Nothing sets a rock star up for failure quite like a killer debut album. And President Obama’s debut in the Muslim world seventeen months ago set the bar sky-high. In Cairo, where he gave his first speech aimed at reaching out to Muslims around the world, he came off as an undeniable rock star. So much of the global Muslim community was hypnotized by his rhythm, charisma and harmony.
His first track, “Assalaamu Alaykum,” won so many of us over straight away. Just to hear an American president greet us with those ancient words of peace was overwhelming. He won his first round of raucous applause for these two simple words, and from there he dazzled us with ever more incredible, jaw-dropping lyrics:
“As a student of history, I... know civilization’s debt to Islam.” Right on!
“It was Islam... that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment.” Amen!
“I consider it part of my responsibility as the President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.” Masha’Allah!
Fast-forward seventeen months to Obama’s recent speech at the University of Indonesia. Has our rock star hit a sophomore slump? It appears so. Some suggest that the cooler reception this time around was due to the fact that he didn’t take the time and energy to follow through with the promise of his debut, that his actions haven’t matched his rhetoric — basically, that he’s frontin’.
Many are claiming that our discontent is with the fact that Obama’s foreign policy — from the continued occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan to the failure to halt and dismantle Israeli settlements to the delay in shutting down Guantánamo — has fallen short of his promise to “seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world — based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”
No doubt, this is partly the case, but it is far from the whole story. While it’s taking longer than many of us would like, Obama is still committed to withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the delay, he has managed to slowly empty out Guantánamo and is likely to shut it down soon. Obama’s administration has also openly supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and actively pursued a freeze on settlements to facilitate new peace talks.
It’s no secret that President Obama inherited one of the biggest foreign policy disasters in American history, and Muslims understand this. We know full well that it will take more than a couple years to clean up Bush’s mess. We’re not expecting miracles.
But this time around, we were expecting more of the powerful lyrics we heard in Cairo, not the tepid ones Obama just dropped in Jakarta. This time, he barely mentioned Islam or Islamic civilization; he didn’t cite or even mention the Qur’an. Rather, he focused on Indonesia, which he acknowledged as the world’s largest Muslim country, but then quickly lauded for being “defined by more than its Muslim population.” While Obama gave Indonesians plenty of props throughout his speech, he fell short of properly honoring the faith that so many of them follow, and in doing so, he failed to strike a chord with the broader Muslim world.
Had he played some more of Cairo’s greatest hits this time around, had he once again serenaded us for being who we are as Muslims, as opposed to being defined by more than Islam, then I expect that I, along with countless other Muslims all over the world, might have been a little more excited about downloading his new tunes.