Reaction Mixed as Obama Calls for Unity
President Barack Obama called on Muslims, Jews and Christians around the world Thursday to cast aside fear and mistrust in the name of a safer, more prosperous future.
In a soaring 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.
"I have come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world - one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive," he told an audience of several thousand dignitaries, students and journalists.
Reaction, predictably, was mixed.
James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute in Washington, D.C., called the speech "transformative." But he said the breadth of the president's vision could dilute the impact at home. "I think it was lost on this side of the ocean," he said.
He likened the speech to a State of the Union address with a laundry list of issues and appeals to various constituency groups: Iraqis, Israelis, Gulf-state Arabs and women. "It was a full agenda," he said, "making clear how deep a hole we're in."
Obama offered no new policy prescription on the key areas of discord: Arab-Israeli peace, the war in Afghanistan and Iran's nuclear program. And he acknowledged as much.
"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. "But I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors. There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other, to learn from each other, to respect one another; and to seek common ground."
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."
The only disruption during the speech came when someone from the audience shouted, "We love you." Obama did not respond as he often does at home with, "I love you back." He smiled and said, "Thank you."
Security was tight on campus and along the streets in and out of the usually chaotic city. Armed police stood on the sidewalks along miles and miles of road, spaced only about 20 feet apart.
On his way to the speech, Obama met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and visited the Sultan Hassan Mosque, one of the largest in the Islamic world, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Afterward, he conducted a roundtable interview with journalists from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Palestinian territories, Malaysia and Indonesia.
His speech was broadcast around the world and sent out via Twitter and several social-networking sites in what the White House described as its most ambitions effort to date to distribute its message.
At the university, Obama went over several key areas that, he said, have contributed to the misunderstanding and distrust that has marked U.S.-Muslim relations for years:
- On combating violent extremists, he offered a vigorous defense of his decision to send more troops into Afghanistan while promising that the U.S. does not intend to stay.
"America is not - and never will be - at war with Islam," Obama said. "We will, however, relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security. ... It is my first duty as president to protect the American people."
With respect to the troop buildup, he said: "Make no mistake: We do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We seek no military bases there. It is agonizing for America to lose our young men and women. It is costly and politically difficult to continue this conflict. We would gladly bring every single one of our troops home if we could be confident that there were not violent extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can. But that is not yet the case."
- On the Arab-Israeli conflict, he urged both sides to follow through on their commitments - Israel to stop West Bank expansion and Palestinians not to incite violence - and reiterated his support for a two-state solution.
He passionately reinforced the United States' bond with Israel and cautioned both sides against the kind of heated rhetoric that has inflamed passions in the past.
"Threatening Israel with destruction - or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews - is deeply wrong," he said.
He also highlighted the suffering of the Palestinians.
"It is also undeniable that the Palestinian people - Muslims and Christians - have suffered in pursuit of a homeland," he said. "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."
- Imam Alvin Shareef of the New Medinah Islamic community outside of Sumrall, Miss., 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. Some expressed disappointment that Obama didn't offer more specifics on his pledge to press for peace.
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.
"It sounded like he was speaking in an Israeli university," Ibrahim said. "We know about the special relationship, and there's no argument about it. We need to hear more about how we're going to end the conflict."
The Israeli government, in a statement, 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."
- On Iran's nuclear ambitions, Obama said the world has reached "a decisive point."
Preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, he said, "is not simply about America's interests. It is about preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path."
- On the promotion of democracy, Obama acknowledged the controversy of the U.S. role in Iraq. "Let me be clear," he said. "No system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other."
In a contrast in tone from Bush administration officials, Obama said: "America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. 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.
"Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere."