Chicago Tribune: President Barack Obama's Cairo speech inspires hope among Muslims in Chicago

Muslims in the Chicago area say President Barack Obama’s speech could revolutionize the relationship between the U.S. and Muslims in the Arab world.

“It gave back honor and respect to all Muslims living in America,” said Amjed Hashmi, an electrical engineer in Skokie. “As everybody is saying now, the need is to transform these words into reality.”

The Obama administration already has put American Muslim leaders to work. Several Chicago leaders reported getting calls from the White House seeking counsel for the speech.

Tariq Malhance, president of the Muslim Community Center on the city’s Northwest Side and former city comptroller, said he mentioned during a conference call with White House staff last week that a Muslim designed the Sears Tower, a detail that Obama included Thursday.

He also cautioned staff that the president should be careful about promoting democracy — advice the president also seemed to heed.

“He showed genuine goodwill on behalf of the U.S. by referencing contributions of Islam and respect for Islam’s creed,” said Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations.

Rehab also noted Obama’s choice of words, referring to violent extremism instead of Islamic extremism, and Palestine instead of Palestinian territories.

Dr. Zaher Sahloul, chairman of the Council for Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, said he wished the president had apologized for the war in Iraq. But if the goal was to start a dialogue, Sahloul said, Obama chose the right way to do it, incorporating citations from the Quran.

“If you want to reach to the hearts and minds of people in the Muslim world, you need to use language they understand,” he said. “He used verses which are very positive. He used it more than any other Arab president I’ve heard.”

Zeenat Rahman, director of strategic partnerships for the Interfaith Youth Core, said she believes the speech sparked more than dialogue. It honored Islam’s legacy in America and laid the foundation for a new one.

“For someone like the president to say national service is a priority and engagement with Muslim communities is a priority — this is the time to build things and come together,” she said. “This is the moment for that to happen.”

Copyright © 2009 Chicago Tribune