Obama's Tricky Muslim Courtship
Two years ago after President Obama stepped to a podium in Cairo and delivered a landmark speech to the Muslim world, he’s trying it again. But among American Muslims, this week’s speech will be received with a great deal more skepticism.
“Just like the last time, we’re quite happy if any president offers positive rhetoric toward the Muslim world or Islam, but it really needs to be backed up with concrete policy initiatives,” says Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a leading American Muslim group. “We’re still in Afghanistan, we’re still in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian situation has gone south. We’re not there—we’re just continuing with the previous policies.”
It’s not just foreign policy. Across the board, Muslims are expressing disappointment with Obama’s progress on issues relevant to them in the domestic policy realm. What they express is not so much anger as disillusionment, a recognition that the president hasn’t remade the political landscape for Muslims. (American Muslim opinions mirror international opinions. A Pew survey released Tuesday finds that citizens in majority Muslim countries remain skeptical of Obama.)
The complaint mirrors, in many ways, one liberals have voiced: Pie-in-the-sky hopes, some encouraged by Obama and others projected on him, are proving more difficult to achieve than had been hoped. But it’s been especially hard for American Muslims, of whom—according to a CAIR survey in November 2008 [ PDF]—a stunning 89 percent voted for Obama. And these disappointments are triggering an emotion that is surprising even the American Muslims feeling it: nostalgia for the George W. Bush administration.
That’s not to say that there isn’t praise for Obama. The president’s decision to make a major speech in the Muslim world was thrilling to many. And he has appointed several Muslims to high-ranking positions, including Rashad Hussain, special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and Dalia Mogahed, a member of the White House Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
“I think his outreach to the community has been good,” says Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat and Muslim. “Perhaps his crowning achievement may be his clear articulation of the fact that America is not and never has been at war with Islam. Bush visited a mosque, but he wasn’t particularly clear and articulate about that. Obama has set forth a narrative that fundamentally undermines al Qaeda and encourages Muslims around the world who want what everybody wants.”
Ellison pointed to a series of meetings he has attended where administration officials met with Muslims, ranging from senior adviser Valerie Jarrett to Attorney General Eric Holder all the way down to Ellison’s local U.S. attorney.
“He’s still missing the political courage to stand up for immigrant communities, and not just Muslim communities,” says Shireen Zaman.
Imam Mohamed Magid, president of the Islamic Society of North America, the nation’s largest Muslim organization, says the administration has done a good job of sending middle-rank officials to meet with American Muslims, but there’s been little direct contact with Obama, while Bush seemed to have an open door. “Bush was good at home, but he didn’t do it overseas,” Magid says. But he adds, Obama “has not spoken in any Muslim or Arab gathering that I know of, nor has he spoken in a mosque. President Obama does all the speeches overseas.” Many Muslim leaders point out the contrast with Bush, who twice visited mosques.
Some of that is politics. Bush, as a conservative and an evangelical Christian, had standing with his base to make an argument for inclusiveness. But with repeated polls showing a large swath of Americans wrongly believe that Obama is a Muslim or a foreigner, Bush’s base dismisses similar statements about inclusivity by Obama.
But that doesn’t excuse weak action, some say. Exhibit A is the Park51 project, the proposed mosque and Islamic center in Lower Manhattan that opponents dubbed the “ground zero mosque”. After delivering what appeared to be a full-throated defense of the project, he walked back his comments the next day, saying, “I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there.” It was a crucial litmus test for many American Muslims—and one that Obama failed. “He’s still missing the political courage to stand up for communities, and not just Muslim communities,” says Shireen Zaman, the executive director of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a think tank on Muslim issues. “Immigrant communities as a whole are facing many pressures.”
The White House did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The good news for the president is that there aren’t many other options. Conservative politicians have recently taken a harder line on Islam, from proposed bans on sharia law across the country to presidential hopeful Herman Cain’s statement that he wouldn’t appoint a Muslim to his Cabinet or the federal bench. In December, the founder of a group called Muslims for Bush, later changed to Muslims for America, quit the GOP in disgust over what he saw as bigotry in the party.
“The only reason so many American Muslims continue to associate with Obama is the tone on the right,” says Haroon Moghul, executive director of the Maydan Institute, which consults Muslim groups on media relations and leadership. “The big vote for Obama was a reaction to Bush. Now it’s more the fact that there’s no room for Muslims in the Republican Party. Whether we like Obama or not, it’s the best thing we have going for us.”
And even in the last two weeks, there have been several alarming incidents for the American Muslim community. Radical anti-Islam Dutch politician Geert Wilders appeared in Tennessee. A Buffalo man who lives next to a mosque posted a sign reading, “Bomb Making Next Driveway.” And two imams—who were traveling to a conference on Islamophobia— were removed from a flight from Memphis to Charlotte after the pilot allegedly refused to take off with them aboard.
Against this backdrop, nearly everyone interviewed for this article emphasized the need for deliverable goals with concrete frameworks for achieving them, a reflection of frustration that promises about civil liberties and withdrawing troops from the Middle East, among others, haven’t been fulfilled yet. Magid suggested that Obama discuss collaboration between Muslims and law enforcement to root out extremists.
A common theme was the need to move away from a narrative that presented not just “us vs. them” but even a separate us and them, arguing that the aspirations of and threats to Muslims abroad are similar to most Americans’. Ellison says the speech provides a great opportunity not only to reset that dynamic but to establish a clear place for American policy in the Middle East. “We need to listen more, get in the spirit of what democracy is,” he says. “In the U.S., we’ve said, you know, free and fair elections, freedom of the press, human rights—we insisted on that in America but not outside of America. We should not insist on that—that’s imperialism—but we should stand for it. We should be consistent.”
On one issue, at least, some advocates seem bound to be disappointed. The White House won’t say whether Obama will present a plan for achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians. It’s long been administration dogma that peace in the region is key to a more stable Middle East, and not addressing it now—especially with hardline Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu poised to deliver a potentially agenda-setting speech to Congress on May 24—would be a mistake, says CAIR’s Hooper. “If he doesn’t address the Israeli-Palestinian issue, it’ll be viewed as he’s just punting it by Muslims.”
But in a sign of generational change, that might not be as universal a statement as it once was. With a younger, more ethnically diverse, and more American-born Muslim population, that issue is no longer the defining cause it was for the older generation. Although both the Cairo speech and the forthcoming address have been characterized as aimed at “the Muslim world,” that description glosses over the fact that many Muslims are Americans—and see themselves as Westerners. Indeed, the economy and jobs are front and center, Carson adds: “Muslims are concerned about rising gas prices. Muslims are concerned about rising food prices. Muslims are concerned about the same things [other] Americans are concerned about.”
Meanwhile, the frustration with Obama hasn’t totally destroyed the excitement that led so many Muslims to pull the lever for the president during the last election, and the latest address may go some way to recapturing the old magic. “When I heard Obama’s Cairo speech, it was an amazing feeling to hear an American president greet the global Muslim community with the traditional greeting, ‘Assalaamu alaykum,’” Zaman recalls. “We can’t lose sight of the fact that this is the first president who understands the global community in a way that other leaders don’t. I still have a lot of optimism about what can be accomplished.”
David Graham is a reporter for Newsweek covering politics, national affairs, and business. His writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The National in Abu Dhabi.