Obama's Ramadan Speech Targets Muslims Abroad—and Non-Muslims at Home

Barack Obama's remarks aim to appeal to Muslims abroad—and non-Muslims at home.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

President Obama's speech at last night's White House Ramadan dinner (excerpt below) revolved around stories of American Muslims that seemed calibrated to appeal to two very different audiences: Muslims abroad and non-Muslims at home.

Obama spoke of a Muslim American soldier killed in Iraq whose grave at Arlington National Cemetery bears a crescent, an Islamic symbol. He applauded a Muslim student in Oklahoma who fought for her right to wear a hijab, a traditional Muslim head scarf, to school—and won. And he told of a Muslim high schooler from Massachusetts who broke her state's record for the most career points scored by a high school basketball player.

For the international Muslim audience—much of which has come to see the United States as anti-Muslim because of its actions in its war on terrorism—the stories spotlighted Muslim Americans whose struggles, accomplishments, and contributions have been acknowledged and rewarded by their country. For the domestic, non-Muslim audience, those same stories served to normalize a community that is often perceived as "other."

Here's the relevant passage:

So on this occasion, we celebrate the Holy Month of Ramadan, and we also celebrate how much Muslims have enriched America and its culture—in ways both large and small. And with us here tonight, we see just a small sample of those contributions. Let me share a few stories with you briefly.

Elsheba Khan's son, Kareem, made the ultimate sacrifice for his country when he lost his life in Iraq. Kareem joined the military as soon as he finished high school. He would go on to win the Purple Heart and Bronze Star, along with the admiration of his fellow soldiers. In describing her son, Elsheba said, "He always wanted to help any way that he could." Tonight, he's buried alongside thousands of heroes in Arlington National Cemetery. A crescent is carved into his grave, just as others bear the Christian cross or the Jewish star. These brave Americans are joined in death as they were in life—by a common commitment to their country, and the values that we hold dear.

One of those values is the freedom to practice your religion—a right that is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution. Nashala Hearn, who joins us from Muskogee, Oklahoma, took a stand for that right at an early age. When her school district told her that she couldn't wear the hijab, she protested that it was a part of her religion. The Department of Justice stood behind her, and she won her right to practice her faith. She even traveled to Washington to testify before Congress. Her words spoke to a tolerance that is far greater than mistrust—when she first wore her headscarf to school, she said, "I received compliments from the other kids."

Another young woman who has thrived in her school is Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir. She's not even 5'5—where's Bilqis? Right here. Stand up, Bilqis, just so that we—(laughter)—I want everybody to know—she's got heels on. She's 5'5—Bilqis broke Rebecca Lobo's record for the most points scored by any high school basketball player in Massachusetts history. (Applause.) She recently told a reporter, "I'd like to really inspire a lot of young Muslim girls if they want to play basketball. Anything is possible. They can do it, too." As an honor student, as an athlete on her way to Memphis, Bilqis is an inspiration not simply to Muslim girls—she's an inspiration to all of us.