US President Barack Obama called on Muslims, Jews and Christians around the world yesterday to cast aside fear and mistrust in the name of a safer, more prosperous future.
In his long-anticipated speech delivered at Cairo University, Obama sought to challenge stereotypes on all sides after a decade of violence and misunderstanding, particularly between Muslims and Americans, precipitated by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Quoting from the Qur’an three times and acknowledging his personal ties to Islam, Obama called on the Muslim world to embrace common principles of justice, progress and tolerance to move beyond “the cycle of suspicion and discord” between the US and Arab nations.
Opening with the greetings of “Shukran” and “As-salaam-alaikum,” his speech was filled with appreciation for Muslim contributions to the world and to America. It also included an entreaty that Muslim nations should see the US as a force for good in the world.
Valerie Jarrett, the president’s senior White House adviser, said the president wrote the speech himself, and that it went through multiple edits. She said he was still tweaking the speech minutes before he delivered it before a packed crowd of 3,000 guests.
Back home, the reaction to the president’s speech was mainly positive. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., called it a “blunt, honest” speech.
“We know that one impressive speech will not erase years of mistrust and missed opportunities just as Dr. King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech did not complete the civil rights movement,” he said. “Deeds will have to follow words.”
“Mission accomplished,” wrote M.J. Rosenberg in TPM. “For the first time in memory, an American president spoke to Muslims and Arabs not as antagonists who need to take certain actions before achieving US acceptance but as equals. Not only did the speech specifically reject Western (and American) colonialism, its entire tone was the antithesis of colonialism. This is a profoundly different American voice, one that will do much to advance American goals rather than to sabotage them.”
“He acknowledged the genuine challenges and aspirations of Muslims,” Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Chicago, told reporters. “He showed great nuance in the understanding of the nature of the conflicts … He showed genuine good will on behalf of the US by referencing contributions of Islam and respect for Islam’s creed. He referred to violent extremism, never once to Islamic extremism.”
Rehab noted the president’s references to Palestine instead of “Palestinian territories” as a clear indication of his determination to reach a two-state solution and commended the explanation Obama provided for American troops in Afghanistan.
Adel Syed of the CAIR Sacramento Valley, Ca., office said he felt empowered by the presentation. “We feel this is a new era of discussion, a new level of mutual respect, where American Muslims can begin to bridge the gap between America and the greater Middle East,” said Syed. “We feel that the speech is building bridges and opening better doors of understanding for the greater Muslim world.”
Imam Alvin Shareef of the New Medinah Islamic community outside of Sumrall, Mississippi. Said, Obama’s “tone of peace” was a welcome departure from the saber-rattling of the Bush administration, which he said only made America’s enemies stronger in the Muslim world.
Ibtisam Ibrahim, director of Arab Studies at American University, praised the president’s “message to end hatred and distrust between the West and the Muslim world.” However, she said, Obama may have offended some by putting particular emphasis on the United States’ strong relationship with Israel.
Dr. Zaher Sahloul, chairman of the Council for Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, wished the president had given as lucid an explanation for the war in Iraq. He said he is cautiously optimistic that Obama will translate his words into actions. Sahloul said Obama chose the right way to open a dialogue, by incorporating citations from the Qur’an.
“If you want to reach to the hearts and minds of people in the Muslim world you need to use language they understand,” he said. “He used verses which are very positive. He used it more than any other Arab president I’ve heard.”
South Florida’s Jewish community — one of the largest in the United States — was also acutely interested in Obama’s support for Israel. Some American Jews said they found parts of the speech worrisome.
Rabbi Edwin Farber in Miami, Florida, said it’s important to bear in mind that Obama was speaking in a Muslim city and directing his remarks to a Muslim audience.
Nevertheless, “the speech will make Israelis much more nervous, and make many American Jews wonder just where he is headed on his Mideast policy,” said Farber. “It’s not a panic. It’s a concern.”
On the other hand, Rabbi Allan Tuffs noted that Obama also called upon the Muslim world to recognize Israel’s right to exist.
“It sounds like he was trying to be even-handed,” said Tuffs, in Hollywood, Florida, adding he will urge congregants not to overreact when he preaches on Obama’s speech Friday night.
“We’re always worrying, we Jews. Given our history, it makes sense,” he said. “There are millions of Israelis who say we shouldn’t expand the settlements, but if the president of the United States says it, it’s ‘Oh my goodness, he’s against Israel!'”
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