Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Barack Obama and Revival of American Values


Barack Obama and revival of American values
Muhamad Ali , Riverside, CA | Wed, 01/21/2009 10:58 AM | Opinion

Barack Obama’s rise to the presidency of the United States of America is a historic moment for Indonesians as much as for Americans and others around the world. Barack Obama has been shaped by history and is making history.

To me, Barack Obama is the second person I become proud of whom I can personally and intellectually relate to after Muhammad Ali, a Muslim African-American boxer.

As an Indonesian, born and raised in Indonesia and who studied abroad for a doctoral degree at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and as an assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside, I have become increasingly in love with America as much as with Indonesia. America has its shared values. And so does Indonesia.

The greater challenge for America and Indonesia is how to revive those values and who can lead the nation in the right direction.

During my five-year residence while studying in Hawaii I found the people incredibly diverse and hospitable. I volunteered in the international student’s organization as well as in the Indonesian community. I learned that bridging differences was the key to resolving miscommunication, prejudice, and hatred between people.

I enjoyed teaching a workshop on Islam to teachers at the Punahou School, which Obama attended, because we learned so much from each other’s cultures.

I have become more aware that when we emphasize the common values, problems and issues will be easier to handle.

I knew his half sister Maya Soetoro Ng before I knew her brother as a senator. Maya Soetoro is a humble, straightforward and intelligent friend, before and even after her brother’s candidacy.

She is very proud of her Indonesian heritage, loves Indonesian food and is always excited to talk about Indonesia. Barack Obama sometimes speaks a few Indonesian words with her.
Making jokes about names was fun when Arabic names became an issue, especially after 9/11.

In interviews, Barack Hussein Obama admitted that his name had become a liability after 9/11 and the Bush administration’s war on terror, as many associate Obama with Arabs and Islam.

Obama often jokes with his friends about his name, as I often do with friends and others.

Obama’s spiritual faith is even more revealing. In his autobiography Dreams from My Father, he saw his Kenyan father as being a Muslim “thinking religion to be so much superstition”, and this influences one of his spiritual life stages.

On his Indonesian step-father, Lolo Soetoro, Barack Obama wrote, “like many Indonesians, Lolo followed a brand of Islam that could make room for the remnants of more ancient animist and Hindu faiths…” His memory of his Indonesian stepfather was that of accommodative Islam and tolerant religiosity shaped by Indonesian syncretism.

Obama felt his mother’s “secularism”, but his mother for him was “the most spiritually awakened person” he had ever known, having instincts of kindness, charity, love, discipline, empathy and hard work. Obama recalled his time in schools in Indonesia.

“In Indonesia, I had spent two years at a Muslim school, two years at a Catholic school. In the Muslim school, the teacher wrote to tell my mother that I made faces during Koranic studies. My mother wasn’t overtly concerned.

“Be respectful,’ she’d said.” His spiritual journey did not end there. He became a member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago which has since transformed his spiritualism and faith.

As an American, with a diverse religious, cultural, national and racial background, Obama believes in what others would call a civil religion. Obama said that Americans should acknowledge the power of faith and its diversity in the lives of Americans.

“Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers,” wrote Obama in his The Audacity of Hope. In speeches he delivers, he would end with “May God bless America.”

More importantly, Obama advocates an active and authentic faith to turn American back to its core values inherited from the founding fathers and shaped by influential figures.

He recognizes faith not for faith; it is for community empowerment. Obama’s faith has been and continues to be shaped by problems and challenges facing America.

Barack Obama’s journey was that of not only dreams, but of clarity in how to fulfill these dreams: Perseverance, discipline and hard work. Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln in particular have long inspired him as dreamers of their times, and as role models for the struggle toward racial justice, freedom, equality and citizenship rights. King’s speech “I Have a Dream” shapes and echoes Obama’s rise to presidency.

“All men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” King said powerfully. And that was how Obama became inspired.

The challenges Obama’s administration are facing now are greater than the time of King’s and any previous American presidents: Two wars to finish, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to mediate, economic crises to navigate, healthcare and education to improve.

A great lesson to learn however is not so much about his sound judgment of the details of each
problem and challenge, but his repeated attempts to turn to American values.

Barack Obama demonstrates an inspiring intelligence, a calm and cool personality, and great oratory skills. Obama has brought many Americans of common values and common destiny together.

He believes that problems of injustice, the economic crisis, and the diminishing image of Americans in the world require a change of hearts and minds before anything else.

In cultivating American values, Obama puts the emphasis on education. For him, academic success is not enough without proper values and preparation for responsible citizenship.

Obama’s administration, for example, promises to encourage schools and parents to work together to establish expectations for student attendance, behavior, and homework, calling parents to turn off the TV and video games, and expect all students to engage in community service.

Moreover, in facing the challenges, Obama stresses a shared responsibility. “It is not about me, it is about you, all Americans,” he said. When he met the pilot who successfully landed a plane in trouble, he said, “If everyone does his job, we are going to be fine.” Everyone needs to serve the country. Everyone has to take the burden.

For Obama, politics, like science, depends on the ability to persuade one another of common aims based on a common reality. For him, it is to ensure that persuasion rather than violence or intimidation determines the political outcome.

Internationally, Obama has received worldwide support. His first speech during the campaign period in Berlin is perhaps one of the best speeches ever delivered.

“Look at Berlin, where Germans and Americans learned to work together and trust each other less than three years after facing each other on the field of battle,” he said. Trust is perhaps what the key value is but it is often missing in many international relationships.

In Berlin, Obama emphasized common humanity. “Partnership and cooperation among nations is not a choice: It is the only way, to protect our common security and advance our common humanity.” “That is why the greatest danger of all is to allow new walls to divide us from one another.

“The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand. The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand.

“The walls between races and tribes; natives and immigrations; Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand. These now are the walls we must tear down.”

If there is a crucial lesson for Indonesians to learn, Barack Obama’s successful rise to presidency shows that it is the people’s minds and hearts that should be transformed before anything else.

It is to revive American shared values in order to move forward. It is to have vision and hope, in turmoil and in peace. It is to have dreams and a clear path to follow.

Congratulations to President Barack H. Obama! And may God bless you (as your name means) and America, Indonesia, and all the people around the world!

The writer is assistant professor, Religious Studies Department, University of California, Riverside.

Obama's Faith

Obama's faith comes to the public square
James A. Donahue

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Religion - and its role in public life - more often than not gets a bad rap. Those who see religion as divisive may be prone to speculate what may become of the religious right or the religious left in an Obama administration. They may be failing to see the forest for the trees.

Far from religious views that can be used to divide people, Barack Obama's faith may be a powerful offering and an invitation to people in America and around the world to work together on solutions to the dire economic, political and social problems confronting us. A careful reading of Obama's books and his speech on faith at Jim Wallis's 2006 Call to Renewal conference discloses that our president-elect sees his religious beliefs as informing and shaping his values. In turn, his values and ethical outlooks may shape our policies.

During the campaign, as Obama spoke often about his personal faith, his words suggested a commitment greater than a political ploy to woo faith voters. In a speech last summer to a conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, he spoke not of what divides us, but of how our common values can lead to constructive policy: "The challenges we face today - war and poverty, joblessness and homelessness, violent streets and crumbling schools - are not simply technical problems in search of a 10-point plan. They are moral problems ... and so the values we believe in - empathy and justice and responsibility to ourselves and our neighbors - these cannot only be expressed in our churches and our synagogues but in our policies and in our laws."

Obama claims that the separation of church and state is important for democracy and for religious practices to thrive. His is a cosmopolitan identity forged from multiple identities, and the view that all of humanity belongs to a single moral community, and deserves justice and basic human rights.

He places a high premium on tolerance. And yet, as a deeply faithful man, he has a low tolerance for religious certainty. In a 2004 interview with Chicago Sun-Times columnist Cathleen Falsani, Obama said, "In my own public policy, I'm very suspicious of religious certainty expressing itself in politics. Now, that's different from a belief that values have to inform our public policy..."

So what might religion in the public square look like in the Obama administration? We get a glimpse of this in who Obama invited to give invocations at his inauguration. Rick Warren, pastor of the powerful Saddleback Church, will give the main invocation today. New Hampshire Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, a gay man at the center of the Anglican church's global battle over homosexuality, delivered a prayer for Obama at Sunday's event on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Rather than showing alliance, Obama is showcasing the value of inclusivity.

Religious values and ethical outlooks point to the worth of each person as an individual, and as part of the larger human family. They can offer unity if there is the willingness to engage in open and honest dialogue, especially with those who believe differently than we do. From that dialogue can emerge new priorities, policies to solve domestic problems and the framework for peacemaking among nations.

Religion gets its bad rap is because it is misused. But if we distinguish between religions as institutions, and the values and ethical outlooks underpinning the world's great faiths, we can see that religion has much to offer beyond being a source of personal solace. As the world waits with great hope for the new administration to begin work, we can be optimistic that our new leader will be led not by narrowly conceived "truths" derived from religious doctrine, and not by culture war issues that divide. He will be guided by "a belief that we're all connected." We should take him up on his invitation to rise above what divides us.

James A. Donahue is president and professor of ethics at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.


This article appeared on page B - 7 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Friday, January 02, 2009

The Siege of Gaza

The siege of Gaza: Barack Obama's first “test”?

By John L. Esposito

While some had predicted Barack Obama would be "tested" early in his administration by America's enemy Osama, Obama's first major foreign policy "test" has instead come from America's ally, Israel.

Israel's war in Gaza has been calculated and deliberately planned to occur at this time. The Israeli government has taken advantage of a world in which many are distracted by the global economic crisis and the celebration of Christmas and the New Year.

Equally important the bombing of Gaza has been executed on George Bush's "watch" so that Israel can count on a Bush administration whose failure to act as an honest broker was seen most starkly in the U.S. silence and support during the Israeli war in Lebanon.

The Israelis struck during the U.S. presidential transition and before Barack Obama, who could prove less sympathetic, takes office.

The pretense for the bombings and threat to invade Gaza with ground troops is Hamas breaking the ceasefire by shelling Israel. However, Hamas started shelling after the talks to renew it failed.

Israel ignores the fact that during the ceasefire, Israel put up blockades to stop essential goods from getting in. The siege created a humanitarian catastrophe for Gaza's 1.5 million Palestinian residents by restricting the provision of food, fuel, medicine, electricity, and other necessities of life.

The U.S. and Europe were complicit in the blockade of a democratically elected Hamas government, a siege whose primary victims have been Gaza civilians. Hamas fighters vented their anger by firing rockets.

Reports have been circulating for sometime in the Israeli press that the Israeli military was planning for and looking for a pretext or provocation to strike. Despite the fact that the fighters shelling did not kill a single Israeli, Israel acts as if it has been driven to a "fight to the bitter end."

Following a past pattern, most recently in its humiliating defeat in the Israeli-Hezbollah war, the Israeli military engages in an all-out war that ignores moral and international standards of warfare: the bombings and massacre of more than 375 people and injuring of some 700 lacks any sense of proportionality.

Mosques and the Islamic University have been targeted and destroyed as have homes and hospitals. The Bush administration lamely and falsely blames Hamas, holding it alone responsible for the deaths. If Palestinians had slaughtered and injured a similar number of Israelis, the administration would denounce such actions as war crimes and rightly seek to mobilize the international community.

The international community must move swiftly not only to demand an immediate ceasefire as has the UN and EU but also put pressure on the Bush administration, which has in recent years claimed that it wishes to act multi-laterally and not unilaterally as it had in the decision to invade Iraq.

While the shelling by Hamas' fighters cannot be condoned, Israel's unbridled military response must also be condemned. Until the Israeli government gets a message that the international community will hold Israel to the same standards as it does other nations and the Palestinians, there can be no hope for peace negotiations to work.

President-elect Barack Obama cannot remain silent. While he is right to acknowledge that until January 20th George Bush is in charge of American foreign policy, for him to remain silent now will be seen as simply condoning Israel's devastation of Gaza and undermine his promise of a new international vision and a new approach to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. He will be brush-stroked by the failed policies of the Bush administration in the Middle East and lose his credibility before he even comes to office with an Arab and Muslim world that sees his election as one of hope and promise.

-- John L. Esposito is University Professor and Professor of Religion & International Affairs, Georgetown University and co-author of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think.

Source: Middle East Online