President Obama’s Speech at Mosque Missed American Families Victimized by State Violence

Oped By Mariam Abu-Ali

Mariam Abu-Ali was born and raised in Northern VA. She graduated from Georgetown University with a major in Government and a minor in Arabic. After graduating, she worked as a Communications Manager at ICNA Council for Social Justice, where she helped manage projects countering Islamophobia. She is currently the Director of the Prisoners and Families Committee at the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms. Mariam's involvement in civil and human rights is very personal. She has been advocating on behalf of her brother Ahmed Abu-Ali, a victim of torture and extraordinary rendition and a US political prisoner for over a decade.

I was at the airport with my friend Reem when an older woman stopped me in the restroom.

“I'm sorry for what's happening to Muslims in America.” she said, “I'm glad that President Obama visited a mosque yesterday. I just want you to know there are people on your side.”

I was shocked and touched by her words of solidarity with the American Muslim community. I embraced her and thanked her for her kindness.

Yesterday, I watched as President Obama delivered his speech at his first ever trip to a mosque. There is no doubt that his speech was a powerful one, and the content of his message is one that I hope reached Americans across the country. President Obama talked about the concern and fear that the Muslim community has faced in the wave of hateful rhetoric by politicians and growing anti-Muslim sentiment. He talked about the bullying and harassment that American Muslims have experienced, as well as the vandalism of mosques across the nation. He spoke about the long history of Muslim presence in this country, dating back to the slave trade, and stressed and affirmed the constitutional right to freedom of religion.

What Obama did not talk about, however, were his administration's policies which directly contribute to the hateful, discriminatory environment American Muslims have and continue to endure till this day. The reality of the matter is that our President's rhetoric is at complete odds with his policies. And his policies are a significant reason why American Muslims have been seen and treated as second class citizens.

What Obama did not address was the fact that Guantanamo remains open and that it has only housed Muslim men. Until today, 93 detainees remain at Guantanamo.  Not only has Obama not fulfilled his promise of shutting it down, but he has kept Guantanamo open for longer than Bush did.

What Obama did not address was the surveillance of our communities, the incarceration of innocent men convicted under the guise of national security, and the informants who target our youth and houses of worship.

I watched as Obama gave examples of young American Muslims teens who wrote to him, troubled by the way they are treated in their schools and confused about their place in the world. And all I could think about was how our government, the U.S. government, tore my family apart when I myself was only a fourteen-year-old. It also tore apart Reem's family when she was fourteen years old. Two Muslim men stolen from their families —my brother Ahmed Abu-Ali was 21 when he was illegally detained and tortured in Saudi Arabia at the behest of the US. He was convicted using the false confession obtained through torture,  and he continues to be held in solitary confinement with severe restrictions on communication with the outside world.

Ahmed Abu-Ali

Kifah Jayyousi, Reem's father, who once proudly served in the U.S Navy, has suffered a similar fate being detained in solitary confinement without charges for an entire year, then  held at a Communications Management Unit on false charges of material support for terrorism. He continues to be unjustly incarcerated because he did what every American strives to do, which is to help the global human community through charity.

In both cases, being good patriotic Americans didn't shield them from the wrath of a government that has sought to fundamentally criminalize the Muslim identity. Therefore, when President Obama remarked in his speech that our community is both Muslim and American, we recoiled. After all, how did being American protect us?

Reem and I are both only two of countless victims of state violence, and for too long, the world has tried to silence us. The Muslim community has tried to sweep us under the rug, afraid that our stories will prove to be barriers on their journey to be accepted as “good Americans.” But we will never be silenced, and we will remain steadfast in this fight for justice.


Ultimately, my frustration lies with the American Muslim community. It is us who refuse to face the reality behind a recurring cycle of violence that is buttressed by deep-seated Islamophobia [1]. We continue to frantically put a band-aid on a problem that stems not from lack of interfaith efforts or outreach, but which stems directly from a set of policies under the guise of the War on Terror that distinctly and specifically targets Muslims.

Islamophobia [1] is systemic and institutional; that's why my brother is in one of the most notorious prisons, the Supermax in Colorado.

That's why it's been 13 years of living without my brother in a country that heralds itself as being a beacon of human rights.

That's why I write this today.

[1] The University of California Berkeley's Center of Race and Gender defines the term Islamophobia explaining the reasons behind the fear:  Islamophobia is a contrived fear or prejudice fomented by the existing Eurocentric and Orientalist global power structure.  It is directed at a perceived or real Muslim threat through the maintenance and extension of existing disparities in economic, political, social and cultural relations, while rationalizing the necessity to deploy violence as a tool to achieve “civilizational rehab” of the target communities (Muslim or otherwise).  Islamophobia reintroduces and reaffirms a global racial structure through which resource distribution disparities are maintained and extended.


13 Responses

  1. cliveey

    It not a phobia if your experience of a thing is negative. There are many perfectly decent Muslims who are far kinder people than I am, who work hard and care for others, whether tehy are Muslim or not. But I have also seen very manipulative Muslims at work. Muslims who want Equality for themselves but who never think about equality and fairness for other people. Muslims who want to force people to become teh same as them. Muslims who cannot even accept Muslims who beleiev differently to themselves or accept other branches of Islam. Muslims who believe in Apostasy. It is not just terrorists either. Look at teh behaviour of Muslims in the Saudi Arabian parliament. Look at the Muslims who bombed Bali, long before teh Iraq war. No Behaviour Breeds Behaviour. All communities and peoples need to study our own shorthcomings and how we treat others before we go claiming that we are unfairly treated. Bigots and Terrorists try to manipulate and divide. They are weak people, frightened and full of hate.
    Obama is trying hard to do a very Christian thing and work for peace. This needs to be recognised and appreciated…. not just a caus eofr continual complaining and wanting more. Especially when hatred is preached and security threats created by a small few people claiming to follow Islam. That is where your anger and energy should lie. Deal with taht and earn respect for yourself and your faith. May God help you achieve this. The Muslim commmunity is not the only community with internal problems though so dont be discouraged.

  2. cliveey

    My experience of MUslims is mostly very positive but I am afraid I see the faith these fine people follow as essentially bullying. It is probably a perception I have gained from a few very power mad and sometimes very wealthy “Muslim?” people within my community, some of whom were quite happy to exploit their own people. I remind myself when I get upset of teh good Muslim people I know and love.

  3. Salma

    This is extremely moving. I completely understand and agree with your response to the President Obama’s talk. Muslims in America are trying too much to please everyone without acknowledging the blows we’ve been dealt. I pray for you and your friend’s families and will make a point of sharing this as much as possible!

  4. Kristy

    There are always 2 sides to every story.

    What family members say about their accused terrorist spouses, children, family members and such seem to always begin with surprise that such “quiet/good/peaceful/religious/kind/generous/pleasant/etc” could have done such a thing.

    It is understandably difficult to accept that the one you love and know is not really the one everyone else knows and experiences.

    • Ry

      @Kristy. The problem with you statement is that you assume that the people in question are guilty. You’ve made a statement without any evidence for your ‘side’, remember its innocent till proven guilty, and proof rests on you to show. Lets be real the US government is not an Angel, and they may have made grave mistakes, be brave enough to admit it. I dont expect for you to accept the stories of people, but at least investigate honestly before you make a comment with no backing.

      • cliveey

        Ry, Have you not heard what the supposed islamic state people are doing. Multiple cruel mercilesss rapes of Yasidi women and girls after killing the men and boys. Surely it is not an Islamic State but a Satanic State or is your religon something less than what it claims to be? Was not your own prophet deceived by Satan at one point (I may be wrong but is taht not teh origin of teh famed vereses). Some of the Deesh people are behaving so cruelly they did not need Satan to deceive them. The supposed “phobia” aganst Islam arises because of people like these. It is also because of other behaviour of some states that procalim they are Islam. I am fortunate in taht I live among many excellent kind Muslim people. So it is not Muslim people that are at fault, it is those within their faith who guide them the wrong way. Muslim people are mostly very nice.

  5. Abdullah

    I applaud your courageous and crystal clear message as this reflects the status of fear the Muslim community faces in the US, and is caused specifically by laws that discriminatory target Muslims solely based on their faith.

    • mojo

      Can you please tell us which specific laws discriminate and target Muslims based on their faith??
      I am struggling to find a law that is implemented like this.
      If I felt I was being discriminated against, as you do,then I presume you can back it up with facts.
      Feel sure you will not respond (with facts)


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