On Friday morning, the White House Blog released this video in which President Obama wished Muslims “Ramadan Kareem.” Accompanied by a message from Deputy Counsel Rashad Hussain, Obama’s speech was translated into a slew of languages (Arabic, Bengali, Dari, French, Hindi, Indonesian, Pashto, Persian, Punjabi, Russian, Turkish, Urdu) to ensure that it reached a worldwide audience, but mainly a worldwide, Muslim audience. The video is part of the White House’s efforts to engage Muslims-Americans and improve foreign relations with Muslim-majority countries – relations that were practically destroyed while George Bush held office.
Was this a successful mission? I think so.
Obama explains that Ramadan is a month of “devotion and reflection,” a month of service and charity, a month of family time and community gatherings – values that are coherent with American principles. His carefully chosen words (I know he did not write this himself, but roll with me on this) demonstrate a respect and an admiration for Islam, its practices and its history, and lead me to believe he truly cares about engaging Muslim-Americans.
The video not only demonstrated Obama’s knowledge of Muslim traditions and practices (even sprinkling in some Arabic words as he did with his Cairo speech), but it also served to educate non-Muslims on the basics of Ramadan, while comparing Islam to Judeo-Christian traditions. His intended message? We may be a nation of different faiths, but we all hold the same values and are working toward the goal of a more peaceful and secure world. Furthermore, that the U.S. is committed to helping Muslim-majority nations on issues of mutual interest.
Coming off of criticism that his Cairo message was all fluff with no concrete plan of action, President Obama explained that the seeds of change are in the process of being planted, and attempted to provide some examples. For instance, he mentioned that embassies abroad are gathering information that will be used to develop and implement strategies “to expand education exchange programs; to foster entrepreneurship and create jobs; and to increase collaboration on science and technology, while supporting literacy and vocational learning.” Still sounds vague to me, but at least the idea is there. After all, “we cannot change things overnight,” he reminds us.
Speeches like this one, in addition to other efforts already made by the Obama administration, further advance Muslim-American relations in a way that is much-needed. Muslims now have more faith in a government that had previously alienated them – a government that for eight years painted them as the “other” in their own country. For instance, words like “Muslim communities” and “Muslim-majority nations” are a far cry from George Bush’s “us vs. them” terminology. And when was the last time Bush showed an understanding of Ramadan (or anything really)?
I’m glad that Muslims are finally receiving positive recognition for their faith and its contributions to American society, and I cannot help but be charmed by President Obama into thinking that things will only get better.