(RNS) Officially, President Obama was talking to the Muslim world in his State Department speech on Thursday (May 19), but U.S. Muslims were equally interested in how their faith will be treated in a post-Osama bin Laden era.
U.S. Muslims tuned in hoping for clear direction from Obama on America’s plans for the unrest in the Middle East and strained relations with Pakistan, a critical but wobbly ally in the fight against terrorism.
Adil Najam, who teaches international relations at Boston University, said Muslims—weary of being depicted as fundamentalists and terrorists—want to be taken seriously as partners in democracy who have risked their lives to overthrow Arab dictatorships.
That change in image, he said, could improve the image that Americans have of their Muslims neighbors.
“American Muslims are asking, `What does this mean to be Muslim in America? What will this mean for my children in school tomorrow?”’ Najam said. “To be not talked about as the `other’ or as the enemy is a very big thing.”
Ibrahim Ramey of the Washington-based Muslim American Society, welcomed Obama’s acknowledgment of nonviolence in the so-called “Arab Spring” of 2011, but wished Obama could say the same about U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Ramey also criticized Obama’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he said didn’t take sufficient account of Palestinian aspirations for an independent state.
“Many Muslims in the U.S. would be hesitant to say that peace can be achieved without America reevaluating its position on Palestine and Israel,” Ramey said, adding that most U.S. Muslims “recognize the legitimate right of the Jewish people” to a peaceful and secure Israel.
Zuhdi Jasser, president of the conservative American Islamic Forum on Democracy, said Obama’s speech should have come earlier but welcomed it nevertheless.
“President Obama finally began to make clear that principles of self-determination and freedom were principles America was going to advocate for in the Middle East, regardless of previous (U.S.) relationships with dictators and monarchs,” Jasser said.
Other Muslims warned that America can—and should—do much more to help democracy succeed in the Middle East.
“Economic development alone cannot address the historic challenge before us, and simply holding elections is a recipe for disaster,” said Zainab Al-Suwaij, an Iraqi refugee who founded the pro-democracy American Islamic Congress in 2003. “To achieve lasting liberty and stability, America needs to take decisive action to nurture civic institutions that respect individuals.”