Obama in India: Missed Opportunities

The frustration of Barack Obama’s leadership style was in sharp relief during his trip to India when he addressed issues relating to religion. On the one hand, he spoke eloquently of the importance of diversity and the shared values of the world’s religions—Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, etc. He visited Gandhi’s home and his cremation site, affirming the value of nonviolent resistance as the greatest mean to sustainable social change.

Yet he also gave meandering, academic answers to students pressing him on the topics of jihad and Pakistani support for terrorism. And he showed fear before principle in the decision not to risk being photographed in a head-covering going to the Sikh Golden Temple.

So which is the real Obama? The one who spoke clearly at the Mumbai Taj Hotel and stood at Rajghat? Or the one who hemmed and hawed at St. Xavier’s College and was MIA in Amritsar? This is confounding, because this trip both showcased how conscious he is of the symbolic power of sacred and solemn places and the importance of capitalizing upon them, even as he dodges these symbols when their excess of meaning seems beyond his control.

Obama’s first stop in India was indeed symbolic, and intentionally so.

He first spoke at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai, scene of a three-day terrorist assault almost exactly two years ago. Though the perpetrators of the 26/11 attacks (November 26, 2008) were either killed, or in one case captured, their trail back to Pakistan remains the subject of open and contentious investigations. Obama stated clearly that his stay in that hotel and his visit to the memorial to the victims and with the survivors was intended to send a message of solidarity with the victims and with those who stand against terrorism.

“The Taj has been a symbol of the strength and the resilience of the Indian people. So yes, we visit here to send a very clear message, that in our determination to give our people a future of prosperity and security the United States and India stand united.”

He went on to praise the people of Mumbai, evoking Gandhi and particularly noting that the strength of India—like the strength of the USA—lies in diversity, which was on full display during those attacks when we saw “Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, protecting each other, saving each other, living the common truth of all the world’s great religions that we are all children of God.” Obama spoke eloquently of the shared losses of India and America and rightly pointed out that the terrorists attack places where people come together

But that eloquence was sadly absent as Obama struggled to respond clearly to the students at St. Xavier’s College who asked him pointblank for his views on jihad and for his reasons for not calling Pakistan a terrorist nation.

While his answer to the former was more or less correct from an academic perspective, its meandering, hair-splitting tone is inadequate to the urgency of the question. He pointed out that most Muslims believe the religion teaches “peace, justice, fairness, and tolerance,” and that the challenge is to resist those who distort the message of “one of the world’s great religions.” Yet it is clear that merely repeating these truisms has had little effect on Islamophobia in the U.S., much less in India where it is also alive and well.

Indeed, Obama’s unwillingness to visit the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar not only upset many Sikhs, but also reinforced the perception of his ambivalence and cautiousness regarding Islam. It seems clear he chose not to go as he would inevitably be photographed in a head covering that would without question become the next piece of evidence in the case for his being a crypto-Muslim.

One might wish that he would do as Gandhi had done, and maintain a principled resistance to those who criticized his association with Muslim leaders like Abdul Ghaffar Khan—a man whose legacy as a nonviolent activist and peacemaker would serve as a powerful response to young South Asians seeking a model of a peaceful jihad for freedom and justice.

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