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The political experts will decide if President Obama’s speech at the University of Cairo on June 4 was a factor in the unexpected electoral defeat of Hezbollah in Lebanon’s elections on June 7. But while the international effects may be murky, a clear and immediate result of the Cairo speech is its impact on Muslims living in the U.S. Pride about praise of one’s religious traditions from political leaders often adds votes and voices within U.S. society. Catholic America should know: this was part of our past journey to inclusion.
But more than a touchy-feely sort of thing is the likelihood that the Cairo speech will produce greater support for socialized health care and an end to Israeli settlements. Those Catholics in America who agree with the bishops and the pope have long supported a universal health care plan and a two-state solution for Palestine and Israel. With the President’s speech, Muslims in the U.S. have been invited to make an alliance with Catholics.
Obama’s speech aligned the U.S. treatment of Muslims and the Muslim world with the vision of Pope Benedict XVI. That’s not my opinion, but one found in the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano and echoed by Archbishop Wilton Gregory who speaks for the U.S. bishops: “Both the pope and president concur that a dialogue of civilizations must supplant the specter of a clash of civilizations … All Catholic Americans who hope for a more secure world, and peace among the religions, can feel grateful that the president underscored the indispensable role of religion in advancing educational, economic, and scientific goals.”
I laud here the wisdom of Church leaders in seeing how domestic political effects are joined to international ones. In fact, just as Obama “spoke Catholic” at Notre Dame in May (E.J. Dionne’s expression), he “spoke Muslim” in June. This is an insider’s observation. For instance, Obama said not just “the Qur’an” but “the Holy Qur’an,” which is more or less akin to saying “the Holy Father” instead of “the pope.” He quoted from the hadith about “when Moses, Jesus and Mohammed (peace be upon them) joined in prayer.” Adding “peace be upon them,” I think, is akin to how Catholics bow their head at the name of Jesus. Recalling his life in Indonesia, Obama used the Arabic word, “azaan,” for the repeated call to prayer much like a Catholic insider might cite “the bells of the Angelus” three times a day recalling the Incarnation. Praising Islam for the tradition of charitable giving called “zakat” is similar to citing papal social encyclicals and using a Latin title like Rerum Novarum. Perhaps more important than his words was the president’s promise to make Muslims a part of his revised faith-based initiative for community social services. Obama plans a shift away from Bush’s plan to fund a single player – often an Evangelical congregation. The strategy now is the one employed by the Campaign for Human Development (CHD). It was the Catholic-funded CHD grant to a Chicago neighborhood, after all, that brought Obama to Chicago and gave him a room in a Catholic rectory. Coming out of the Obama White House, this new faith-based initiative brings together players as varied as Catholic parishes, Jewish, Protestant and Evangelical congregations, the YMCA, the Salvation Army and now — Muslim mosques.
I expect the most difficult issue for both Catholics and Muslims in responding to the Cairo speech will be the two-state solution in Israel. Clearly, any resolution depends upon actors in the Holy Land, but public opinion in the U.S. affects how Washington reacts. Some critics, like Charles Krauthammer have sharpened the knives, claiming Obama is “dishonorable” and is betraying Israel. Krauthammer does not speak for America’s Jews, nor all Israelis, but using cute legalisms like “natural growth” to expand illegal settlements in occupied lands directly attacks the pope’s position, takes on the Catholic bishops, dismisses most Muslims, and undercuts the Obama Administration’s team led by Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton. (Few have ever accused Dr. Krauthammer of lacking chutzpah!) Whatever the final outcome, an emerging Muslim-Catholic coalition on these matters may ultimately outweigh the vociferous Evangelical-Catholic coalition that dominated in the Bush years.