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As I ran down to the White House with other Washington, D.C. college students to celebrate President Obama’s re-election in November, and as I walked down to the National Mall for his second inauguration this past weekend, I couldn’t help but think back to a day four years ago when I also took off running, hopeful about Mr. Obama’s presidency and what it would do for America.
As a high school junior, I ran through the streets of downtown Indianapolis, clipboard and pencil in hand, determined to score an interview with the future president of the United States. I was a youth journalist covering the 2008 presidential primaries, and an interview with then-Senator Obama was literally right around the corner.
Catching up to Obama’s entourage, I yelled after him, and somehow managed to convince him that I, an amateur seventeen-year-old reporter, deserved an interview. “Ok,” he said, “I’ll give you two minutes.” Walking toward me and attracting a large crowd, he placed his hand on my shoulder and, laughing, said, “Take a breath!” He probably thought I was hyperventilating about the prospect of interviewing him, not knowing that I’d just ran around the block in the summer sun.
After catching my breath, I asked Obama a question he likely didn’t expect from a wide-eyed blonde. Reminding him of the support he’d received from young people all over the world—the optimistic youths who campaigned for him though they themselves weren’t American—I told him a story about a Palestinian teenager, who made telephone calls to the U.S., encouraging Americans to vote Mr. Obama into the presidency. This young man hoped that life in the West Bank—marked by violence, power outages, and hunger—would improve if Obama won. I asked the senator how he would respond to this boy, and how he might be willing to rethink U.S. policy toward Israel.
I think Obama was caught off-guard, and he didn’t make a clear response, only providing a vague statement about how America needs to be a beacon of hope to the youth of the world. I wasn’t impressed with the response, but believed his administration wouldn’t disappoint me, nor the Palestinian boy, on issues relating to Muslim communities, who have faced considerable challenges in the years since September 11, 2001.
In the midst of celebrating at the White House and National Mall during the last few months, I kept thinking back to my interview with the president and the optimism I had felt, and I was unable to ignore the ways President Obama’s administration had disappointed me on issues connected to Muslim populations. Despite his promise to build bridges with the Muslim world in his speech in Cairo in 2009, I fear too many bridges have been burned, both domestically and abroad.
At home, Mr. Obama signed into law the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which includes measures that protect the unconstitutional practice of indefinitely detaining American citizens who are suspected terrorists. This allows the Obama administration to legally continue a practice started under the Bush Administration: holding American citizens (who are often Muslim) indefinitely and without charges. The cases of Ahmed Abu Ali and Sami al-Arian are just two examples of the kind of unjust detention that is now enshrined in the law. The president has also broken his promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and address the injustices that transpired there. Additionally, Obama has not curbed the government’s intrusive surveillance of Islamic community centers (lawful through the Patriot Act,), which has often yielded Muslims’ loss of confidence and trust in their government. Lastly, when President Obama was “accused” of being a Muslim, he failed to guide the public discourse about Islam in a constructive way. Rather than asserting that there would be no issue if indeed he were Muslim, he skirted the issue. His personnel have at times distanced the president from Muslim Americans in photo-ops, making many Muslims feel isolated and unheard.
Overseas, Obama’s decisions to intervene (or not) in foreign conflicts in Libya and Syria have been guided by U.S. economic interests, and not by a concern for preventing the slaughter of innocents. His administration’s expansion of the drone program has not only killed non-combatants and children, but also served to build up anti-American sentiment among populations in Pakistan and Yemen particularly. His failure to challenge oppressive Israeli policies has left (both Muslim and Christian) Palestinians desperately awaiting international help as they suffer from Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and attacks in Gaza.
My criticism of these policies toward Muslim communities doesn’t simply stem from my concerns for the Palestinian boy whose story I recounted to the president; they are rooted in my close relationships with Muslim friends I’ve met in college. The bonds I’ve formed—which inform my studies in Muslim-Christian relations and motivate my on-campus work of promoting interreligious dialogue—have led me, a Catholic, to advocate for improved civil inclusion of Muslims in America and respect for Muslims around the world. My friendships with Muslims, and my view into the struggles their communities have faced due to Obama administration policies, compel me to re-evaluate my naïve and sometimes blind support of a president in whom I had so much hope.
As I walked home from the National Mall after the inauguration on Monday, I hoped that my celebrating hadn’t been done in vain. If the Obama administration’s policies don’t change in his second term, I won’t be able to think back on these moments of celebration—my interview, election night, and inauguration day—with fondness. Instead, I’ll just feel like a hypocrite.
Jordan Denari is a senior at Georgetown University, where she studies Muslim-Christian relations in the School of Foreign Service and serves as president of the Interfaith Student Council.