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Muslim Americans find inspiration in Obama's speech

In Los Angeles and nationwide, Muslims say they are hopeful Obama's address in Cairo will improve the image of their faith, tarnished by perceptions of extremism since Sept. 11.

June 05, 2009|Duke Helfand and P.J. Huffstutter

LOS ANGELES AND FORT WAYNE, IND. — In Los Angeles, Salam Al-Marayati found himself smiling as he watched President Obama enumerate Muslim contributions to civilization and to the United States.

In Dearborn, Mich., home to the nation's largest Arab American community, leaders quietly cheered Obama's speech in Cairo, hoping it would usher in new American attitudes toward them.

And in Washington, the national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations praised Obama for repeatedly quoting the Koran and for his promise to fight "negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear."

Even as the politics of Obama's speech reverberated Thursday through the Muslim world, back home the address offered inspiration to U.S. Muslims seeking a more positive image for their community, one they said had been tarnished by perceptions of religious extremism in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

"I came away feeling confident that this president does take seriously his role in opposing stereotypes of Islam," Al-Marayati, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, said after rising at 3 a.m. to watch the speech on television.

Al-Marayati predicted that Obama's address would help debunk "myths about Islam and Muslims [among] the American public."

Muslim leaders interviewed Thursday said the attitudes of many non-Muslims toward members of the faith in the United States have been mixed over the years, and hostile at times, particularly after Sept. 11.

Many Muslims have long complained of being vilified and mocked in popular culture in this country. More recently, they have protested what they call a concerted effort by the FBI to infiltrate mosques in a search for extremists.

Despite surveys showing that most Muslim Americans are mainstream and middle-class, that profile remains largely unknown, they say, eclipsed by news accounts of the activities of a small number of violent extremists.

With his speech at Cairo University, Obama sought not only to extend a hand of peace to Muslims in the Middle East but also to dispel animosity toward those on American soil.

Obama told his audience that the U.S. is home to nearly 7 million Muslims, who enjoy income and education levels that are higher than those of the average American.

"Islam is a part of America," he declared. "And I believe that America holds within her the truth that regardless of race, religion or station in life, all of us share common aspirations."

The president's sentiments resonated with Hassan Jaber, executive director of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services in Dearborn. After the speech, Jaber joined leaders of various Arab American communities in Dearborn for a telephone briefing with State Department officials, who sought the community's reaction. He described the response as overwhelmingly positive.

"This dark cloud over Arab Americans and Muslim Americans is finally on its way to leave us," Jaber said. "The speech was historical . . . a whole new language and, if the policy follows, a chance for everyone to engage in a new way."

Nihad Awad, who leads the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he hoped Obama's address would elevate interfaith relations in the United States, leading to greater respect among various groups. "I hope Christians, Jews, Muslims or people of other faiths will take advantage of the spirit of this speech," he said.

Despite such calls for reconciliation, Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders expressed divergent opinions about Obama's remarks on the Middle East, especially as they related to Israel.

The heads of several major Jewish organizations praised Obama for delivering an inspiring address but objected to his call for Israel to stop the expansion of Jewish settlements, particularly without significant concessions from Palestinian groups.

"What is important now is to see the responses from the moderate Arab states," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "The president deserves our support . . . in his effort to bring peace."

Still, leaders of the West's three major religions found common ground in Obama's call to build interfaith bridges.

"I hope communities all around the United States come together around the text of this speech -- Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs," said Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson of the 4.7-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

"We need to see Islam in the context of its sacred text," he added, "as we Christians want to be understood in the context of ours, and not only in its ideological extremist manifestations."

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duke.helfand@latimes.com

p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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