Al-Ahram Weekly: Listen no less than speak

n an exclusive interview, CAIR’s executive director speaks to Gihan Shahine about what Muslims inside and outside the US expect from President Obama

Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Council on American- Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Chicago, appears to accept the mainstream Muslim perspective of President Barack Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world as being “genuine”. He reasons that President Obama is “the first American president to have had significant experiences in the Muslim world”. Obama’s father hails from a Muslim family; Barack spent part of his childhood in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia; he had known Muslim friends in his University of Chicago academic circle. “I believe that, unlike previous presidents, he is not limited, despite himself, to the notion that Muslims strictly represent the “other” and is able to appreciate the humanity and nuance in Muslim life,” Rehab told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Like many Muslims around the world, Rehab looks with anticipation to Obama’s visit to Cairo to fulfil his promise of speaking to the Arab and Muslim worlds and explore the parameters of a new horizon of US-Muslim relations. “I hope this means going beyond conflict resolution and counter terrorism initiatives and into the daily challenges and aspirations of citizens in that part of the world; issues that often have nothing to do with terrorism and everything to do with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” To do so, Rehab suggests that President “Obama must listen no less than he speaks.” Following promising statements with concrete policy is also a must to avoid losing the goodwill garnered by President Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world, reads an open letter CAIR sent to the Weekly by the council’s national executive, Nihad Awad, addressing President Obama.

According to Rehab, Muslims in Muslim-majority countries expect the West to respect their sovereignty, dignity and rights to self-determination. “They expect Western governments to refrain from abetting brutal regional dictatorships and exploiting the people’s natural resources in the Muslim world. They expect the West not to turn a blind eye to the illegal occupation forces in the Palestinian territories. Muslims in Western countries expect equal treatment before the law.”

Providing a Muslim-American perspective of what Muslims expect from Obama’s administration, the CAIR open letter suggests a number of initiatives that the US should take if it is keen on repairing its much-damaged relations with the Muslim world. These start with the US “championing political and religion freedom, human rights, the growth and stabilisation of democratic institutions, and respect for the rule of law for everyone, not just those we favour.” The letter continues: “We must hold every nation, even those we regard as allies, to a uniform standard of justice and equality.”

CAIR also reiterated the mainstream Muslim call for an end to conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Settling the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is traditionally a top priority. “Israel’s wall of separation must come down, humiliating roadblocks must be removed, the illegal settlements must be dismantled, food and other essential supplies must flow freely, Palestinian rights must be restored, and a viable and independent Palestinian state must be created and supported,” said the letter.

On the receiving side, Rehab appeals to the Muslim masses to listen to President Obama. People in the Middle East, Rehab said, “should understand that at the end of the day, Obama would primarily be concerned with the interests of the United States.” That is, Arabs should be realistic in their expectations and rather focus on finding ways in which mutual interests can be advanced together. “There are many areas in which this is possible, including national security, economic development, health initiatives, educational projects, and peace in the Middle East,” Rehab said.

Although Obama tends to adopt a religiously tinted discourse in his outreach to the Muslim world, Rehab does not think that religion is the reason for the conflicts and wars present in the Middle East, but that religious malpractice has been a significant contributing factor. “I think the main problem [driving rifts between the Muslim and Western worlds] is a fixation by both sides on the perceived differences between the two worlds.” Rehab added: “Differences exist between any two independent entities, but where differences become the totality of the story and commonalties are ignored, conflict is bound to arise.”

Rehab thinks that “extremist voices on both sides have been allowed to drive the discourse for too long now and that has been the main problem.” He believes that under Obama’s administration, the Muslim world now has a genuine dialogue partner. “While actions are what ultimately count, this is a positive change from the previous administration’s approach to the region,” Rehab insists. This should also set the stage for US Muslim minorities to tackle the distorted image of Islam and address false stereotypes. In that vein, the CAIR open letter calls on US elected representatives, religious leaders, commentators, and citizens of all faiths to “speak out forcefully against the rising level of anti-Muslim rhetoric and discrimination in our society.”

“Prior to the 9/11 attacks,” explains the letter, “Islamophobia of the type we see today was at the margins of public discourse. Unfortunately, today it is quite common to see and hear the faith of Islam denigrated in newspaper columns, on talk radio and in religious sermons nationwide.” CAIR insists that silence on this growing phenomenon “is un-American and betrays the values of inclusiveness and religious tolerance that we all hold dear.” Muslims, according to Rehab, should also do their bit and “begin by fixing their reality”. “Those who wish to speak for Islam need to live up to the beautiful teachings of their faith,” he opines.

But who should speak for Islam is a perennial question. Albeit arguing that no one entity can claim monopoly over Islam and Muslims, Rehab suggests that “the most credible voices speaking for Islam are the ones most representative of the grassroots and most supported by those for whom they speak.”

Being an American-Muslim with Egyptian origins, Rehab has a final word to tell President Obama: “Muslims both at home and abroad are encouraged by your genuine outreach but will ultimately judge you by your actions, not just your words. Please be prepared to follow your speech with policies. I am sure that you will enjoy the hospitality of my ancestral homeland.

Copyright © 2009 Al-Ahram Weekly