Obama’s Final State of the Union Speech: A Fine Opportunity Missed

First published by Swarajya, January 22, 2016


He is the embodiment of “cool”, and no world leader, past or present, and especially in our time can match him: he is handsome, smart, walks like a panther, and speaks and writes like an inspired poet. He body surfs, sinks 40-foot putts like Tiger Woods, and croons like Sammy Davis, Jr. You want to play basketball with him? If yes, be prepared to be hustled and see him sink a few before you figure out where the hoop is.

His marriage was made in heaven, his wife can bench-press and kick-box, grow kitchen gardens, inspire school children to become heroes, can argue your brief better than yourself, and wear dresses that make her shimmer across a stage full of handsome men and women. And Malia and Sasha, their daughters, are great imprints of the President and the First Lady, and make it seem that the Gods can indeed shower great blessings on some.

The 44th President is in his last year in office, and on 12 January, 2016, delivered his final State of the Union (SOTU) speech. Some bemoaned the grey in his hair – surely the result of the punches thrown at him by a rude opposition that kicked decency out the door the day he assumed office, and of the complicated problems his predecessor handed over to him to resolve, as well as new ones that mushroomed and exploded over the past eight years. Still, despite it all, he delivered punch lines as well as the best stand-up comedians, sent clever barbs garbed in velvet across to the humourless opponents, and delivered a finely-crafted speech on a day when crisis developed unexpectedly in the Persian Gulf.

It is that finely-crafted speech, however, that we can complain about and bemoan an opportunity lost. He said at the outset that he wanted to focus on the future, and reminded us that we live in times of “extraordinary change” that presents challenges but that “American optimism, work ethic, spirit of discovery and innovation, and American diversity and commitment to the rule of law” could help us emerge stronger.

But what he said about diversity and the rule of law is what many have expressed concerns about, and where we think he missed an opportunity to both argue for diversity but forcefully call for fresh thinking on Islamic fundamentalism and Muslim-led attacks across the world, including in Muslim-majority nations themselves. While America is a land of immigrants, there have been many laws specifically promulgated to keep out people from some countries, and contain the arrival of some ethnic groups.

Think about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Immigration Act of 1924, and the 1921 Emergency Quota Act, and we may understand the President’s concerns about Muslims being specifically targeted, post the horrific terrorist acts in Paris, and the wave of refugees flooding Europe, almost all from Muslim-majority countries, and new ones seeking to make their home in America.

This is what he said in his address, and on first reading, who could fault him?

And that’s why we need to reject any politics – any politics – that targets people because of race or religion. Let me just say this. This is not a matter of political correctness. This is a matter of understanding just what it is that makes us strong. The world respects us not just for our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity, and our openness, and the way we respect every faith.

His Holiness, Pope Francis, told this body from the very spot that I’m standing on tonight that “to imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.” When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad or our fellow citizens, when a mosque is vandalized or a kid is called names, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. It betrays who we are as a country.

Fine as it reads, but beyond applause lines, there are some hard truths that the President could have and should have addressed. By ignoring those brutal truths he merely gave more ammunition to his opponents who will continue to suspect that he is a closet Muslim extremist, and put at ease those Muslim fundamentalists who have constantly circled their wagons around their “religion of peace”. But the above remarks were preceded by this remark:

But as we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands. Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks, twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages — they pose an enormous danger to civilians; they have to be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence. That is the story ISIL wants to tell. That’s the kind of propaganda they use to recruit. We don’t need to build them up to show that we’re serious, and we sure don’t need to push away vital allies in this fight by echoing the lie that ISIL is somehow representative of one of the world’s largest religions. We just need to call them what they are – killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed.

Fine, if it is not ISIL who are the representatives of Islam? Is it the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and is it one of America’s vital allies? Is it the Islamic Republic of Iran? Pakistan? Or is it the Muslim clergy who broadcast their faith from the millions of mosques across the world’s nations? What have they communicated about their faith through their acts and their words?

It is the constant refrain of those who claim they are Muslim or who think that all Muslims will be targeted for the acts of the “few” who ignore the fact that Islam and Muslims live in uncomfortable unease wherever and whenever they are in a minority, and tend to drive out non-Muslims and their faiths when they are in a majority.

There is no particular Muslim majority country where non-Muslim minorities are considered equal in the eyes of the law. A country like Malaysia, held up as an example of happy coexistence among peoples and where progressive and moderate Islam is practiced, is only because of what has been termed as a “socio-political configuration based on Malay-Muslim dominance”. In Indonesia, long considered a “tolerant” Muslim country minority rights are being whittled away.

More importantly, and beyond presenting a litany of the assaults on humanity over the past few decades, one should consider what the small band of brave critics, including Muslim critics, who have been asking for some rethinking and reconsideration of what might be driving so many Muslims into murderous mayhem.

We can always start with Salman Rushdie on this matter simply because despite the terrible flip-flops he made during his time in hiding on his being Muslim and what he thought about Islam, and despite having basically turned his sights elsewhere, he still calls for a debate on Islam. “Why can’t we debate Islam?” he has asked, and says that “It is possible to respect individuals, to protect them from intolerance, while being sceptical about their ideas, even criticising them ferociously.”

Rushdie is acclaimed, and is rich, and now lives mostly carefree in the US. But that is not the case with Taslima Nasreen, who since leaving Bangladesh in 1994, has not found a home anywhere. She leads her life like a hunted woman, always looking over her shoulder, and rarely smiling even when among friends. The Indian literary and artistic community that have rushed to protect free speech, and that stood in line recently to return awards and honours because they feared an imagined threat to tolerance, did not bother to challenge those Muslim extremists and their abettors who demonized Taslima and drove her out of her home and country. Instead they gave her the silent treatment, ignoring her pleas and her plight, ignoring the fact that she is an avowed secular humanist, feminist, and a free speech advocate.

Not one of the members of the secular/progressive brigade petitioned the Indian government to grant her the permanent resident status she sought in India, not one goes to stand next to her when she speaks in public, and not one writes a letter in protest when she is jeered at, threatened, and shouted down.

We can then look to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who as a woman and a progressive Muslim was hounded out of Europe despite having been a member of the lower house of the Dutch parliament. Why has she been ignored by the left/liberals, and have had to find succour first at the American Enterprise Institute, and now as the wife of the conservative British historian at Harvard, Niall Ferguson? She may now be at Harvard too, but then, she is not at home with the progressives who should have stood by her and have been fighting her cause.

We have the musician/doctor from Canada, Ali Rizvi, who has written eloquently about the need for change in the Muslim understanding of religion and God, and its response to violence. Calling himself a “Muslim atheist”, he has carefully laid out the problem passages in the Quran, and the cherry-picking that Muslims do when they claim that theirs is a religion of peace. And there is Bill Maher and Sam Harris, who are neither hidebound nor partisan in their views about religion and belief, who have sought for some space to discuss Islam and violence emanating from the Muslim world.

Would President Obama have not sent a signal to all – across the political spectrum – by inviting these six to the White House, and sought out their views on the challenges of being Muslim, about Islam, and of the violence worldwide that is spread by Muslims in the name of Islam? When he can sit down with a Boston police officer for a “beer summit” to discuss race and policing, why would he not have the courage to sit with some progressive Muslims to hear what they had to say about what is happening in their communities, and from critics like Maher and Harris to listen to their views?

Hirsi mentions that in 2014, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, “at least 70 percent of all fatalities in armed conflicts around the world… were in wars involving Muslims”. This is not some data pulled out of an Islamophobe’s hat but gathered by a well-known think tank. And surely, this same data is available to the White House. Instead, what we have had as initiatives from the White House Office of Diversity is a line-up of the same set of actors to produce the same pablum that the President presented from the podium on Capitol Hill.

To plead and urge that we should not target people because of their race or religion is fine, for we have enough violence in the world already because of race and religion. But why turn a blind eye to what is inspiring so many (no, no, not just a few, and not just a “small number of misguided people”) to try and burn down the world? When the “cool” guy develops cold feet on this matter, you cannot blame his hot-headed opponents who fan the flames, can we?

Yes, I like President Obama, and I voted for him twice. Not only has he let many of his supporters down because he has refused to pick up this gauntlet, he has lost the chance of becoming a great president instead of being merely a good one that he is. He is the man who could have done it, for his credentials are unique – and for, indeed, that mix of Black, White, Muslim, Christian, and cool is rare.


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