Barely five months into his term, President Obama stood before an audience at Cairo University and delivered a speech broadcast to the Muslim world.
"I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition," Obama said on June 4, 2009. He pledged to close Guantanamo Bay, to pursue peace between Israelis and Palestinians, to withdraw all troops from Iraq by 2012, and to fight stereotypes of Islam.
Time's Middle East correspondent Scott MacLeod called it "the most important address ever given by an American leader about the Middle East." An Associated Press report said the president "offered the world the audacity to hope for peace in the Middle East and a better understanding between the United States and Muslims."
The speech highlighted the president's eagerness to embrace Muslims, but the administration's actions in the year that followed have satisfied neither Muslims overseas, on one hand, nor experts concerned with Islamic terrorism, on the other.
The administration set up numerous task forces after the speech, one studying interreligious cooperation. Obama appointed an envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC-a coalition of 56 Muslim-majority countries), and created a new diplomatic position, the special representative to Muslim communities. The appointments added to the chagrin of religious freedom advocates who are still waiting for Obama to name an ambassador for religious freedom. The administration has worked closely with the OIC on some issues, collaborating on an initiative to eradicate polio. In September the president hosted an iftar, a dinner celebrating Ramadan, at the White House (as President Bush also did). Obama gave his first formal interview as president to the Dubai-based television channel Al-Arabiya.
Despite these efforts, majority Muslim countries continue to hold a negative perception of the United States, according to World Public Opinion. Speaking at a conference almost a year after the speech, the president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, Radwan Masmoudi, said he at first had high hopes for Obama. He thought, "Finally the United States has a president who understands and respects Islam." But Masmoudi said Obama has been consumed with domestic issues and "the Cairo speech slowly but surely drifted into distant memories."
To some Muslims, the speech was empty rhetoric. Many have expressed dissatisfaction to the administration's Muslim representative about the continuing stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians, and the president's lack of progress in closing the Guantanamo prison.
Since the speech, the United States has also seen a rash of attempted terrorist attacks tied to elements of Islam. Most recently, Fasail Shahzad, trained by the Pakistan Taliban, allegedly attempted to set off a car bomb in Times Square. At Christmas, Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate a bomb in his underpants while on a plane bound for Detroit. In November, U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan was successful, killing 13 people and wounding 30 others at Fort Hood. Hasan had ties to the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, and Shahzad purportedly said he drew inspiration from Awlaki too.
Authorities have arrested other alleged masterminds of plots in the last year, including eight devout Muslims charged with supporting terrorists. Two North Carolinians among that group face charges of conspiring to kill military personnel at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va. Law enforcement also arrested a young Muslim man, Hosam Smadi, for attempting to detonate a car bomb in Dallas, Texas. The bomb didn't go off because undercover FBI agents had provided him with a dud.
But while Muslims may not be happy with the administration, Islam has no doubt received what can only be called special treatment by the government.
One former FBI agent said law enforcement leadership at all levels ignores the roots of terrorism in Islam. "In the FBI, there is a handful of folks that get this. However, they spend more time battling their field office and FBI headquarters than the bad guys. There's a lot of cowardice in leadership," said John Guandolo, who worked at the FBI beginning in 1996 and in the bureau's counterterrorism unit after 9/11. He left the bureau in 2008 to do national security consulting. "If you speak up about this issue, there's a high likelihood that you'll be moved off your unit, you'll be pushed out. There'll be an internal investigation on you, not the bad guys."
He added that the deference to the Muslim community has gone so far that agents agree to call a local imam before raiding a Muslim house. "We've never done that before ever," he said. "That's dangerous. We can get people killed."
American Muslim groups have lobbied hard to change the perception that terrorist acts have Muslim roots. The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) argued that when Joseph Stack flew a plane into a Texas IRS building in February, that should have been classified as an act of terrorism, though Stack didn't have ties to a larger terrorist organization. CAIR also has aggressively attacked those who criticize Islam, like Franklin Graham, who called Islam an "evil religion." But CAIR has its own baggage. Federal investigators listed it as an unindicted coconspirator with the Holy Land Foundation, which a federal jury found guilty in 2008 of funneling $12 million to Hamas.
Some of the Muslim groups' lobbying appears to have been successful. Administration officials said in April that they will be erasing phrases like "Islamic extremism" and "jihad" from the national security policy lexicon. Attorney General Eric Holder at a congressional hearing in May highlighted the change as he tip-toed around the phrase "Islamic radical."
"Do you feel that these individuals [like Faisal Shahzad] might have been incited to take the actions that they did because of radical Islam?" Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, asked.
"Because of . . . ," Holder returned.
"Radical Islam," Smith filled in the blank.
"There are a variety of reasons why I think people have taken these actions. You have to look at each individual case. We're in the process now of talking to Mr. Shahzad to try to understand what it is that drove him to take the action."
"But radical Islam could have been one of the reasons?" Smith pursued.
"A variety of reasons."
"But was radical Islam one of them?"
"There are a variety of reasons why people do these things. Some of them are potentially religious. . . ."
The Obama administration's kid-glove treatment of Islam mirrors the Bush administration's approach to an extent, though President Bush didn't shy away from terms like "Islamic radicalism." The Bush administration was the first to send an envoy to the controversial OIC, which has sponsored defamation measures, essentially blasphemy laws, year after year at the UN (though it should be noted that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has publicly condemned the defamation resolution.) "There's more continuity between the late years of the Bush administration and the early years of the Obama administration than many would acknowledge," said Kristin Lord of the Center for a New American Security.
But "everything's changed" since the Cairo speech, gushed Farah Pandith, the vivacious Indian American Muslim who serves as the special representative to Muslim communities. "There's a new frame, there's a new tone, there's a new lexicon," she said. The outreach to Muslims "is not an effort to 'win hearts and minds,'" she said, mocking the Bush administration's approach of confronting radical Islam by spreading Western ideals like democracy. "This is an engagement effort." Indeed, the United States has never had an official representative to one religion before.
And that official deference to Islam as a religion is what is so dramatically different in this administration. In April the president hosted an entrepreneur summit for Muslims in Washington, something he had promised in his Cairo speech. "What is a 'Muslim entrepreneur'? Do we support 'Christian entrepreneurs' or 'Hindu entrepreneurs' or other entrepreneurs because of their religion?" asked Marshall Sana, an expert on Islam at the Barnabas Fund, a Christian group. "If we keep going down this road, we're on the way to establishment. Some contend that we've made a turn and passed several road signs already."