Muslims on Obama: hope, but also caution

In 2009, many Muslims welcomed President Barack Obama’s inaugural promise of “a new way forward” toward mutual respect between the United States and the Islamic world. Obama’s favorability with the Muslim world has since dropped, according to a 2013 poll released by the Pew Research Center.


Muslims were leery when Obama was elected, as many felt President George W. Bush spoke of forging closer ties but did not follow through. In fact, many Muslims supported Bush’s 2000 presidential bid, only to be disappointed by his post-9/11 policy decisions. Experts say that Obama, who took office in the wake of a devastating war in Gaza, had to act quickly to earn their trust.

On Jan. 26, 2009, Obama recorded one of his first television interviews as president with a leading Arab-language network,  Al Arabiya. According to The New York Times story, Obama “struck a conciliatory tone toward the Islamic world, saying he wanted to persuade Muslims that ‘the Americans are not your enemy’ and adding that ‘the moment is ripe for both sides’ to negotiate in the Middle East.” (Read a transcript and see clips at CBS News’ “Political Hotsheet” site.) At the same time, Obama also dispatched his new special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, to the region to signal a new American approach and engagement in the peace process.

The day after the inauguration, both The Washington Post and The New York Times ran full-page ads paid for by various Muslim American groups. An ad from Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow urged the new president to increase his engagement with young Muslims. The other, from the Muslim Public Affairs Council and more than a dozen other advocacy groups, urged him to take a more critical stand on Israel. American Muslims are still learning how to work the political system and advocate for themselves, and the next few months saw a range of efforts, some successful, some not.

How did the Muslim community in your coverage area react to Obama? Check in with local Muslim Students Associations on college campuses.

According to a 2013 article by the Washington Times, Muslim countries have lost “confidence in Obama,” as favorability ratings dropped from 33 to 24 percent after his first term. Between his terms, overseas approval of White House policies fell from 34 to 15 percent, the poll finds. Given Obama’s past promises to reach out to the Muslim community, these numbers are quite significant. How does your local Muslim community feel about this?

Additional resources

  • Read a transcript of Obama’s inaugural address, posted by The Washington Post.
  • See two relevant essays posted on Jan. 30, 2009 at The Immanent Frame, the religion blog of the Social Science Research Council.
  • One is “A reason to remain hopeful,” by Jen’nan Ghazal Read, an associate professor of Sociology and Global Health at Duke University whose work includes research on the assimilation experiences of Arab Americans and U.S. Muslims.
  • Another is “Obama reaches out,” by John Esposito, professor of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University and Founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown.


  • Khaled Abou El Fadl

    Khaled Abou El Fadl is an internationally recognized law professor and the Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Distinguished Fellow in Islamic Law at the University of California, Los Angeles. He teaches a course on Islamic law and has also taught about Middle Eastern investment law, immigration law and human rights and terrorism. His books include Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women, and he wrote the entry on Shariah for The Oxford University Handbook of Islam and Politics.

  • Carl W. Ernst

    Carl W. Ernst is a professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. He wrote Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World and edited Islamophobia in America: The Anatomy of Intolerance. He is affiliated with the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.

  • John Voll

    John Voll is professor of Islamic history and associate director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He is an expert in Middle Eastern, Islamic and world history, and he has written on Islam in the modern world and Islam and democracy.

  • Richard C. Martin

    Richard C. Martin is a professor in the religion department at Emory University in Atlanta. His scholarly interests include Islamic studies, comparative religions and religion and conflict. He has written several books about the history and study of Islam. He has lived and done research in Egypt and elsewhere in the Muslim world, and he is engaged in cooperative projects with Muslim scholars.

  • Sherman Jackson

    Sherman Jackson holds the King Faisal Chair of Islamic Thought and Culture at the University of Southern California, where he is also professor of religion and American studies and ethnicity. He was formerly the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Visiting Professor of Law and Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Michigan. His books include Islamic Law and the State: The Constitutional Jurisprudence of Shihâb al-Dîn al-Qarâfî and Islam & the Problem of Black Suffering.

  • Akbar S. Ahmed

    Akbar S. Ahmed is a professor of comparative and regional studies and professor of international relations at American University in Washington, D.C., where he holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies. He has advised world leaders on Islam and was formerly High Commissioner of Pakistan to Great Britain. He has engaged in public dialogues with Judea Pearl, father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, in the U.S. and abroad. Ahmed has written widely and is a frequent television commentator on Islam. He is author of Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World. He also undertook a yearlong “anthropological journey” across America with a team of students studying American diversity. The journey has been documented via blog.

  • Yvonne Y. Haddad

    Yvonne Y. Haddad is professor of the history of Islam and Muslim-Christian relations at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. She co-authored Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today and Educating the Muslims of America. Her scholarly interests include Muslims in the West, Islamic revolutionary movements, 20th-century Islam and the intellectual, social and political history of the Arab world.

  • Omid Safi

    Omid Safi is a professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies at Duke University, where he also directs the Duke Islamic Studies Center. He edited Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism.

  • John Esposito

    John Esposito is founding director of Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and professor of religion and international affairs and of Islamic studies at Georgetown. He is an expert on global terrorism, Islam and democracy, and international interfaith relations. His publications include Islamaphobia: The Challenges of Pluralism in the 21st Century and Islam: The Straight Path; The Oxford Dictionary of Islam; Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam; What Everyone Needs to Know About IslamWho Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think; and Women in Muslim Family Law.

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