Obama Calls for New Beginning With World's Muslims

Posted in Broader Middle East , United States | 04-Jun-09 | Author: Scott Wilson| Source: Washington Post

President Barack Obama tours the Sphinx and pyramids outside Cairo, Thursday, June 4, 2009.

CAIRO, June 4 -- President Obama asked Thursday for a "new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world" in a speech that urged Islamic nations to embrace democracy, women's rights, religious tolerance and the right of Israel to co-exist with an independent Palestinian state.

In an address designed to change perceptions of the United States in the Arab Middle East and beyond, Obama reviewed the troubled historical legacy between Islam and the rest of the world, from colonialism through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the uncertainty surrounding cultural and economic globalization.

"So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity," Obama told an audience of hundreds gathered in a domed hall at Cairo University. "This cycle of suspicion and discord must end."

Even as Obama spoke, however, the Arab satellite network al-Jazeera aired new excerpts of an audiotape message issued yesterday by al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, urging Muslims to "brace yourselves for a long war against the world's infidels and their agents."

Obama's speech, carried live by many networks around the world, marks his latest outreach to Islam since taking office on a pledge to reach out more directly to U.S. rivals. Drawing at times on his father's Islamic heritage and his own childhood in Indonesia, the third most-populous Muslim nation, Obama condemned religious intolerance and bigotry across nations, and warned that "a small but potent minority of Muslims" have used those tensions to promote religious violence.

The speech at times had the feel of a history lesson as Obama listed the accomplishments of Muslims in America and the contributions Islamic culture has made to civilization over the centuries. He also sought to share the blame for the ruptured relationship, even as he sharply criticized Islamist extremism and called the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, "not opinions to be debated" but "facts to be dealt with."

"I consider it part of my responsibility as president of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear," he said. "But that same principle must apply to Muslim perceptions of America. Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire."

Obama used far stronger and more specific language than his previous remarks on some of the most contested issues in the Muslim world, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although he urged Arab nations to do more to achieve peace with Israel, Obama also spoke passionately about what he called the Palestinian right to a state.

"America's strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable," Obama said. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied."

Citing the destruction of 6 million Jews in the Nazi Holocaust, Obama said that "threatening Israel with destruction, or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews, is deeply wrong."

At the same time, he 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. So let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own."

The audience, which had stayed silent while Obama described the U.S.-Israel relationship, anti-Semitism and the legacy of the Holocaust, broke into warm applause.

Obama sharply criticized Israel's policy of settlement construction in lands occupied in the 1967 Middle East War, parts of which the Palestinians envision as their future state. He said "the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements."

"This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace," Obama said. "It is time for these settlements to stop."

But he also called on the Palestinians to "abandon violence," holding up the U.S. civil rights movement as an example. "Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed," he said. "For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. 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."

To strong applause from the audience, Obama quoted several times from the Koran, Islam's scripture, and noted that American founding father Thomas Jefferson kept a copy of the book in his personal library. "As the Holy Koran tells us," he said, "Be conscious of God and speak always the truth."

He stressed the freedoms and successes that Muslims have experienced in the United States, and said: "Let there be no doubt. Islam is part of America."

"There is a mosque in every state of our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders," Obama said, adding, "The U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it."

For security reasons, this famously raucous city was largely shut down in the hours leading up to the speech, with black-clad members of the Egyptian security forces stationed every 50 feet or so for miles outside the university. Roads usually snarled with traffic flowed as smoothly as country lanes. Security forces appeared to be blocking access into downtown from some poorer neighborhoods.

Obama arrived here from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, just after 9 a.m. local time. He was greeted at the airport by Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, and taken swiftly to Qubba Palace, where the motorcade was escorted up the long drive by 21 horses.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, reviled by the political opposition here for his iron grasp on the media and the security forces he often deploys, joined Obama on a palace balcony for the welcoming ceremony, featuring each country's national anthem. The two men then met privately for about 20 minutes.

Obama said afterward that, among other issues, the two leaders discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and "how we can move forward in a constructive way that brings about peace and prosperity for all people in the region."

Mubarak said, through a translator, that the pair had discussed "all problems here in the region" including "the situation and everything related to Iran and to the region."

"We discussed everything candidly and frankly without any reservation," Mubarak said. "But there are other meetings that will take place later either in the United States of America or anywhere else."

The administration has taken extraordinary steps to make sure Obama's speech is heard around the world, including offering instant text-messaging of the address in four languages, creating special links on popular social networking sites, and facilitating its live broadcast on national television networks.

"There has been a breach, an undeniable breach between America and the Islamic world, and that breach has been years in the making," said David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama. "It is not going to be reversed in one speech. It is not going to be reversed perhaps in one administration. But the president is a strong believer in open, honest dialogue."

Egypt's state-run television channel is covering Obama's visit live, moment by moment. Footage of Egyptian and American flags standing side by side serves as visual wallpaper for viewers, many of whom gathered throughout a bright morning at cafes to watch the speech together. For a few hours, Egypt's thriving Facebook generation has enjoyed the cafe camaraderie of earlier ones.

Hundreds of people who had been invited to hear the speech live had to pass through several layers of security to enter the grand domed building, a campus landmark.

Inside, two layers of balconies peer onto a stage where six pairs of Egyptian and American flags served as Obama's backdrop. Red curtains matched the red carpets that ran along the aisles, and gold-leaf trim highlighted the arches and domes of the hall.

There were no obvious protests surrounding the visit, save one. The liberal activist group Code Pink held up a banner of the same color outside the university entrance that read "End the Siege of Gaza" in English and Arabic.

Egyptian security forces did nothing to stop the demonstration. But no Egyptian protesters were visible, a testament to Mubarak's control and, perhaps, gratitude.

The attention surrounding Obama's address and his first visit to Saudi Arabia was underscored Wednesday by a pair of messages from bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Shortly after Obama landed in Riyadh, al-Jazeera aired an audiotape of bin Laden sharply criticizing U.S. policy in Pakistan and accusing Obama of planting seeds for "revenge and hatred" in the Muslim world. The message said Obama is following President George W. Bush's policy of "antagonizing Muslims," and bin Laden warned Americans of "consequences" to come. U.S. officials did not dispute the tape's authenticity even though bin Laden, once a Saudi citizen, has not been seen for years.

A day earlier, Zawahiri urged Egyptians to shun Obama during his visit, saying his trip was at the invitation of the "torturers of Egypt" and the "slaves of America." Zawahiri, a doctor by training, was imprisoned in Egypt for his radical Islamist political beliefs until 1984.

Briefing reporters here, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, "I don't think it's surprising that al-Qaeda would want to shift attention away from the president's historic efforts and continued efforts to reach out and have an open dialogue with the Muslim world."

Read the President’s speech in Cairo on America’s relationship with Muslim communities around the world.