Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Obama, America, and Islam

President Barack Obama addressed the Turkish Parliament yesterday in his first ever Presidential speech to a predominantly Muslim nation.

He told them that the U.S. "is not and never will be at war with Islam" - a powerful statement that demonstrated his willingness to reach out to the Muslim world. He also had this to say:

"we will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over so many centuries to shape the world for the better – including my own country. The United States has been enriched by Muslim Americans. Many other Americans have Muslims in their family, or have lived in a Muslim-majority country – I know, because I am one of them."

It is a strong message because many in the Muslim world see the American President as one of their own though not a fellow-believer himself. It may be exactly the move the President needs to make for a positive change to our foreign policy.

But how will it be seen back home?

Turks, Iraqis, and others in the "Muslim world" can not re-elect the President, Americans do. Luckily for Obama, the majority of Americans support the efforts to reach out to Muslims.

According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 81% of Americans feel it is important to improve relations with Muslim nations. 65% of Americans said they felt Obama would handle that task "about right".

The answers to the second question split largely on partisan lines. According to the Washington Post "nearly half of Republicans said Obama is apt to overreach in his efforts to advance U.S. relations, while large majorities of Democrats and independents said they think he will walk the right line."

That being said, the poll also found some disturbing figures out Americans' attitudes towards the Muslim faith.

48% of Americans hold an "unfavorable" view of Islam, while only 41% hold a "favorable" view - the largest such difference recorded by the poll since it was first taken following 9/11. And While 58% said Islam is a "peaceful" religion, a sizable minority of 29% believes even mainstream Islam promotes violence.

The poll also found that 55% of Americans lack a basic familiarity with Islam, and about 53% of Americans do not personally know a Muslim. These individuals were much more likely to hold negative views.

In fact, most of the demographical trends were not too surprising.

While the poll suggests that Americans are becoming more antagonistic to Islam, other trends provide more hope for reconcile. 20% more Americans say they are familiar with Islam than they did in 2002. 6% more Americans say they know a Muslim than they did in 2001.

Only 1% of Americans are Muslim, but if more Americans get to know them and their faith, the less critical they will be of Islam.

But that could be a long time from now, and President Obama’s message to the Muslim world might be saying more than he wants it to. Yes, Americans want to reach out to the Muslim world, but with such persistently negative views about Islam in the United States, Obama puts himself at risk when he speaks of how his life was enriched by Muslims. In fact, a March 11 Pew poll found that 11% of Americans still wrongly believe the current President is a Muslim himself.

The President has had to decide between a message that brings safe political security and a message that brings bold change in American rhetoric on the international stage.

Of course, there is a certain benefit to consistency in politics and this is exactly the kind of change he promised.

Do you think President Obama’s remarks will help him or hurt him politically? Leave a comment!

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