CAIRO — President Barack Obama delivered a direct appeal to the Islamic world Thursday for a “new beginning” with the United States, acknowledging historical mistakes made over centuries in the name of culture and religion that he said are now overshadowed by shared interests.
The 55-minute address electrified many Muslims in the Arab Middle East. The president celebrated the cultural, scientific and intellectual achievements of Islam to the delight of the audience inside the domed hall at Cairo University where he spoke — and beyond.
Using spare language and a measured explanatory tone, the country’s first black president, whose Kenyan family has deep Islamic roots, drew on history, biography, moral principles and mutual interests to dispel cultural stereotypes that divide Christians and Muslims, Arabs and Jews, and the United States from many in the Islamic faith. Seemingly small but symbolically important gestures by Obama drew warm applause, including his use of the phrase “May peace be upon him” following a reference to the prophet Muhammad. Speaking in Arabic, he offered the traditional greeting of “May peace be upon you” on behalf of the American people to applause.
As he urged leaders in the Muslim world to “place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party,” a man shouted, “Barack Obama, we love you!” The president responded simply, “Thank you,” and moved quickly back into his remarks. At the end of the speech he received a standing ovation and some in the crowd chanted “O-Bam-A, O-Bam-A.”
Challenge of terrorism
“Egypt also has suffered from terrorism,” said Ahmed el-Shoura, a 21-year-old political science student at Cairo University who attended the speech. “The question is how do you deal with it — through the military or something else? Obama showed today that he understands this difference and how to manage it.”
Obama quoted John Adams, the Koran, the Bible and the Talmud to argue that “as long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity.”
“This cycle of suspicion and discord must end,” Obama said. “I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition.”
The highly anticipated speech drew about 3,000 invited guests, including 500 journalists, to Cairo University and an audience of tens of millions more watching over national television networks, social networking sites, and instant-messaging services set up by the administration in a variety of languages. Obama pledged during the campaign to reach out directly to America’s rivals if elected, and the speech Thursday marked his most high-profile attempt to change the direction of U.S. relations with Islamic nations that traced a steady downward arc through the Bush administration.
On Sept. 11
The president was at times intimate and scolding, criticizing Islamic countries and his own for allowing differences to be exploited to violent ends “by a small but potent minority of Muslims.” In a flat, angry phrase, he told the audience that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were “not opinions to be debated” but “facts to be dealt with.”
As he spoke, the Arab satellite network al-Jazeera aired a new message from Osama bin Laden, urging Muslims to “brace yourselves for a long war against the world’s infidels and their agents.”
Drawing at times on his father’s Islamic heritage and his childhood in Indonesia, the most-populous Muslim nation, Obama made his own biography the starting point for a new U.S. relationship with Islam. He nostalgically recalled hearing the call to prayer “at the break of dawn and at the fall of dusk” as a boy in Indonesia, biographical details he rarely mentioned during the campaign when his Muslim family tree was seen as suspect by some voters. He declared his Christian faith Thursday near the start of his remarks.
At the same time, Obama spoke to Muslims about their most heartfelt sources of anger in words and phrases they would use, such as the term “occupation” to describe Israeli’s presence in the Palestinian territories. He used similar language in his remarks on the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the legacy of harsh American interrogation methods and the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
He criticized Iran, Israel, the Palestinians and the United States, although he stopped short of apologizing for past U.S. polices as American conservatives warned he would.
No war with Islam
Much of his mission was to convince Muslims that the United States is “not, and never will be, at war with Islam,” as he reiterated Thursday after first doing so in Turkey two months ago. He attempted to in part by describing the rich role Muslims have played in American life since the country’s founding.
He noted that Thomas Jefferson kept a copy of the Koran in his personal library, and told the audience of professors, political and religious leaders, students and others that “there is a mosque in every state of our union.”
“Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self- interested empire,” he said. “The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known.”
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, reviled by the political opposition here for his iron grasp on the media and security forces he often deploys against them, welcomed Obama with a lavish ceremony at the Qubba Palace, where the two discussed Middle East peace efforts and Iran’s nuclear program. The two later walked around the 13th-century Sultan Hassan Mosque and toured the Pyramids.
In his speech, one of the longest he has given and the centerpiece of his five-day trip through the Middle East and Europe, Obama used stronger and more specific language than he has previously on some of the most contested issues in the Muslim world.
On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama said, “America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable.” Citing the murder of 6 million Jews in the Nazi Holocaust, Obama said “threatening Israel with destruction, or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews, is deeply wrong,” a tacit reference to Iran’s government. The audience did not applaud.
At the same time, Obama said, “it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people — Muslims and Christians — have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.”
“They endure the daily humiliations — large and small — that come with occupation,” said Obama, using a term he did not use after meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month. “So let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable.”
Obama criticized Israel’s policy of building in lands occupied in the 1967 Middle East War, saying “the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.” He said “it is time for these settlements to stop,” while calling on the Palestinians to “abandon violence.”
Example of slavery
“For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation” he said. “But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding.”
Obama acknowledged the “controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years,” but he stated clearly for an audience that included some who oppose Mubarak’s autocratic administration that “governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure.”
On basic rights
“No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other,” Obama said. But he added that “I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things,” citing freedom of speech, self-government, and the rule of law, among other principles.
“He’s was very focused and mentioned many critical elements to us,” said Saneya Mohammed Rizk, 58, a Cairo University professor of community health nursing, her hair wrapped tightly in a scarf.
In addressing women’s rights in his speech, Obama said to applause that, “I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality.”
“I believe he will be able to accomplish this goal,” Rizk said of Obama’s ambition to begin again with Islam. “He has a scientific and historic background that allows him to be understood by many cultures. He has the intent to cooperate with us, and that is good.”
The Associated Press reports that not all with hostile views of the U.S. were mollified.
“Obama’s speech is an attempt to mislead people and create more illusions to improve America’s aggressive image in the Arab and Islamic world,” said a joint statement by eight Damascus, Syria-based radical Palestinian factions, including Hamas.
Still, many Muslim listeners praised the shift in U.S. attitude.
“It is the first time I have ever heard such affectionate words from an American for Muslims,” said Zahid Husain Gardezi, a landowner in the Pakistani city of Multan. “Apparently we can expect America to try to befriend the Muslim world in deeds as well. But let’s see how long it will take to see this on the ground.”