Obama, Ramadan and 9/11

Obama recently hosted an Iftar dinner at the White House.  (Iftar is the traditional light meal offered at the end of the fasting day during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.)  Members of the diplomatic corps and prominent Muslim American public figures were present at this dinner.

In what many (including myself) see as a very odd twist, Obama used this opportunity to begin the lead-up to the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  “In one month,” Obama said, “we will mark the 10th anniversary of those awful attacks that brought so much pain to our hearts.”

First thought: It seems politically dangerous to host a Muslim dinner at the White House.  The right will vilify you for it.  It seems equally politically dangerous to bring up 9/11 in such a context. The left will vilify you for it.

But Obama did not paint an image of 9/11 as Muslims vs. U.S.  He depicted Muslims primarily (perhaps entirely) as victims of 9/11.  He mentioned the Muslims who worked in the WTC buildings, who worshiped together in a Muslim chapel there.  He mentioned the Muslim Americans who were among the emergency crews who rushed to help survivors.  He mentioned U.S. soldiers of Muslim faith who have fought and died in Afghanistan and Iraq.

At the center of these remarks stand these words:

This year and every year, we must ask ourselves: how do we honor those patriots — those who died and those who serve? In this season of remembrance the answer is the same as it was 10 Septembers ago. We must be the America they lived for, the America they died for, the America they sacrificed for. An America that doesn’t simply tolerate people of different backgrounds and beliefs, but an America where we are enriched by our diversity. Here in the United States there is no ‘them’ or ‘us;’ it’s just us.

Second thought: This is a remarkable rhetorical move.  And I think Obama means it.  America, in order to be America, must be inclusive not only of certain differing beliefs, but of the idea that the inclusion of differing beliefs make us better.

Third thought: I am mildly uncomfortable (though unsurprised) with the civil-religious tone of some of Obama’s remarks.  To invoke the notion of “the America they sacrificed for” is to make the nation into a spiritual body that can be sacrificed for.  Many present in the WTC on Sept. 11th were there because they worked for Lehman Brothers, yet we would not say that they sacrificed their lives for the financial company. 

Fourth thought: I am not convinced that Christians can fit comfortably into this rubric.  The faithful church always strives to distinguish between the Christian “we” and the American “we,” and to understand itself in terms of Christian identity rather than liberal inclusivity. 

What do you think of Obama’s 9/11 Ramadan words?

Obama’s Iftar Dinner

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