During last year's presidential contest, one area the Obama campaign did not want reporters dwelling on or delving into was the candidate's ties with Muslim activists who lived in the Chicago area. So I was struck by President Barack Obama's decision to highlight those same ties in the speech he delivered today in Cairo.
"As a young man, I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith," Obama told the crowd at Cairo University. "I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed," he said, referring to his experiences in Africa, Indonesia, and, presumably, Illinois.
As a state senator, community leader, and congressional candidate in Chicago, Obama often crossed paths with Muslims, including some controversial figures. He was friendly with Palestinian scholar Rashid Khalidi, who threw a fund-raiser for Obama's unsuccessful House run in 2000. In 2003, Obama and wife Michelle attended a party paying tribute to Khalidi as he left for a professorship at Columbia University in New York.
According to an April 2008 article in the L.A. Times, Obama spoke warmly of Khalidi, praising him for "consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases." Other speakers at the event denounced Jewish settlers, comparing them to Osama bin Laden.
Some Palestinians said Obama's comments at that and other events left them convinced that he would be friendlier to their cause than other candidates or recent presidents. One activist claimed that in 2004 Obama apologized for not doing more on Palestinian issues and suggested it was politically inconvenient to discuss the issue during the campaign. Aides to Obama denied that account and conclusive reports of Obama's comments at other Muslim events never emerged.
Obama later complained that he was the victim of "guilt by association" on the part of critics who expected him to answer for things Khalidi or other Palestinans had said. "I do know him and I have had conversations. He is not one of my advisors; he's not one of my foreign policy people. His kids went to the Lab school, where my kids go as well," Obama said. "He is a respected scholar, although he vehemently disagrees with a lot of Israel's policy."
During the primary campaign, aides to and allies of Hillary Clinton, such as former White House communications aide Sid Blumenthal, sought to stoke Jewish fears about Obama's associations with Chicago Muslims. And during the death rattle of their 2008 bid for the White House, Republican nominee John McCain and runningmate Sarah Palin both went after the Los Angeles Times, accusing it of suppressing a video of the 2003 Khalidi dinner. The Times said an agreement with a source prevented it making the video public.
The reference to Chicago's Muslim community is just one of several in Obama' s speech today which signal that he and his aides have now concluded that the benefits in the Islamic world of touting his ties to the Muslim community exceed the domestic political risk from his past associations.