These are some of the descriptions several of my American friends and colleagues offered about Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's landmark speech on race relations: riveting, amazing, honest, brilliant. One warned that it might bring me to tears.
I'd been too busy here in Baghdad to pay much attention to the speech when it first aired Tuesday. But after hearing rave reviews from people whose opinions I respect, I was eager to take a look for myself. I downloaded this transcript of the speech and started reading.
It started out as a smooth and compelling treatise on the state of race relations. Then I hit a road bump when Obama reiterated his condemnation of his pastor's incendiary remarks and suggested that, like him, "many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed."
I was surprised that he didn't include "imams" in that line, given that Islam is one of the country's fastest-growing religions and that African Americans make up roughly a quarter of all Muslims in the United States, according to several reputable groups that track such figures. Oh, well. Minor peeve. Better to be invisible than stereotyped, I thought.
Then came the stereotyping, in this section:
"The remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren't simply controversial. They weren't simply a religious leader's effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country -- a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam."
Wait a sec -- did he just segue from domestic race relations to conflicts thousands of miles away that have zilch to do with the legacy of the American slave trade? How odd. I made some phone calls, dropped some Facebook notes and scoured the Internet to see if other Muslims or Arab Americans were similarly taken aback.
Nobody disagreed that there are some pretty perverse ideologies of "radical Islam." None of the friends or acquaintances I pestered about this could stand to live in the U.S.-friendly Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, much less under some even more draconian leadership such as the Taliban or al Qaida. But they were miffed that (a) Muslim Americans were left out of the line about the pastors and rabbis, as if their faith didn't exist or as if they never disagreed with their imams, and (b) that in a speech about healing and unity, the only mention of Islam was in a throwaway line that reinforced the stereotype of a hate-mongering, death-to-the-infidels faith.
Didn't Obama realize that in today's post-9/11 political climate, with U.S.-led wars raging in two Muslim countries and unrest in several others, that "radical Islam" already sounds redundant to many American ears? Of course he did, according to the people I informally polled.
So why inject a potentially incendiary remark into a speech meant to quell the backlash from an incendiary remark? Among the reasons my sources offered: Obama was overcompensating for the smear campaign about his own Muslim roots, he was reassuring the powerful pro-Israeli lobby that he wouldn't change the age-old policy of unconditional U.S. support, that he was trying to outdo McCain on Muslim-bashing to gain conservative votes. Others reasons were given, but those were the main ones that cropped up in my calls and email exchanges.
The Angry Arab website picked up on the debate, as did IslamOnline.net. Some Muslim or Arab Obama supporters gave him a pass, saying he's just playing the game he needs to play in order to get elected. Once in office, they wrote, surely he would pursue good relations with the Muslim and Arab voting bloc that's so enamored of him. They also noted his work in the past with Arab and Muslim groups in Chicago.
Other Arabs and Muslims felt a deep sense of betrayal from the candidate who adorns their Facebook and MySpace pages, the one whose middle name is so familiar, the one they campaign for at their universities. And yet most of these discussions are unfolding in private circles such as closed listservs, personal social-networking pages and through email trees, showing a lingering reluctance to gripe publicly about their favorite contender for the White House.
Nevertheless, a few did. Over at Democracy Arsenal, I found this comment:
"Considering how much he gets attacked for being a Muslim, this speech seemed like the perfect time for him to address that issue as well. He was giving a major speech about race and religion, yet he didn't even mention the issues that Muslims in the USA have. That would not bother me from someone like Clinton or McCain because they would have no particular reason to care about Muslims. But Obama is consistently slandered (if you can call if that) with false accusations of being Muslim. I am actually shocked that he did not confront that problem during this speech. At least to defend Islam, or to talk about the relationship between those attacks and other types of intolerance that he did talk about...that was a very sad omission. And one that almost seemed purposeful."
One commentator on the Angry Arab page wrote that he no longer felt like he had an option in this fiercely contested presidential race. He explained:
"I thought his speech was courageous about the race issue. However, it showed that Obama has some prejudice when it comes to one religion, Islam, and to one issue, Israel/Palestine. So he is reinforcing some prejudices while trying to alleviate others. Although his remark about Islam and Israel hurts, his approach is one of healing internal fractures. For the time being, it seems that Obama is casting out American Muslims and Arab Americans. They are the ones who will be the new blacks in Obama's perspective."
(photo taken from the Facebook page for the group "American Muslims for Obama.")