President Obama’s 4 June 2009 speech from Cairo was historic; President Obama’s ability to turn a new page with the Islamic world is a great endeavor. It is important to take inventory of the points made that should be applauded. First, president Obama insisted that if the Muslim world expects respect from the US, that such respect must be reciprocated. Second, president Obama explained to the Muslim world that the negative image surrounding Islam was not conjured up by random individuals in the West but instead was caused by violent acts conducted by radical Muslims and as a result of human rights abuses in many parts of the Muslim world. president Obama maintained that the fact that relationship with Israel is unshakable, clarified to the Muslim world that he is a Christian motivated by Christian ideals and American principles, and sent an unambiguous message to Islamist groups that upholding human rights is not a political ploy to gain recognition, but rather that human rights are universal values that cross the boundaries of any ethnicity or religion. Indeed, president Obama did well in taking a firm stand and in communicating his administration’s policies and goals. Hi speech also encouraged critical thinking among young Muslims.
However, president Obama’s speech was also wrought with inherent inconsistencies. While the President has high caliber policy advisors who clearly helped him craft a highly relevant and effective speech, the advice he received about using certain Islamic concepts in his speech led him down the wrong path. The Islamic examples used in his speech were anecdotes that actually promote concepts of Islamist supremacy! It is unfair to expect that president Obama would know the deep theological meanings and symbolism associated with the selected examples. Each of the examples chosen could be seen as a clear admission by the US President of inferiority, weakness and ultimately submission to Islam.
The first instance of misguidance was when president Obama referred to support for the collection of zakat by charitable Islamic organizations. There is a difference between paying zakat directly to poor and needy people at an individual level (which is permissible in Islam) and collecting it by a ‘collector’. Paying zakat (a type of religious monetary contribution) to disadvantaged people does not need the support of the US government and does not imply any kind of threat to US national security. However, government facilitation of the collection of zakat -as an obligatory tax on Muslims -on such a grand scale forms the basic foundation of an Islamic Caliphate where Non Muslims do not enjoy equal rights with Muslims. This goes to the heart of Islamic supremacy and should not be confused with offering respect, tolerance or political correctness. Indeed, the first war in Islam after the death of the prophet Mohamed was about the issue of ‘collecting’ zakat. Some Muslims refused to pay it to a collector after the death of the prophet and insisted that they pay it directly to people in need. Abu-Bakr Al-Sedeek, the first Caliph, considered these people “apostates” for refusing to give him the zakat and thus declared a war to kill them (“Harb Al-Murtadeen” or War on the Apostates). Paying zakat at the individual level instead of giving it to a collector threatened the concept of the Islamic state (or Cailphate) as it would have deprived Islamic leaders from the funds necessary to build a state.
- Is president Obama aware that institutionalizing zakat as a tax can plant the seed for a religious war inside the US?
- Is he willing to support a homegrown group of people such that they gain the financial solidarity to initiate an Islamic state within the United States?
If every one of the estimated 6 million Muslims in the US paid $1000 of zakat annually to the sick and the poor, could be 6 billion dollars per year given to help the needy. But, if the same yearly $6 billion were collected by a handful of Islamic charities, these organizations would gain tremendous power to initiate a true Caliphate and to implement Sharia Laws in different parts of the world. Sharia law discriminates between Muslims and Non Muslims. Hence, one must ask why these particular examples were specifically chosen? What is the true vision of those who suggested using them? It is important here to clarify that zakat is not considered charitable by any measure but instead it is an obligatory deed for all Muslims. The optional paying to the needy does need a collector and is usually called saddaka, not zakat.
President Obama’s second fault was in repeating his support for the rights of Muslim women to wear the hijab. The hijab, according to Islamic Sharia law and according to mainstream approved Islamic teaching- is a way to distinguish between free and pious women from slave women whom were forbidden from wearing it. The intention of the hijab as described by mainstream Islamic sources was to protect free or ’covered’ women from sexual harassment. In fact, the second Islamic Caliphate, Umar Ibn Al-Khattab used to beat slave women if they attempted to cover their bodies to emulate the free ones.
The third mistake president Obama made on this front was in mentioning the story of Israa. Muslims believe that the prophet Mohamed led the prayer with other prophets in Jerusalem. This is a classical example used by many Muslims to prove superiority of Islam and Mohamed above all other prophets as he -according to this story- was the Imam (leader of the prayer) above all the other prophets during this prayer. Is it just a coincidence that ALL three Islamic examples crafted into the President’s speech promote concepts of Islamic supremacy?
There are tons of other examples in Islam that could have conveyed exactly the same powerful message without promoting a superiority related issue. For example, President Obama could have promoted the rights of Muslims to pray or to fast in Ramadan and the rights of Muslim women to have equal recognition. These examples are important issues that do not necessarily bow in the face of the concept of superiority.
In conclusion, president Obama’s speech to the Muslim world was very successful on several fronts, however it was extremely unwise in selecting examples that promote superiority of Muslims above others thereby contradicting the president’s view that “any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.”