x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Touching the hearts of US Muslims

Leaders and activists of the American Muslim community come together in Washington to praise their president's remarks.

Members of the American-Islamic community, including, from left, Asma Hanif, Nihad Awad, Mahdi Bray and Mohammad al Hanooti, watch the US president, Barack Obama's address from Cairo at the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington.
Members of the American-Islamic community, including, from left, Asma Hanif, Nihad Awad, Mahdi Bray and Mohammad al Hanooti, watch the US president, Barack Obama's address from Cairo at the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington.

WASHINGTON // President Barack Obama travelled seven time zones to Cairo to reach out to the Muslim world - but he also had a captive audience back home, where leaders and activists of the American Muslim community were hanging on his every word. "I was very interested in every utterance," said Sheikh Mohammed al Hanooti, 72, a local Islamic leader in a white galabeyah who joined many of his counterparts in praising the president's remarks. "This is the first president of the United States in decades who expressed some sort of justice and some sort of reality in dealing with crises of the Muslim world."

"I listened to the speech as ? a regular 'Joe American', " added Asma Hanif of the Co-ordinating Council of Muslim Organisations in Washington. "Whether Muslim, or Christian or Jew, these comments would have touched your heart." Both Mr al Hanooti and Ms Hanif were among a small group of prominent Muslim-Americans who gathered before dawn yesterday to watch the speech from the Capitol Hill headquarters of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (Cair), a civil liberties group. While the leaders universally applauded Mr Obama's effort to reach out to the world's 1.5 billion Muslims, they also stressed the important role they believe America's estimated seven million Muslims can play in reshaping the country's image.

"American Muslims know the culture of Islam, history, demography, and they have affinity and loyalty to America and respect and deep roots in the Muslim world," said Nihad Awad, Cair's executive director. "A great partnership begins with American Muslims." Mr Obama made several references to the US Muslim community in a concerted effort to show that America is not only tolerant of Islam, but a country where Muslims thrive.

American Muslims enjoy incomes and educational levels that are "higher than the American average", Mr Obama said, adding that there are 1,200 US mosques, including one in every state. "Islam is a part of America." Still, Muslims continue to feel marginalised in this predominantly Christian country, a trend many attribute to a lingering backlash since the September 11 terrorist attacks. Muslim charities have had trouble raising money, those gathered said. Others said prejudice is common.

"American Muslims have suffered discrimination and exclusion," Mr Awad said. "What happens to Muslims in the United State constitutes part of the global image of the United States." Mr Obama said he was committed to working with American Muslims to ensure that they can fulfil zakat, and also noted the importance of western countries avoiding cultural discrimination such as "dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear". Lawsuits in the United States and Europe have challenged whether a woman has the right to cover her face in public.

Rahim Jenkins, the former chairman of Masjid Muhammed, Washington's largest mosque, said the president's Muslim roots offered new opportunities to foster understanding between the United States and the Middle East. He and others were touched by Mr Obama's attempts to pronounce Arabic words and quote directly from the Quran. "I am ? deeply encouraged and impressed with how comfortable he was in terms of quoting the Quran," said Mr Jenkins. "It speaks to not just his learnedness and his experience, but the fact that he himself has been touched by all of these influences that impact the word."

Zarinah Shakir, the host of a Washington-area public access television show called Perspectives of Interfaith, which deals with issues facing Muslims in America, said she was heartened by the president's call to provide greater rights to Muslim women. "With the wife that he has and two daughters, I can't imagine that he wouldn't address women's rights," said Ms Shakir. "I am quite sure that he understands that women's rights are very important issues here in America and throughout the world."

Still, while the leaders agreed that Mr Obama's speech was a success, they noted that his words would now need to be matched by actions and real changes in policy. "We got a good start here, we have some good comments, but I'm from the old neighbourhood that says: not only do we talk the talk, we have to walk the walk," said Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society, a charitable organisation in Washington.

"We have some serious walking to do, but I think the president laid it out very clearly where the journey should lead." sstanek@thenational.ae