Obama Reaches Out to the Muslim World

The president's stop in Turkey was just a part of his outreach blitz.

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Barack Obama's overtures to Muslims during this week's trip to Turkey were just one part of the recent Islamic outreach blitz engineered by the White House.

In Turkey, the president vowed that "America's relationship with the Muslim world cannot and will not be based on opposition to al Qaeda," toured a historic mosque, and met with Istanbul's top Muslim cleric. The administration also announced this week that it is bringing Dalia Mogahed, head of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, onto its faith advisory council. And White House aides reaffirmed the president's commitment to delivering a separate "Muslim speech" in a mostly Muslim country in his first 100 days in office. This came as a surprise to many who thought this week's address to the Turkish parliament fulfilled Obama's pledge to give such a speech. One senior administration official says the forthcoming speech will most likely include details of an expanded U.S. aid program for education and healthcare in the Islamic world.

After George W. Bush's war on terrorism became a war on Islam in the eyes of many of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims, Obama is eager to repair U.S.-Muslim relations. But it's going to be a tough sell. A Gallup Poll taken last year in predominantly Muslim Middle East and North African nations found the approval rating of U.S. leadership at 15 percent. The data aren't sufficient yet to tell if those numbers have moved since the U.S. election, but "Obama's starting from such a shattered relationship that he can't fix it overnight," Mogahed says.

And speeches alone won't improve relations. "It's American foreign policy that will either reinforce or undermine the rhetoric," Mogahed notes. But the administration argues that its foreign policy moves are consistent with its friendly tone. National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer says Obama's executive orders closing the Guantánamo Bay detention camp and banning certain Bush-era interrogation methods for detainees held by the United States show "concrete actions that signal to the world a very different approach."

Obama "is determined through words and deeds to demonstrate to the Muslim world that America can, and wants to, be a partner," Hammer says. The president may have a head start on building credibility because of his early opposition to the Iraq war, the foreign policy issue that has most riled the Islamic world. "If he does get out of Iraq on a relatively short timetable, it will go a long way in repairing relations with Muslims," says Juan Cole, author of the just released Engag ing the Muslim World.

Backing up rhetoric with policies is important, but administration aides say the outreach is as much about form as substance. This explains Obama's decision to grant his first television interview as president to al-Arabiya, an Arabic-language network. And why Obama, who on the campaign trail faced false rumors that he was Muslim, is opening up about spending part of his childhood in Indonesia, a primarily Muslim country. "Those facts carry a lot of weight" in the Muslim world, Mogahed says. "So that when he says he respects Muslims, he might actually mean it." That might lead the messenger in chief to spend even more of his time in the Islamic world mending relations.