By Selma Bardakci
Young professional leaders and change makers from Bangladesh, Egypt, Pakistan, Palestine, and Turkey were invited to the White House for President Obama’s Eid Reception this year. What an unforgettable experience to have a warm “Eid Mubarak” greeting from President Obama. It was an amazing day for all of us as Atlas Corps Fellows.
When we were waiting in the huge line in the White House garden waiting to enter, we experienced the incredible diversity within the Muslim crowd. Women and men were dressed in beautiful traditional wear and were genuinely excited to meet with the President. More than 400 people in total were there, and as a secret service person told us, this large of a group made it relatively exclusive. The attendees were mostly Muslim Americans, civil society actors, faith-based organizations and representative Embassy officials.
As we looked around at the colorful dresses and heard different voices, I could not help but also think about the problems that face us. There seems to be a shared recognition that the world is becoming more chaotic, with the rise of terrorism, refugee crises, and civil wars. We should not underestimate the difficulties that we face but also do more than just complain. We need to take action and put forth humble efforts to change the tone of the discussion.
Obama’s Speech Addressing Hate
The President’s talk fittingly addressed a mostly domestic rather than international crowd. His words served as a much-needed counterargument to Donald Trump’s harsh rhetoric. He underlined the importance of diversity and the fact that our differences and inclusivity make us stronger. His speech emphasized the import contributions of Muslim Americans amidst an ahistorical political season and presidential race this year.
Marginalized American communities feel threatened by Trump’s hate speech. While Trumps words and rhetoric increase the anti – Muslim and anti –immigrant prejudices that have skyrocketed since 9/11, political mobilization among the Muslim American community has increased. Analysts predict that his inciting words will increase Muslim American voter turnout in the presidential elections as well.
The President’s Leadership
We all know the role of the U.S. President according to the Constitution. But these are my observations on the informal and unique roles for Obama:
President as a bridge-builder and change maker. Since he took office President Obama has tried to build bridges with the Muslim world and solve the problems of the past. Of course, the Muslim world is not homogeneous. His most renown first effort was his Cairo speech in 2009; this speech created a huge impact in the Muslim world and made people hope for a new beginning.
President as a chief comedian. He will be remembered as having a great sense of humor. When the crowd at the Eid shouted, “Four more years! Four more years!” Obama said “No, no, no, no, Michelle is going to come down and scold you. Don’t say that. “
President as an empathizer. The President mentioned the horrible attacks that occurred recently in Muslim world. He expressed his deepest condolences “during what was a difficult Ramadan, where we saw hundreds of innocent lives taken in Istanbul and Dhaka, and Baghdad and Medina, as well as in Orlando and Nice.”
President as an includer. In his speech the President also mentioned the importance of various communities within the Muslim community, such as LGBT Muslims. Recognizing the intersectionality of social issues and identities is key for genuine inclusivity and appreciation of diversity.
President as a unifier. Throughout his term, President Obama has put forth a multilateral approach and a focus on soft power and diplomacy. His rhetoric has been peaceful. At the recent Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, he underlined and emphasized the values of freedom, dignity, and human rights for all. He focused on listening to each other and finding common ground among different backgrounds and faiths.
The President’s Legacy
In an age of terrorism, civil wars, anti- immigrant sentiment and xenophobic rhetoric, we need to respect all kinds of differences and fight for and justice. We need more pluralism, understanding, empathy, and responsible leaders. Obama’s words have lent importance to these concepts. The White House Eid Reception counters radical and extreme narratives by telling a positive story about Muslims and the U.S. presidency. Indeed, the only way to provide positive counter-narratives is knowing and learning more about each other. Instead of planting fear, we need to invest in love and tolerance. Our common ground should be based on understanding and mutual respect. This is urgent; there is no other planet where we can live peacefully. All we know, is anger and fear never win. If they’ve won, the game just hasn’t ended. We shared in President Obama’s last White House Eid Reception, and we will never forget it. We are going to miss you, Mr. President!
Selma Bardakci is an Atlas Corps Fellow from Turkey serving at the John. D. Evans Foundation, building support for critical areas such as criminal justice reform and the Syrian refugee crisis. She previously worked at Bahcesehir University’s School of Government and Leadership and the American Studies Center. At the same university, she earned Bachelors and Masters degrees in Political Science and International Relations. During this time, she was an Erasmus exchange student at the European University of Viadrina in Germany for one semester. Selma currently resides in Washington, DC.