Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images

The special religion

Religion | While facing a rash of recent terrorist attempts, the administration's aggressive outreach to Muslims abroad tip-toes around the problem of radical Islam

Issue: "Gulf toil," June 5, 2010

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."

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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."


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