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The Message the Muslim World Was Waiting For – Nafees Syed


The following article was published by CNN, and is being reproduced under Fair Use provisions.

Nafees A. Syed, a junior at Harvard University majoring in government, is an editorial editor at The Harvard Crimson as well as a senior editor and columnist for the Harvard-MIT journal on Islam and society, Ascent. She is chairwoman of the Harvard Institute of Politics Policy Group on Racial Profiling.

Nafees Syed says President Obama’s early words and actions send a powerful, positive signal to Muslims.

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Story Highlights

  • Nafees Syed: Obama is reaching out to Muslim world with words, actions
  • She says Muslims worldwide have a shared concern about key issues
  • Syed: Obama’s interview with Al-Arabiya talked of respect and partnership
  • She says Bush administration used harsh language of crusade, Islamofascism

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts (CNN) — President Obama has given the Muslim community around the world the message we have been waiting for.

He reassured Muslims in America that “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and nonbelievers.” For those like me who were critical of his standoffish attitude toward Islam during his campaign, this signaled a welcome change.

Even more important was his subsequent statement: “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”

In traveling throughout Western Europe in the past two years, I heard several anti-American comments; these Europeans were challenging me, a Muslim, about American foreign policy in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Muslim countries, I’ve heard admiring comments about how great it must be to live in a rich country like America, followed by accusations that, “your President Bush doesn’t like us Muslims.”

As a Muslim-American, I have found myself in a difficult position. In America, I’ve had to explain Islam to other Americans, and abroad, I’ve had to explain America to those in the Muslim world.

Obama has done all Americans a favor by extending a hand of friendship to the Muslim world. For me personally, it has alleviated the pain of witnessing the country I love engage in a foreign policy that I could not approve of as a Muslim and as an American — a foreign policy that created mutual distrust between Americans and Muslims. And Obama has followed up on his statements with actions.

In his first steps as president, Obama has initiated the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison, called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq and appointed former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, well-respected for his role in the Northern Ireland peace process, as special envoy for the Middle East.

For the past few weeks, I’ve heard overwhelming praise from Muslims for Obama’s recent actions.

Obama has recognized a key fact that former President George W. Bush did not: Muslims in America and elsewhere are strongly affected by the situation of other Muslims in the world.

There is a popular saying of the Prophet Mohammed’s that the Muslim community is like one body: If one part hurts, the entire body feels the pain. Muslims are very aware of this message and, in the last 20 years, three conflicts have continuously dominated the Muslim consciousness: Chechnya, Kashmir and, most notably, Palestine.

Obama recognized this when he chose his first interview as president to be with a reporter from Al-Arabiya, indicating he would actively engage Arab media. The Palestinian-Israeli issue dominated the interview, with Obama promising to work toward a solution involving both sides of the conflict.

To understand the challenge Obama faces in changing America’s role in the conflict, one must realize the situation he walked into as president. Muslims around the world were watching the suffering of innocent Palestinian civilians in a Gaza military campaign conducted with a green light from the Bush administration. Obama is essentially trying to rebuild a relationship that has been destroyed.

However, Obama’s tone of respect and not condescension, a clear break with the past, improves the chances that such a relationship could arise.

His interview with Al-Arabiya was filled with reassuring statements that America is “ready to initiate a new partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest,” that “the language we use has to be a language of respect.” After years of hearing rhetoric of “a crusade” and “Islamofascism” from the U.S. government, Obama’s policy of listening, not dictating, has generated optimism in the Muslim world.

I am sure that the Muslim world will respond with goodwill as well. Already, Obama is very well-respected there for his intelligence, eloquence and experience living in the largest Muslim country, Indonesia.

Muslims abroad are just as willing as those in America to taste his message of hope and change. To win over the skeptics abroad, Obama will just have to do what he is doing in America: reach out to all sides for solutions and follow up his words with concrete action.

In the meantime, the next few weeks will see Muslims around the world taking the hand America is extending after a long hiatus.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nafees Syed.

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  1. Abd- Allah

    February 5, 2009 at 12:59 AM

    Before we all start arguing over the same “obama” issues (again), let me remind everyone that we have already discussed most of them on some of the previous posts, so no need to dwell on the same issues and repeat the same arguments over and over and waste more time. However, if anyone has anything valuable then please do share.

  2. ibnabeeomar

    February 5, 2009 at 1:01 AM

    I agree that the overall sentiment being expressed by Obama’s administration is one of positivity and looking to work with Muslims. While we definitely applaud a step in the right direction (and no doubt its a 180 from Bush’s approach), we must optimistically – but cautiously.

    I don’t want to rehash old debates, but we must still acknowledge that while he did take these steps, he also ordered a missile attack in Pakistan which killed civilian Muslims. Closing Gitmo is a good step, but failing to ban rendition indicates that the same abuses and tortures perpetrated by the government under the Bush administration will continue under Obama.

    We should take his respectful tone as a sign of goodwill – but we must not allow ourselves to be satisfied. We hope it is a sign of progress and a good relationship, but we must not allow ourselves to be content with just that piece of it. Doing so is simply a sign of our own weakness. We must still continue to voice our concerns on issues that affect us, and also let him know in the same respectful way that we do not tolerate a continuation of any aspect of Bush’s foreign policy such as drone attacks, aid to Israel, and a continuation of the failed War on Terror practices such as rendition.

  3. abu abdAllah, the Houstonian

    February 5, 2009 at 1:34 AM

    bismillah, walhamdolillah, was salamu alaykum. :D

  4. Siraaj Muhammad

    February 5, 2009 at 4:25 AM

    Ditto on ibnabeeomar’s missle strike comment.


  5. anon

    February 5, 2009 at 8:36 AM


  6. Farhan

    February 5, 2009 at 9:27 AM

    Isn’t this the same president whose military strikes are killing scores of innocent civilians in northern Pakistan?
    If he withdrew military aid to Israel, I’d be happy
    (it goes without saying, he’s better than Bush)

  7. Amad

    February 5, 2009 at 9:46 AM

    I have a few thoughts on this:
    -It is indeed disappointing that the extraordinary renditions are not being immediately stopped. I hope common sense will prevail and pressure from the European governments will force the administration to do the right thing.

    -As the leader of one of the three branches of power in the States, we cannot forget the great challenges that Obama faces from the legislative branch, esp. when it comes to issues related to foreign policies. The congressional vote on “Israel’s right to defend itself” showed the nearly unanimous support of Israel, and how it does not reflect the nation’s opinion. So, anything that Obama does on Israel that AIPAC doesn’t find favorable could be easily over-ruled by Congress. That is why we need an effective means to counter AIPAC and to build our own institutions that will reflect a more just view (does not even have to be just Muslims, but coalitions with other fair-foreign policy advocates), and unfortunately I don’t see any organization or coalition doing so. We have to move beyond bickering and start a real process for change.

    -As far as Pakistan is concerned, I had a conversation with my parents who live there, and my cousin who just came back from there. So, while we discuss the missile strikes that killed Muslims, there are also many Pakistani Muslims in the Pakistani army that are killing “Muslims”. Maybe we need look at our “own” before we jump at others? How would/could we justify our criticism of US strikes, when it could be easily pointed out that you are doing it yourself too?

    But I don’t believe in broadly criticizing the Pakistani army or the government action (and I personally hate and despise Zardari, but I have to separate him from this issue) either, before we carefully consider and evaluate the situation. Not all fighting is prohibited and not all killing is unjustified. There is a huge problem ongoing in Swat, which used to be a scenic vacation spot until recently. I don’t know all the details, but the average Pakistani (again based on what I hear from my sources) is fed up people coming into Pakistani regions (whether Afghanis or extremist Pakistanis) who are taking over cities or villages, overturning government institutions, and basically setting up shop. I don’t believe that this sort of extrajudicial imposition of militia-laws is something that we can tolerate. So, what should one do when people come into your nation and start destroying girl’s schools for instance? While the US foreign policy has been destructive and ill-thought, Pakistan has its own problem too, and we cannot turn a blind eye to the extremism brewing there.

  8. ibnabeeomar

    February 5, 2009 at 9:58 AM

    pakistan’s dealings with its own people is really a completely irrelevant argument to the article’s contentions. the point is simply that i feel it is a bit inaccurate to ONLY mention those specific actions obama did and praise him without also mentioning the other actions he did (or failed to do) in his first days in office that this article is covering.

    also i agree 100% with the need to build our own coalitions, but that doesn’t mean we also just ‘make excuses’ for agenda items that go against our interests. it’s one thing to remain silent to preserve political capital for other issues, but when you have no clout to begin with, it’s more important to raise your voice on issues of concern rather than accepting them (this is what i mean by it is showing weakness).

  9. Omar

    February 5, 2009 at 11:41 AM

    Nafees, this is a very well written article, I am very proud of you sister. Jazak Allah Khar; But allow me a few words if you will.

    I can recall in 2000 many Muslims spoke highly of President Bush, calling him a new “hope” because he wished Muslims a happy Eid.

    As Admirable as it is that Obama spoke highly of Muslims during his Inaugural speech, I for one am still skeptical. I wonder whether this talk of rapprochement of the Muslim world as established by President Obama really is a new trend, a new way.

    It is true that President Bush was a warmonger and Islamofacist but he to spoke warmly at most, and cautiously at the least, of the general Muslim population. All we have to do is look at his speech to Congress after 9/11:

    “I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world: We respect your faith.
    It is practiced freely by many millions of Americans, and by millions more in countries that
    America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil
    in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith,
    trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it
    is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government
    that supports them.”

    He talks about the general Muslim population as friendly and admirable. This is little different then President Obama. As a matter of fact as has been repeatedly reported by numerous News Agencies, President Bush has called “Islam a great religion of peace”.

    Not to say that Bush is better then Obama, or that Obama hasnt said “nicer” things about Islam and Muslims, but I do believe we should make a clear division between what is “talk” and what is “walk”. That is, measure President Obama’s steps and new found consideration of Islam by his actions and not his “nice” words.

    Let us not get our hopes up to high. We should give Obama the benefit of a doubt, but we shouldn’t blindly consider him a new “hope for Muslims” just because he speaks kindly of us.

    We cant afford to make this mistake again.

    Kind regards,

    Omar E (

  10. Miako

    February 5, 2009 at 12:32 PM

    Wise words indeed!
    I for one am upset that Bush rejected overtures of friendship from quasi-Democratic countries in the Middle East (Iran, in particular).
    I find the active negotiating that Obama has done and is continuing to do with Iran to be the most positive “walk” that he’s attempting. For too long have we ignored and dismissed worthy allies.

  11. Joyhamza

    February 5, 2009 at 12:43 PM

    I can understand the point that those Pakistani authority should be blamed and rectified for killing their own people. But what stops one from blaming Obama who ordered the missile attack at the same time. Is it mutually exclusive?

    And sometimes I think brothers are getting lost in their hikmah. You argue that you should vote and choose Obama because at the end of the day you are american muslims (which is true) but when it comes to blaming Obama, suddenly Obama is deemed foreign and Pakistan is becoming home. You as Americans should take your priority to condemn what wrong an American President is doing. This is a standard set by yourselves. Now please live by it.

    Obama did some good things walhamdulillah. May Allah guide him. But He committed a tremendous crime against humanity by ordering that missile attack. This is a plain truth. No hikmah required to understand what happened there.

  12. Joyhamza

    February 5, 2009 at 12:46 PM

    If we have to stop blaming Obama for his mistake just because we have our own problems, then it was also wrong to blame Bush as well. Wasn’t it. Or am I missing some tricky fiqh and hikmah?

  13. Talha

    February 5, 2009 at 4:04 PM

    ‘Hikmah’ is the new ‘Dawah’ (“for the sake of Dawah, brother!”)

  14. Pasha

    February 5, 2009 at 4:21 PM

    kullum sahwa their all the same

  15. Muslim Investor

    February 5, 2009 at 4:50 PM

    The article is certainly praiseworthy, though cursory of the subject matter.

    I think there is a great deal of skepticism and cynicism in this thread, which is not necessarily unhealthy. By the same token the man should be held to his word. Also, he hasn’t completed a month in office and we expect that he’ll reverse all the Bush policies and setup some Islamic utopia. Our expectations seem to be amplified by the level of suffering. At the end of the day, he’ll do what’s best for the interests of this country not Kenya or any other.

    Finally, can someone start talking about what we can and should be doing for ourselves, rather than always expecting others to come fix our problems. Allah helps those who help themselves.

  16. Ibnkhalil

    February 5, 2009 at 5:31 PM

    Obama seems way better then his predecessor.

    He is no doubt trying to reach out to muslims. Here is something interesting I read. He actually quoted a hadith of the Prophet(SAW) in his speeches. I think that would have to be a Presidential first and shows that he really wants to get rid of the Islamophobia that has plagued the world, ever since idiot Bush took power a few years ago.

    Here is the link:

  17. Miako

    February 5, 2009 at 6:02 PM

    On January 28th, Rep. John Olver (MA-01) sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to Secretary Of State Hillary Clinton requesting that the State Department release funds to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) for reconstuction and humanitarian assistance in Gaza. The letter was signed by a total of 63 Democratic House members, including one member of the West Virginia Delegation, Nick Rahall (WV-03). The full text of the letter, as well as the full list of signatories can be found here.

    As a result of this request, President Obama authorized the use of $20.3 million from The US Emergency Refugee and Migration Association (ERMA) for humanitarian needs in Gaza. $13.5 million went to UNRWA, $6 million went to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and $800,000 went to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).;jsessionid=5BC8014F396DF636001992A7AFA14ADD?diaryId=3973

    harumph. I read one state blog — West Virginia. Who ever thought I’d see this THERE, of all places (WV is a very white place)??

    here’s the other article:

  18. Amad

    February 5, 2009 at 6:05 PM

    The situation on renditions is still developing…I think we just have to be patience and wait for results:

    Panetta: Obama won’t OK ‘extraordinary rendition’

    The Obama administration will not conduct the kind of “extraordinary rendition” that the Bush administration allowed, CIA Director nominee Leon Panetta assured senators on Thursday

    Panetta told the Senate Intelligence Committee that President Barack Obama forbids what Panetta called “that kind of extraordinary rendition — when we send someone for the purpose of torture or actions by another country that violate our human values.”

  19. Al-Madrasi

    February 5, 2009 at 9:24 PM

    MashaAllah, its a very needed article and so happy to see from sisters of our ummah… Though it depicts rosy pictures which may or may not be eventual… Allah A’lam… there is nothing wrong being optimistic…

    As this issue has been discussed here over and over… and most (if not everyone) of us agree that one needs to be optimistic but cautiously…

    I agree with Muslim Investor,

    Finally, can someone start talking about what we can and should be doing for ourselves, rather than always expecting others to come fix our problems. Allah helps those who help themselves.

  20. anonymous

    February 6, 2009 at 2:20 AM

    You bring a very good point about the situation in the swat valley . On side you have factions that are coming taking over cities, killing tribal leaders and police, destroying infrasture and scenic beauty, and on the other side you have the United States bombing parts of Northern parts of Pakistan which even if it kills once innocent muslim, it is as if you have killed all muslims. It brings up the question; How do you solve the problems in northern pakistan?

  21. Muslim_Mufakir

    February 6, 2009 at 9:16 AM

    Yes, how positive isn’t it to start the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, by announce the boost of troops in Afghanistan by adding another 30,000 to that region. Obama is the one that made it perfectly clear that he intend to invade the Pakistani border regions if the pakistani goverment is not doing more to stop “terrorism”… Well the pakistani army is already involved in killing muslims in the tribal areas so i guess the number of killed muslims are not enough to quench the blood thirst of another american president (not even bush made such a statement) but this should have been clear for everyone that obama want to make a statement once for all that his so called “muslim” background is not a preventive factor for him to start another war in muslim lands which is not a very bright thing to do considering the economic crisis that the US is in now.

  22. ibnabeeomar

    February 6, 2009 at 11:27 AM

  23. Ibn Abu Aisha

    February 6, 2009 at 7:17 PM

    Assalamu Alaikum,

    Ya ibnabeeomar, that’s one of the most profound articles I’ve read recently. Subhan-Allah man, there’s so much more than what meets the eye…

    May Allah protect all of us and grant us firmness.

  24. Omar

    February 6, 2009 at 10:48 PM

    This was a great article ibnameeomar…Jazak Allah Khar

    I actually posted it on my facebook and blog (

  25. Abu Maryam

    February 7, 2009 at 4:18 AM

    Obama and the politics of Bollocks
    John Pilger
    “Far from “deconstructing [sic] the war on terror,” Obama is clearly pursuing it with the same vigor, ideological backing and deception as the previous administration. George W. Bush’s first war, in Afghanistan, and last war, in Pakistan, are now Obama’s wars – with thousands more US troops to be deployed, more bombing and more slaughter of civilians. On 22 January, the day he described Afghanistan and Pakistan as “the central front in our enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism,” 22 Afghan civilians died beneath Obama’s bombs in a hamlet populated mainly by shepherds and which, by all accounts, had not laid eyes on the Taliban. Women and children were among the dead, which is normal. ”

  26. shahgul

    February 8, 2009 at 2:13 AM

    This is what passes in Afghanistan for Islam. This is what they are trying to bring to Pakistan. Why blame Obama?

  27. shahgul

    February 8, 2009 at 2:29 AM

    More about the Talibanization of Pakistan:

  28. Abu Adam

    February 17, 2009 at 7:14 PM

    I could not post this in sh Tawfiques article as comments are closed… but here it is here if you could pass this to readers:

    Sheikh Abu Ayman (Omran), Amir of Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jama’ah Association of Australia is talking to his students about maslaha (public interest or benefit) and some other issues related to Sh Tawfique’s article… He also asks interesting question if position were reverse and priest came to Khalifa of Muslims who is in power, with armies & warships around the world, etc… what do you think would be response of Khalifa? Find out here:

  29. AbuUmar

    February 17, 2009 at 7:23 PM

    West’s new plan to destroy Islam… I m not sure if Muslims are still going to wake up to the fact that this is a war on Islam and not just some so called radicals/extremists.

  30. abu abdAllah Tariq Ahmed

    February 17, 2009 at 7:57 PM

    bismillah was salamu alaykum wa Rahmat Allah wa Barakatuhu.

    abu adam, i have heard about the tenor of the comments posted to the article by our brother, shaykh Tawfique.

    and i wish better for all those who wrote negative comments than that they be asked about their words on the Day of Judgment, and any Muslim should guard his tongue lest he come to regret words he spoke against another Muslim. and i know that i, too, need that reminder.

    and i commend to us all this remarkable lecture delivered by Shaykh Dr. Ali al-Timimi, may Allah grant him speedy vindication and release from the oppression he has faced from unjust prosecution. ameen.

  31. AbuUmar

    February 18, 2009 at 10:35 AM

    I am new to this website and I did read shaykh Tawfique latest article. I didn’t comment on it as I am not knowledgeable enough but I sure was confused abt some point in his article. Some other commentators did leave negative feedback but I don’t quite understand why that would be wrong as it was not slander but good critique & questions abt points that were not clear. Criticism is not slander, why do we Muslims have such a hard time understanding that.

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