By C.B. Hanif
There he was in Cairo, our president, stealing our lines: Uniting people of faith, or no particular faith, in the 21st century.
President Barack Obama bestrode multiple worlds, representing Americans in ways that hasn’t happened since … ever.
He affirmed that Islam and America “share common principles — principles of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” He made clear that extremists and certain cultural practices no more represent Islam than cross-burning, lynching Ku Klux Klansmen represented all Christians; or Dr. George Tiller’s assassin represents all abortion opponents; or the murderer of U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum guard Stephen Johns represents all whites.
In last year’s epic speech on race, candidate Obama reminded whites they cannot just ignore the generations of brutally enforced servitude and institutionalized second-class citizenship whose legacy impacts Americans of African descent. He also reminded blacks that “a similar anger exists within segments of the white community” among those who “don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race.”
But now, as then, his message in Cairo was: “If we choose to be bound by the past, we will never move forward.”
President Obama noted “civilization’s debt to Islam,” for “paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment,” and demonstrating “the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality.” He said Western countries “cannot disguise hostility toward any religion behind the pretence of liberalism,” as in dictating Muslim women’s choice of dress.
Yet he not only explained Islam to Americans, and America to a billion-plus Muslims, but also Islam to Muslims, for example citing the Quran: “Whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind.” Before a university audience, he illuminated for the world the fact that individuals and governments are claiming the mantle of Islam yet disrespecting its principles.
He also invoked a key asset against extremism: America’s Muslims. They include millions who reverted to the faith of their forebears snatched into slavery generations ago; who maintain constructive ties with fellow citizens of whatever stripe; who rather than getting even, are helping stem man’s inhumanity to man.
Thus a Christian, whose father “came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims,” conveyed in that timeless city “the goodwill of the American people, and a greeting of peace from Muslim communities in my county.”
He began and ended with, “As salaam alaikum,” or “may God’s peace be upon you” — no doubt knowing the classic greeting obligates the recipient to respond in word and deed that is equal, if not better.
C.B. Hanif, former news ombudsman and editorial columnist for The Palm Beach Post, is a freelance writer, editor, and media and interreligious affairs consultant. Look for more insights as he visits or speaks at synagogues, churches and mosques from here to infinity, seeking folks who are making the Golden Rule real, not just an ideal. Hanif can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at his blog,Interfaith21.com.