I ran into Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, one of American’s Islam’s foremost scholars, at the Presidential Prayer Service on Wednesday. His first words to me were, “This President is reaching out to us. It’s good for the Muslim world to hear that.”
“And good for America to hear it, too” I responded.
Not only was Obama the first President to mention the word “Muslim” in an inauguration speech, he did it with his hand out instead of with his fist clenched (to borrow a Presidential phrase). To say that there will be a new relationship with the Muslim world based on mutual interests means that it could be serious and long-lasting – America is not doing this out of charity, but out of strategy. To say that it will be based on mutual respect means that the Obama administration intends to approach 1/5 of humanity with a sense of dignity and equality, instead of threat and condescension.
Many prominent Muslims were present for the prayer service at the National Cathedral, all of them elated about the promise of this new President. One of them – Ingrid Mattson, the President of the Islamic Society of North America – was on stage offering a prayer for the nation with a dozen other diverse American religious leaders. The preacher – hand-picked by Obama – spoke of the importance of building interfaith cooperation with the Muslim world, and cited a letter called “A Common Word Between Us and You” sent by Muslim scholars to the Christian community.
It was all of one piece with the theme of Obama’s inaugural address: America being America again, to its own citizens, and the rest of the world:
“For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”