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Obama's Muslim outreach

January 21, 2009 |  8:21 am

Inaugural1

Tuesday, he became the first president in history to use the word "Muslim" in his inaugural address. From the steps of the U.S. Capitol, President Obama said:

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

Then today, in an appearance at the National Cathedral that marked the official end of four days of inaugural celebration, the new president and first lady attended the National Prayer Service, where Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America, joined ministers and rabbis in offering prayers for the new administration.

And that has critics complaining that Mattson, a convert to Islam, is a front for an organization that supports the Palestinian militant group Hamas and that Obama should steer clear of any association with her or her organization.

"She has also made statements that refuse to condemn Hamas and Hezbollah," notes terrorim expert Steven Emerson. "She has made statements that essentially legitimize Osama bin Laden's actions by claiming that he would be peaceful if only he had a peaceful outlet to express his views."

In May 2007, federal prosecutors listed the organization as one of hundreds of co-conspirators in a case alleging that the Holy Land Foundation of Richardson, Texas, funneled more than $12 million to the Hamas. Emerson concedes that though the Islamic Society of North America was founded by the Muslim Brotherhood, none of the alleged acts of terrorism it supported happened on Mattson's watch.

The dust-up could signal the difficulty facing Obama in reaching out to Muslims. The president, a Christian whose father was a Muslim, deflected an urban legend during the campaign that he too was a Muslim. And his outreach to Muslim nations during his inaugural address -- followed by a round of calls this morning to Palestinian, Israeli and Arab leaders -- met with a cautious reception.

"It is very good that Obama wants to find a 'new way forward' with the Muslim world, but first he has to change U.S. policy over Israel and the Palestinian conflict," Maskuri Abdilah, head of Indonesia's largest Muslim organization, told AFP. "This is crucial because this problem is the root of all violence and tension between the Islamic world and the West."

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo: Win McNamee / Getty Images

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