It 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.
The 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.