Obama’s comments on Saturday at the National Prayer Breakfast are words we should be paying very close attention to rather than criticising. While there is no doubt about the seriousness of terrorism on the world stage and the threat posed by Islamic State, Obama instead addressed the attitudes contributing to drastic increases in Islamophobia in recent years. By telling the western world, and specifically its Christian population, not to get on a high horse over extremism Obama bravely confronted the issue from a perspective that had gone on to be criticised and even be labeled ‘offensive’.
Yet nothing Obama said was offensive. Furthermore, his examples were completely true. Regardless of anyone’s opinions on the issue it is undeniable that many people have suffered as a result of Christian endeavors or at the hands of the white western world. While it would be wrong to condone extremist actions due to an unsavoury history of them in the western world, Obama wisely acknowledged that a white western population with roots on Christianity cannot take a moral high ground over extremism. More specifically he noted that extremism is not a phenomenon exclusive to Islam. On this side of the pond at least many seem to forget that once up on a time, not so very long ago, terrorism was a thing of the Cold War or linked to the IRA. Moreover, it becomes ever more apparent extremist actions are not attributable to any group as a whole.
Those eager for confrontation, retribution and revenge have to remember that in taking such action, we must ensure we are not encompassing the millions of Muslims who condemn IS and extremist groups. These people have far more right to take a moral high ground as their religion and identity has been affected by both those groups and the western world which refuses to differentiate. To put current events into a wider context, we must remember that different religions have been opposed, in conflict and exploiting others for hundreds of years, we can go back to the crusades and the inquisition, like Obama, or even recall the extent of anti-semitism perpetuated by Christianity, right up to the holocaust. It would be wrong not only to believe ‘we’ are morally better, but especially to feel justified in launching any violent retaliation. While there may be limited options of how to deal with the increasing activity of ISIS, we must remember that any action will have wider repercussions, and as military action always does, affect a number of completely innocent lives.
Obama has done something rare in politics, namely leading the way…
Furthermore, returning to the President’s address, Obama’s comments on free speech in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks were perfectly poised between a defence of the right to free speech and a condemnation of using it to offend or insult a religion. He took a stand of solidarity with the targets of such verbal attacks claiming ‘we’re equally obligated to use our free speech to condemn such insults — and stand shoulder to shoulder with religious communities.’ While many are criticising the presidents words claiming them as offensive, I would like to suggest that it is refreshing to hear a world leader express such a sentiment. No longer needing to appeal to his audiences for votes, Obama has done something rare in politics, namely leading the way rather than attempting to pander to his voters. This shows that if we really want to take the moral high ground and not, as Obama warned against, the ‘high horse’ (a subtle but significant difference) we must approach the issue in a way that condemns both extremism and racial prejudices. Unfortunately I do not know what that is. However, as shown in his incredibly wise address, if anyone can start is down that road, it is President Obama.