Obama reaches out to Muslims in the US

Obama reaches out to Muslims in the US

When President Barack Obama took the stage in Cairo last June, promising a new relationship with the Islamic world, Muslims in America wondered only half-jokingly whether the overture included them. After all, Obama had kept his distance during the campaign, never visiting an American mosque and describing the false claim that he was Muslim as a ‘smear’ on his website.

Nearly a year later, Obama has yet to set foot in an American mosque. And he still has not met with Muslim and Arab-American leaders. But less publicly, his administration has reached out to this politically isolated constituency in a sustained and widening effort that has left even sceptics surprised.

Muslim and Arab-American advocates have participated in policy discussions and received briefings from top White House aides and other officials on health care legislation, foreign policy, the economy, immigration and national security. They have met privately with a senior White House adviser, Valerie Jarrett, homeland security secretary Janet Napolitano and attorney general Eric H Holder Jr to discuss civil liberties concerns and counterterrorism strategy.

The impact of this continuing dialogue is difficult to measure, but White House officials cited several recent government actions that were influenced, in part, by the discussions. The meeting with Napolitano was among many factors that contributed to the government’s decision this month to end a policy subjecting passengers from 14 countries, most of them Muslim, to additional scrutiny at airports, the officials said.

That emergency directive, enacted after a failed Dec 25 bombing plot, has been replaced with a new set of intelligence-based protocols that law enforcement officials consider more effective.

Also this month, Tariq Ramadan, a prominent Muslim academic, visited the US for the first time in six years after secretary of state Hillary Clinton reversed a decision by the Bush administration, which had barred Ramadan from entering the country, initially citing the USA Patriot Act. Another Muslim professor Adam Habib has also been permitted entry.

Positive sign
Arab-American and Muslim leaders said they had yet to see substantive changes on a variety of issues, including what they describe as excessive airport screening, policies that have chilled Muslim charitable giving and invasive FBI surveillance guidelines. But they are encouraged by the extent of their consultation by the White House and governmental agencies.

“For the first time in eight years, we have the opportunity to meet, engage, discuss, disagree, but have an impact on policy,” said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute in Washington. “We’re being made to feel a part of that process and that there is somebody listening.”

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 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.

While the administration’s solicitation of Muslims and Arab-Americans has drawn little fanfare, it has not escaped criticism. A small but vocal group of research analysts, bloggers and others complain that the government is reaching out to Muslim leaders and organisations with an Islamist agenda or ties to extremist groups abroad.
“I think dialogue is good, but it has to be with genuine moderates,” said Steven Emerson, a terrorism analyst who advises government officials. “These are the wrong groups to legitimise.” Emerson and others have also objected to the political appointments of several American Muslims, including Rashad Hussain.

“The fact that the president and the administration have appointed Muslims to positions and have stood by them when they’ve been attacked is the best we can hope for,” said Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America.
From the moment Obama took office, he seemed eager to change the tenor of America’s relationship with Muslims worldwide. He gave his first interview to Al Arabiya, the Arabic-language television station based in Dubai. Muslims cautiously welcomed his ban on torture and his pledge to close Guantanamo within a year.
In his Cairo address, he laid out his vision for ‘a new beginning’ with Muslims: while America would continue to fight terrorism, he said, terrorism would no longer define America’s approach to Muslims.

Back home, Muslim and Arab-American leaders remained sceptical. But they took note when, a few weeks later, Mohamed Magid, a prominent imam from Sterling, and Rami Nashashibi, a Muslim activist from Chicago, joined the president at a White-House meeting about fatherhood. Also that month, Dr Faisal Qazi, a board member of American Muslim health professionals, began meeting with administration officials to discuss health care reform.

The invitations were aimed at expanding the government’s relationship with Muslims and Arab-Americans to areas beyond security, said Hussain, the White House’s special envoy. Hussain began advising the president on issues related to Islam after joining the White House counsel’s office in January 2009. He helped draft Obama’s Cairo speech and accompanied him on the trip. “The president realises that you cannot engage one-fourth of the world’s population based on the erroneous beliefs of a fringe few,” Hussain said.

Other government offices followed the lead of the White House. In October, commerce secretary Gary Locke met with Arab-Americans and Muslims in Dearborn to discuss challenges facing small-business owners. Also last fall, Farah Pandith was sworn in as the state department’s first special representative to Muslim communities. While Pandith works mostly with Muslims abroad, she said she had also consulted with American Muslims because Hillary Clinton believes “they can add value overseas.”

Despite this, American actions abroad have drawn the anger of Muslims and Arab-Americans. Even though their involvement with the administration has broadened, they leaders remain most concerned about security-related policies. In January, when the department of homeland security hosted a two-day meeting with Muslim, Arab-American, South Asian and Sikh leaders, the group expressed concern about the emergency directive subjecting passengers from a group of Muslim countries to additional screening.

Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates, pointed out that the policy would never have caught the attempted shoe-bomber Richard Reid, who is British.
Napolitano, who sat with the group for more than an hour, committed to meeting with them more frequently. Khera said she left feeling somewhat hopeful. “I think our message is finally starting to get through,” she said.
The New York Times

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