Muslims unsure of Obama agenda on eve of his trip back to a Muslim nation

President Barack Obama has left American Muslims puzzled in the nine months since he delivered a landmark speech in Cairo and pledged "to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world."

As Obama prepares to travel to Indonesia, which boasts the largest Muslim population in the world, American Islamic groups are divided over what he has accomplished since that day at Al-Azhar University, when he quoted the Quran and spoke of his father's Muslim roots.

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"He raised a lot of expectations with his very positive rhetorical outreach in the early months of his presidency," Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told The Hill. "Unfortunately, we haven't seen that followed up with concrete policies."

Hooper cites a failure to move the Mideast peace process forward as an example of U.S. policy at a standstill, including Vice President Joe Biden's trip to the region last week, during which Israel announced new housing construction in East Jerusalem, flouting Washington's position against expansion of settlements.

Obama's outreach has included appointing Deputy Associate White House Counsel Rashad Hussain last month as special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference. "As a hafiz [memorization student] of the Quran, he is a respected member of the American Muslim community," Obama said in the announcement.

President George W. Bush first named a representative to the OIC in 2008 under similar objectives of outreach to the Muslim world.

Haris Tarin, director of the Washington office of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said "there's been a bit of a disappointment from Muslim majority countries" because "they haven't seen any real shift in policies" such as the Mideast settlement disputes.

But Tarin told The Hill that Obama showed early on that he "understood the nuances" in dealing with the Muslim world, such as when he stopped using the terminology "war on terror" and stressed that the U.S. was not at war with Islam.

"I believe it's still too early to make a judgment call in terms of what that relationship looks like and whether he'll be able to do what was intended," Tarin said.

While Tarin notes that Obama spoke to audiences in the Muslim world on Al-Arabiya in his first sit-down TV interview after becoming president, Richard Grenell, who was U.S. spokesman at the United Nations in the Bush administration, believes Obama has erred in not appearing on another Mideast media staple.

"With Obama coming in and giving his Cairo speech it really signaled that we were going to be speaking with the Arabs in a different way," Grenell, who served under four ambassadors in eight years at the U.N., told The Hill. "I think it's extremely ironic that Barack Obama has yet to sit down with Al-Jazeera in more than a year as president."

Grenell said that on the substance side the White House has "completely stumbled on the Arab-Israeli issue," including the settlement policy. "They've upset both sides at this point," he said.

Steven Emerson, executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism and a former staffer at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The Hill that Obama has found reality does not bear out the idealism he brought into office.

"I think that the president came into office with the naïve belief that the Islamic world’s resentment against the United States was bred by U.S. rhetoric and U.S. behavior in the Middle East and Muslim worlds," Emerson said. "He seemed to believe that Islamic extremism could be tamped down by distancing the U.S. from Israel, condemning previous U.S. anti-terror policies and closing down Gitmo."

But Obama misjudged the nature and prevalence of extremism, Emerson said.

"Moreover, Islamic resentment against the U.S. stems from the fact that the Islamic world sees a longtime conspiracy by the West to subjugate it, hence its lower-rung status on the world’s political totem pole, the very existence of the state of Israel, and the arrests of Islamic terrorists and closure of Islamic terrorist charitable fronts, not to mention the secularism and 'cultural immorality' that the U.S. 'exports' around the world," Emerson said.

But Obama is not just being watched and judged on international relations when it comes to reaching out to the Muslim community.

At home, his initiatives have included selecting Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, as a Muslim affairs adviser on the President’s Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

"We'd like to see much more positive interaction between the Obama administration and the American Muslim community," Hooper said.

For example, the CAIR spokesman said, Obama could visit a mosque here in the U.S.

"He's understandably leery of this whole 'Obama is a Muslim' thing, so that may be a factor," Hooper said, citing a new University of Georgia study that found about 20 percent of Americans believed during the 2008 presidential campaign that Obama, who spent several years in Indonesia as a boy, was a Muslim.

CAIR sent a letter to Obama in December asking the president to address an "alarming level of anti-Islam hate in our nation," but to date has received no response, Hooper said.

"For some time CAIR has been asking President Obama and his administration to speak out forcefully against Islamophobia," Hooper said.

But Tarin of MPAC said he's found the administration increasing its engagement with the Muslim community, setting up meetings at various levels with the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security, for example, to discuss national security and civil rights issues.

"The Muslim-American community is quite happy to see that taking place," Tarin said of the "broader engagement."

"I'm hopeful, but I think that engagement will increase," Tarin added.

Since the Cairo speech, the administration has been confronted with the Fort Hood shooting spree in which Major Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist and U.S.-born Muslim, killed 13 people, plus the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight en route to Detroit by a Nigerian Muslim allegedly working for al-Qaeda.

Hooper said those incidents sparked bigotry against Muslims that highlighted the need for the administration to speak up for American Muslims.

Yet Tarin said the administration handled the Fort Hood incident well in stressing that Hasan's actions didn't represent all Muslims.

"I think the Pentagon initially did a wonderful job distinguishing between Hasan and Muslims who serve our country well," he said.

The Christmas Day bombing attempt, Tarin said, "was a little more politically challenging for the administration.

"Folks on the other side of the aisle came out and made it a political issue, and the administration responded politically," he said.

Emerson said that those two incidents only hampered Obama's agenda of trying to reboot relations with the Muslim world.

"The Hasan and [Umar Farouk] Abdulmutallab cases only confirmed for parts of the Muslim world that the U.S. is still 'anti-Muslim,'" Emerson said. "The divergence over what constitutes terrorism between the U.S. and the Muslim world cannot be bridged unless we were to suddenly embrace Hamas, Hizbollah, [Lashkar-e-Toiba] and stop prosecuting Islamic terrorists."

In moving forward with Muslim relations in Obama's term, Hooper and Tarin both said that the Islamic world needs to see some sort of progress in the Middle East peace process, even the establishment of benchmarks in the absence of a negotiated settlement.

Grenell said another critical factor moving forward will be how the U.S. proceeds with Iran, citing the concerns of regional nations such as Saudi Arabia and Lebanon over the Islamic Republic's nuclear ambitions.

"Many in the Arab world are concerned that the Obama administration is not paying attention as the Iranians get more bold with their actions and have an additional year to enrich uranium without any more international pressure," Grenell said.

Obama delayed his trip to Indonesia, Guam and Australia until March 21 to deal with trying to move healthcare reform at home. That same day, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee begins its meeting in Washington; Obama was invited to speak, AIPAC confirmed, but cited the Indonesia trip as a prior commitment and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is being sent by the administration as a plenary speaker instead.

Tarin said the Indonesia visit, which has been preceded by "fringe" protests against Obama, will be an opportunity for the president to engage the Muslim world again and "engage in a frank conversation" as he did on his April trip to Turkey.

"We're hoping for the best trying to improve relations between the Obama administration and Muslim world," Hooper said, but "expectations were so high it would be hard for him to meet them."