My Heart Vs My Head over Obama

By Mona Eltahawy - June 5, 2009

Do you remember the bit in Barack Obama's 2004 Democratic National Convention when he said "If there's an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process that threatens my civil liberties."?

Of course you do.

Well, that was the start of what I now realize is my Obama problem. He inspires the most virulent fight between my heart and my head. Not all Muslims are Arab or vice versa, of course, but like many others I was moved to tears when he said those words. But I'm a journalist. When someone moves you to tears, you start to worry.

So I was on the lookout for goose bumps of all kinds while I was watching Obama deliver his speech in Cairo on June 4.

More Jewish, Christian, Muslim perspectives on Obama's Speech

How ironic that the middle name "Hussein" which the U.S. right wing viciously used to paint Barack Obama as a "secret Muslim" gave him what George W. Bush never had - the benefit of the doubt of Muslims, if just for the 50 minutes of his speech, which - needless to say - Bush could never have given. Not in a million years could he have so deftly maneuvered between one thorny subject after another, mispronounce just one word (hajib seems to be the politically correct way of showing you know that there's an Arabic word for headscarf) and received 30 applause breaks from a mostly Muslim audience.

But it's that middle, it's the "Hussein", that drives at that fight between my heart - so easily charmed by Obama's eloquence and intelligence - and my head - which holds Obama to a higher standard. I know he knows better.

So here's the breakdown of my heart vs. my head:

As a Muslim in the U.S., my heart and head were united in delight that Obama highlighted the role of Muslim Americans and talked of Keith Ellison, the first U.S. congressman. That hyphen between Muslim and American bridges the "us versus them" chasm that so many of the Bush administration's policies and rhetoric widened and inflamed.

Obama's acknowledgement of Palestinian suffering touched my heart, but my head wanted to hear concern for civilian casualties and suffering in Pakistan and Afghanistan. To focus just on Palestinian suffering feeds into the obsession with Palestine that dominates too many conversations among Muslims let alone between Muslims and the U.S.

Obama's revulsion at torture reassured my heart, but my head immediately asked why he didn't condemn torture in my beloved country of birth, Egypt, the host for his talk which is also a popular destination for renditions. Heart and head are furious that my country does America's dirty work.

Oh how he thrilled my heart by bringing up women's rights but why oh why, head demanded, did he have to keep mentioning headscarves every time he spoke of Muslim women? Didn't he spend a good few minutes speaking out against stereotypes? So why perpetuate one that too many, both Muslims and non-Muslims alike, share of Muslim women?

Yes education, small business loans and political involvement are all important for this Muslim woman's heart and head but I wish Obama had assured the women and girls of Afghanistan that their rights would not be sacrificed for the sake of a ceasefire or truce with the Taliban or other violent extremists.

For months now, Afghan women's rights activists have urged him to do just that and what a victory for those courageous women it would have been if he'd acknowledged them.

Democracy greatly concerns both heart and head. Many Muslims around the world are upset with the U.S. because it supports dictators in many Muslim-majority countries such as Egypt, where Obama gave his speech, and Saudi Arabia where he began his Middle East visit. What better illustration than the absence of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from the speech and the attendance instead of his son, Gamal, widely rumored to be his father's successor. In a republic, no less.

So, Obama pleased heart with talk of the importance of the rule of law, freedom of expression, etc. but head wanted him to be as bold in condemning the repression of his hosts as he was in broaching those hot potato subjects that trouble the U.S. relationship with Muslims.

Clearly, Obama will keep heart and head busy.

Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning syndicated columnist and an international public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues. She is based in New York.