Obama Applauds and Admonishes Muslims in UN Speech

September 25, 2014

President Obama’s statement at the United Nations General Assembly this week focused on “defining questions at the root of many of [our] challenges.” Islam and Muslims were the centerpiece of his remarks.

Addressing the dangers of religiously motivated fanatics was Obama’s most detailed challenge. His comment that the world, “especially Muslim communities,” need to “explicitly, forcefully and consistently reject the ideology of al Qaeda and ISIL” was disheartening. Was the President referring to Muslims in the Middle East and South Asia, or was he placing the responsibility on Muslims in the West as well? The President even highlighted the great work of Islamic scholars speaking out against ideological extremism and British Muslims working a grassroots campaign to countering violence.

While Obama mentioned Sheikh bin Bayyah’s initiative to promote peace, and British Muslims’ #notinmyname campaign to declare that “ISIS is hiding behind a false Islam,”  putting the onus on Muslim communities worldwide somehow connects mainstream Muslims with the acts of the deranged fringe. Rather than calling out Muslim communities, the President should have reiterated his commitment to working and partnering with Muslims to combat the threat of ideological extremism.

Muslims, the world over have consistently come out and rejected ideological extremism, terrorism and violence. Adding that point to his speech could erase all the work Muslim leaders have done to reject the ideas of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. The problem isn’t with Muslims’ records on condemning terrorism, the issue is with the platform of people who are willing to listen to the message. Where has all the media coverage been on Muslims, and American Muslims, when it comes to their calls against extremism?

The other issue with Obama’s statement is: when will others take note that the condemnations have taken place and the need to move beyond issuing messages into implementing programs that empower communities to counter violent extremism is much more useful at this point. We as Muslims have a stake in this fight against ISIS. The public is looking to us beyond rhetoric and scrutinizing what actions we are undertaking to demonstrate how we are in partnership with others to confront those who illegitimately speak in our name.

Partnering with and highlighting Muslims, especially American Muslims who have worked tirelessly to counter violent extremism and to combat the threat of ideological extremism from spreading in communities is one way to reaffirm President Obama’s rejection of the clash of civilizations notion. “Islam teaches peace… And when it comes to America and Islam, there is no us and them -- there is only us, because millions of Muslim Americans are part of the fabric of our country.” American Muslims have worked tirelessly to contribute to the pluralistic and inclusive nature of our country in industries ranging from media and politics to medicine and the tech world.

Further, non-military solutions to degrading and defeating ISIS should absolutely be a key part of our strategy. Once ISIS is degraded, who will take over the power vacuum? Will it be the Assad regime in Syria who are currently massacring their own people and acting as a terror state? Or will it be the Iraqi government who previously were part of marginalizing Sunni and minority Iraqi communities? Our strategies must be more sophisticated than air strikes and military solutions. They must be forward-looking and deal with root causes rather than simply managing symptoms, which is what we have been doing.  

His last two points illustrated addressing the cycle of sectarian violence and Arab and Muslim countries focusing on the potential of their people as a means to stand for peace, innovation, dignity and self-determination. The idea of self-determination once again was highlighted to empower people around the world that indeed the future is in their own hands. 

Every year world leaders come together at the General Assembly, and every year they make grandiose speeches and promises. When will these speeches turn into sustained action to affect real change? The status quo will not change until and unless civil society is given appropriate and responsive outlets to deal with grievances.

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