollywood screenwriter and the author of Mother of the Believers, a novel on Prophet Muhammad’s teenage wife Aisha, to be published by Atria Books in April 2009. To read his Hajj experiences, and learn more about the book, please visit http://www.kamranpasha.com.


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