CAIRO – Stretching out a hand to the Islamic world, President Barack Hussein Obama on Thursday invoked the Quran, his middle name and an American evenhandedness he says too few Muslims see. Obama drew a respectful response from unlikely places — an Iranian cleric called it "an initial step for removing misconceptions."
The president, speaking at a seat of Islamic learning, delivered a 55-minute speech that was heavily promoted, carefully watched and had as its guiding themes the need to "speak the truth" and "seek a new beginning."
"So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace," the president said.
Obama made no specific references to his predecessor in the White House during his Cairo University speech, but others quickly did.
"There is a change between the language of President Obama and previous speeches made by George Bush," said Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for Hamas. But he added that Obama did not specifically note the suffering in Gaza following the three-week Israeli incursion earlier this year.
"So all we can say is that there is a difference in the statements, and the statements of today did not include a mechanism that can translate his wishes and views into actions," said Barhoum, whose group the U.S. considers a terrorist organization.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in advance of the speech that any statements by Obama were just "words, speech and slogan" that would leave in place sanctions designed to persuade the nation to stop its nuclear weapons program.
But Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a cleric who was vice president under reformist President Mohammad Khatami, called the speech "compensation" for a hostile environment created by Bush.
"This can be an initial step for removing misconceptions between world of Islam and the West," he said.
Obama's remarks were designed to reset relations after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Yet he also called sternly for Israel and Palestinians to live up to their obligations in seeking peace, demanded Iran bow to international demands to halt its nuclear weapons program and bid Muslim countries help in eradicating the threat of fundamentalist' violence across the globe.
In doing so, the Christian son of a Kenyan Muslim father and a Kansas mother sought common cause in part by addressing his own roots — and using a middle name that opponents used against him at inflammatory moments in the presidential campaign.
"Much has been made of the fact that an African-American with the name Barack Hussein Obama could be elected president," he said. "But my personal story is not so unique." He went on to say the dream of America exists for all who come there — including nearly 7 million Muslims.
The Israeli government issued a statement saying it, too, hoped for a new era. But it skirted any reference to Obama's calls for a settlement freeze in the West Bank and the creation of an independent Palestinian state — demands that Israel's hawkish prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, continues to reject.
Obama addressed the Israeli-Palestinian dispute pointedly in his address, knowing it goes to the heart of Muslim anger toward the West,
"It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true," he said. "Too many tears have flowed. Too much blood has been shed."
Obama's boisterous audience included several members of the nonviolent fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most powerful opposition movement. Though banned by the President Hosni Mubarak's government, it holds 20 seats in parliament.
Obama seemed upbeat after he spoke, touring the Great Pyramids at Giza. "This is huge!" he yelled at the base of the biggest, his voice echoing off the stone. Around the corner he joked about getting on a camel — and then several of his closest aides promptly did.
The president's brief stay in Cairo also included a visit to the Sultan Hassan mosque, a 600-year-old center of Islamic worship and study.
He flew to Europe later in the day, with stops planned in Germany and France before returning to the United States on Sunday.
Obama's remarks were televised on all radio and television stations in Israel; and with Arabic voice-over translations by Arab satellite stations. The Iranian government jammed signals to block satellite owners from watching.
From its opening phrases, the speech was laden with respectful gestures to Muslims.
Obama said it was part of his responsibilities as president "to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear."
He quoted the Quran: "be conscious of God and always speak the truth" to underscore his call for a new relationship based on mutual interest and respect. He referred to Iran by its full name, the Islamic Republic of Iran, said Islamic countries had been victimized by colonialism as well as the Cold War era struggle between the United States and the former Soviet Union.
"As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk," he said. "As a young man, I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith."
The battle against terrorists will continue, in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere, Obama said, despite the animosity the operations have helped created toward the U.S. among Muslims. "America's commitment will not weaken."
But calling Iraq, unlike Afghanistan, "a war of choice," he explained his plan to withdraw American combat troops next year and his reversal of Bush-era policies in the pursuit of terrorists that have enraged Muslims the world over. Obama said flatly that he has banned torture and will close the detested Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba next year.
He asked Muslims to join the fight. "The sooner the extremists are isolated and unwelcome in Muslim communities, the sooner we will all be safer," Obama said.
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." AFP