Reflections on Obama’s Mosque Visit

Many have praised President Obama’s recent visit to a Baltimore mosque and affiliated school. Others have been critical, but it is important to counter a rhetoric that is increasingly casting shadows upon fellow American citizens.

But here are two Western Arab voices that express a little concern. The first is a UK-based Muslim, Nervana Mahmoud. She cites official White House photos that present a ‘cropped’ picture of American Islam.

Obama Mosque Visit
(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The leader of the West’s strongest nation has opted to strip Islam from its centuries-old, colorful diversities and frame it within a monochromatic conservative style—a self-defeating approach from a man who advocated for diversity among weary Americans who wish to shelter their country from the turbulence of the Middle East. … The lack of non-Hijabi women among the attendees, even among the children, is striking.

Nervana counts herself a liberal Muslim, and wishes this sector had been highlighted. She is confused why a progressive American politician would choose such a mosque for the spotlight.

Non-Islamist Muslims exist in America as well as in their native countries. Iranian Americans, for example, will undoubtedly tell the president tales about oppression, dress code, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Other liberal Muslims fight against segregation, enforcing Hijab upon children.

Almost all mainstream Muslim scholars agree that Hijab for pre-puberty children is not obligatory. The American leadership that fights the Islamic State’s oppression, however, seems tolerant of such indoctrination of children.

Coptic-American Maged Atiya suggests that no matter the mosque the venue would have been criticized as unrepresentative. But he is disappointed that such a cerebral president offered such an empty speech.

It is heavy on optimism, on declarations of belief in liberal values and tolerance, and on deep faith that fundamental forces will force a happy outcome. In short, that we are destined by the arc of history to a fair, just and tolerant outcome in any struggle.

The trouble with that view is that it offers no guidance to short-term policy that will actually lead to such outcomes in the long run.

… The Baltimore speech does American Muslims injustice by lack of acknowledgement of real barriers that stand between their desire to conform to a conservative version of their faith and yet integrate effectively into American society.

He laments Obama’s missed opportunity to really tackle this issue with substance. If so, he could have addressed the core competing values.

There are major differences between the ethos of conservative Islam with its backward glances and emphasis on community sovereignty and the liberalizing trend of American society with its emphasis on the liberation and autonomy of the individual.

Glossing over these differences leaves all exposed when the conflicts inevitably come to the surface. Bigots among American non-Muslims will insist that Muslims can never be “full Americans”, while bigots among American Muslims will insist that such differences are merely manifestations of irrational hatred of Islam. This is a disservice to any effective understanding and outreach between faiths.

I am sympathetic to both viewpoints, but also willing to propose an explanation.

Whether the choice to not wear hijab or sport a long beard and traditional clothing comes from conviction, compromise, or apathy, many of these Muslims mix easily into Western life. They may or may not believe fully the tenets of Islam, may or may not pray at home or the mosque. But in the panoply of American diversity they look more or less like everyone else, and thus, I imagine, draw neither the ire nor support of culture warriors.

Perhaps Obama chose to highlight such a mosque precisely because it draws such a visual image. You, too, are welcome in America. The vitriol of much political discourse targets you, and must be spoken against. Your clothing choices reflect your faith, and for this there is freedom. We must defend it vigilantly, and publicly.

If this is a sentiment behind Obama’s choice, it may also illumine his speech. The presidency is often more a bully pulpit than a university lectern. As hard as some are hitting Muslims these days, the force of rhetoric must be returned. Where fear and suspicion are preached, let principles and idealism respond.

But the criticism of both authors is fair. The complexity of this issue must be honored, and Muslims come in a million stripes.

But they also come as individual citizens. All but the tiniest minority deserve the full scope of American freedoms. American political leadership should do justice to both these realities.



Obama at the UN: As Seen by an Egyptian

Obama at UN

Many Egyptians believe the United States is deeply involved in their nation’s affairs. Some believe because of strong military ties, President Obama was behind the removal of President Morsi. Others believe because of a State Department search for a new reliable partner to do their bidding, President Obama was behind the ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood and is still working to hoist them upon a wary public.

Paul Atallah is among the latter. He frequently distributes a newsletter summing up Egyptian developments in local media and provides his own commentary. If you would like to receive it, his email address is:

He has given me permission to share his latest take on the ‘weird speech’ President Obama offered at the United Nations.

Point 1: Mohammed Morsi was democratically elected, but proved unwilling or unable to govern in a way that was fully inclusive.

Point 2: The interim government that replaced him responded to the desires of millions of Egyptians who believed the revolution had taken a wrong turn,

Point 3: but it too has made decisions inconsistent with inclusive democracy – through an emergency law, and restrictions on the press, civil society, and opposition parties.

Comment: At this point, Obama did not mention anything about MB and Islamist terrorist actions committed during the last three months which had been the cause of this emergency law, etc. and this makes the whole difference.

Point 4: Of course, America has been attacked by all sides of this internal conflict, simultaneously accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, and engineering their removal from power. In fact, the United States has purposely avoided choosing sides.

Comment: Liar!

Point 5: The United States will maintain a constructive relationship with the interim government.

Point 6: We will continue support in areas like education that benefit the Egyptian people.

Comment: This argument is normally used to say: We are against the regime but we cannot harm the people!

Point 7: Our approach to Egypt reflects a larger point: the United States will at times work with governments that do not meet the highest international expectations, but who work with us on our core interests.

Comment: So we have to deal with a dirty military dictatorship against our will!

Point 8: But we will not stop asserting principles that are consistent with our ideals, whether that means opposing the use of violence as a means of suppressing dissent, or supporting the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

We will reject the notion that these principles are simply Western exports, incompatible with Islam or the Arab World – they are the birthright of every person.

Comment: Condemning the Egyptian regime and nothing about MB monstrosities. I feel that he is speaking about Syria and not about Egypt.

Point 9: And while we recognize that our influence will at times be limited; although we will be wary of efforts to impose democracy through military force, and will at times be accused of hypocrisy or inconsistency – we will be engaged in the region for the long haul. For the hard work of forging freedom and democracy is the task of a generation.

Comment: I am not quite sure of what Obama meant by this statement? Does he mean that US at a certain moment would interfere to impose democracy by military force or is he talking of the military coup that happened in order to impose democracy?

If he meant the first one so it is a warning: At a certain point we will be obliged to impose democracy through military force. But I am not sure of this translation.

If the meant the second: How was it possible to get rid of a paramilitary/religious regime?

 As an example of his newsletter, here are a few other links he provides about local analysis in the Egyptian press:

Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Obama speech reflects US submission to the Egyptians will and confirms that Egypt is walking firmly on the roadmap to democracy: Obama’s mention of emergency law and civil society reflects that he is not fully aware of what the Egyptian society is facing on the ground.

El Hariry: MB prohibition and the force of the army defeated Obama in front of the people’s will: US sold the Muslim Brotherhood as they abandoned Mubarak.

Revolutionary forces coalition: 30th of June taught US how to respect the people’s will

It is always fun to be an American in Egypt! In our experience, Egyptians, no matter which side of this divide they occupy, have always treated us kindly and with respect.


Aslan Media Middle East Published Articles

Voting Behind Barbed Wire

It is usually not an easy process to vote overseas. And then, all of a sudden, I had.

Weeks ago we printed out our internet registration form, necessary to secure a ballot sent from America. We also heard we could drop this off at the US Embassy in downtown Cairo, but delays – including a few days of rioting you may have heard of – kept us away.

But even then the process was complicated. Even after we received the ballot and sent it back, it was still necessary to physically mail an official registration form, even if it arrived late.

It has been a while since I voted in America, but basically all I recall is signing my name and pulling a lever. There is much I took for granted.

This includes, apparently, not having to walk through a war zone.

I exaggerate. Everything downtown is calm and has been for weeks. But the earlier riots only ended when the army intervened to impose its staple post-revolution solution: Build a wall. The main street of access to the embassy from Tahrir Square is now barricaded completely, forcing a five minute walk around the corner.

Didn’t I just lament taking things for granted? Now I complain about an extra five minute walk? The sign on the wall shows those who have a right of grievance. The shop owners outside the embassy and all along the now barricaded road are pleading with the government to take it down.

Once around the corner, however, the second security step is visible. During the original demonstration against the film protestors scaled the embassy walls and took down the US flag, replacing it with a black flag of Islam. The rest of the evening they stood atop the wall, holding placards but doing nothing in particular.

Now, barbed wire lines the embassy wall in its entirety.

Getting in was nearly as simple a process as usual. There was a line outside, ID, phone, and camera to leave at the desk, a metal detector to pass through, and then… that’s when things were different.

Normally the American Services Center of the embassy is calm and orderly, waiting in turn for your number to be called. The embassy advertized two days, however, to assist the absentee voting process, which was held outside regular visiting hours.

The line outside was due to the great crowd, let in by smaller groups to ease the congestion. There were few instructions given on what to do upon arrival. Forms were everywhere – mostly organized – but only one very helpful and very patient embassy employee inside. I had figured I only needed to drop off my ballot request form, so I was a bit confused.

And then she handed me my ballot.

I wasn’t quite prepared to vote on the spot. The main problem is that my attention is given almost entirely to Egyptian politics. Outside the headlines, I haven’t followed the US race much at all.

Basically, I hadn’t done my homework, nor had I reflected sufficiently. The only solution was to pray quickly, swallow hard, and write down a name.

With that, it was over. My envelope was sealed and placed in embassy mail. I don’t even have a hard copy registration letter for later, as they mailed that too.

Really, it was wonderful facilitation by the embassy, and a good reminder of the blessings of our system. It was a responsibility to cast a vote, but it was also a privilege.

Even behind barbed wire.

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1967 and the Right of Return

The Israeli Separation Wall

Much of the political discourse following President Obama’s speech concerning the Arab Spring centered on his direct statement that the 1967 lines should serve as the starting point for negotiations between Israel and Palestine. His phrasing included ‘with mutually agreed swaps of land’, but was largely ignored in the subsequent hubbub. Commentators noticed that the 1967 lines, though serving as the basis of American policy for decades, had never been so publically stated by a US president.

Yet Prime Minister Netanyahu made a public statement, which, though serving as the basis of Israeli policy for decades, I had not remembered being stated so unequivocally. He proclaimed, ‘The Palestinian refugee problem will be solved outside the borders of Israel.”

Within the context of various political responses to this issue, I simply wish to remind readers of the very human lives involved in the refugee issue. Some of these were our friends when we lived in Jordan.

During the 1948 war following the declaration of the State of Israel by the United Nations, the first wave of refugees was created. War creates chaos and destruction; in the midst of this many ordinary Palestinians, with no stake in the fighting, chose to flee.

Yet many others, also with no stake in the fighting, were forced from their homes as whole villages were uprooted under threat of death. This was not a systematic Israeli policy, but neither were these isolated incidents. Yet while international law calls for the right of refugees to return to their homes, official Israeli policy following the war forbade this. Currently, it is treated as a negotiation point; that is, until Netanyahu made explicit what had previously been assumed. The ‘demographic realities’ of Palestinian refugees threaten the existence of Israel as a ‘Jewish’ state.

Among our friends in Jordan not all desired to return. Muhammad, a barber, told me his family now possessed Jordanian citizenship and had a decent middle-class life, with his children in school. He had great sympathy for the refugees struggling in camps, still possessing the keys to their grandfathers’ homes, but for himself, why would he leave? Besides, the homes for those keys no longer exist, long since turned into modern Israeli settlements.

Many say the poverty of the Palestinian refugee camps is due to Arab exploitation. Wishing to maintain an issue with which to accuse Israel, these governments fail in their humanitarian duties to incorporate Palestinian citizens into their own national fabric. These claims appear largely true. There are few saints in this dispute.

Yet there are human beings. These were the pawns in a struggle which originally were swept aside in effort to secure a Jewish predominance in the new state of Israel. They are the pawns who exist in squalor while the politics of peace rumble onward to nowhere. They will remain the pawns of a policy that denies their rights under international law, under auspices of demographic politics. Perhaps a compromise of settlement in an eventual Palestinian state will satisfy. Even so, the moral struggle is compromised as well.

What should be thought of the rhetoric of a ‘Jewish’ state? This is a difficult question since ‘Jewish’ reflects both ethnicity and religion. Many Jews in Israel are secular or atheist. Many Israeli citizens are of Arab ethnicity, Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. Does a Jewish state correspond to the unquestioned legitimacy of a French state or an Egyptian state? Does it parallel the nationalistic hopes of a Kurdish state or a Palestinian state?

Demographic realities are changing the world, challenging the ethnic block notions of nationalism on which current world politics were assembled. In certain parts of the US, ‘white’ no longer represents a majority of the population, especially as the Hispanic population increases through immigration and higher birth rates. In France, the Muslim population increases rapidly, threatening (potentially) its secular foundation. Meanwhile, certain smaller emirates in the Gulf have only a fraction of the population as national citizens, the rest being foreign workers. What do these realities spell for national heritage, and its preservation?

Americans, conceptually, can swallow demographic changes easier than other nations, as we embrace the alternate descriptions of ‘melting pot’ and ‘salad bowl’. Though degrees of diversity are debated in these expressions, both imagine that the end result is a common endeavor toward national values of freedom, liberty, and democracy.

Along American history we have swept away an indigenous people, questioned if we can integrate Catholics or blacks, but in the end our values triumphed over our prejudices. Yet currently we wonder about the threat to so significant a national identity marker as language. Can we allow demographic changes to supplant, or at least saddle alongside, our English tongue?

Along existing notions of statehood, it seems right that the ‘Jews’ should have a nation. Yet it seems wrong that they engineer their demographics to maintain an ethnic (or religious) majority for themselves. Critics of Israel invoke apartheid South Africa; though the comparison is not fair, does the policy of denying ‘right of return’ resemble a similar insistence on maintenance of ethnic power?

Israel is in a very difficult position. They can yield to a Palestinian state, in which they lose control over the area and open themselves to security threats. Or, they can simply annex the land they now occupy and lose the population battle, putting tension between their twin values of ‘Jewish’ and ‘democracy’, in which one might have to yield to the other.

Instead, it appears the policy is to maintain the status quo, no matter how much President Obama declares it to be ‘unsustainable’. Certainly Fatah and Hamas, as well as the other Arab states, share complicity in the problem. Hamas’ charter and other language to ‘wipe Israel off the map’ do not contribute to fruitful negotiations.

Yet while Palestinians suffer internally and in refugee camps, Israel profits through continued expansion of settlements and superior access to water resources. Yes, it risks nurturing the hatred given to an occupier, as well as international approbation. Yet so far, these have not been enough to push her towards a settled peace. Yet, having been invaded multiple times, on what basis can Israel trust a peace?

Yes, Israel’s position is difficult, but so is that of the ordinary Palestinian individual. Since 1948 the thousands of refugees have now become millions. Can Israel be expected to absorb these? It is the hard work of politics that does not allow sentimental morality to dictate solutions. Yet when the hard work systematically denies people their rights, and this on the basis of dubiously moral ‘demographic realities’, perhaps the sentimentality should be given more sympathy. In whatever position you take on Israel, remember the refugee who simply wants to go home.

Unfortunately, over the years on both sides, ‘home’ has become for many a zero sum game.