It was speech that stirred my soul, both as an American and as a Muslim. The President of the United States stood before the parliament of Islam's oldest democracy in Turkey and delivered a riveting statement that will resonate throughout the Muslim world. He said what needed to be said in plain and simple words: "The United States is not - and will never be - at war with Islam."
It was a powerful speech, in which President Obama stated persuasively that the only way forward for humanity is a partnership of peace between the West and the Islamic world. He spoke eloquently about the history of Turkey's long relationship with America, of how the Ottoman Sultan Abdelmecid supported the construction of the Washington Memorial that towers over the capital today. Obama spoke of shared hopes and values, of Muslims and non-Muslims working together to build a better future.
Many Presidents have spoken similar lofty words, but it was this President's unique life experience that gave them weight. As an American Muslim born in Pakistan and raised in New York, when Barack Hussein Obama spoke of Muslims being an integral part of American society, tears welled in my eyes as memories flooded my consciousness. I remembered going to elementary school in Brooklyn at the height of the hostage crisis in Iran in 1980. I remembered being taunted by my classmates as a "rag head" even as I stood with my hand on my heart to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
That experience would be followed by countless others, from that day to this, where my fellow citizens would question my loyalty to this wondrous country because of my faith. I remembered sitting shell-shocked on the street in Los Angeles on September 11, 2001, desperately calling my friends and family in New York and praying every moment that they were safe in a world lost to madness. And wondering how long it would be before the raging emotions of my fellow Americans would lead to the expulsion of my family and I from this country that was our only home.
I had assumed that a pogrom would begin and the days of Islam in America were numbered. I was wrong. America is better than that, and the President of the United States reminded all of us of that remarkable fact. It is the incredible spirit of America that allows us to renew, to overcome our demons and rise to heights that have never before been imagined by mankind. The same revolutionary spirit that put Neil Armstrong on the moon guided the American people to elect a black man with a Muslim middle name. A man who noted in Turkey that he himself, the President of the United States, had Muslims in his family and had lived in a Muslim majority country as a child.
And as I listened to his speech, I heard one word repeated countless times. Respect. It is a word that Muslims have craved to hear from American leaders. A recent Gallup poll of the Islamic world (published in Who Speaks for Islam by John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed) showed that the greatest sorrow in the Muslim world toward America is a lack of respect for Islam. Indeed, when Americans were polled as to what they respected about Islam, the majority did not know, or simply said "nothing."
Perhaps that is understandable. Islam has been seen by the West as the dangerous "other" from the beginning, when a new faith rose out of the Arabian desert and conquered the Byzantine Empire, taking control of Jerusalem and the heart of the Christian world. I draw a picture of that earth-shattering historical moment in my new novel, Mother of the Believers, which tells the story of Islam's birth from the point of view of Prophet Muhammad's wife Aisha. And I explore how the conflict that was born in the politics of the seventh century has kept our civilizations locked in a deadly struggle today.
Americans have inherited that Western fear of Islam that goes back to the Crusades. Indeed, the country where Obama spoke was once the heart of the Ottoman Empire, which was poised to conquer Vienna in 1683 even as Europeans were establishing the colonies that would one day become America. When civilizations clash over centuries, it is inevitable that people on both sides see each other through a distorted lens. Many Christians see Islam as nothing more than a religion of aggression and fanaticism. And I think many Muslims have a similar view of the Christian world, seeing the modern West as the heir of the mindless brutality of the Crusades and the Inquisition.
But Obama reminded both civilizations that we do not need to be wedded to the past. We can look into each other's hearts today and see the shared humanity within, and we can move forward.
This is the American way. This is the Christian way. And this is the Muslim way. When we can all embrace that common truth, a new world can be born.
Kamran Pasha is a Hollywood filmmaker and the author of Mother of the Believers, a novel on the birth of Islam as told by Prophet Muhammad's teenage wife Aisha (Atria Books; April 2009). For more information please visit: www.kamranpasha.com
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