Religion News Service: In-depth. Impartial. Engaged.

Blogs » Omid Safi - What Would Muhammad Do?

What Would Muhammad Do? has moved: Click here to read the latest posts

Obama is no progressive:  A letter from Birmingham Jail to the President

For those rooted in the prophetic tradition of fierce and unrelenting love for the “least of these”—the most impoverished and marginalized of God’s children—the re-election of President Obama represents not a time for celebration, but a commitment to keep going, and keep pushing.

Many of us care about Brother Obama,
but not in the sense of seeing us having achieved the Dream of Dr. King,
not in the sense of having become “post-racial,
and not in the sense of fulfilling the loftiest promises of American ideals.   

Many of us care and pray for Brother Obama,
but not in the sense of serving as his echo,
or even merely as his defenders from the onslaught of vicious and racist attacks.

This call to action is intended as a loving commitment to keep pushing him,
and more importantly, to keep pushing us,
to never settle for the re-election of the “less-evil” candidate,
but to push on ahead towards the lofty ground of love and justice.

Bob Dylan once asked:

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

Every religious faith, every religious person, has to make a bold decision by answering two questions:  
1)  how wide is the circle of our love? 
Do we dare love beyond the circle of our family, our class, our neighborhood, our race, our nation, our religion, so that this love encompasses the whole of humanity?

and 2)  which of God’s children are we serving?   
Love is not merely an emotion, it is a cosmic and existential commitment to recognize that our humanity is already bound up together, and what happens to one happens to all.  
Are we willing to say that we cannot be who we ought to be unless you be who you ought to be?

Whose religion do we support, the religion of the Pharaoh, or the religion of the slaves?  

You’ve got to serve somebody, as Bob tells us, but whom are we serving?

Who serves the poorest of Americans, that half of all Americans who will at some point in their life live at or below the poverty line?

Who serves the poorest of God’s children in the world, who live on 1-2 dollars a day?

Who serves the occupied of the Earth, who day in and day out live bereft of the dignity to which all of us are entitled?

Who serves the planet, this small and beautiful little blue planet which warms up bit by bit, degree by degree,
till there will be more and more Sandy Hurricanes in every season in every corner of this planet?

Who serves the children of Pakistan and Yemen and Afghanistan,
who have unmanned American drones dropping bombs on them?

We bailed out the banks,
we bailed out the auto industries,
who bails out the working poor?

We heard so much in this election about the 1% and about the middle class,
who will stand up for the poor?

Who will be speak with and for the weak,
Who will be the voice of the voiceless?

Those of us who care about least privileged of God’s children all over this world have to wonder whom Brother Obama is serving.  
Is he on the side of the Pharaoh(s),
or is he on the side of the least of God’s children?   

There were far too many of Pharaoh’s advisors in the court of Brother Obama in the first Presidential term,
and not surprisingly far too much concern with Wall Street and Big Business,
and not nearly enough loving care for those without access to lobby groups.

Who cares for those whose voices are not heard?

It is our job to pray for Brother Obama, and our job to hold him to that highest and deepest conviction that he knows to be true in his heart of hearts,
but has not acted on so far nearly enough. 

No, President Obama has not acted like a progressive so far.
No, a progressive would not bomb civilians through drones.
No, a progressive would not bomb civilians.  Period.
No, a progressive would not have failed to act on poverty.
No, a progressive would not have blocked Palestinians’ right to self-determination and liberation after decades of occupation and misery.
No, a progressive would not have ignored the environment.
No, a progressive would not have signed the indefinite detention bill (NDAA).
No, a progressive would not have undermined public education.
No, a progressive would not have kept Guantanamo open.

No, a progressive would not be boasting about spending more on the military than the next ten countries combined.  
A progressive would remember the promise of Dr. King:  

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." 

Make no mistake:  this critique of President Obama is not rooted in animosity towards the President, nor is it rooted in venom.   
Our voice is not that of the negative critics who live to tear down the President,
rather than being part of building up and moving towards the Beloved Community.

No, as Brother Martin taught us in the Birmingham Jail, there can be no great disappointment where there is also not great love.

We speak out of a great love, great love for Brother Obama, and a great love for the as-of-yet unfinished promise of America, and the as-of-yet unfinished vision of Obama. 

That same great love for the President is intertwined with a great disappointment so far in the policies of President Obama.

He is a president that more than most wants to have a legacy,
wants to be seen as a “transformational” president.  

Christ taught us:  You shall know them by their fruits.
This president that we so love, and are so disappointed by so far, will have to be known by his fruits, by his actions.

If Obama wishes to go down in the pages of history not merely as America’s first black President, but as a transformational president, now is the time.

Now is the time to deal once and for all with the challenge of poverty.
Now is the time to close down Guantanamo Bay.
Now is the time to move from America the Empire to America the responsible global citizen.
Now is the time to move from the Military Industrial Complex to taking care of our citizens, starting with the least of these.
Now is the time to take care of our schools, our hospitals, and our homes.
Now is the time to ensure that our ultimate home, this little planet, is there for all of us and will be there for our children and our children’s children. 
Now is the time to practice abroad the very lofty ideals that are enshrined in our ideals.
Now is the time to once and for all cut ties with foreign states that violate human rights.
Now is the time to eliminate the chokehold of Big Money and special interest groups on American politics.
Now is the time to end America’s addiction to the war machine.
Now is the time.

We cannot wait for leaders to lead us forth to the promised land of justice and love.
We the people must push on ahead, to the point that our leaders finally hear the call of what they know to be true in their own hearts.  
They will know what is true in their hearts when they hear it thundering from the people.

May we do so in a way that is loving and firm, never drinking from the bitter poisonous well of resentment.

Brother Obama spoke to us about the Audacity of Hope.
We speak back now about the fierce urgency of Now.

Now is the time.

Tags: environment, guantanamo, least of these, ndaa, obama, poor, poverty, president


  1. Well spoken, Brother Omid. It wasn’t easy to cast my vote in this last election, even though the alternative was unacceptable. Hopefully, with the election being decisive—if not exactly a “mandate”—Mr. Obama will have the guts to do what he promised the first time we voted him into office. He has nothing to lose now, but history and the future to gain. Insh’a'llah.

  2. I concur completely with the opinions and the lofty sentiments expressed in this beautiful piece of writing.

  3. Thank you, Brother Omid.  Once again you speak with the voice of the prophet.  Asalaam aleekum from one who very imperfectly follows Rabbi Jesus.

  4. I think I was too wrapped up in the fear of Mitt Romney winning to face what Presidient Obama has failed to do.  The problem is much more than the president.  Our entire gov’t. is turning crooked and shifty and its all about politics not the people.

    We do need our brothers and sisters in government to work for the people again and to work for the things that will serve not only our nation, but every nation on earth.  And, as Muslims, we are responsible for the oppressed, for those without a voice, for th poor.

    I read recently that the purpose of zakat was to spread the wealth around so that there would not be those who struggled in states of poverty.  And as Muslims we know that for every tree planted that helps a bird or feeds someone (animal or human), we are rewarded in heaven.

    As the hadith tells us.  We will be held accountable for all harm we did, even if it is as the smallest sparrow.

    I hope American Muslims will strenghten our nation by pressuring our government to stop all the bickering and act like grown ups who were elected not to play politics, but to serve the people of this country. 

    I somehow missed that there are drones our government approved of.  As the Quran says:  “…if any one slew a person - unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land - it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.” (Quran 5:32)

    This means the murderer is guilty obviously, but it also should be the reaction of humanity when the innocent are murdered.  Whether it is the Taliban shooting Malala, the thugs killing an innocent woman or our government killing with drones, Muslims should feel so deeply when an innocent person suffers, that they react to stop it from happening again.

    We must do like Martin Luther King did.  We must fight for the oppressed, regardless of race, creed, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation. 

    May Peace prevail. Ya Salaam!

Sign In

Forgot Password?

You also can sign in with Facebook or Twitter if you've connected your account to them.

Sign In Using Facebook

Sign In Using Twitter