By Bridget Johnson - 06/01/09 07:39 AM EDT
President Obama faces a phalanx of skeptics when he makes his long-promised address to the Islamic world from Cairo this week, as many Muslims watch to see what new course he promises to chart.
His biggest challenge in finding a receptive audience may be navigating through the tangled web of wishes coming from myriad agendas across the Muslim world -- calls for everything from a lifting of sanctions on Syria to decreased support for longtime U.S. ally Israel.
If there have been any indications about the tone of Obama's speech, though, it's that his address will be more philosophical than policy wonk.
"I want to use the occasion to deliver a broader message about how the United States can change for the better its relationship with the Muslim world," Obama said Thursday in the Oval Office, seated alongside Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. "That will require, I think, a recognition on both the part of the United States as well as many majority Muslim countries about each other, a better sense of understanding, and I think possibilities to achieve common ground.
"I want to emphasize the importance of Muslim Americans in the United States and the tremendous contributions they make, something that I think oftentimes is missed in some of these discussions."
The theme of Muslim outreach has been omnipresent ever since the Obama campaign found itself in the awkward position of having to brand a viral rumor about Obama supposedly being a Muslim as a "smear" campaign. Then on the campaign trail in Michigan a year ago, two women wearing the Islamic headscarf, or hijab, were barred from sitting behind Obama as he spoke. The campaign apologized profusely.
On Inauguration Day, though, Obama made his priorities clear. "To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect," the new president said.
Obama would send another signal to the Muslim world by granting his first television interview as president to Saudi-owned, Dubai-based Al-Arabiya.
"My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy," Obama said. "We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect."
His first trip to the Muslim world came at the beginning of April, when he addressed the Turkish parliament at the crossroads of the Muslim world and Europe in Ankara. Though more about Turkish-U.S. ties and regional concerns, the speech included some Muslim outreach.
"I know there have been difficulties these last few years. I know that the trust that binds us has been strained, and I know that strain is shared in many places where the Muslim faith is practiced," the president said. "Let me say this as clearly as I can: the United States is not at war with Islam. In fact, our partnership with the Muslim world is critical in rolling back a fringe ideology that people of all faiths reject."
In addition, the president is taking flack for his recent decision to revive military tribunals to try terrorism suspects housed at Guantanamo, even as he faces resistance within his own party to closing the prison without firm relocation plans for the detainees.
Some critics in the Muslim world wasted no time this weekend giving Obama tips for his landmark address.
"The war on Islam by your predecessor President George Bush was repugnant to both the Arab and Muslim people, who continue to be misrepresented, and are all examples of the suffering to which the U.S. has turned a blind eye," wrote Muslim Brotherhood member and Egyptian blogger AbdulRahman Mansour on Al-Arabiya on Saturday. "Those arrested and forcibly detained in the Guantanamo prison await an apology from the U.S. If understanding and respect are two things you aim to express to the world next Thursday, addressing Islamophobia is necessary.
"Propaganda speeches, which stall all progress,are the surest way to leading the region into a political abyss," Mansour continued. "The policies pursued since the beginning of your presidency, and the deviation from the values on which you based your election, will only make you another George Bush, albeit a charismatic one. Remember that you make history as you set foot on Egypt's soil. Do not merely make bright and flashy titles of your ideas and your plans, put them into action, and make the right decisions in your upcoming visits to the Arab region."
"It is hoped that the president would spell out the US policy toward
Islam and Muslims with a sincere wish to bridge the widening gap
between the Muslim world and the American people particularly
exacerbated by his predecessor at the White House," columnist Hassan Tahsin wrote in Monday's Arab News. "Nonetheless, no body
can foretell with certitude the features of Obama's vision about his
relations with the Muslim world."