This Thursday in Cairo, Barack Obama should deliver a historic speech on relations with the Muslim world. No other Western statesman is as close - as intimate even - to this religion as he is. "No other person of his stature can match his understanding of the nuances within the mosaic that is Islam," Ahmed Rehab, the director of the Council of American Islamic Relations [in Chicago] sums it up.
Obama, the Muslim! It was a rumor invented to scare paranoid Americans during a campaign that saw a photo of a Turban-clad Obama circulating the web, and in which Hillary, when quizzed about the faith of her rival, responded disingenuously, "I know not."
The campaign of innuendo was such that at [an Obama] rally in Michigan, zealous organizers drove two young supporters in hijab away from the view of cameras! Obama, a follower of the church of the formidable pastor Wright of Chicago, was not a Muslim!
"None of us wanted Obama to keep his distance from Muslims during the campaign, but we understood that [we] could become a handicap for him," said Ahmed Rehab, the director of the Council of American Islamic Relations [in Chicago]. “But that did not prevent 95% of the 7 million American Muslims from voting for him."
Rehab was born in Egypt ...and this week, the President will go to him! Thursday, Barack Obama will deliver what is expected to be a historic speech in Cairo, an address from the new America to the Muslim world.
Ahmed Rehab is brimming with confidence. He does not have the slightest doubt that Obama can greatly help reconciliate Islam and America. "No other person of his stature can match his understanding of the nuances within the mosaic that is Islam."
His grandfather, Hussein Obama, converted to Islam
Indeed, Obama is the only one. Who else in the U.S. political elite grew up listening to a muezzin's call to evening prayer in the suburbs of Jakarta? Who else took part in the daily life of young Muslim children his age in an Indonesian public school where Koranic studies were mandatory? In his autobiography, Obama says that as a consequence of his "making faces" in religion class, the teacher called his mother to complain. Ann Dunham, married for the second time to an Indonesian engineer, lectured her son and demanded that he show "signs of respect" for the faith of others.
In Hawaii, where the young Barack grew into adolescene, the Koran, the Bible and Buddhist works mixed together on the living room shelves. At university, he lived a few semesters with Pakistani students with whom he became friends. One of them, Wahid Hamid, now vice-president of Pepsi Cola for the New York area, hosted him for three weeks in Karachi in the early 1980s. As a young elected official, Obama became friends with Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian intellectual and academic with proximity to the PLO. The two men have become less close in recent years, but their conversations on peace in the Middle East must have influenced Obama.
Wherever you look, you can find some trace of Islam on the president, sometimes even bordering on intimate. In 1986, during his first visit to Kenya, he was told about the long history of his family by his grandmother. His grandfather Onyango became Hussein Obama, a Muslim. He converted to Islam because he judged Christianity, inherited from the British colonists, as "too soft and lacking in potency"! In Kenya, Barack discovered his uncles Sayed and Yussef and his half-brother Roy who had also become a Muslim to better cope against alcohol and drugs. And he went crying, "for a long time" at his father's grave, buried according to Islamic ritual. For Barack, faith could help address these identity barriers: "Not a new faith, white or black, Christian or Muslim, but a faith in the other."
"America is not at war with Islam"
Thus Obama was shaped, Christian and humanist, but forever touched by faithful Muslims doing their ablutions before going to pray in an open-sky mosque in Nairobi. Faith in, and respect for, others? Such respect has become a political philosophy of the President. Dalia Mogahed is convinced. This young American of Egyptian origin is one of the first two Muslim personalities to be part of the White House's Interreligious Advisory Committee.
With an MBA from the University of Pittsburgh, she now heads the Gallup polling institute's center for Muslim Studies. "Muslim anti-Americanism is brought about by three factors," she explained to the Journal De Dimanche. "The perception that their faith is not respected, anger over unresolved conflicts in which America is an active party, and finally, the feeling that the United States abuses its power to impose its own concept of democracy on the rest of the world." That is why, according to Mogahed, the U.S. president should focus his speech in Cairo "on this central notion of respect."
This Thursday, Obama will speak at the campus of Cairo University where [students] as diverse as Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, Yasser Arafat, and bin Laden's lieutenant, Al Zawahiri [earned their degrees]. Dalia Mogahed will be front row: most Egyptian and Arab media want to hear the comments of the "Muslim" in the White House. Barack Obama will repeat, as he had insisted to the Parliament in Ankara last April, that America is not at war with Islam. He will denounce the "arrogance" of America's past. He will speak about Palestine ...
Throughout, he will find a common language with his Muslim audience. "Respect, for Obama, is inseparable from justice, and justice is seen as one of the core values of Islam," said Jon Alterman, a veteran of the Baker Commission on Iraq who is now the director of research on the Middle East at CSIS (Center for International and Strategic Studies). That is why Obama will insist on the role of Justice while in Cairo. The United States will defend justice, not only in the Arab-Israeli conflict, but also within Muslim countries, along with people seeking political or economic equality. America offers freedom to the Muslim masses? A proposition not lacking in audacity. "If the president succeeds only in defusing the violent hatred expressed by millions of Muslims against America and transforming it into a mere grumbling protest instead, then it is already a great victory," says Alterman.