Obama and the End of the "Clash of Civilizations"

(This article first appeared on the Washington Post/Newsweek On Faith Web site.)

President Obama reached his Muslim audience in Turkey in a way unlike any previous American president. Maybe it was his childhood in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country. Maybe it was the legacy of his Muslim father. Maybe it came from the streets of Chicago where so many African Americans have turned to Islam.

Obama understood what his Muslim audience needed to hear to begin to dissipate the phony notion that the Muslim world and the West are embraced in an irreconcilable "Clash of Civilizations."

Obama made it clear that the United States is not at war with Islam, and never will be. President Bush tried to make that point, but his words never rang true with Muslims.

Obama backed up his words with deeds. He said America's relations toward Muslim countries should not be based on fighting terrorism alone. He has reached out to America's greatest adversary, Iran. He is pushing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict despite the opposition of the new Israeli government.

Disrespect and dishonor, which everyone abhors, are the flipside of respect and honor, values that non-Westerners are especially sensitive to and have been craving from America. President Obama's much covered "act of respect" to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Custodian of the two Holy Sites of Mecca and Medina, was seen by most Muslims as a major and symbolic shift from prior U.S, administrations' attitude.

No less important was what Obama said about the United States: It is not a Christian nation.

America may not be a Christian nation. But America is a nation built on the best of Christian values: Christians believe in love of God and love of neighbor: the two greatest commandments according to Jesus. Christian values include being compassionate, helping the poor, and in building a society that is religious and multi-religious. These are values Muslims share with Jews and Christians. This is the core of what we all believe; this is America's strength and is what makes America great.

And that is the point Obama was making. He recognized that America is now home to millions of Muslims who practice their faith freely, who believe in God and in helping one another, and who are full contributors to American society.

Many Americans have Muslims in their families or have lived in Muslim countries, the president said. And he paused for emphasis to say, "I know because I am one of them."

His audience immediately grasped the connection.

The United States should be recognized as a religious country. Our government should use America's respect for God and religion to reach Muslims--and all religious people-- for whom religion and God are the core of their lives, their law and their political system. It is how the United States can best combat radical extremists in all religions who have corrupted their creeds by embracing violence.

After all, the principles of Islam and the principles established in America's founding documents are not that far apart. As I have amplified in my book What's Right With Islam is What's Right With America, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are Islamic principles, too.

An America that embraces its religious diversity shows how religious harmony, not clashing civilizations, is doable, and what a globalized world could and should look like. As Chairman of Cordoba Initiative, I know this is achievable because the work of my organization uses religion to heal divides through engaging women, empowering youth leadership, and finding commonality between Islamic and Western values.

Days after Obama's speech the New York Times April 12 editorialized about it with the headline "End of the Clash of Civilizations." My only question is Why wasn't this bannered across the front page with World War II-ending headlines?

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, an independent, non-partisan and multi-national project that seeks to use religion to improve Muslim-West relations. (www.cordobainitiative.org) He is the author of "What's Right with Islam is What's Right With America."