Skip to main content

Obama looks to reach the soul of the Muslim world

  • Story Highlights
  • NEW: White House says bin Laden tape's release is no surprise
  • Recording criticizes Obama administration's policies
  • Muslim congressman says tape is irrelevant, Muslims looking for change
  • Analysts say key issue Obama needs to address is Israeli settlements in Gaza
By Ed Hornick
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font

(CNN) -- Winning the hearts and minds of a majority of people is a nearly impossible feat, especially when you're a politician.

President Obama hopes to start a "new chapter of engagement" with the Muslim world, a spokesman says.

President Obama hopes to start a "new chapter of engagement" with the Muslim world, a spokesman says.

And it's even harder when religion is involved, namely Islam, which some estimates put at 1 billion followers.

But President Obama looks to do just that Thursday as he delivers what the White House is billing as a major speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, Egypt.

Obama hopes to start "a new chapter of engagement" between the United States and the Muslim world, speechwriter Ben Rhodes said Wednesday. How can U.S. better relate to Muslims?

This engagement would be based on mutual respect and mutual interest, and Obama plans to speak "openly and candidly" about issues that have caused "tensions in the Muslim world," Rhodes said. "This can't be just [about] what we're against, but what we're for."

Obama asked staff members to "cast a wide net" to gather a range of viewpoints, including those of Muslim-Americans, as he was preparing his Cairo comments, Rhodes disclosed.

But just as the White House lays out its vision, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden purportedly issued another statement Wednesday, saying U.S. policy in Pakistan has generated "new seeds of hatred and revenge against America."

Al-Jazeera, an Arabic-language TV network, aired segments of what it said was a "voice recording by bin Laden," which was believed to have been recorded several weeks ago, during a mass civilian exodus because of fighting in northwestern Pakistan.

Pakistani troops have been taking on militants in the area, known as the Swat Valley.

Bin Laden's message also likened Obama's actions to those of past administrations.

Obama is proving that he is "walking the same road of his predecessors to build enmity against Muslims and increasing the number of fighters and establishing more lasting wars," bin Laden says on the tape.

"This basically means that Obama and his administration put new seeds of hatred and revenge against America. The number of these seeds is the same as the number of those victims and refugees in Swat and the tribal area in northern and southern Waziristan."

The White House hit back on the bin Laden tape late Wednesday.

"I don't think it's surprising that al Qaeda would want to shift attention away from the president's historic efforts, and continued efforts, to reach out and have an open dialogue with the Muslim world," Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

It was a message reinforced by officials throughout the administration.

"I think the timing is pretty self-evident, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist on this one," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said.

CNN Security Analyst Peter Bergen says the tape "speaks for itself."

"I think what's interesting about the tape is that it appears to be made several weeks ago. ... The bin Laden tape was not made to kind of upstage the Cairo speech. ... Some in Al-Jazeera may well have kept it back ... for a more newsworthy moment ... right now as the president is in the Middle East," he said. Video Watch analysis on the president's trip »

Bin Laden's comments come as al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri said Obama will not be welcomed in Egypt but rather "welcomed by his slaves who benefit from his aids and bribes."

Bergen says the two men are still "pretty relevant" in the Muslim world, adding that they "do continue to provide strategic guidance to jihadis around the world."

But Democratic Rep. Andre Carson of Indiana, a Muslim, says the latest message shows that al Qaeda is threatened by Obama's appeal to Muslims as having relatives of the Islamic faith and having lived in a Muslim country.

"President Obama's reaching the hearts and minds of the Muslim community both here in the United States and internationally. ... These extremists ... want to pump fear in the hearts and minds, but it's not working," he said.

"I think we have to be mindful and careful about these self-appointed gatekeepers of the religion of Islam. The religion of Islam is a peaceful religion. We certainly have great contributions from Muslims in America and Muslims abroad who want to see the world better."

It's a point agreed with by CNN's senior editor of Middle East affairs, Octavia Nasr.

"One thing is certain: Bin Laden's rhetoric doesn't seem to mirror a mostly hopeful acceptance of President Obama among Muslims and Arabs," Nasr said Wednesday.

Carson, a former Homeland Security official, has advised Obama on Muslim affairs. He says the president needs to strike the right balance of appealing to Muslims while not weakening the United States' relationship with Israel.

Bergen agrees, saying senior Saudi officials have told him that they want some statement on Israel that is "more than just platitudes."

"The president and his team, of course, understand that. And we've seen the ground being prepared over the last week or so with statements on the settlements [in Gaza]."

In advance of his trip, the president has been getting tough on Israel, pushing a two-state solution in meetings with a resistant Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Before embarking on his trip, Obama dropped in unexpectedly on a meeting Tuesday in Washington between Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and National Security Adviser Gen. Jim Jones, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.

Obama, the newspaper reports, intends to give Netanyahu four to six weeks to update his position regarding construction in the settlements and Palestinian sovereignty as part of the so-called two-state solution.

Netanyahu, speaking to the Knesset Foreign Affairs Committee on Monday, said that a freeze of settlement activity is not reasonable.

But it's not just the settlement issue Obama has to address; it's also tamping down criticism of picking Cairo to deliver the speech.

CNN's Ben Wedeman, who talked to Egyptians in Cairo, said most of the people were eagerly awaiting the president's visit but said some were concerned that Obama, by making Egypt the focus of his trip, could legitimize Mubarak's 28-year rule.

These Egyptians said they feared that Obama might not discuss with Mubarak longstanding problems such as the need for democracy and political reform. Video Watch more of Wedeman's reporting »

"What they want is results, not just words," Wedeman said.

But Nasr argues that Egypt is significant because it is a "major player" in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which is "at the heart of every Muslim confrontation with the west."

"It is also home to Al-Azhar Mosque, the authority on Islam for the whole world. It is also the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the past decades, Egypt has also landed a voice to an array of groups from ultra-conservative Muslim movements to most liberal social issues such as gay rights."

Back home, potential 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney says Obama needs to stop using foreign soil to apologize for U.S. relations.

"[There's] no harm in speaking with other people. But if you look at his last trip to Europe and also the comments he made on Arabic TV as he became president, I think you can be troubled as I have been," he said Tuesday.


Carson, however, says Obama has to address the "arrogance" of the eight years under the Bush administration.

"We've seen eight years of disrespect. We've seen eight years of arrogance. And we've seen eight years of our wonderful, great nation shoving our opinions down the throats of other nations," he said. "President Obama is the man to help move us forward and heal some of these wounds."

CNN's Octavia Nasr, Ed Henry and Ben Wedeman contributed to this report.

All About Barack ObamaEgyptIslamAl Qaeda

  • E-mail
  • Save
  • Print