A year after: Obama and the Muslim world

This month marks the first anniversary of President Barack Obama’s speech to the Muslim world in Cairo where he sought “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect”
President Barack Obama during one of his speeches.
President Barack Obama during one of his speeches.

This month marks the first anniversary of President Barack Obama’s speech to the Muslim world in Cairo where he sought “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect”

However, the hope that greeted President Obama’s speech has turned into disappointment as people realized that turning promises into reality is not easy to achieve.

While he should be congratulated on his efforts to change the discourse of US policy towards the Muslim world, it is clear that people expect more than simply statements from him.

It is vital to rekindle the new spirit that accompanied President Obama’s speech and to discuss together how we can transformations practical programs that bridge the concept of dialogue with real and affective partnership between East and West.

I believe there are several ways that can help forge a constructive partnership between the Muslim world and the US. The Islam we were taught in our youth is one that calls for peace and mercy.

The Prophet Muhammad told us: “Those who show mercy are shown mercy by the All-Merciful. Show mercy to those who are on earth and the One in the heavens will show mercy to you.”

Furthermore, the Qur’an teaches us: “O people we have created you from a single male and female and divided you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.” When God says” to know one another” He did not mean in order to kill one another. All religions have forbidden the killing of innocents. Rather we have been ordered to cooperate in a constructive manner.

For over a thousand years ordinary Muslims have worshipped God, engaged in developing their society and the human civilization, and have sought to cultivate good moral character.

They have engaged, absorbed and assimilated a multiplicity of civilizations such as the Persians, Indians, Chinese, and Greeks, into our cultural and intellectual life. We benefited from all of them as well as contributing to them.

Such a humanitarian and cosmopolitan worldview does not allow us to consider ourselves as superior to other people. And since our civilization is concerned with humanity, it brings together both the spiritual and the material.

We do not hate life nor do we seek to create social imbalance, and anyone who engages in this has gone against the teachings of our religion and what we have been taught as being worthy of good moral character.

The need for dialogue between people of different faiths and cultures is far greater today in view of the problems faced in the relations between peoples and communities.

Dialogue stems from the recognition of identities and specificities, avoiding at the same time that their assertion turn into hostility towards others leading to bloody borders among religions and cultures.

Dialogue is based upon the respect for religious plurality and cultural diversity. Dialogue is not about trying to defeat others, but about understanding and learning about them. The Qur’an insists that the world’s beauty lies in its racial and religious pluralism; otherwise God would not have created it so (see Qur’an, 10:99 and 5:48).

Our world is changing at a rapid pace. Staggering developments in travel, migration, trade and technology have brought communities closer, Yetwe have become alienated in some many other aspects.

Many find such ever growing closeness and communication enriching, but for others it can be a source of confusion and intimidation. Constructive dialogue, in such situations, can help defuse tension and keep problems from escalating. We must do all that we can to promote reconciliation in the aftermath of any conflict.

Constructive dialogue is indeed a powerful tool in conflict prevention, management and resolution. But we still need to work harder on many fronts.

There is, for example, an urgent need to promote the value of cultural diversity through education. We must strengthen educational systems with a wider vision so that young people could benefit from cultural diversity and accept the ‘other’. For solutions, we must create a wide network engaging the collaboration of local governments, civil society, the media, young leaders and other professionals.

We must also endeavour to clear misconceptions and misinterpretations, which often mar our attitudes towards the other. These include the position of women in Muslim societies, the role of the Shariah, the right of minorities, and so on. These must be discussed honestly and effort must be made to understand the broader historical, theological and cultural premises ad dynamics.

In the case of the position of Muslim women, many in the West only understand it in terms of ‘women’s issues’, a categorization that is uncharacteristic in the Muslim milieu, where both women and men are seen as intrinsically linked, as individuals, to family and society.

The status of women in Islam is not just confined to her being the first believer (Khadijah, the Prophet’s wife), or the first martyr (Sumayyah), or the first emigrant (Ruqayyah who emigrated with her husband ‘Uthman).

Rather, history attests to Muslim women who took the positions of rulership, judgeship, teaching, participating in armed conflicts, issuing fatwa, regulating economic and public affairs, and expressing opinions on key matters in community issues.

As a case in point, in the fatwas issued by Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyyah, for example, we emphasize a woman’s right to dignity, education, work and assuming positions in the political arena and have condemned all forms of violence committed against a woman.

We also need to open permanent and effective channels of scientific, technological, economic, cultural and scientific dialogue and cooperation between the Muslim world and the US. President Obama mentioned in his speech that throughout their history, Muslim communities have proved that they have contributed immensely in the fields of education and innovation.

He even made the point that it is not possible for development strategies to depend solely on wealth— innovation and education are more important for long term progress.

This can only be achieved in an environment that respects international legitimacy, religious distinctiveness and the cultural traditions of people. Any reform must stem from societal reality, cultural and religious specificities, convictions, and their epistemological outlooks. Reform simply cannot be imposed.

Furthermore, there is a critical need for global Muslim representative bodies such as the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), which together with Fiqh Assembly in Jeddah and thescholarly assistance of institutions such as al-Azhar and the Islamic Research Assembly, can become key focal points for the development of moderate and peaceful Muslim discourses.

However, it is necessary that balanced foreign policy be the basis for improved relations. For the Muslim world, and particularly its clerical community, it is important that the rule of law prevail in times of conflict. There should be a concerted effort on both sides to respect international law and UN resolutions.

By holding high the rule of law, justice can prevail and no one can hide behind false excuses. Most immediately amongst Muslim world opinion, this needs to be applied to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict removing long-standing suffering from the Palestinian people. We all are aware that making a durable and just peace in Palestine would have a sustainable influence over relations between cultures and religions.

Moreover, a just peace is a necessity for the success of any initiative that seeks to achieving a genuine rapprochement between the US and the Arab and Muslim World.

The responsibility of an improved relationship between the Muslim world and US falls on both sides. I feel that this is not only possible, but it is in fact the only way we can build a brighter and more prosperous world for our children. With cooperation and respect, I believe that no task is impossible.

Sheikh Dr. Ali Gomaa is the “highest” Imam within the Muslim world, the Grand mufti of Cairo and Co-Chair in the C1Foundation.

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