x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

A turn of good faith deserves another in kind

One Arab observer said this must be the most historic speech ever given by an American president to the Muslim world. In his address on Thursday, Barack Obama extended himself to Muslims in an unprecedented sign of good faith.

One Arab observer said this must be the most historic speech ever given by an American president to the Muslim world. In his address on Thursday, Barack Obama extended himself to Muslims in an unprecedented sign of good faith. He laid the reputation of his administration and the veracity of his foreign policy on the line when he proffered the Biblical claim: "Do unto others as you would have done unto you."

An Arab proverb says: "If you honour a noble person you will possess his allegiance." Meaning that he will feel himself beholden to respond honourably in kind. Granted, these are only words. We anticipate the practical steps that will prove their sincerity. But they are significant words all the same, the like of which the Muslim world has never seen. Whatever the case, the ball is now squarely in the Muslim court. Can we be magnanimous in return?

Are we prepared to shift our own discourse on East-West relations and expand the paradigms that inform that discourse? President Obama is seeking to remove every excuse for intolerant reactions to unbalanced and narrow-minded policies; those justifications for Muslim actions that have not reflected "ourselves at our best". The question is: will Muslims be able to find themselves and their humanity once more? Can we deftly handle this ball that has been pitched into our court?

Muslims will have to demonstrate that they can be constructive participants in global community - with their faith. This is already being done by individuals; it is time that it becomes an agenda for a community. Obama's recognition of past accomplishments of Islam on the world stage was lost on no one in the room. But the time is now to turn that golden past once more into a robust and relevant present.

I couldn't help but notice, as the US president stood there in Umm al Dunya, heartland of the ambitious enterprise that was pan-Arab nationalism, that the message was about faith, and about Islam. The mistress of secular nationalism is showing her age, her flower of infatuation is wilting, yet Islam remains timeless in an eternal springtime. The Muslim people will never be separated from Islam; it is indelibly dyed into the fabric of their culture. The time has drawn nigh for Muslims to find comfort again with their Islamic identity. Comfort with that identity in the 21st century will come from a prescience of consciousness with their contemporary moment joined with a purposeful mining of the very deep structures of the rich wellsprings of their intellectual and theological tradition.

I'm not sure that Muslims realise what a risk Obama has taken by extending himself to this degree in reaching out to the Muslim world; a risk that is at once political and otherwise. His opponents believe that he is wasting his time as well as squandering diplomatic capital and depleting the fund of martial clout. They gamble that their prejudices toward the abilities of Islam will prove their cynicism correct.

A sea change in American diplomacy has opened a window of possibility for those who have resolved to be truly great persons. Muslims are once more presented with an opportunity to be on the right side of history. If Michelle couldn't say it, I will. This is the first time in my adult life that I have been truly proud of my nation's leadership. Jihad Hashim Brown is director of research at the Tabah Foundation. He delivers the Friday sermon at the Maryam bint Sultan Mosque in Abu Dhabi