Islamic tone, interfaith touch in Obama’s speech to Muslim world

June 4, 2009

obama-speech-baghdadIt started with “assalaamu alaykum” and ended with “may God’s peace be upon you.” Inbetween, President Barack Obama dotted his speech to the Muslim world with Islamic terms and references meant to resonate with his audience. The real substance in the speech were his policy statements and his call for a “new beginning” in U.S. relations with Muslims, as outlined in our trunk news story. But the new tone was also important and it struck a chord with many Muslims who heard the speech, as our Middle East Special Correspondent Alistair Lyon found. Not all, of course — you can find positive and negative reactions here.

(Photo: Iraqi in Baghdad watches Obama’s speech, 4 June 2009/Mohammed Ameen)

Among Obama’s Islamic touches were four references to the Koran (which he always called the Holy Koran), his approving mention of the scientific, mathematical and philosophical achievements of the medieval Islamic world and his citing of multi-faith life in Andalusia. These are standard elements that many Islam experts — Muslims and non-Muslims — mention in speeches at learned conferences, but it’s not often that you hear an American president talking about them.

Two religious references particularly caught my attention because they weren’t the usual conference circuit clichés. One was his comment about being in “the region where (Islam) was first revealed” — a choice of past participle showing respect for the religion.

obama-speech-muslimsThe other came when he said Jerusalem should be “a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra, when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed (peace be upon them) joined in prayer.” The Sura al-Isra is the Koran chapter about Mohammad’s Night Journey to heaven, which tradition says started in Jerusalem on what Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary and Jews the Temple Mount. It was an interesting way to cite Islamic tradition to say Jerusalem should be “a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together.” The interjection “peace be upon them” had both an Islamic tone and an interfaith touch.

(Photo: Palestinians in the Gaza Strip watch Obama’s speech, 4 June 2009/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)

Obama also gave the American Muslim population estimate — 7 million — that prompted him to tell a French interviewer earlier this week that the U.S. could be considered “one of the largest Muslim countries in the world.” He didn’t repeat that phrase in his speech, however, possibly because the figures don’t back it up. Figures for Muslim populations are dodgy because many countries don’t keep such data. Recent estimates of the U.S. Muslim population range from 1.8 to 7-8 million, so he’s taken about the highest figures around. If those figures are correct, the U.S. would still only rank only about 30th on the list of countries with the largest Muslim populations. That’s way down on this Wikipedia list, with Azerbaijan and Burkina Faso. That’s nowhere near the really big Muslim populations like the top three Indonesia (195 million), Pakistan (160 million) and India (140 million). Maybe that’s why his speechwriters backed off the “one of the largest” claim.

obama-speech-egyptThe end of the speech also had an interesting twist. Obama reached for one of the quotes from the Koran that Muslims cite most frequently when they call for tolerance among peoples: “The Holy Koran tells us, “O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.”

(Photo: Egyptians in cafe watch Obama’s speech, 4 June 2009/Asmaa Waguih)

But he followed it up with quotes from the other two Abrahamic religions: “The Talmud tells us: ‘The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace.’ The Holy Bible tells us, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God’.”

What did you think of Obama’s speech?

Here’s a short video about the speech:


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it’s about time

Posted by wally | Report as abusive

[…] landmark speech to the the Muslim world. Reuters' FaithWorld aggregates the situation clearly here. The National Catholic Reporter, has its own take on the speech and the Pew Forum on Religion and […]

Posted by Will Muslims reciprocate Obama’s gesture? – News and Opinion Blog of Blogs | Report as abusive

“Blessed are the peacemakers” is pulled from the Beatitudes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Many understand this to be a call for us to make peace with God and help others in that quest. Along the way, peace between God’s people can be achieved but the primary goal is to end our conflict with God. Jesus also tells us how to make peace with God when He said, “I am the way, the light, and the truth. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Posted by Mark | Report as abusive

As President Obama correctly mentioned in his address that no single speech can eradicate years of mistrust. The task of reconciling Western and Islamic perceptions is a daunting one given the politicization of the issue. Despite the complexicity of his assignment, President Obama made an impressive beginning which will have to be validated through positive policies. President Obama’s attempts at citing injunctions from the Quran to highlight the progressive and tolerant nature of Islam were commendable. He went beyond the narrow political analysis of tracing the roots of tensions between the U.S. and Islam to 9/11. According to the President most of the current tensions have resulted from the historical developments prompted by the forces of Colonialism, Cold War and globalization. The high-point of President Obama’s speech was his attempt to project violent extremism as a common civilizational threat. President Obama skillfully repudiated the Clash of Civilizations theory by quoting the message of peace from the Torah, Bible and Quran. As an attempt at sociological reconciliation, President Obama’s Cairo speech was a grand success; the concrete process of political resolution is yet to begin.

Posted by thetrajectory | Report as abusive

A man speaks this way who has been instrumental, as a congressman and now as President, in three wars which are being waged against the people of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Over a million people have died in those conflicts and people are dying at this moment for the benefits of the self-interested privileged class of which Obama is the “new face.” Thousands have been killed in the last year by Isreali bombs, which Obama defended.

Obama will not stop the wars or the criminal robbery of the American people on behalf of the corporate aristocracy.

More crocodile tears from a professional crocodile.

Posted by Roy Fairbank | Report as abusive

He is a chamelian & ticks so many boxes it makes me wonder if he was chosen for a specific purpose. Yesterday he was Hussien the Muslim, today in Germany he was an American liberator visiting a concentration camp. He job is to bring Islam (& the whole world) under global corporate finance control.

Posted by christy | Report as abusive

It is very nice to hear from the president of the most powerful nation words calling for peace and peaceful coexistence among people. It was impressive speech. A new tone and I hope there will be a new role which is making peace. What is so far missing is spread of culture of peace- Obama can make all world’s people love USA if the American people help him to do so by pushing for making justice instead of supporting injustice as we saw during Bush times.

Posted by Mohamed Ali | Report as abusive

I think Obama’s speech was against the Muslims.But totally in favor of Jews.But Muslims are unable to understand this.

Posted by Islamic School | Report as abusive

His speech and his tour were a well timed pre-emptive strategy aimed do divert attention ahead of the immanent release of more torture and rape photos from abu ghraib.
The photos the world has seen already are the “good” ones, now many of the worse ones have been leaked to the press despite obamas threats to block their release. These images depict torture of detainees, gang rape of female detainees and US soldiers posing happily in front of dead prisoners who’s deaths are themselves in question.

Many of you may not realize it but these photos are already available on the internet after being leaked, although for patriotic reasons many allied Media networks will not publish them.
The official line being distributed in the whitehouses’ campaign to dismiss the relevance of these photos is that they should be blocked because they will stir up more hatred towards Americans. Is that not fair though?
It’s like saying Hitler’s crimes shouldnt be published because it will stir up anti-Nazi sentiment..

Posted by brian | Report as abusive

I think Obama’s speech was against the Muslims.But totally in favor of Jews.But Muslims are unable to understand this.

Posted by homequran | Report as abusive

He is a clever person. He knows what to do at what time. He want to take muslim countries in hand now to do his work

Posted by homequran | Report as abusive

By equating Mohammed, Moses and Jesus as appearing together in Jerusalem and saying “peace upon them” (May their Soul Rest In Peace), Obama declares Jesus still dead and implies that the Koran’s teachings on Jesus is true.

No one should ever forget where Obama learnt his ‘Christianity’. It was from Jeremiah Wright whose respect for the Bible is clear from his teachings. Obama was nurtured by those heresies for 20 years.

Americans did not care when these were pointed out. Now America bows to the Saudi King and extols the religion of the perpetrators of 9/11.

Posted by Manny Jaja | Report as abusive

Obama is a chamelion. In America, he is a Christian. In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, he is a Muslim adherent or admirer. I suspect that Obama despises America’s past and history and wants to unmake America.

Posted by Imma Okochua | Report as abusive

Obama and his God knows better wheather he is muslim or christian

Posted by abdul | Report as abusive

It was a strange speech about the Obama saying to the world. It was just pointing towards the single community.

Posted by hasankamal1122 | Report as abusive