Obama is right for an opening to Muslims

Obama is right for an opening to Muslims

As he travelled to Turkey on Monday, President Barack Obama took the next step toward fulfilling his pledge to more forcefully address the Muslim world. Some critics have warned him: Don”t do it. I believe they are wrong. This was just the right thing to do, and Obama was the one to do it.

Obama spoke at the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations forum in Istanbul as a way of talking directly with Muslims on finding common ground for peace.

Critics say Obama should not try to engage the “Muslim world” because there is no such unified thing. They say this will play into Osama bin Laden”s narrative because he portrays himself as the protector of the “Muslim world.” They say the conflicts in the Middle East and Asia, with Iran, within Iraq, and between Pakistan and India are not rooted in religion, but are secular fights over land, influence and control.

That may be true. But it is equally true that even if religion is not the cause of these conflicts, it is definitely at the core of the solution.

To understand this, one must understand the role that Islam plays in the Muslim world. In the United States, when Americans have a grievance, they say, “That”s unconstitutional! There ought to be a law.” For Americans, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with its Bill of Rights are at the core of what they believe.

In the Muslim world, when someone has a grievance and says, “There ought to be a law!” They know that there is one. All the law that a Muslim needs is in the Koran and in the hadiths, the sayings of the Prophet.

Right after 9/11, people would ask me, why do so many movements with political agendas take a religious name? Why are they the Muslim Brotherhood, or Hizbullah, which means Party of God or Hamas, which is an acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement? I tell them that the Muslim approach to law and justice begins with religious language because secular movements have failed to deliver what Muslims want – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

If that sounds suspiciously like the Declaration of Independence, that”s because, contrary to what many people in the West believe, Islamic law and American democratic principles have many things in common.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that the Creator endowed man with these unalienable rights. The framers of the Constitution wrote that they were establishing justice, ensuring domestic tranquility, promoting the general welfare and securing the blessings of liberty.

In the same way, Islamic law believes that God has ordained political justice, economic justice, and help for the weak and impoverished. These are very Islamic concepts. Many Muslims believe that what Americans receive from their government is in fact the very substance of what an Islamic state should provide. American beliefs in individual liberty and the dignity of the individual are Islamic principles as well.

Obama sent a shockwave through the Muslim World when at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 5 he quoted a hadith: “None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” The president equated that tenet of Islam with Jesus” “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” and the Jewish Torah commandment, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”

For an American president to use the language of Islam to show the commonality with American and Judeo-Christian values amplifies his message 100 times among Muslims.

Osama bin Laden gets his power from arguing that the United States is trying to impose Western values on the Muslim world that will destroy Islam. Too often, the American government has played into his hands.

What Obama can do is flip that argument. He can emphasize the commonality of Western and Islamic values. He can say that if the United States lives up to the values in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and if Muslims can live up to the principles of Islamic law, then we will find we have fewer points of conflict and more common ground.

Once this commonality can be established, Muslims no longer will fear Western domination and the West no longer will fear Islamic expansion. Then, the phony “Clash of Civilizations” can be put to rest.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, an independent, non-partisan and multi-national project that seeks to use religion to improve Muslim-West relations. (www.cordobainitiative.org ) He is the author of “What”s Right with Islam is What”s Right with America.” This commentary appeared on the On Faith blog of The Washington Post, and is reprinted by permission.

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