Obama’s outreach toward Muslims is limited at home

September 5, 2011

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a leading Muslim civil rights organization, occupies one floor of a red-brick office building on Capitol Hill. Visitors must use an elevator pass code to reach the suite, the only one in a building of tenants that is secured against attack.

On the wall of its conference room hangs a framed front page of a newspaper showing a U.S. president, standing shoeless in a mosque and reaching out in dramatic fashion to Muslim Americans.

It’s not Barack Obama, who pledged early in his presidency to combat negative stereotypes of Islam “wherever they appear.”

The clipping depicts George W. Bush. Within a week of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush visited the Islamic Center of Washington to remind an angry and frightened nation that “the face of terror is not the true faith of Islam.”

“That was huge,” said Nihad Awad, CAIR’s executive director, who accompanied Bush on his visit. “His statement and his visit made a big impact at home and in the world.”

By contrast, Obama has not visited a mosque in the United States since taking office, although he has done so in Egypt, Turkey and Indonesia as part of his project to repair U.S. relations with the Muslim world. Bold abroad, Obama’s outreach has been largely invisible at home as Muslim Americans confront enduring suspicion and, in some cases, outright hatred a decade after the attacks.

The president’s approach has worked to a degree internationally. Polls show that in some important Islamic countries, Muslim perceptions of the United States improved the year Obama took office, although they have dipped since then.

And it has paid off politically: Two recent surveys show that Obama has the support of more than three-quarters of Muslim Americans, a diverse mix of about 3 million people, most of them immigrants and many of them African Americans disinclined to back Republican policies.

But Obama’s tepid efforts to beat back the public’s negative impressions of the nation’s Muslim citizens in a post-9/11 nation have disappointed Muslim American leaders, who expected more from a president whose rhetoric promised so much. He has not held a single event with Muslim Americans outside the White House, favoring the relative privacy of his annual iftar dinner — the meal that breaks the fast during Ramadan — to speak about issues that are important to the group.

Polls show that a large plurality of Americans continues to hold an unfavorable view of Muslims. According to a Pew Research Center poll released late last month, a majority of Muslim Americans said it has become “more difficult” to be a Muslim in the United States since the 2001 attacks — the same proportion who gave that response in the year before Obama was elected.

Another survey makes clear the political risks the president faces in strengthening his connections with Muslim Americans. The son of a Kenyan Muslim who left Obama when he was 2, the president has repeatedly professed his Christian faith. But a poll this summer found that more Americans think Obama is a Muslim than when he was elected.

“Every time he has to say ‘I’m a Christian,’ it makes Muslims feel like he’s saying ‘Muslims are bad,’ ” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal thinking. “Muslims are always asking us about this — why does he have to say it?”

‘Part of America’s story’

Within days of his election, Obama listened during a meeting at his transition headquarters as the FBI and CIA chiefs and the director of national intelligence, among others, briefed him on counterterrorism efforts.

“Okay,” he said, according to senior advisers present, “tell me what you think we’re not doing well.”

For the next few minutes, Obama heard arguments for new programs and more funding. Speaking last, Michael E. Leiter, then director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the president, “We’re doing a bad job of telling our story.”

“Al-Qaeda is telling lies about us, mischaracterizing our polices, and we need to challenge that,” Leiter said, according to one adviser. “People need to know about us.”

Leiter’s argument cast Muslim Americans as central characters in the message Obama should carry abroad: that the United States, contrary to al-Qaeda’s propaganda, accepted Islam and even celebrated it.

“Islam has always been a part of America’s story,” Obama said seven months later when he asked the Muslim world for “a new beginning” in a speech at Cairo University. “And since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States.”

In the address, Obama identified himself far more closely with Islam than he ever has at home.

He recalled the Muslim tradition of his father’s family in Kenya, hearing the “azaan” — the call to prayer — “at the break of dawn and at the fall of dusk” as a child in Indonesia, and working with Muslim Americans as a community organizer in Chicago.

“That experience guides my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn’t,” Obama said. “And I consider it part of my responsibility as president of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.”

In November 2009, 10 months into his term, events at Fort Hood, Tex., galvanized the White House and offered new reasons why the task Obama set for himself would be hard to carry out.

Maj. Nidal M. Hasan — a Muslim, an immigrant of Palestinian heritage and an Army psychiatrist — allegedly opened fire at a medical center, killing 13 people and wounding dozens more, police later said. He had been communicating via the Internet with the anti-American cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, a native-born U.S. citizen living in Yemen.

The evening of the shootings, Obama summoned his senior military and national security staff members to the Oval Office, challenging them to explain how his Islamic outreach was being handled in the United States.

“You guys have to prove to me that you are moving the needle on this issue,” the president told them, according to Denis McDonough, his deputy national security adviser. “This is an issue here at home, and we have to stay on top of it.”

Five days later, at a memorial service for the victims, Obama acknowledged that “it may be hard to comprehend the twisted logic that led to this tragedy.” He never explicitly mentioned Islam.

‘We will not stigmatize’

Over the next few months, McDonough ran an internal group, drawing from national security, law enforcement and other agencies, to study al-Qaeda’s increasing effort to radicalize Muslim Americans, a consequence of U.S. military success in shrinking terrorist sanctuaries overseas.

McDonough, a practicing Catholic, was joined in the effort by Quintan Wiktorowicz, who had previously worked out of the U.S. Embassy in London, studying the United Kingdom’s effort to confront radicalization within its Muslim enclaves.

Obama has few advisers who are Muslim. The most senior is Rashad Hussain, his envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, who helps carry out Obama’s outreach.

In March, on the eve of congressional hearings on Muslim American radicalization, Hussain accompanied McDonough to the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Sterling to present the administration’s strategy.

The approach relies on many of the principles that law enforcement agencies have used for years to combat gangs, whose leaders also seek to exploit disenfranchisement among young people and inspire an “us versus them” sense of belonging.

“We must resolve that, in our determination to protect our nation, we will not stigmatize or demonize entire communities because of the actions of a few,” McDonough told the small audience seated in folding chairs.

But civil rights activists say the government has stepped up its monitoring of Muslim American communities. Those include FBI home visits, heavy-handed efforts to recruit government informants, agents in mosques to observe Friday sermons, and a growing watch list that affects Muslim Americans when they travel.

“The Muslim American community has been defined through the national security prism,” said Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “That hasn’t changed. Law enforcement continues to be our gateway to this administration and government.”

The organization has faced a federal investigation for allegedly supporting Hamas, an armed Palestinian movement that the United States classifies as a terrorist organization. Neither the Bush nor the Obama Justice Departments have presented indictments, and CAIR officials have dismissed the allegations as fear-mongering.

Awad wrote a letter to Obama soon after his election, outlining what he calls the “minimum level” of support — set by the Bush administration — that he should show Muslim Americans, including continuing the White House iftar, visiting a mosque and meeting with Muslim American leaders. Obama has not done the last two.

“I suspect there is sensitivity about the Jewish vote that’s driving his reticence more than anything else, more than the illegitimate criticism left over about his birth,” said Ari Fleischer, who was White House press secretary under George W. Bush. “It’s a [Muslim American] community that for whatever reason he is partly dodging, and politics has a lot to do with it. And I’d also like to add that I think a lot of what he’s facing is unfair.”

Obama holds two White House events each year for Jewish Americans, a powerful political constituency, and this year he spoke at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Current and former White House officials say Obama has not softened his Muslim outreach in deference to the Jewish community.

‘Politically risky’

The 2010 midterm election year tested Obama’s approach, and for many Muslim American leaders, revealed his political timidity.

Independent voters were key to his 2008 election, and a Washington Post-ABC News poll released two months before last year’s elections showed that nearly half of independents held an unfavorable view of Muslims, who over the past decade have been giving more money to political candidates and campaigns.

“An alliance with the Muslim community is seen to be politically risky,” said Daisy Khan, one of the organizers behind the effort to build a mosque complex near the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan. “It holds true with President Obama and it holds true with others.”

The debate over the project, known formally as Park51, typified what Khan and other Muslim American call rising “Islamophobia,” a backdrop of the 2010 midterm campaigns.

In the shorthand of the opponents, including national political figures Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, the project was labeled the “Ground Zero Mosque.”

For months, Obama avoided the issue. His aides initially called it a local land-use decision, but the bitterness of the debate made it for many Muslim Americans an illustration of their uncertain place in the post-9/11 nation.

Robert Gibbs, Obama’s press secretary at the time, said calling the project a local issue served as “a place holder” until Obama was ready to address it publicly.

Current and former White House officials familiar with the internal debate recall that some of Obama’s political advisers, led by then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, cautioned him against weighing in on an issue that held more risk than reward. A Post-ABC News poll conducted at the time showed that two-thirds of the country opposed the project.

David Axelrod, a senior Obama political adviser at the time, said “there was a political argument being made that it was controversial, and why would we want to jump into that hornet’s nest?”

“There were people who were worried about the [midterm] elections and how his speaking out would affect those elections,” said Axelrod, now an outside adviser to the White House.

But Axelrod, who has a long personal relationship with the president, said he knew Obama wanted to add his voice to the debate and did not stand in his way. Other advisers say Valerie Jarrett, the senior adviser who is perhaps closest to Obama, also urged him to speak out on what she and some others considered a civil rights issue.

Said Gibbs: “We’d flown all the way to Cairo to reset our relationship with Muslims, and not speaking out on this would have done pretty serious damage to those efforts. But it was not something we took lightly or casually, given the sheer tragedy and anguish surrounding those events” on 9/11.

After New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) endorsed the project, Obama offered his opinion. He chose the annual iftar, held on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary last year.

“I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country,” Obama told the appreciative gathering. “And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.”

But Obama made a point the next day of clarifying his remarks, saying he did not intend them to serve as an endorsement of the project, only the planners’ right to build it. The project is proceeding slowly.

“He’s done all he can, given that his own name is still raising questions from the professional Islamophobes in this country,” said Khan, the project organizer. “He’s taking baby steps.”

Nearly a month ago, at this year’s White House iftar, waiters passed trays of dried dates and fresh fruit juice to guests gathered in the Grand Foyer to end their day of fasting. The guest list included members of Congress, diplomats, NFL players and scholars.

Obama used the occasion of this year's iftar to emphasize Muslim sacrifice on Sept. 11, 2001, and in the American wars in Islamic countries that followed, telling the audience that “Muslim Americans help to keep us safe.”

Mansura Shahjahan, her head covered in accordance with pious Islamic tradition, wept quietly. Her husband, Mohammed, died in the North Tower of the World Trade Center, as did other Muslim Americans. The president watched as she wiped away tears.

“They were workers in the twin towers — Americans by birth and Americans by choice, immigrants who crossed the oceans to give their children a better life,” Obama said, urging the country to go “forward as one family, like generations before us, pulling together in times of trial, staying true to our core values and emerging even stronger.”

“This is who we are,” he said, “and this is who we must always be.”

Scott Wilson is the chief White House correspondent for the Washington Post. Previously, he was the paper’s deputy Assistant Managing Editor/Foreign News after serving as a correspondent in Latin America and in the Middle East.
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