For Muslim American guests attending a viewing party on Tuesday night at the Council on Islamic American Relations’ D.C. headquarters, President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union speech struck a lot of important chords.
Obama bluntly called out Islamophobia, condemned hateful crimes against mosques, and promised to close Guantánamo Bay prison. He drew a clear distinction between the Muslim religion and ISIS killers. He pointed to the tragedy of American children being mocked and deemed suspicious because of their faith at school.
“When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad or fellow citizens, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid is called names, that doesn’t make us safer,” he said.
Observers of the speech noted that Obama’s Republican guests were not nearly as enthusiastic. They tweeted about how Speaker of the House Paul Ryan refused to clap at almost every one of Obama’s statements — including his condemnation of Islamophobia. During the speech, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush tweeted, “They’re not just ‘killers and fanatics.’ They’re radical Islamic terrorists. Still can’t call them by name. #SOTU” — refusing to separate the violence of ISIS from Islam.
“With so much bigotry and Islamophobia, [Obama’s speech] is more important now than ever,” Zainab Chaudry, the outreach director for CAIR’s Maryland chapter, told me. “A lot of Muslims feel alienated by the White House’s policies.”
One notable irritant: the various countering violent extremism (CVE) programs the administration is launching — often inviting Muslims to weigh in on how to fight back against ISIS hate speech. The administration announced a new CVE “Task Force” last week, excluding any specifics about what will change.
Chaudry told me that these programs end up fracturing Muslim communities more than helping them — and add to the perception that Muslims are terrorists.
Perhaps the loudest cheer followed Obama’s proclamation that he would finally close Guantánamo Bay prison — what he described as a “recruitment brochure for our enemies.” But it was also accompanied by the most skepticism. “I’m hoping, specifically with Guantánamo, for example … this sets the tone for the remainder of his presidency,” said Chaudry. “We’ve seen him kind of drag his feet on this before. This is the last chance we have.”
Detainees at the prison, many of whom have already been cleared for release, have “been dehumanized,” she said. “It really hurts our interests, especially within the Muslim world. There’s this perception in the Muslim world that the war on terror is a war on Islam,” she said, getting a little choked up.
Mongi Dhaouadi, a senior program officer at the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, told me he was pleased that Obama was “very strong in condemning the anti-Muslim hate rhetoric in general.” But he was less satisfied with his foreign policy. “On foreign policy he was flat,” Dhaouadi said. “I thought his policy was a failure in Syria, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”
Muslim Americans are at least as invested as anyone else in the issues that affect all Americans — like where their children go to school, the minimum wage, what we’re doing about climate change.
“I was hoping he would talk more about immigration,” said Ferdows Yusuf, who sat across the table from me. “And campaign money. That is what makes them slaves to their donors.”
When I asked her if she ever felt typecast by members of the media or the administration, who often only go knocking on Muslim doors to hear about counterterrorism, she said yes.
“We’re Americans like everybody. Things that matter to everybody matter to us. We have people in the Army, the Air Force, doctors. ISIS is attacking more Muslims than anyone else,” she said.
Top photo: Watching the speech at the Council on Islamic American Relations’ D.C. headquarters