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  February 3, 2016

At Mosque, Obama Confronts Islamophobia but Ignores Role of US Foreign Policy

Author Laila el-Haddad praises Obama's defense of Muslim Americans, but says his foreign policy perpetuates anti-Muslim bias
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Laila el-Haddad is a Palestinian freelance journalist, author, blogger, and media activist from Gaza City. She is currently based in the United States. El-Haddad is the author of Gaza Mom: Palestine, Politics, Parenting, and Everything in Between (Just World Books, 2011) and co-author of the The Gaza Kitchen


JAISAL NOOR, TRNN: On Wednesday, President Obama spoke at a Baltimore mosque. He condemned biased media coverage and right-wing rhetoric that he says fuels Islamophobia across the country.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Many only hear about Muslims and Islam from the news after an act of terrorism, or in distorted media portrayals in TV or film. All of which gives this hugely distorted impression. And since 9/11, but more recently since the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, you've seen too often people conflating the horrific acts of terrorism with the beliefs of an entire faith. And of course, recently we've heard inexcusable political rhetoric against Muslim-Americans that has no place in our country.

No surprise, then, that threats and harassment of Muslim-Americans have surged. Here at this mosque, twice last year threats were made against your children. Around the country, women wearing the hijab, just like [Saba], have been targeted. We've seen children bullied, we've seen mosques vandalized. Sikh-Americans, and others who are perceived to be Muslims have been targeted, as well.

NOOR: In his speech, his first at a mosque during his presidency, Obama noted the growing number of verbal and physical attacks on Muslims and those thought to be of Muslim descent. Now joining us to discuss this is Laila el-Haddad. She and her family are involved with the Islamic Society of Baltimore, where President Obama visited today. She's the author of several books, including Gaza Mom.

Thanks so much for joining us.

LAILA EL-HADDAD: It's my pleasure, thank you.

NOOR: So Laila, President Obama really went further than he has before in calling out Islamophobia, addressing the media's role in creating Islamophobia, and coming to the defense of Muslims and Sikh-Americans who really feel under siege during this time, especially during the presidential campaign, when so many candidates have seized on fears to pander to the right wing. What was your take on, your takeaway from his speech?

EL-HADDAD: You know, on one hand it was--I mean, there's no denying it was an absolutely historic visit by a U.S. president to, to a mosque in this country. And, and obviously a mosque that we attend and many of our friends attend as well, and where my children went to school. There's no denying that it means something. It's, you know, I know that many people say it's too little too late. And it is odd timing-wise why it happened now, and so on.

But I think especially for the youth, it means a lot, and it matters. And I know, personally, you know, having young children who are 11 and 7, who, you know, just recently in the past few months have said things to me like, you know, are we going to get kicked out of this country, or--you know, in a matter of speaking about when Trump was making the comments about, or I think it was Ben Carson, actually, about there--you know, he would ensure there would never be a Muslim president. And my son's saying, well, we can't be, Muslims can't be president anyway.

These types of things, you think they're not reinforced in the minds of your children, but they are. So I think the president speaking to those, allaying those fears of Muslim-American youth, and of Muslim-American mothers, it's significant. It's important. Timing-wise, there's a lot of other things one could ask, and points to be raised, why his U.S. foreign policy wasn't raised, I mean, that is a significant, I think, matter to a lot of the Muslim-American and other American communities as well, obviously. Be it his, you know, his legacy of drone warfare, Guantanamo, his stance on Israel-Palestine, and so on.

And, and you know, you may have those who say, well, this isn't the time or place, but I mean, my--I think my feeling was, like, yes. This is absolutely significant. It is exciting. Super exciting. A lot of our best friends were there and got to meet him. And, and it's validating for the Muslim-American community. Which we know, but I think a lot of, sort of, other Americans don't know, contribute and form a significant and part of this community in this country. And he highlighted that.

But again, what was left out? And what will it translate to realistically speaking, in terms of policy? I don't think much. You know, I hope that this will at least allay--again, be sort of some comfort and validation for the community itself, for the Muslim-American community, but I don't know that it will do much from a policy perspective.

NOOR: And I think you bring up a good point. Because the question is can you really disconnect the harassment and attacks that Muslims face in this country, and even Sikhs face in this country. My family comes--is Sikh, as well. And I felt the same backlash after 9/11. I was a high schooler in the area. But can you really remove that from the fact that, the fact of U.S. militarism, especially in the Muslim world, the backing of the Israelis and the occupation of Palestine, and the ties to the fundamentalist Wahhabi state in Saudi Arabia? I think that is a crucial question, as you were discussing.

EL-HADDAD: Absolutely. And I apologize, I have my infant daughter who just crawled into my lap here. But no, I mean, I--and again, I was asking myself those questions as I was listening to the speech. And, and you know, for me I think a lot of what he said, sort of in a very nuanced way, reinforced this notion of, you know, whether he, whether people like it or not, of us versus them. Or Western Muslim versus non-Western Muslim, or good Muslim versus bad Muslim. And I noticed that sort of sneaking its way in there. Like, yes, you know, this incredible, accomplished community, and you know, that many of us, that feel invisible and feel under attack, justifiably so.

And yet, you know, then he--so I was saying when I was tweeting this, he was sort of speaking to and at Muslims. And yet, you know, even though he talks about the onus not--or shouldn't, you know, be on the Muslim-American community to combat, you know, whether domestic or other terrorism, somehow he said that it still is. Or that was the sense that I got, that like, speaking to, especially the youth and others, and you know, don't [inaud.] this, or we have a responsibility. You know, you as a community have a responsibility to talk about this radicalization and so on and so forth.

So I did feel that snuck its way in there. You know, yes you're all great, but hey, you need to talk about this problem that--it may not be all of you, but it, but there's no, you know, denying that some of you, or whatever, are falling prey to this, and we need to discuss this. When, you know, the statistics and figures show that radicalization happens online and not in mosques.

So I found that to be a little bit disturbing in the sense that here he was saying the opposite, or saying that you do need to address it. So trying to say, you know, a quote, like verses from the Koran, which was cool and people really liked that. But then, but then almost using that to be able to say, yes, and this is what your own holy book says, that you should--and so therefore you should use that and, you know, be wary about what's happening.

So I don't know. It was kind of--it was a mixed bag, for sure. And then why did he throw in anti-semitism in France, I have no idea. It was just kind of, you know, all over the place.

NOOR: And you know, as we noted before the interview, he frequently identified himself as a Christian. Because throughout his presidency he's been slurred as a Muslim, as somehow that's a negative, something bad about him being a Muslim.

EL-HADDAD: Exactly. He made a point to note several times, as a Christian, and a lot of my, you know, friends on Twitter were saying, duly noted, as a Christian. You know, and then mentioning how, well, [inaud.] I wasn't the first one who was accused of this, being Muslim. Thomas Jefferson was, too. So absolutely, I mean, there was a lot of kind of strange little, you know, I don't know, idiosyncrasies and things that were thrown in there that--.

So yeah. Like, I mean, for sure it was a mixed bag. It was a little bit, you know--I mean, it was obviously super exciting, like I said, for a lot of people. But I think others who were, you know, once kind of the hoopla dies down, you know, where reality sets in, like, well, hang on. What did he actually do, and why has he waited so long to, A, visit a mosque, or B, address these issues, or have such an intimate conversation on this really important issue? Why did he wait so long to do all this?

And also, I mean, very importantly, I feel like it's sort of the sense one gets hearing the message is that, well, I'm sort of impotent, or I'm--there's nothing I can do about this. You know, all these realities just happen by matter of circumstance. No, you're the president of the United States. There is something you could do about it. There is something--I mean now, again, maybe too late, lame duck presidency. But for sure there was something you could have done about it. And everybody was super excited, don't forget, after the Cairo speech he gave, and very little resulted after that as well.

So we shouldn't really fool ourselves into thinking that--yes, it was, again, an incredible and historic visit. It does mean something. But it doesn't translate, I don't think, it won't translate into anything real from a policy point of view. And there's much more that he, I think, could have done as a president.

NOOR: Well, Laila el-Haddad, thank you so much for joining us.

EL-HADDAD: It was my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

NOOR: Thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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