WASHINGTON – President Obama yesterday invited the world’s Muslims to begin a new relationship with the United States built on shared values and mutual respect, while acknowledging a wide rift caused by a history of disagreements over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, human rights, and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Obama’s much-anticipated remarks before an often-applauding audience of 3,000 at Cairo University – and to an estimated 1.6 billion Muslims around the globe – intertwined quotes from the Koran with soaring oratory and matter-of-fact explanations of US policy, amounting to what could be seen as a rebuttal to Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s vision of an oppressed Muslim world at war with the West.
"America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition," Obama declared in his 55-minute address, the longest of his presidency, adding, "The interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart."
A day after bin Laden released a recording celebrating militants who rise up against "tyrants in America," Obama offered his own life as proof that the United States and Islam can build a prosperous partnership.
"Much has been made of the fact that an African-American with the name Barack Hussein Obama could be elected president," he said, noting his own Muslim ancestors. "But my personal story is not so unique. The dream of opportunity for all people has not come true for everyone in America, but its promise exists for all who come to our shores – that includes nearly seven million American Muslims in our country today who enjoy incomes and education that are higher than average."
The speech, in which Obama reiterated his call for Israel to stop building settlements in the West Bank and his intent to engage Iran, drew mostly positive reaction in the Muslim world, but disappointed some Israeli and Palestinians leaders, as well as some conservatives in the United States.
Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, complained that Obama "struck a balanced tone with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that’s what was wrong with this speech."
"American policy should not be balanced," he said in a statement. "It should side with those who fight terror, not those who either engage in it or are too weak to prevent it."
But the Israeli government appeared more sanguine about the speech, expressing "hope that this important speech in Cairo will indeed lead to a new period of reconciliation between the Arab and Muslim world and Israel."
Senior Israeli officials said privately yesterday that the speech was an impressive challenge to extremism, and could help create a new dynamic that would make alliances between moderate Arab states and Israel possible.
The speech drew a mixed reaction from Palestinians. In Syria, a group of radical Palestinian factions, including Hamas, released a statement calling Obama’s speech "an attempt to mislead people."
But in a letter, Hamas Foreign Ministry official Ahmed Youssef invited Obama to visit Gaza, writing that the group is committed to a "just solution" to the conflict and is "ready to continue with all parties on the basis of mutual respect."
Obama acknowledged that Hamas "does have support among some Palestinians," but said to play a constructive role, the group must renounce violence and recognize Israel.
At one point Obama likened the Palestinian struggle to the plight of American slaves, calling their situation intolerable. But he used the analogy to point out that African-Americans won more equality through a peaceful civil rights movement, and encouraged the same course in the Israeli-occupied territories he referred to as "Palestine."
"Violence is a dead end," Obama said. "It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered."
Obama offered an unapologetic defense of US support for Israel, and challenged Muslim countries to recognize Israel and stop denying the Holocaust. "We cannot impose peace," Obama said. "But privately, many Muslims recognize that Israel will not go away. Likewise, many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state. It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true."
Perhaps his most controversial remark was when he said "any nation – including Iran – should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty." Obama coupled the statement with a warning against triggering a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, and his own commitment to reduce the US nuclear arsenal.
But some believed that the remarks were not harsh enough, and seemed to leave the door open for Iran to continue nuclear work. Representative Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, said Obama’s speech gives "credence to the Iranian effort to enrich uranium, while apologizing for our country’s possession of the weapons Iran wants."
Obama appeared to redefine the "war on terror," months after he asked US officials to stop using the term. His speech did not contain the word "terrorism," nor did he call the Sept. 11 attackers "Islamic radicals," as the Bush administration did.
Instead, Obama said the United States is fighting "extremism in all its forms" and took pains to divorce Al Qaeda from Islam, pointing out that the slaughter of innocent people is forbidden in the Koran.
Obama acknowledged that American anger over the Sept. 11 attacks had "led us to act contrary to our ideals," but he did not apologize. Instead, he said he is taking action "to change course" by prohibiting torture and closing Guantanamo Bay.
"For too long the war of ideas was ceded to Al Qaeda," said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. "By explaining his view of Islam, his vision of Arab-Israeli peace and other key issues the president took on Al Qaeda’s argument for terror."
Obama was met by silence when he defended the war in Afghanistan, saying his first duty was to protect Americans from the Al Qaeda militants who continue to plot. "America’s commitment will not weaken," he said. "Indeed, none of us should tolerate these extremists."
But he drew applause when he called the Iraq invasion a "war of choice" and referred to his plan to withdraw most US combat troops by August 2010.
Obama took pains to pay tribute to scientific innovations from the Muslim world, including algebra, the magnetic compass, and the mastery of printing. He also paid homage to a history of religious tolerance that existed in many places during the Ottoman Empire, and said: "That is the spirit we need today."
He seemed to strike his greatest chord with his audience, which included members of Egypt’s political opposition, when he spoke of women’s rights and political freedom. At one point, an audience member yelled, "We love you," to which Obama replied, "Thank you."
But his comments about the need for governments that are accountable to their people were coupled with statements about how the United States should not lecture others on how to reach that goal, disappointing some democracy advocates.