President sets new tone in a wide-ranging landmark Cairo speech
By Bhagyashree Garekar
WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama yesterday made a broad and honest attempt to 'seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world', saying the two need not be in competition.
In a speech notable more for candour than his trademark rhetoric, Mr Obama plunged into the Palestinian issue, often pinpointed as the No. 1 cause of bad blood between the West and the world's 1.5 billion Muslims, unequivocally supporting the two-state solution eschewed by Israel.
In the highly anticipated speech translated into 13 languages, webcast live and distributed over online social networks, he drew upon his heritage as the Christian son of a Kenyan Muslim who lived part of his childhood in Indonesia to seek a connection and credibility with his audience. He referred to the Quran as well as the Bible and the Jewish Torah as he sought to 'speak the truth' about US relations with the Muslim world.
'We must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors,' he declared in Cairo's famed Al-Azhar University on the second day of his trip through the Middle East and Europe.
He visited the seven major 'sources of tension' in the relationship ranging from violent extremism, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and nuclear arms to democracy, freedom of religion, women's rights and economic opportunity.
It was a speech laying out the intellectual background to forthcoming policies, sweeping enough to lead some observers to compare it to former president Ronald Reagan's 'Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall' call at the height of the Cold War.
Mr Obama made the case for common cause: 'When one nation pursues a nuclear weapon, the risk of nuclear attack rises for all nations. When violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains, people are endangered across an ocean.'
He also tried to step beyond the increased mistrust and stereotyping after the 9/11 terror attacks. 'Partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn't. And I consider it part of my responsibility as President to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.
'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.'
To the satisfaction of many in the Arab world, he attempted to inject a sense of balance in American involvement in the Middle East. While he called his nation's bonds with Israel 'unbreakable' he also pledged not to 'turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own'.
'Just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's,' he said, underlining his commitment to the two-state solution not acceded to by Israel's new hawkish leadership.
He also explained his strategy for the hot spots in Asia where the majority of the world's Muslims live and where Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding. 'We know that military power alone is not going to solve the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan,' he said, stressing his commitment to more aid for the region even as he prepares to send an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan where Taleban insurgents are increasing attacks and challenging the US-backed government.
He addressed Iran, the quixotic regional giant with whom the US, Arabs and the Israelis alike have uneasy relations. He acknowledged the 'tumultuous history' with Iran, re-stating his willingness to talk without pre-conditions but drawing the line at Teheran's nuclear ambitions 'that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path'.
In a sign of the vast chasm that remains to be crossed before the scenario sketched out by Mr Obama can be realised, many sceptics said the speech was all slogans and no action.
At home, the 55-minute speech being billed historic sparked debate on whether his words would be taken for weakness when he conceded that America had erred in some of its actions in the past.