Visiting Malaysia’s National Mosque on Sunday, President Obama was asked by the institution’s imam to end oppression against Muslims worldwide, Malaysia’s national press agency Bernama reported.
“Pray for me,” Obama replied, according to Grand Imam Ismail Muhammad, who took him on a 25-minute tour of the mosque, called Masjid Negara in Malay, in Kuala Lumpur.
“Obama also said that every day when he wakes up he always does his best to put an end to oppression and conflicts affecting communities,” Bernama quoted Ismail as saying.
The 70 year-old cleric said Obama had frequently replied with InsyAllah (Malay for “Allah willing”) and terima kasih (“thank you”) during the tour.
“It was nice of him, although he could not speak much of the Malay language but understood what I had said to him,” he said.
Obama, who wore a dark suit and removed his shoes, also visited and paid his respects at the National Mausoleum at the mosque complex, where former prime ministers and deputy prime ministers are buried.
Malaysia’s Star newspaper quoted Abdullah Muhammad Zin, religious advisor to Prime Minister Najib Razak, as saying it was “not common” for the leader of a superpower to include a visit to a mosque in his itinerary.
“There can be no better way for Obama to honor Islam than by visiting Masjid Negara,” he said.
Bernama quoted several other senior Muslim figures commenting on the visit.
“This is out of the ordinary as I cannot recall any non-Muslim world leader visiting the National Mosque and this is a good start for Muslims here,” said Ustaz Wan Akashah Wan Abdul Hamid, a religious scholar.
The news agency also cited a former National Mosque imam, Hassan Mahmood Al-Hafiz, as saying that “the willingness of the world leader to set foot on the Islamic landmark was a good omen, more so when Muslims were being wrongly linked to violence.”
The National Mosque was built in 1965, several years after Malaysia won independence from Britain, on the site of a Brethren Church that had been appropriated by the Malaysian government for the purpose. (The church, which had stood there since 1922, was offered an alternative site.)
Relations between Malaysia’s Muslim majority (around 61 percent) and minorities including Buddhists (almost 20 percent), Christians (9 percent) and Hindus (6 percent) have been troubled at times.
Invited to comment on Obama’s decision to visit a mosque but not a church while in the country, Council of Churches of Malaysia general secretary Hermen Shastri demurred, but said that those responsible for arranging the visit had “ensured that he is made aware of the religious freedom issues in the country.”
A spokesman for the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship chairman, Rev. Dr. Eu Hong Seng, said he welcomed the fact Obama chose to tour the National Mosque.
“Given the challenges and concerns for non-Muslim religions in Malaysia, especially Christianity, it would have been good for President Obama to also visit the places of religious worship of other religions,” he said. “This would help him better understand the issues facing non-Muslim religions in Malaysia.”
‘People who are not like us’
Addressing students at the University of Malaya on Sunday afternoon, Obama broached issues of religious and ethnic diversity and tolerance.
“Here in Malaysia, this is a majority Muslim country. So then, there are times where those who are non-Muslims find themselves perhaps being disadvantaged or experiencing hostility,” he said.
“In the United States, obviously historically the biggest conflicts arose around race. And we had to fight a civil war and we had to have a civil rights movement over the course of generations until I could stand before you as a president of African descent.
“But of course, the job is not done,” Obama continued. “There is still discrimination and prejudice and ethnic conflict inside the United States that we have to be vigilant against. So my point is all of us have within us biases and prejudices of people who are not like us or were not raised in the same faith or come from a different ethnic background.”
“Malaysia won’t succeed if non-Muslims don’t have opportunity,” he said. “You should be proud of who you are and your background. And you should appreciate the differences in language and food. And how you worship God is going to be different, and those are things that you should be proud of. But it shouldn’t be a tool to look down on somebody else. It shouldn’t be a reason to discriminate.”
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