In his attempts to build bridges on abortion, President Barack Obama has been able to draw favorable coverage by changing the words he uses to talk about the issue, while only hinting at minor policy changes that do not address core issues linked to any restrictions on abortion. Now, many mainstream journalists are now drawing parallels between the president’s approach on abortion with his historic Cairo University speech on tensions between America, Israel and the Arab world.
Or is that the Muslim world? Or was this speech actually about tensions between Christianity, Judaism and Islam? These questions are crucial and, quite frankly, there is way too much mainstream coverage of the speech for me to cover it in one post. The GetReligionistas will be wrestling with this for days, I am sure.
As a rule, journalists have tried to ask two questions: How will the speech sound to Jews? How will the speech sound to Muslims?
As far as I can tell, there has been little attempt, so far, to analyze how Obama’s own liberal Protestant approach to Christianity, rooted in universalism and a postmodern approach to scripture, influenced the contents of the speech. It is clear, however, that the further to the doctrinal left believers are — Jews, Muslims and Christians — the fewer worries they will have about the speech’s contents. There are times in the speech when people from the traditional wings of these three faiths will be tempted to suggest that media reports on Obama’s speech be followed by a recording of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
Imagine there’s no countries,
It isn’t hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for,
No religion too,
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace …
You see, in an attempt to use soothing (look for variations on “empathy”) words, Obama did everything he could not to raise specific issues that would cause tension, such as Islamic laws on apostasy, conversion and, dare I say it, free speech if that speech is evangelistic. More on that in a minute. He set out to be positive and the press coverage reflects that. It will take a few days for the voices of reality — political and religious — to be heard.
The Los Angeles Times offered a solid look at the language of the speech from the perspective of Judaism — mainly in terms of politics, but with a hint of religious language. The key truth: Words matter, especially when all one can afford to offer is the magic of words.
Obama spoke, for example, of Palestinian “resistance” — a word that can cast Israel as an illegitimate occupier. He drew parallels between Palestinians and the struggles of black Americans in slavery and of black South Africans during apartheid. Both references made some allies of Israel uneasy.
Moreover, in his defense of Israel’s legitimacy, Obama cited the Holocaust and centuries of anti-Semitism, but not the belief of some Jews that their claim to the land is rooted in the Bible and reaches back thousands of years.
That’s crucial, in this report, because that language then links to other crucial words:
Nathan Diament, public policy director of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and an advisor to the White House during speech preparations, said he was struck by “some surprising word choices.” In particular, Diament was troubled that Obama shifted from his previous use of the term “Jewish state” and referred instead to a Jewish “homeland.” It is a subtle distinction, but Israel advocates worry that it implies a downgrading in status.
However, Obama also referred to the need for a Palestinian “state,” while also talking about a yearning for a Palestinian “homeland.” But the issue all along has been whether some, repeat “some,” Muslims will ever — for doctrinal reasons — be able to accept the existence of a Jewish state on land that was, for centuries, ruled by Muslims and Islamic law. What happens to Muslim leaders who openly accept the existence of a Jewish state? Again, this is a divide within Islam.
The emphasis in most coverage, of course, has been on the reaction of hopeful moderate Muslims (often in America) to the content of the speech, with hints of rejection by other non-moderate Muslims (usually in Arab lands). A crucial Washington Post story, in particular, noted Obama’s use of scripture — Jewish, Christian and Muslim, but especially the emphasis on the Koran.
But again, note the locations for these voices that are praising Obama’s language:
Mohamed Magid, imam at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center, a Sterling mosque, and vice president of the Islamic Society of North America, said he was “amazed” at the sophisticated use that Obama made of Islam’s holy text. “He was taking verses from the Koran to support his arguments,” Magid said. “He was looking to persuade them to believe in the ideas that he wanted to share with them — ‘Not only listen to my words, but your own religion asks you to do the same.’”
Obama quoted three times from the Koran, the 114-chapter Islamic holy book that Muslims revere as the word of God revealed to Muhammad, the founder of Islam, in the 7th century.
The first, quoted by Obama as “Be conscious of God and speak always the truth,” is from Chapter 33, Verse 70, titled “Ahzab,” or “The Confederates,” and addresses the issue of those who are hypocritical in their faith and maintaining one’s faith in hard times. It was quoted by Muhammad in his final sermon before he died, and imams worldwide use it frequently in Friday sermons, said Jonathan Brown, a Muslim who is a professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Washington. When Obama used that verse, said Brown, “he wasn’t just quoting from the Koran, but he was doing what any Muslim preacher would do when speaking to an audience.”
Most striking to many Muslims was Obama’s use of the phrase “May peace be upon them” when referring to Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. It is a term of respect and reverence that Muslims use when referring, in speech or in writing, to such figures, and rarely is used by non-Muslims.
Over in another Los Angeles Times piece, the president’s goals were stated in very blunt language that stressed the hurdle that, in the end, he must clear. He must promote the strengthening of a liberal Islam, one that triumphs over its more doctrinaire forms. Check this out:
The president was attempting to insinuate himself into the larger debate within Islam — not among militants, who won’t be swayed by an appeal from an American president, but between mainstream conservative and moderate Muslim voices looking to keep their faith but also engage the secular West.
The New York Times reaction sidebar (this one is must reading) was not as blunt, electing to stress that the power of pretty words will only go so far. And, once again, the glowing reactions came from moderate Muslims in formal settings while the harshest words seemed to come from cafes and streets.
Again and again, Muslim listeners said they were struck by how skillfully Mr. Obama appropriated religious, cultural and historical references in ways other American presidents had not. He included four quotations from the Koran and used Arabic greetings. He took note of longstanding historical grievances like the stain of colonialism, American support for the Iranian coup of 1953 and the displacement of the Palestinian people. His speech was also embraced for what it did not do: use the word terrorism, broadly seen here as shorthand for an attack on Islam.
“He spoke really like an enlightened leader from the region, more than like a foreigner,” said Mustafa Hamarneh, the former director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. “It was very unlike the neocolonial and condescending approach of the previous administration.”
You could read all day, of course, and only skim the surface of the coverage and commentary on this one.
But in the days ahead I will be watching for coverage of this part of the speech and, specifically, for reactions from Christian leaders in the Arab world. In particular, watch for any reaction quotes from Muslims and Christians who have collided with laws against apostasy and those that forbid statements and actions that may be considered “offenses against Islam.”
Here’s the crucial language from the speech to watch for, if you are concerned about religious liberty. In particular, note the passing reference to the rights of religious minorities. If you keep reading the full text you will quickly reach its content on the rights of women:
Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance. We see it in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition. I saw it firsthand as a child in Indonesia where devout Christians worshipped freely in an overwhelmingly Muslim country. That is the spirit we need today. People in every country should be free to choose and live their faith based upon the persuasion of the mind and the heart and the soul.
This tolerance is essential for religion to thrive. But it’s being challenged in many different ways. Among some Muslims, there’s a disturbing tendency to measure one’s own faith by the rejection of somebody else’s faith.
The richness of religious diversity must be upheld, whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt. And if we are being honest, fault lines must be closed among Muslims as well as the divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence, particularly in Iraq.
Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together. We must always examine the ways in which people protect it. For instance, in the United States, rules on charitable giving have made it harder for Muslims to fulfill their religious obligation. That’s why I’m committed to work with American Muslims to ensure that they can fulfill zakat. Likewise, it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit, for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear.
We can’t disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretense of liberalism. In fact, faith should bring us together.
I hope readers will help us look for stories that take seriously the religious implications of this speech.