President Barack Obama is planning to address Muslims from Egypt. But we American Muslims believe he would have made a better choice by engaging Muslims at home first.
He has been reaching out to Muslims since he took office. He mentioned Muslims in his inauguration speech; he gave his first interview as President to an Arab broadcaster instead of a U.S. television network; he visited Turkey in his first 100 days and appointed a special envoy, who is more balanced than his predecessors, to deal with the Israel-Palestine issue; he also promised to speak to the Muslim world from a Muslim capital.
Although these are excellent first steps, it is critical that the President engage Muslims at home first. He must remember that he represents us, too.
President Obama could begin by making his address to Muslims worldwide from a mosque on American soil. Why not Masjid Al-Fatir, the mosque in the President's Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago? Muhammad Ali, the former world heavyweight boxing champion, built this house of worship. Ali is an American Muslim respected throughout the Muslim world. President Obama visited churches and synagogues in the U.S. during his election campaign, but not a mosque. This was most likely because of Islamophobia, which created a climate where he felt it necessary to keep a distance from American Muslims.
American Muslims are grateful for the steps President Obama has taken to lessen hostilities abroad. He banned torture, ordered the closing of Guantanamo Bay and the CIA's secret interrogation centers.
The last presidential administration treated American Muslims as virtual enemies of the state, discouraged our civic involvement and suppressed our voices. We were isolated and essentially shunned. In this new era of change, however, it is vital to U.S. interests to engage American Muslims as partners in building relationships with the Muslim world. This is not only a matter of respect, but one of common interests.
American Muslims are a global village made up of diverse communities of African-Americans and immigrants from many nations. Among Muslims, they are one of the largest groups of highly educated professionals in the world.
Tens of thousands are physicians and surgeons. Others serve in higher education. Many proudly serve in the U.S. military. I personally know of at least six Muslims in Chicago who played critical roles in key Muslim governments. Many are directly connected with the ruling elites of the countries of their birth.
Part of the change that American Muslims hope for is to be valued as an asset by their country rather than viewed as suspects. We long for a president who will welcome our voices and our public service. Nearly 3,000 prayer locations, mosques and Islamic centers serve an estimated six million Muslims in the United States. We invite our president to stand with us publicly and vigorously in the struggle against Islamophobia - the bigotry he tasted during his campaign and that we experience daily.
Although American Muslims delivered the second largest block vote for President Obama after African-Americans, (79% according to Gallup) hardly any Muslims have been appointed in the current administration.
Muslims are not looking for handouts. We're simply striving for equal opportunity and inclusiveness. That will give a far better message to the Muslim world than speeches.
The choice of a U.S. mosque for the President's address would affirm what he stated at his inauguration: that Muslims are part of the fabric of our nation. More importantly, it would acknowledge that the key to repairing relations between America and the Muslim world are those who know both best: American Muslims.