New York, New York - As he travels to Turkey on 7 April, US President Barack Obama takes the next step to fulfil his pledge to address the Muslim world. Some critics have warned him: don't do it. I believe they are wrong. This is just the right thing to do, and Obama is the one to do it.
The president will speak at the UN Alliance of Civilization's forum in Istanbul as a way to talk directly with Muslims about finding common ground for peace.
Critics say Obama should not try to engage the "Muslim world" because there is no such unified thing. They say this will play into Osama bin Laden's narrative because he portrays himself as the protector of the "Muslim world". They say the conflicts in the Middle East, with Iran, within Iraq and between Pakistan and India are not rooted in religion, but are secular fights over land, influence and control.
That may be true. But it is equally true that even if religion is not the cause of these conflicts, it is definitely at the core of the solution.
To understand this, one must understand the role that Islam plays in the Muslim world. In the United States, when we have a grievance, we say, "That's unconstitutional! There ought to be a law." For us, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with its Bill of Rights are at the core of what we believe.
In the Muslim world, when someone has a grievance and says, "There ought to be a law!" they know that there is one. All the law that a Muslim needs is in the Qur'an and the Hadith, sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.
Just after 9/11, people would ask me, why do so many movements with political agendas take a religious name? Why are they called the Muslim Brotherhood, or Hizbullah, which means Party of God, or Hamas, which is an acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement? I tell them that the Muslim approach to law and justice begins with religious language because secular movements have failed to deliver what Muslims want – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
If that sounds suspiciously like the Declaration of Independence, that's because – contrary to what many people in the West believe – Islamic law and American democratic principles have many things in common.
Thomas Jefferson wrote that the Creator endowed man with these unalienable rights. The framers of the constitution wrote that they were establishing justice, ensuring domestic tranquillity, promoting general welfare and securing the blessings of liberty.
In the same way, Islamic law believes that God has ordained political justice, economic justice and help for the weak and impoverished. These are very Islamic concepts. Many Muslims believe that what Americans receive from their government is in fact the very substance of what an Islamic state should provide.
American beliefs in individual liberty and the dignity of the individual are Islamic principles as well.
Obama sent a shockwave through the Muslim world when at the National Prayer Breakfast on 5 February he quoted a hadith: "None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself." The president equated that tenet of Islam with Jesus' "Love thy neighbour as thyself", and the Jewish Torah commandment, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow."
For an American president to use the language of Islam to show the commonality with American and Judeo-Christian values amplifies his message 100 times among Muslims.
Osama bin Laden gets his power from arguing that the United States is trying to impose Western values on the Muslim world that will destroy Islam. Too often, the American government has played into his hands.
What Obama can do is flip that argument. He can emphasise the commonality of Western and Islamic values. He can say that if the United States lives up to the values in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and if Muslims can live up to the principles of Islamic law, then we will find we have fewer points of conflict and more common ground.
Once this commonality can be established, Muslims will no longer fear Western domination and the West will no longer fear Islamic expansion. Then, the phoney "Clash of Civilisations" can be put to rest.
* Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is chairman of the Cordoba Initiative (www.cordobainitiative.org), an independent, non-partisan and multi-national project that seeks to use religion to improve Muslim-West relations, and author of What's Right with Islam is What's Right With America. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the Cordoba Initiative.
Source: On Faith, 27 March 2009, www.washingtonpost.com/onfaith
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