In the 20 months that have passed since President Barack Obama made his historic speech in Cairo addressing the United States’ contentious relationship with the Muslim world, the range of Muslim emotion has run the gamut of excited (at a U.S. president directly addressing Muslims and pledging to forge a respectful relationship), hopeful (for how an Obama-led United States may change things), cautious (would there be action to support the words), disillusioned (as events in 2010 deteriorated American Muslim’s standing in their own country) and frustration.
And with Tunisia’s revolution moving forward and Egypt asserting its own powerful movement for change, the time was ripe on Jan. 25 for the president to reassert his promise of a better, symbiotic relationship with the Muslim world. And thus Obama declared in his 2011 State of the Union address, “No single wall separates East and West. … And so we must defeat determined enemies, wherever they are, and build coalitions that cut across lines of region and race and religion. … tonight we can say that American leadership has been renewed and America’s standing has been restored.”
His words garnered applause from Congress and his speech’s theme of “winning the future” spoke of an America seeking to once again be the world leader across economic, social, informational, technological, and foreign policy platforms. Even Obama’s declaration that “American Muslims are part of our American family” elicited some of the loudest applause of the night.
But that warmth and enthusiasm for the president’s statement belies the feelings and perceptions of American Muslims and Muslims abroad. For American Muslims, coming off what many feel was one of worst years for them in this country (perhaps even worse then immediately after the attacks of September 11, 2001) being told that they are part of the American family doesn’t really make up for a 2010 filled with vitriol, suspicion, and persisting stereotypes that spewed from conservative pundits, right-leaning media and politicians, and many Americans.
In the nine years since the attacks of 9/11, American Muslims invested considerable efforts to build relationships with non-Muslims, condemn terrorism through statements and actions (such as partnerships with the FBI), participate in interfaith dialogues and service projects, and educate anyone who would listen about Islam.
As several Muslims in European countries battled their own problems (such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s campaign against the niqaab (face veil, burqa, and other forms of Muslim dress) and faced growing suspicion and negativity from their countrymen, American Muslims were comforted by how, for the most part, they lived the lives as part of the American fabric.
But 2010 proved to be a Waterloo year for American Muslims, with the firestorm over the Park51, or sensationally named “Ground Zero Mosque,” the proposed burning of the Qur’an by a pastor in Florida, and the knife attack on a Muslim cab driver in New York City. Eboo Patel, founder director of the Interfaith Youth Council and a columnist for Washington Post’s On Faith” blog, said in a Sept. 5 New York Times article, “I am more scared than I’ve ever been – more scared than I was after September 11.”
Those fears are fueled by conservative and right-wing talking heads, who assert over and over again that Muslims cannot be “good Americans,” that Islam is an evil religion, and all mosques are just fronts for terror networks.
Though the heat seems to have been dialed back to a simmer since last summer, many American Muslims remain wary of their place in this country. And so the presidential hand that was extended to them in the State of the Union is a small but significant step to repair the damages of 2010. Whether their place in American society improves is, at the end of the day, not entirely dependent on presidential support (which they’ve had), but on how bloggers and the media choose to spin stories about them.
However, if Obama is to make good on that statement (that American Muslims are part of the American Family) it can only come with continued verbal assurances backed by actions on state and local levels to show support, acceptance, and most importantly respect for Muslims as vital members of American society.
But are the president’s words to be trusted? After assuring American Muslims, the president went on to say in the State of the Union that “Recent events have shown us that what sets us apart must not just be our power – it must also be the purpose behind it.” He gave the example of south Sudan, whose people voted for independence after years of war. And he spoke of Tunisia, saying, “The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.”
But when it has come to the past two weeks of protests and demands for the resignation of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, the president has walked a fine line from supporting the aspirations of Egyptians to seek democracy and gain release from the shackles of a dictator, and gingerly honoring a 30-year friendship and ally in Mubarak.
After Israel, Egypt is the second largest recipient of American foreign aid, and a key player in Middle East politics, with its 30-year strong peace treaty with Israel, as brokered by President Jimmy Carter and the Camp David Accords. Mubarak is on his way out (the question is when), and the not so silent question on the world’s mind is who, and what comes next?
For Obama, who has sent an envoy to Egypt to help Mubarak write his exit strategy and who has expressed his support for Egyptian people’s demand for democracy, his actions in the past few and coming weeks will shape his reputation among Muslims more emphatically than any other time during his presidency thus far.
He already faces an uphill battle: In the Muslim world, Obama’s favorability ratings and support for his foreign policy in the Middle East dropped significantly from 2009 to 2010, according to a survey by the Global Attitudes project, a project of the Pew Research Forum. That survey showed that only 33 percent of Egyptians, 23 percent of Turks, and 26 percent of Jordanians expressed confidence in the president’s leadership abilities
As numerous political analysts have said, Obama is balancing on a tightrope through the growing unrest and calls for revolution in Egypt and the Middle East – and doing a good job of it. American interest in foreign countries has always been theoretically in favor of democracy, but practically speaking for a government that benefits American interests. It’s not a governing policy unique to this country – all countries wielding any sort of power tend to pursue foreign policy interests with an eye on how it will benefit them.
For 30 years a Mubarak dictatorship worked for the United States. And now that Egyptians are demanding Mubarak’s resignation and their chance at democracy and a better life, Obama is rightly supporting Egyptians’ fight for freedom while stopping short of making it happen for them. He can’t turn his back on Mubarak entirely as the Middle East watches.
And once this has played out the real question will be how Obama will forge a new relationship with an Egypt that has been a friend and ally for 30 years, but may have a government and democracy that doesn’t have the complete American stamp of approval. How the president handles that will be a pivotal point in his reelection bid and will shape his reputation in the Muslim world.
February 8, 2011