November 9th, 2010
08:31 AM ET

My Take: Obama's Pilgrimage into Hinduism and Islam

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

President Obama’s visit to Asia has been covered largely as a political and economic tour, but it is hard to avoid the religion angle of the story, which is taking the president from the country with the most Christians (the United States) to the country with the most Hindus (India) to the country with the most Muslims (Indonesia). The world's three largest religions, in other words, in a span of ten days.

In India, Obama danced with schoolchildren on the Hindu holiday of Diwali (a popular festival of lights and the most important holy day for many Hindus), visited the memorial of the spiritual and political leader Mohandes Gandhi (a man, Obama told the Indian Parliament, who helped deliver him to the White House), and met with the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the first Sikh to hold India’s highest office.

In Indonesia, the country where he lived for four years as a child, Obama is slated to visit Istiqlal Mosque, the nation’s largest Islamic house of worship, and to address the Muslim world in the midst of a people known for repeatedly rejecting at the ballot box Islamic extremism in favor of moderate Islam.

So what is the religion story here?

The story is that religion matters worldwide—from Christianity in the United States to Hinduism in India and Islam in Indonesia. Yes, India and Indonesia are economic powers, but they are also nations of believers in which religious faith and practice move not only hearts but also elections.

In her book The Mighty and the Almighty, Madeleine Albright, wrote that, during her tenure as Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton, she had dozens of economic and political experts she could call upon any time of the day or night if she had a question about the GDP of Dubai or the political situation in Myanmar.  But she had zero advisers on religious matters.

This approach makes sense if human beings are motivated exclusively by greed and power—if, in other words, everything they do can be understood by the lights of economics and political science. But, for better or for worse (or for both), human beings as a species are religious animals, motivated by theological beliefs and ritual practices.

America no doubt needs India as a political and economic partner. But that partnership will founder if the president does not understand that people in India are deeply religious, and that religion matters every bit as much in New Delhi as it does in Washington, D.C. And so it goes for Indonesia as well.

Assuming he keeps the Istiqlal Mosque on his itinerary for Indonesia, the president will doubtless be criticized, even as he was criticized for foregoing a visit to the Golden Temple of the Sikhs in India. But he is right to keep religion on his mind, and on his presidential itinerary—not because religion is something he should promote but because religion is a powerful force worldwide.

Even if there is no God and no afterlife, both Hinduism and Islam are real, with undeniable effects in the here and now.  The same goes for the Sikhism of Prime Minister Singh, and the Confucianism of South Korea and Japan. But that is a story for another day.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Asia • Barack Obama • Hinduism • India • Islam • Opinion • Politics

soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. Akhilesh Kumar Karna

    God is , in every body human inside, in every animals, in every place and also every world wise........ So we would be believe them. I mean – Only mostly understand hindu people what is god......... and where is live...... but i dont tell you come on join Hindu festival and culture . But you look and feel what is the main best point. how the man can feel comfortable and mind concentration and health for best exercise .
    But one thing i also know the Christian and Hindu people never think religions. They want to walk without religions tension which best think............... i want to write full of page like to make one book about religions but what can i do...........or not important because nowadays most of people know what is real or best....... Thanks for give me a chance to write some thing.....about human beings life related to religions .

    February 13, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  2. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

    What I am seeing here is that you all are completely missing the underlying problem in the world today. The reasons that all of the ": Christians,Jews and muslims have lived for centuries in Middle East and arabic speaking countries without any problems," is because each of them was concerned only with its local well-being and none had global agendas. The main issue today is Pride. My ________ is (bigger, better, faster, more) than your ___________ and so I should get more than you. This is exacerbated by the world wide web. For now, you not only know that your neighbor has a corvette (nuclear reactor, 1000 centrifuges, whatever...) but also that there's a man with a big chin who has 250 corvettes and a couple of Ferrari's too. And this is not limited to an individual pride issue, but also a battle amongst countries, and yes, even religions. 500 years ago, some people left England because they wanted to be free from religious scrutiny and oppression. Now, with inter-connectivity, they have lost their freedom from scrutiny and are being oppressed. Here are the bottom line emotional traps:

    1. (someone) owes me (something) because (i'm being repressed somehow) so i should get a hand out.
    2. I deserve MORE than him because I'm just as good as him.
    3. I NEED more than him because I'm better than him.
    4. There is no final number of how much I need, just MORE.

    5. My religion is right, and so if you believe anything different than me, you should DIE.
    6. If i don't get my way then i'm going to get a bigger (stick, knife, gun, nuclear bomb, name it)
    7. I have the right to (insert the social / scriptural / religious rebellion of your choice) because I WANT to.

    8. If anyone disagrees with me, they should be punished because I am right!

    Bottom line is that the whole world has turned into a bunch of 6 year-old's whining and complaining because they don't get their way.

    NEWSFLASH: Daddy's coming home soon, and there will be some major paddlings handed out when he gets back.

    November 23, 2010 at 8:57 am |
  3. Time Will Tell

    Iqbal khan. You are an idiot. Obviously, you have too much time on your hands. Get a job, stop living off my tax dollars you welfare-slurping, racist country hick. It's not the Indians' fault you knocked up Vicki and then dropped out of middle school to support her and her 3 kids.

    November 13, 2010 at 11:33 pm |
    • Iqbal khan

      Thanks for telling about yourself and your life.

      November 14, 2010 at 4:55 pm |
  4. Muneef

    India has become Israel's second largest export destination after the United States, as the Jewish state focusses on tap-ping potential in the Asian markets.

    November 11, 2010 at 6:32 pm |
  5. Rabbi Yitz Wyne

    Prothero is completely correct. Unless you are in the "business" of religion, you probably won't appreciate how deeply people's religious views affect their everyday decisions. A wise political leader should make sure to have several "religion advisors" on retainer for his administration. The potential for blessing is big, but if the leader makes a mistake, even an innocent faux pas, the potential for disaster is much greater. I’m going to explore this further on my radio program this Sunday morning. If you want to chime in go to http://www.therabbishow.com.

    November 11, 2010 at 5:19 pm |
  6. Iqbal khan

    Christians,Jews and muslims have lived for centuries in Middle East and arabic speaking countries without any problems, and Iraq was one of the most developed country with free education and healthcare for all of his citizens before he was given a green light to go into Kuwait and when Margret Thatcher got mad on senior Bush then he changed his position and the first Gulf war was started and put Iraq back int stone age, then Junior Mr. Bush who for his ego and personal war that is cauising all these killings, I wonder on the day of judgement how he will plead!

    November 11, 2010 at 3:40 pm |
  7. Iqbal khan

    Find who was realy behind......
    check check check please


    November 10, 2010 at 10:05 pm |
    • Muneef

      America has no power of word over Israel and wonder how America can achieve any change or peace promised to world and the middle east in particular....

      November 11, 2010 at 7:21 am |
  8. Iqbal khan

    Now listen the Muslim call for prayer that president Obama used to listen and enjoy when he lived in Indonasia


    November 10, 2010 at 10:03 pm |
    • Reality

      Calling All Muslim Wind Breakers and Witness Bearers:


      "Farting is problematic in Islam. During prayer, a worshipper must not fart. Sahih Bukhari (1.4.137) writes that Allah will not accept a Muslim's prayer if he/she passes wind during the ritual.

      The exception occurs if the worshipper farts silently, or the fart does not smell. In such a case, he/she may continue with the prayer (ibid, 1.4.139).Sunaan Nasai (1.162) writes that if you fart during a prayer you must redo ablution. Sahih Bukhari (9.86.86) says that for a "farter" Allah will not accept his/her prayer until he/she performs another ablution."

      November 11, 2010 at 4:56 pm |
  9. Wake up America

    While Obama is sharing the religion of Islam with Muslims, Al Qaeda is killing innocent christians in Baghdad thanks to bush!
    what protection do the Iraqi christians get from the UN, Iraqi government, or the United states? Nothing! Wake up America you invaded Iraq for oil, and now innocent lives being killed. WE need protection for Iraqi Christians in Baghdad and we need it now!

    November 9, 2010 at 11:44 pm |
    • Muneef

      Well never knew that America was or is sleeping? And are fully awake more than any other nation...
      But they are expecting you and all Christians in the middle east to move your finances and your selves to America to protect you...!
      You have to either to learn how to live among your brothers and trust in God or just make your move as per the American plans out of the middle east.
      About Obama it is sufficient for us that he is religious and knows and admits of God no matter what his beliefs might be but are all for God and not for Christians or Jews or Muslims...

      November 10, 2010 at 7:34 am |
  10. Enoch

    When shall President Obama visit Israel?

    November 9, 2010 at 9:49 pm |
    • Muneef

      Well surely they will not be happy with him at all because he refused to make an attack on their behalf to Iran and because not allowing to take over all the lands of Palestine as they wish....

      November 10, 2010 at 7:24 am |
  11. Muneef

    Wonder why this point of view was not considered when had to deal with Arab Muslim countries? And why when Obama tried to say few words of Islam in his first visit to Egypt he had to face vic-ious at-tacks and sus-picion on his faith? Well it seems sweet talks always comes out only if there is interest to be gained from the intended relation...? And that only means that there are intentions to use these countries for a future war that is intended within the area maybe?

    November 9, 2010 at 8:56 pm |
    • Iqbal khan

      Muneef very good observation and totaly agree with you

      November 9, 2010 at 9:08 pm |
    • Rick - Former Marine, Liberal


      November 11, 2010 at 11:52 am |
  12. Rick

    Excellent view point. Caring about other's relegions and believes is a crucial first step into starting constructive relations.

    November 9, 2010 at 6:30 pm |
  13. Peace2All

    He is correct... in my 'opinion.' In order for us, to get along better with our neighbors on planet Earth, we need to understand them better, especially, what drives/motivates them on a *deep* level--which is often their 'spirituality.'

    @Stephen Prothero

    Note-I believe you misspelled 'Mohandes'....? Unless you are speaking of another Gandhi, or another spelling, I believe it is spelled..... "Mohandas"

    Please correct me if I am wrong.


    November 9, 2010 at 3:36 pm |
  14. RJ

    Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (not Mohandes).

    November 9, 2010 at 3:15 pm |
  15. Phaethor

    "Yes, India and Indonesia are economic powers, but they are also nations of believers in which religious faith and practice move not only hearts but also elections."

    Half the United States is moved by religion when it comes to voting. They don't vote with their minds (What is good for me economically? What is good for me and my children in terms of education, the environment, health care?) They simply vote against something their pastors tell them is wrong or for something their pastors tell them to vote for.

    Same s-ex marriage – No
    Medical mar-ij-uana – No
    Workable Health care for all – No
    Environmental Stability – No
    Better Education – No

    War on Islam – Yes
    Oil over Environment – Yes
    Education Cuts – Yes
    Tax Cuts for wealthy – Yes

    If the Extreme Wrong voted with their minds instead of their religious beliefs we wouldn't even have an Extreme "Right" in this country. We would have better educated children with overall better health. We wouldn't have terrible environmental conditions (Oil Beaches in TX-LA-MS-FL, Coal mines in PA and WV, Toxic waste in lakes and rivers and ground water throughout the country) We wouldn't have our military deployed all over the world fighting people who just want to be left alone by America.

    Extreme Right Winged Christian Religion is very powerful here in this country in controlling the millions of the weakest minded republicans who vote without using their minds, just what they are told to vote.

    November 9, 2010 at 11:05 am |
    • Reality

      What else moves the USA taxpayer/voter?

      -Operation Iraqi Freedom- The 24/7 Sunni-Shiite centuries-old blood feud currently being carried out in Iraq, US Troops killed in action, 3,481 and 924 died in non-combat, 97,172 – 106,047 Iraqi civilians killed as of 8/10/2010 mostly due the Shiite and Sunni suicide bombers.

      – Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan: US troops 1,116 killed in action, 902 killed in non-combat situations as of 08/10/2010. Over 40,000 Afghan civilians killed due to the dark-age, koranic-driven Taliban acts of horror,

      – Sa-dd-am, his sons and major he-nchmen have been deleted. Sa-dd-am's bravado about WMD was one of his major mistakes. Kuwait was saved.

      – Iran is being been contained. (beside containing the Sunni-Shiite civil war in Baghdad, that is the main reason we are in Iraq. And yes, essential oil continues to flow from the region.)

      – Libya has become almost civil. Recently Libya agreed to pay $1.5 billion to the victims of their terrorist activities. Apparently this new reality from an Islamic country has upset OBL and his “cra-zies” as they have thre-atened Libya. OBL sure is a di-sgrace to the world especially the Moslem world!!! Or is he???

      – North Korea is still u-ncivil but is contained.

      – Northern Ireland is finally at peace.

      – The Jews and Palestinians are being separated by walls. Hopefully the walls will follow the 1948 UN accords. Unfortunately the Annapolis Peace Conference was not successful. And unfortunately the recent events in Gaza has put this situation back to “squ-are one”. And this significant stupidity is driven by the mythical foundations of both religions!!!

      – Bin La-d-en has been cornered under a rock in Western Pakistan since 9/11.

      – Fa-na–tical Islam has basically been contained to the Middle East but a wall between India and Pakistan would be a plus for world peace. Ditto for a wall between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

      – Timothy McVeigh was exe-cuted. Terry Nichols will follow soon.

      – Eric Ru-dolph is spending three life terms in pri-son with no par-ole.

      – Jim Jones, David Koresh, Kaczynski, the "nuns" from Rwanda, and the KKK were all dealt with and either eliminated themselves or are being punished.

      – Islamic Sudan, Dar-fur and So-malia are still terror hot spots.

      – The terror and tor-ture of Muslims in Bosnia, Kosovo and Kuwait were ended by the proper application of the military forces of the USA and her freedom-loving friends. Ra-dovan Karadzic was finally captured on 7/23/08 and is charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the law of war – charges related to the 1992-1995 civil war that followed Bosnia-Herzegovina's secession from Yugoslavia.

      – And of course the bloody terror brought about by the Ja-panese, Na-zis and Co-mmunists was with great difficulty eliminated by the good guys.

      November 9, 2010 at 2:39 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.