President Obama Just Delivered a Powerful Message to Young Muslims Around the World

President Obama Just Delivered a Powerful Message to Young Muslims Around the World
Source: AP
Source: AP

Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly this morning, President Obama spoke directly to the young people of the Muslim world, seeking to rally their support to counter extremism in their own communities.

The wide-ranging speech hit on a number of hot-button issues, including the crisis in Ukraine and continued American airstrikes against the Islamic State. But arguably the most powerful section of the speech came toward the end, when Obama made a plea to young Muslims to turn away from terrorism.

"The countries of the Arab and Muslim world must focus on the extraordinary potential of their people, especially the youth," Obama said.

"Here I'd like to speak directly to young people across the Muslim world," he said. "You come from a great tradition that stands for education, not ignorance; innovation, not destruction; the dignity of life, not murder. Those who call you away from this path are betraying this tradition, not defending it."

Many young Muslims who join extremist groups also feel that their religion and values are threatened by the West. Obama addressed that concern head-on:

"Such positive change need not come at the expense of tradition and faith. We see this in Iraq, where a young man started a library for his peers. 'We link Iraq's heritage to their hearts,' he said, 'and give them a reason to stay.' We see it in Tunisia, where secular and Islamist parties worked together through a political process to produce a new constitution. We see it in Senegal, where civil society thrives alongside a strong, democratic government. We see it in Malaysia, where vibrant entrepreneurship is propelling a former colony into the ranks of advanced economies. And we see it in Indonesia, where what began as a violent transition has evolved into a genuine democracy."

Earlier in the address, Obama pointed specifically to the #NotinMyName social media campaign, in which young Muslims post and tweet photos with the message that the Islamic State doesn't represent them or their values. "The ideology of ISIL or al-Qaida or Boko Haram will wilt and die if it is consistently exposed, confronted and refuted in the light of day," Obama said. "Look at the young British Muslims, who responded to terrorist propaganda by starting the Not in My Name campaign, declaring, 'ISIS is hiding behind a false Islam.'"

But the speech wasn't all glowing idealism. The president had a forceful message for the Islamic State itself, which would not have seemed out of place if delivered by George W. Bush: 

"There can be no reasoning – no negotiation – with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force. So the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death."

Recent Islamic State recruits "tend to be mostly young men between the ages of 16 and 25 who are primarily poor, unemployed and lack an education," according to CNN. The group has a savvy social media operation that it uses to identify and recruit young foreign fighters.

The president walked a fine between garnering support for his military operation in Iraq and Syria while appealing directly to young people throughout the Middle East and the wider Muslim world. As the president noted, "Ultimately, the task of rejecting sectarianism and extremism is a generational task – a task for the people of the Middle East themselves."

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Stefan Becket

Stefan Becket is the editorial director of Policy at Mic. He is based in New York and can be reached at stefan@mic.com.

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