Washington: President Barack
Obama, who began his White House tenure in January by reaching out
to Hindus and Muslims, followed up on that initiative by pointedly
including Indian Muslims yesterday in his effort to make common
cause with Islam in a historic speech at Cairo University.
Within hours of declaring that
“America is not and never will be at war with Islam”, the full text
of Obama’s speech in Cairo was on the White House web site in Hindi,
Punjabi and Urdu. In addition, two Indian Americans were on a White
House video as poster children for inclusiveness of Muslims in US
society soon after Obama spoke in Cairo.
“To me, there is no contradiction
between being an American, between being a Muslim,” says Afeefa
Syeed, a Kashmiri who works as senior adviser in the Obama
administration’s global aid agency, the US Agency for International
Development, in the video.
Syeed, who emigrated to the US with
her parents as a child and covers her head with a scarf, adds that
“to be an American Muslim simply to me means that you are practising
your faith through the lens of an American identity”.
The second Indian American Muslim on
the video, Rashad Hussain, a deputy associate counsel to the
President in the White House, was born in Wyoming and grew up in
Texas, where his mother, Ruqaya, a graduate of Aligarh Muslim
University, is a medical doctor.
Hussain’s parents are from Bihar. His
father, Mohammad Hussain, is a retired mining engineer. He argues in
the video that “the Muslim community in America is very diverse,
very vibrant and in many ways it looks like a cross-section of the
greater American community”.
In putting out the video, the White
House Press Office rationalised that “we thought we would share with
you a few stories of Muslim Americans who are proudly serving their
nation in the federal government”.
Two of the three persons chosen for
the video are of Indian origin. Obviously, with the power of YouTube
and similar new media tools, the White House expects that the video
will be watched by millions of people.
The message that goes out to Indian
Muslims who watch these Indian Americans of their faith will be ones
that New Delhi and Washington share about democracy and secularism.
In his typical “no drama” style,
without hype or cliche, Obama cited the Indian experience with
non-violence in the most talked about segment of his speech — the
one dealing with the right of Palestinians to a state of their own.
“For centuries, black people in
America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation
of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal
rights,” Obama said in a low-key but meaningful reference to Martin
Luther King’s adoption of Gandhian methods of non-violence in the
pursuit of civil rights for blacks in the US.
He went on to the story of India’s
peaceful struggle for independence and Nelson Mandela’s embrace of
Gandhi in the fight to end apartheid. “This same story can be told
by people from South Africa to South Asia,” Obama said.
But it is a testimony to the great
detail that went into constructing his Cairo speech that while Obama
mentioned South Africa, he avoided any reference to India by name.
South Africa is not controversial in the Islamic world. On the
contrary, it is popular. India is not.
By invoking India’s freedom struggle
without naming India, Obama was sensitive to India’s exclusion from
the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, which actually
criticises New Delhi at most of its meetings.
The decision to translate Obama’s
speech and make it widely available to Indian Muslims in Hindi,
Punjabi and Urdu was an after-thought.
In a final update to the media about
14 hours before the President spoke in Cairo, the White House press
office had formally put out an advisory that the translations of the
speech would only be available in Arabic, Urdu, English and Persian.
White House sources said the
eleventh-hour decision to include Punjabi and Hindi translations was
taken at the highest levels with India in mind because of its
second-largest Muslim population in the world.
But the sources would not say whether
the President was directly involved in making the decision.
As soon as the state department made
the translations available, the US embassy in New Delhi and the
consulates in Chennai, Hyderabad and Mumbai made those links easily
available to Indians.
Curiously, the links to three languages spoken by Muslims in India
were missing from the website of the US consulate in Calcutta at the
time of writing, 30 hours after they were available at all other
relevant US government websites.