Koran Burning Threat Shows U.S.-Muslim Relations are Still Strained

Video: Geoff Morrell talks about Koran burning threat at DOD press conference.
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Fifteen months ago, President Obama flew to Egypt in the heart of the Muslim world to pledge "a new beginning" in long-strained U.S.-Muslim relations. "This cycle of suspicion and discord must end," Obama said in a speech broadcast around the globe.

On Thursday, after Obama went on ABC's Good Morning America and pressed the pastor of a Florida church not to run afoul of "our values as Americans" and burn Islamic holy books in protest, the pastor suspended his plan.

Terry Jones' Quran-burning threat, though, had already sparked flag-burning protests in Afghanistan and raised new questions about the state of U.S.-Muslim relations.

Despite Obama's efforts to bridge a gap that widened following the 2001 terrorist attacks, "we're a long way from Cairo," says former Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller, who has advised six secretaries of State.

In the time since Obama's speech in Egypt, "you'd be hard-pressed to say we've made a consequential dent in the way we're perceived," Miller says.

James Zogby of the Arab American Institute says it's worse than that. "We're back to where we were in the Bush era" when the start of U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, photographs of U.S. soldiers torturing Arab prisoners, and the indefinite detentions of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay inflamed passions and suspicions about U.S. intentions across the Muslim world.

Among Muslims, Zogby says, Obama's election brought "high expectations and he then raised those expectations" with the Cairo speech. Today, "those expectations have been dashed."

He and other Arab and Muslim experts cite a series of events, some within and some beyond Obama's control, that have raised tensions. Among them:

•A decision by the Transportation Security Administration in January to subject people from 14 mostly Muslim countries with known terrorism problems to additional security checks, including pat downs. Among the countries: Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Yemen. The order, which was later rescinded, was imposed after a Nigerian passenger tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight near Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009.

•Obama's inability to fulfill his promise, made on the campaign trail and again in Cairo, to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center within a year of taking office. He has faced strong bipartisan opposition in Congress to moving suspected terrorists to a prison on the U.S. mainland, and the White House has not said whether there is a new plan to close the prison.

•Obama's perceived backpedaling last month after initially saying he supported a controversial proposal to build an Islamic cultural center, including a mosque, near Ground Zero in New York City. The next day, he qualified his remarks to say he didn't intend to weigh in on the wisdom of building the mosque near the World Trade Center site where nearly 3,000 people died on 9/11 but only meant to comment on "the right people have" to religious freedom.

At the White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs acknowledged Thursday that recent events have taken a toll. Asked whether the controversy around Jones had set back efforts to change the tone of U.S.-Muslin relations, Gibbs said, "I don't think there's any doubt."

Miller says the fact that tensions are so easily inflamed at home and abroad, even by a pastor with a small congregation, should come as no surprise. "This is going to happen over and over again, I don't care how many speeches the president gives," he says. "We are never going to be loved in this region."

Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., however, sees an upside.

"Every now and again fear will take root and purveyors of that fear will command the public square," says Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress when he won his seat in 2006. "But even with these ugly events, people are stepping up" and joining together to condemn the bigotry and acts of hate.

"Rev. Jones has got to be one of the loneliest guys in town," Ellison says.

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