Asserting that Islam embodied a religion of peace, fairness and tolerance, U.S. President Barack Obama said here on Sunday that the religion was being “distorted” by a few extremists. Mr. Obama was responding to a student who invited his opinion on jihad during his town hall style meeting at Mumbai's St. Xavier's college.

“The phrase jihad has a lot of meaning within Islam and is subject to a lot of different interpretations, but I will say that first Islam is one of the world's great religions. More than a billion people practise Islam and an overwhelming majority view their obligations to a religion that reaffirms peace, fairness, tolerance. I think all of us recognise that this great religion in the hands of a few extremists has been distorted by violence,” Mr. Obama said.

Challenge

He saw isolating these “distorted notions” as the challenge before us. He stressed on practising universal principles, irrespective of one's religion or opinion of a religion.

“Whatever may be your religion we can treat each other with respect as per some of the universal principles. Young people like you can make a huge impact in reaffirming that you can be a strong observer of your faith without putting somebody else down. How you respond to each other is probably as important as any speech a President makes. It's necessary in a world that's getting smaller, where more and more people of different backgrounds, race and ethnicities are interacting, innovating and working,” Mr. Obama told students.

“Healthy materialism”

To a question of materialism in today's world, the U.S. President opted for “a healthy materialism.”

“I don't want any young person here to be dismissive of a healthy materialism because in a country like India people are still trapped in poverty. You should be working to lift folks out of poverty. Companies and businesses have a huge role in making that happen. Having said that, if all you are thinking about is material wealth, then that shows a poverty of ambition,” he replied to the question he described as “terrific.”

Hailing the entrepreneurial spirit in the context of materialism, he said, “We should not underestimate how liberating economic growth can be for a country.” It was essential to fulfil people's needs.

Hails Gandhiji

He offered inspiration by alluding to Gandhiji's simple lifestyle from what he saw at Mani Bhavan. “This is a man who changed history like probably no one else in the 20th century in terms of the number of lives he affected. He had nothing except an indomitable spirit,” he said.

He said regardless of our occupation we had a moral obligation towards others who have been left behind.

When asked how he embodied Gandhi's principles in his daily life, Mr. Obama rued that he mostly found himself “awfully short of following the example of Gandhi and [Martin Luther] King. However, though America was a priority, he recognised his relationship with other nations, in his capacity as the U.S. President. “I can't ignore abuse of human rights in another country, hardships that may be suffered by somebody of a different nationality. That is what I carry with me on a day to day basis,” he said.

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