By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country
In preparing for the president's speech tomorrow from Cairo, the White House did something it hasn't previously in preparing Obama to engage Muslims abroad: It called on American religious leaders and experts, including many Muslims, for advice.
In a conference call last month, Obama's foreign policy speechwriter, Ben Rhodes, and aides in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships took input from Muslim, Christian, and Jewish figures concerning what the president should say in Cairo. "The White House did a very good job at taking advantage of the available expertise," says Dalia Mogahed, executive director of Gallup's Center for Muslim Studies, who participated in the call.
It's unclear how much of that advice will be reflected in the president's speech. But those who were part of the call said the White House has already responded to a request from Muslim participants to invite an overtly Muslim organization to cosponsor Obama's speech, to be delivered from Cairo University. The White House, the participants said, has since gotten Al Azhar University—a religious school, unlike Cairo University—to cosponsor the event.
The White House declined to respond to a request for comment. But in a briefing for reporters on Friday, Denis McDonough, a White House deputy national security adviser, emphasized the importance of Al Azhar as a cosponsor. "The president very much appreciates the hospitality of Cairo University," McDonough said, "but also appreciates the willingness of Al Azhar, one of the oldest universities in the region, to jointly host the event, underscoring the storied history and learnedness of Islam."
The roughly dozen participants on the call, who are affiliated with the White House faith advisory council's task force on interfaith dialogue, were not previously consulted on Obama's Muslim outreach offensive, which has included an interview on the al Arabiya television network and a speech and mosque visit while in Turkey in April. After the call, participants followed up with E-mails and memos to the White House.
The competing priorities of the faith leaders and experts involved in the process illustrate the intense cross-pressures and political risks Obama faces in delivering what aides have described as a "Muslim speech."
About a half-dozen Muslim representatives involved in the process encouraged Obama to speak directly to Muslim grievances about U.S. foreign policy, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the American role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "I shared polling that shows that three major issues drive anti-American sentiment among Muslims around the world," says Gallup's Mogahed. "Perceptions of disrespect, perceptions of political domination and exploitation, and anger at acute conflicts."
At least one Jewish representative who was in on the call, meanwhile, discouraged Obama from tackling the Mideast conflict in the speech. "I raised the concern about whether the president would be able to spend enough time on the Arab-Israeli issues to make it worthwhile," says Nathan Diament, who directs public affairs for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. "If he is just going to shorthand it, he'll probably generate more criticism over what he does not say."
Joel Hunter, an evangelical leader involved in the process, voiced an entirely different concern: that the president needs to keep his American audience in mind. "From a conservative evangelical viewpoint, this kind of speech causes a good deal of apprehension," Hunter said. "He has to make us glad to be Americans and bring us along even as he's making a policy statement to the rest of the world."