President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo last June, when he declared his desire to “seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” was the biggest religion story of the year, according to a survey of the Religion Newswriters Association.
In his wide-ranging address, Obama said that the U.S. and Islam “overlap and share common principles … of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings,” focusing those themes on seven specific issues. The president quoted the Qur’an, the Bible and the Talmud as he held out the prospect of a relationship “based on mutual interest and mutual respect (and) based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition.”
The speech was well received by local Muslims, according to Taneem Aziz, leader of the Muslim Community of Northeast Tennessee.
“On the whole, it was a very positive speech,” Aziz recalled this week. “The general perception of the U.S. (by most Muslim countries) was negative, and I think the president was trying to improve that. I think it’s a good step.”
It was significant that the president delivered the speech at a highly regarded university in a historic Muslim capital, he said.
“Using the greeting of ‘Assalamu Alaykum’ (Peace be unto you) was a nice touch,” Aziz added. ”I liked the way he said would like to deal with issues and conflicts in the world today.”
But how Obama’s words will ultimately translate into policy is not yet clear, and so members of the Muslim community also feel wary, particularly about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which the president addressed at length.
“(Obama’s) bias towards Israel was very evident,” according to Aziz. “On the one hand he said, ‘Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners of it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; progress must be shared.’ And then he went onto speak about the Israelis and the elevated status they had with the U.S.”
So Aziz doubts that the U.S. can act as an honest broker in the Middle East, “and that is what is needed.” On the other hand, American Muslims understand “that if he does not toe the Israeli line, he may stand to lose the next election.”
Here is the complete list of the year’s Top 10 Religion Stories, as selected by active members of Religion Newswriters Association:
1. President Obama pledges a new beginning in Muslim-U.S. relations and reaches out to the world’s Muslims during a major speech at Cairo University.
2. Health-care reform, the No. 1 political topic for most of the year, involves faith-based groups appealing strongly for action to help “the least of these,” and others, such as the Roman Catholic bishops, for restrictions on abortion funding.
3. Because Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, the accused gunman in the Fort Hood massacre, was considered a devout Muslim, the role of that faith in terrorism again comes under review.
4. Dr. Carl Tiller of Wichita, Kan., regarded as the country’s leading abortion provider, is gunned down in his Lutheran church.
5. Mormons in California come under attack from some supporters of gay rights because of their lobbying efforts in the November 2008 election on behalf of Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage. Later in the year, Iowa, Vermont and New Hampshire approve gay marriage, but it is overturned by voters in Maine.
6. Obama receives an honorary degree and gives the commencement speech at Notre Dame after fierce debates at the Roman Catholic university over Obama’s views on abortion.
7. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America votes to ordain gay and lesbian clergy living in a committed monogamous relationship, prompting a number of conservative churches to move toward forming a new denomination.
8. The recession forces cutbacks at a variety of faith-related organizations.
9. The Episcopal Church Triennial Convention votes to end a moratorium on installing gay bishops, ignoring a request from the archbishop of Canterbury not to do so. In December the Los Angeles diocese chooses a lesbian, Mary Glasspool, as assistant bishop.
10. Obama’s presidential inauguration includes a controversial invocation by Rick Warren and a controversial benediction by Joseph Lowery, as well as a pre-ceremony prayer by Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop.
First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 26 Dec 2009.