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.”