Obama's Complex Relationship With U.S. Muslims

He's quietly reaching out, but can he make inroads without an uproar?

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The White House is quietly courting U.S. Muslim groups for political support, but will it work? Though President Obama, who in June spoke in Cairo about his desire to reach out to Muslims worldwide, would seem to be a natural ally of Islamic organizations, he has been hesitant to publicly embrace such groups, over fears of appearing to friendly to a minority that is not always popular in the U.S. He has also been plagued by false but lingering myths from the presidential campaign that he himself is either Muslim or overly sympathetic to Muslims. Here's what the White House is trying to do, why it matters, and the challenges it faces.

  • Why This Is Important  The New York Times' Andrea Elliott explains, "In the post-9/11 era, Muslims and Arab-Americans have posed something of a conundrum for the government: they are seen as a political liability but also, increasingly, as an important partner in countering the threat of homegrown terrorism. Under President George W. Bush, leaders of these groups met with government representatives from time to time, but said they had limited interaction with senior officials. While Mr. Obama has yet to hold the kind of high-profile meeting that Muslims and Arab-Americans seek, there is a consensus among his policymakers that engagement is no longer optional."
  • What They've Accomplished  New York Magazine's Chris Rovzar writes, "Community leaders are taking part in high-level policy discussions, met with top White House officials, and have even seen their influence reflected in policy decisions. This month, for example, the government decided to end a policy of additional scrutiny of airline passengers from fourteen mostly Muslim countries. And a couple of Muslim academics previously barred from the country have been allowed in by the State Department under Hillary Clinton." Small steps, to be sure.
  • 'Somebody Is Listening'  Arab American Institute President James Zogby beams, "For the first time in eight years, we have the opportunity to meet, engage, discuss, disagree, but have an impact on policy. ... We’re being made to feel a part of that process and that there is somebody listening
  • Blocking Obama's Outreach  The Washington Independent's Spencer Ackerman sighs at how low-level this has all been: "it’s a testament to how effective the right was at smearing Obama as a clandestine Muslim who planned to replace the Constitution with Islamic law and recruit your children to al-Qaeda. Each Muslim nominee for an administration position receives a level of background-dependent scrutiny from conservative fever swamps that no one of any other background receives. That has the compounding effect of disinclining the administration to seek out qualified Muslims for important roles."
  • Obama, Friend to Muslim Terrorists  As if on cue, conservative Powerline blogger Scott Johnson, reacting to the story, fumes at "the melding of the left with Islamist forces at home and abroad." He cites Obama's "support among Hamas and friends." He compares Obama to Keith Ellison, the first Muslim U.S. Congressman. "Both Ellison and Obama have friends among home-grown terrorists."
  • Was Bush More Pro-Muslim?  The National Review's Daniel Pipes makes the surprising case. "The overall Bush record showed great concern for Muslim opinion. Data points include the symbolic, such as Bush’s adding a Koran to the White House library and initiating celebration of the Ramadan end-of-fast. ... He took substantive steps, such as prohibiting any notice of a person’s religion in airport security and encouraging more Saudi students in the United States."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.