Obama urges ‘new beginning’ in U.S.-Muslim relations
President Obama’s sweeping call Thursday for a “new beginning” between the United States and the Islamic world was greeted by Muslims of many countries as a conciliatory gesture aimed at setting aside suspicion and moving ahead on problems that include terrorism and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The 55-minute address at Cairo University, which was widely translated and sent across the Internet, did little to sway hardened enemies such as Iran. But it did find qualified support from unexpected voices, such as members of the Hamas militant group in the Gaza Strip and Islamist intellectuals in Pakistan.
Many listeners were disappointed that Obama did not lay out detailed changes in U.S. foreign policy. Nevertheless, interviews from Egypt to Turkey and Iraq suggested that they believed he was distancing himself from the George W. Bush era and was prepared to engage the Islamic world with openness and trust.
“I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect,” Obama said. “America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. This cycle of suspicion and discord must end.”
That discord has been prevalent for generations, but intensified after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Americans grew increasingly wary of the Islamic world. The invasion of Iraq and President Bush’s declaration of a “war on terror” angered Muslims, many of whom believed Washington was using its military power to control the Middle East and its oil. Tensions were further aggravated by Al Qaeda and an increase in terrorist attacks worldwide.
Obama called for a renewed drive to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and acknowledged the importance of reaching out to Iran, whose nuclear ambitions have been a growing, contentious concern. He said he wanted U.S. soldiers out of Iraq, promised that America would not condone torture, and stated that even though he had ordered a troop buildup in Afghanistan, Washington had no desire for long-term military bases there.
“There is a difference between his policy and Bush’s policy,” said Mahmoud Ramahi, a Hamas member of the Palestinian Authority parliament. “But the problem is still on the ground. Would they achieve a Palestinian independent state? If he does that, that would be a relief and good for all parties.”
Others were unconvinced. Iraqi radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr said: “Obama can’t change America’s policies. . . . The honey talk and stylish political speeches express only one thing, and that is America will follow a different path into subjecting the world to its control and its globalization.”
The American president, born of a Muslim father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, insisted that the United States is “not at war with Islam.”
More than at any time in the recent past, Obama emphasized his personal roots in the Muslim world. He used his full name -- Barack Hussein Obama -- and spoke fondly of spending part of his childhood in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. The readiness of the U.S. to fulfill its guiding principles, he said, is demonstrated by the fact that “an African American with the name Barack Hussein Obama could be elected president.”
The crowd responded with its first burst of applause when Obama offered the Arabic greeting of peace. He quoted the Koran and referred to stories familiar to people who grew up in the Islamic tradition.
The speech was not intended to launch policy initiatives. The White House had made it clear that Obama wanted to use the speech to move beyond the West’s recent relations with Islam.
“I consider it part of my responsibility as president of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear,” said Obama, who recalled hearing prayer calls of azan at dawn and dusk while living in Indonesia.
The same principle must apply in reverse, he said. “Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire.”
Zafar Jaspal, an international relations analyst at Quaid-i-Azam University in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, said, “The key will be if the U.S. begins to see the Muslim world as a partner, and respects the Muslim world’s wishes and rules.”
Obama did not use the word “terrorism,” which many Muslims associate with the U.S. drive for military action in the Muslim world. In a rare step for a U.S. leader, he referred three times to “Palestine.”
And analysts said they were struck by his acknowledgment of a U.S. hand in the overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, in 1953, which still is a source of Iranian anger.
Obama appealed for a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, saying that, just as Israel has a right to exist, Palestinians deserve a state.
The president said that denying the Holocaust is “baseless, it is ignorant, and it is hateful” and that stereotypes of Jewish people and threats to annihilate Israel are “deeply wrong.” Yet Obama also emphasized the suffering of Palestinians dislocated from their homes and suffering the daily humiliations of Israeli occupation.
Palestinians must abandon violence, he said, Israel must stop its expansion of settlements in the West Bank, and Arab states must help Palestinians develop governing institutions.
“Let there be no doubt, the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable,” the president said. “America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own.”
He added: “It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true. Too many tears have been shed, too much blood has been shed. . . . All of us must live for the day when the mothers of Israelis and the mothers of Palestinians can see their children grow up in peace.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is being pressured by the White House to embrace a two-state solution, ordered government ministers to make no public statements. However, a statement released by his office said: “We share President Obama’s hope that the American effort heralds the beginning of a new era that will bring about an end to the conflict and lead to Arab recognition of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, living in peace and security in the Middle East.”
By day’s end, the president was on his way to Germany, where today he will visit the site of the Buchenwald concentration camp, a gesture intended to underscore his call to Muslims to honor Israeli history, while offering reassurance of his commitment to Israel.
But Obama also appealed explicitly to the self-interest of his listeners, arguing that collaboration on Middle East peace, human rights, democratic reforms and the containment of nuclear arms would bring mutual benefits.
Although condemning the Sept. 11 attacks as an “enormous trauma” for the American people, he acknowledged that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq had been “a war of choice.” His commitment to ban torture and to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was applauded. He addressed the tension between the United States and Iran, and set a goal of ridding the world of nuclear weapons.
Cairo was on heightened alert, with soldiers lining the sidewalks and streets closed to traffic. In the morning, before delivering his address, Obama met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the Quba Palace and toured the Sultan Hassan Mosque. The president walked through the mosque with his arms crossed over his chest. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton strolled at his side wearing a head scarf.
Mubarak told reporters that he and Obama “discussed everything candidly and frankly without any reservation.”
The audience for Obama’s speech was made up largely of university students, in keeping with the president’s impulse to play to young, educated people -- and with his belief that if he can win them over he can turn the page with a larger audience.
Obama’s words about supporting the education and choices of women drew especially loud applause from women in the audience, some of them wearing Western dress, some wearing light head scarves and some with their hair completely covered.
“The fact that he talks about tolerance, and cited verses from the Koran and the Bible, makes me feel he is aware how people think,” said Michael Fayek, 27, a Christian and recent graduate of Cairo’s Ain Shams University. “I admired very much the suggestion that Jews, Christians and Muslims should live together in peace.”
Obama cautioned that change would take time.
“No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, nor can I answer in the time that I have all the complex questions that brought us to this point,” he said.
The president drew applause when he said, “As the Holy Koran tells us, ‘Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.’ ”
Although hailing democracy, he said, “America does not presume to know what is best for everyone.”
“But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed, confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice, government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people, the freedom to live as you choose.
“The issues that I have described will not be easy to address,” Obama said. “But we have a responsibility to join together on behalf of the world we seek -- a world where extremists no longer threaten our people, and American troops have come home, a world where Israelis and Palestinians are each secure in a state of their own, and nuclear energy is used for peaceful purposes, a world where governments serve their citizens, and the rights of all God’s children are respected.
“That is the world we seek,” he continued. “But we can only achieve it together.”
Times staff writers Richard Boudreaux in Jerusalem; Ned Parker in Baghdad; Laura King in Istanbul, Turkey; Borzou Daragahi in Tehran; Alex Rodriguez in Islamabad, Pakistan; and Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.