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Detroit-Area Muslims Eagerly Await President's Speech

posted on: Jun 3, 2009

President Barack Obama this week said his long-anticipated speech to the Islamic world, to be delivered in Egypt today, is part of an initiative to “change the conversation” between the United States and Muslims around the globe.

But many local Muslims wonder whether the new president’s actions will be enough.

Many said they are hoping the president will offer such specifics as plans for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, his intentions in neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan, and details for a path toward resolving conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians. Other observers, however, question whether Muslim countries — many of which have authoritarian regimes — are prepared to formally expand relationships with the United States.


“We know that he is walking a very tight rope,” said Victor Ghalib Begg of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan. “He doesn’t have a magic wand, and there are so many competing interests. So, I would say I am hoping he will perform a miracle. But I’m not prepared to be either disappointed or really elated at this time, because it is a very complicated situation.”

Since taking office, Obama has made overtures to Muslims — in his inaugural speech, an interview with the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television network, a major speech in April in Ankara, Turkey, and this week’s call for Israel to end the building of settlements in the West Bank.

But many of Metro Detroit’s Muslims — estimated at 125,000 to 200,000, the most in the United States — as well as observers of other faiths, say today’s speech provides an opportunity for Obama to signal a transition from words to actions.

Juan Cole, a professor at the University of Michigan and author of “Engaging the Muslim World,” said that Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah initially suggested that the president’s speech would set forward a very wide-ranging peace plan. But “the White House has denied this,” Cole said. “And his staff is telling the press his speech will not put forward a specific plan but that he will probably emphasize values.”

American foreign policy, many critics argue, is an object of scrutiny in the Muslim world. They cite the presence of combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan; pressures on Pakistan to root out the Taliban, who have forced 3 million Pakistanis into homelessness; and the United States’ continued support of Israel. They say those issues are viewed by Muslims worldwide as vestiges of American imperialism.

“So, unless Obama can give them concrete specifics about his policies that address these burning issues for them, there’s a little bit of a danger of the speech being a P.R. exercise — and we’ve seen that happen before,” Cole said.

It is implausible, some Muslims contend, that Obama can settle all scores today in his speech at Cairo University, noting previous efforts by other American presidents. “It seems to me that some want to shoot the moon,” said Saeed Khan, a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Clinton Township. “They want very concrete measures put in place, with some almost-certain deadlines. Obama himself has set the bar pretty high.

“President Obama has established ‘bona fides.’ But there is a sense of urgency among people to say, ‘If not now, when?’ and a fear that if any problems are going to take several years to resolve, what will happen if there is only one term? Or what happens if it takes longer than two terms? Will the situation revert to the ‘status quo ante’? This is playing on Muslim minds throughout the world.”

A.S. Nakadar, publisher and editor of The Muslim Observer, a 10-year-old newspaper in Farmington, suggested that Obama can improve relations between the United States and Muslim countries by speaking to simple virtues and connecting with the youth and heads of state in the Muslim countries.

“If he can instill in the youths the confidence that we can work together for the betterment of the world and humanity at large, that can contribute a lot,” Nakadar said.

“And, to the heads of state, he should say to them that it is their responsibility to weed out the extremists that advocate violence, and that it is their responsibility also to address the human rights issues and the principles that we espouse as Americans.”

The selection of Egypt as the venue for the speech also was criticized. Although it’s officially a democracy, local Muslims question that status, noting that the country’s president, Hosni Mubarak, has served for nearly three decades while candidates they considered as worthy opponents had been kept off the ballots.

Amid that culture, the question remains: How much can Obama accomplish in a speech?

“It is a good thing that he is addressing the Muslim world,” said Todd Mendel, president of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

“Whether he will accomplish much, I have doubts. I would like to be optimistic. But, pragmatically, I am not sure it would do much, other than the beginning of a long process.”

Gregg KrupaT
The Detroit News