White House Reaches Out to Muslims, Who Want More Action Than Talk

By Julianne Hing Apr 20, 2010

The New York Times reported over the weekend that the White House has been making quiet overtures to make amends with the Muslim community in the U.S. and build a stronger relationship for a healthier climate for policy making. The NY Times cited several public moves from the Obama administration, including the speech President Obama gave in Cairo last June promising a new direction in the relationship between his administration and Muslims abroad and in the U.S. top Arab-American and Muslim leaders had met with Valerie Jarrett, a top White House advisor, Janet Napolitano, the DHS Secretary, and Eric Holder, the Attorney General to talk about domestic policy. In April, the administration announced revised airport security guidelines that replaced its own policy of mandatory screenings for all travelers from a list of 14 countries with a less-explicitly racist policy that was "intelligence-based." The shift was being marked in other ways as well. The world-renowned Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan, was finally allowed to travel to the United States this month after a ban on his travel, a holdover from the Bush administration, was lifted. The administration appointed Rashad Hussain as the United States’ special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference and has been making a concerted effort to use appropriate language and disassociate Islam from terrorism. But community leaders want more than respectful language and symbolic moves. Zahra Billoo, the policy and outreach director of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, praised many of the Obama administration’s gestures as promising "first steps," but said the lived reality for many Muslims in America continues to be very different. "A lot of people are being visited at home and at work by the FBI," said Billoo. "People are being told by FBI agents, ‘You don’t need a lawyer. We just want to talk.’ They are being asked about where they pray, their religious practices." Billoo said this local activity still made people in the community fearful about going to their mosques or getting involved in political advocacy work. Billoo also said that many Muslims also reported other troubling interactions with law enforcement, that many, including U.S. citizens, reported being unable to travel freely because they had been put on no-fly lists. When President Obama was running for office, the most oft-heard rumor about him was his supposed secret Muslim faith. Of course there were many other untruths being circulated about Barack Obama; the Birthers had yet to dig up credible documents to prove his Kenyan citizenship, and fraudulent claim to the American presidency. The Obama campaign eventually made a website to "fight the smear" of being labeled a person of Muslim faith. And when a woman called Obama "an Arab man" during a town hall meeting, Sen. John McCain’s defense of Obama was valiant, and terribly racist. He said:

"No, ma’am. No, ma’am. He’s a decent, family man, citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign is all about."

As if being Arab and being a decent person were mutually exclusive. It’s from this climate of unmitigated attacks that the Obama administration has emerged. But the Muslim and Arab community is hopeful that Obama will get things right. Indeed, numbers released by the American Muslim Task Force on Civil Rights and Elections showed that roughly 89 percent of people the 600 self-identified Muslims who responded voted for Barack Obama. Billoo is interested in making sure Obama’s actions match his lofty words. "A lot of what happens in D.C. sets the pulse for the rest of the country," Billoo said. "It’s the first step in the chain, and there is a lot of damage that needs to be repaired." Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy. President Obama speaking at Cairo University on June 4, 2009.