I'm Not a Muslim, But Some Say I Play One on TV

Obama administration officials acknowledged today that they have emphasized certain elements of the president's Muslim background to suit whichever narrative they were trying to infuse at the time.

During a briefing on Obama's trip to Riyadh Wednesday, reporters asked why there's been a heavier focus on Obama's Muslim family roots since his campaign for office.

"We pushed back where appropriate-- like people running stories that he [the President] was educated in madrassas...We pushed back when his background was distorted in ways to inflame and misinform," the official said.

During the campaign, candidate Obama's staff frequently reminded the public that the senator was a devoted Christian. Obama himself explained that while his father was raised as a Muslim, he was not.

He did spend part of his childhood in Indonesia, a largely Muslim country. However, he attended both Catholic and Muslim schools, not a radical 'madrassa', which is an Islamic religious school.

But, Obama's political world has changed. The president has won the office which he so fervently sought. And the focus now, he says, is on bridging divides.

In the first television interview of his presidency, President Obama actually volunteered those controversial anecdotes of his background that had become misinterpreted. Mere days after taking the oath, he told Arabic-language network Al Arabiya, "[M]y job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world, that the language we use has to be a language of respect. I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries."

More recently, the president told another interviewer, "[W]e have a huge and thriving Muslim American community. We have Muslim Americans represented or who are serving in Congress. We've got a President who's got family members who are Muslim."

So, while the president has never denied his family's ties to the Muslim religion, his recent remarks are clearly a departure from his attempts to hem in murky perceptions during the campaign. Back then, even his republican rival, Senator John McCain, found himself in the odd position of having to explain to a woman at townhall meeting that no, Obama was not a Muslim.

All of this comes into play now that the president is finally gearing up for his long-awaited major address to the Muslim world in Cairo Thursday. The stepped-up talk of Obama's family heritage appears to be a lead-in to his attempts to bridge the divide between the US and the Muslim world.

"[T]he background is appropriate in this speech. It partially opens the door to dialogue. I don't think there's any question he has a unique background that has value," said a senior administration official.

Another official notes the positives of his family's Muslim connections, "I think what you can expect is a speech that really addresses the range of issues and interests and concerns that we have across this broad swath of the globe that is the Muslim world. And I think the fact is, is that the President himself experienced Islam on three continents before he was able to -- or before he's been able to visit, really, the heart of the Islamic world -- you know, growing up in Indonesia, having a Muslim father -- obviously Muslim Americans [are] a key part of Illinois and Chicago."

But in his second memoir, The Audacity of Hope, Obama wrote, "[A]lthough my father had been raised a Muslim, by the time he met my mother he was a confirmed atheist, thinking religion to be so much superstition."

Whether or not Barack Obama possesses any Muslim "credentials", so to speak, how his speech in Cairo is perceived will be the key to understanding his success or failure in breaking through to the Muslim world community.