Britain: appreciation for Obama's nuanced view of 'Muslim-majority countries'

'The absence in his speech of any bellicose threats to Iran stands in stark contrast to his predecessor,' says a Muslim politician in Birmingham.

By , Contributor

LONDON – In Britain, home to one of Europe’s largest Muslim communities, as well as many members of the Arab diaspora, there was a mixed but generally positive reaction to President Obama’s speech.

“I think he has good intent but people do want to see action,” said Yahya Birt, a trustee of the City Circle, a London-based networking group whose members are mainly young British Muslim professionals.

“He has to show that he really is an honest broker with regard to Israel and Palestine. People here are going to be talking about the speech, because he has been a transformative president and people had been looking forward to the speech,” added Mr. Birt, an editor at a publishing house.

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“One concern I would have would be in relation to this call for democracy. He was making that appeal in Cairo, in a country whose regime has been unelected for decades and is very repressive. Does realpolitik of security still trump the push for democracy?”

In England’s second-largest city, Birmingham, a cultural melting pot where more than 16 percent of the population identify themselves as Muslim, the speech also received a cautious welcome from Salma Yaqoob, a city counselor for the left-wing, antiwar Respect Party.

“The absence in his speech of any bellicose threats to Iran stands in stark contrast to his predecessor, George W. Bush, as do his comments about the ‘intolerable’ situation facing the Palestinians,” she said.

Many Muslims in Britain are of South Asian origin and are alarmed at how the US intervention in Afghanistan is also destabilizing Pakistan. "The sooner there is progress to redress the injustice of the Palestinians and end the occupation of Afghanistan, the quicker a new chapter can be written,” Ms. Yaqoob added.

Ajmal Masroor, a London imam involved with the Islamic Society of Britain, said that Obama’s address was a step in the right direction, commending the president for adopting a "reassuring tone."

“He made it very clear that the suffering of Palestinians must end. On balance, the speech was very fair, so I think that Muslims will now be prepared to give him a little more time to see if he can walk the walk as well as talk the talk,” Imam Masroor said.

If he had a criticism, however, it was that Obama had failed to address the poor record on human rights and democracy by many Arab “dictators and despots,” including the government of Egypt itself.

The speech also went down well among an invited audience at the US Embassy, according to Riazat Butt, religious affairs correspondent for the Guardian newspaper.

“I think that people were impressed and the reaction was generally positive, because he was basically doing something that Bush would never do,” she said.

“For much of the first half of the speech, there were a lot of comments which were very general in nature, but then he started to talk about Al Qaeda, then about Israel and Palestine, and about Iran, which I thought he would not do.”

Overall, she expected that British Muslims would take notice.“I think that people here on the street will be talking about it because it has been very eagerly awaited. But how people judge what he had to say will ultimately come down to whether he follows through on his words with actions.”

The Quilliam Foundation, a London-based counterextremism think tank made up of former Islamist activists, described the speech as “groundbreaking and courageous.”

Welcoming a “nuanced but significant change” in Obama’s language, it added that he “avoided any use of the term ‘the Muslim world’ and instead adopted ‘Muslim-majority countries’ and ‘Muslim communities.’ ”

The statement continued, “There is no monolithic ‘Muslim community,’ nor is there a singular homogeneous entity known as ‘the Muslim world,’ rather there are diverse and distinctive Muslim communities that need to be reflected in our discourse. Using the term ‘the Muslim world’ only serves to bolster the Islamist and Al Qaeda narrative of ‘the West’ against ‘Islam’ – of a battle of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ or ‘good’ versus ‘evil.’

“By omitting this, Obama has taken a positive step in the battle of ideas and in realizing his promise that America is not fighting a war against Islam.”

Other reactions around the world

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