President Obama Calls for a 'New Beginning' Between U.S., Muslims Worldwide in Speech at Cairo University

Speech takes on 6 issues -- including Israel and Palestine, and women's rights.

June 2, 2009, 3:41 PM

CAIRO, Egypt, June 4, 2009— -- President Obama today called for "a new beginning" between the United States and Muslims across the globe in his much anticipated speech in Cairo, arguing that to move forward both sides need to hold a frank discussion about the causes of recent -- and not so recent -- tensions.

"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, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition," Obama said. "Instead, they overlap and share common principles -- principles of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings."

Obama spoke to an audience of roughly 3,000 people at the University of Cairo, but his message was aimed at the wider Muslim world.

The White House billed this speech as the continuation of a dialogueObama began at his inauguration and the centerpiece of the president's five-day, four-country swing. By traveling to Cairo to address Muslims across the globe, Obama fulfilled a campaign promise to deliver a major address from a Muslim capital early in his administration.

In a marked departure from his campaign days -- when he was loath to give conspiracy theorists and political opponents opportunities to exploit his exotic heritage to paint him as "other" or as some sort of Muslim Manchurian candidate -- Obama related his own experiences with Islam. "I am a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk."

He also quoted from the Koran four times and sprinkled in Arabic phrases such as "assalaamu alaykum," a Muslim greeting, and "shukrun," which means thank you.

Painting the United States as a nation hospitable to Muslims, the president said that "much has been made of the fact that an African-American with the name Barack Hussein Obama could be elected president," but Obama said his story is not unique in America.

"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 7 million American Muslims in our country today who enjoy incomes and education that are higher than average," he said.

Embedded within the speech were repeated acknowledgments of the improbability of the task at hand.

"If we choose to be bound by the past, we will never move forward," the president said while standing in a city founded in 969 A.D. as the home of the fourth and final Arab caliphate.

Saying he recognized that change cannot happen overnight, the president said, "I know there has been a lot of publicity about this speech, but 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." But Obama said the speech was the start of honest and open conversation.

"We must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors," he said.

Aiming squarely at conspiracy theorists prevalent throughout the region, the president declared starkly that 9/11 happened and was perpetrated by al Qaeda, and that 6 million Jews perished in the Holocaust. While the 54-minute speech was interrupted by applause 37 times, neither remark drew even a clap from the Egyptian audience.

Obama outlined six key areas that he said were the sources of tension between the United States and the Muslim world: combating violent extremism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nuclear proliferation in Iran, and the lack of democracy, religious freedom and women's rights in the region.

The president reiterated the message he conveyed in Ankara, Turkey, in April: "America is not -- and never will be -- at war with Islam.

"We will, however, relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security. Because we reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject: the killing of innocent men, women and children. And it is my first duty as president to protect the American people," he said.

Following his speech, the president visited the pyramids in Giza with his staff. Obama took a joking jab at himself when looking at a hieroglyphic of a man with big ears. The president was heard saying, "That looks like me! Look at those ears!"

The World Responds

President Obama's words drew responses from around the world, although official statements remained mostly muted.

Saeb Erekat, an adviser to President Mahmoud Abbas said, "I believe that as Palestinians we warmly welcome President Obama's declaration of Palestine, the two-states solution, agreement signed, the road map, the call to stop settlement activities including natural growth and for Israel to stop being a occupy power."

The government of Israel responded in a written statement , saying, "We share President Obama's hope that the American effort heralds the opening of a new era that will bring an end to the conflict, and to general Arab recognition of Israel as the nation of the Jewish people that lives in security and peace in the Middle East."

Nakhle al Hage, news director at Al Arabiya TV network, told ABC News that Obama's speech did not contain anything new.

"It was very much anticipated that Obama would announce his plans to make peace. That was missing," al Hage told ABC News.

But he said that people in the Arab world were flattered that Obama "recognizes our values."

"People were listening carefully," he said, but "there is a big doubt in the Arab world that Obama will not be able to pressure Israel enough to make the tough decisions."

Some Israelis and Palestinians were wary of Obama's words about the conflict in their region.

"This speech is not of favor of Gaza or the Palestinian people," said Muhamad Khuder, a Gaza resident. "Obama is saying that the Palestinian people and the Hamas government must recognize Israel. How can I recognise Israel and my house is demolished?"

"I think that as a result of Obama it will be more difficult," said Aliza Herbst, a settler in the West Bank. "As far as us personally in settlements, I believe that Obama has overreached himself, I don't believe that he can enforce what he would like to enforce."

Iraqis also had a mixed response to Obama's speech, in which he said the United States "will support a secure and united Iraq as a partner, and never as a patron."

"I do not think his speech will end the American Arab conflict," said Hamid, a resident in Karradah, Iraq. "I do not think he is serious about pulling out soldiers by 2012."

In Kabul, ABC News met a group of young men who seemed impressed by the president's words.

"I am also optimistic about his ideas, and about Mr. Obama, because he is a good leader and I am his fan," said Muhammad Shakir Murady, 25. "I think this is a new man, a new view, and I think it will change a lot."

In Pakistan, where the United States is sending billions in aid and fighting the Taliban's growing presence, reaction from citizens was mixed. Some said they don't expect U.S. policy toward their country to change under Obama, while others expressed more optimism.

"It seems very encouraging that he is positive, and his policies are much different than the previous regime," Abdul Rauf told ABC News on a street in Islamabad. "On the other hand, you have to prove with your actions you are ... helping us out and have to stop ... drone attacks because it is increasing the terrorism in Pakistan, and that would not help in the long run."

Middle East Peace Process Tops Agenda

As expected, Obama did not lay out a detailed plan for a Middle East peace process during his speech but did reiterate his call for a two-state solution with Israelis and Palestinians living side by side.

"That is in Israel's interest, Palestine's interest, America's interest, and the world's interest," he said as he pledged to pursue that outcome "with all the patience that the task requires."

He called upon the Israeli government to halt settlement activity, but he also assailed Palestinian leaders for having pursued a violent path that cost them the moral high ground.

"Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed," he said, unfavorably comparing the Palestinians' struggles with that of the civil disobedience exemplified by civil rights activists.

"It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus," the president said. "That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered."

He also called upon Israel to "live up to its obligations to ensure that Palestinians can live, and work, and develop their society."

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said Obama's speech gave the United States an upper hand over al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, who released a tape Wednesday denouncing the new president's policies.

"America is no longer losing that PR war," Emanuel said on ABC's "Good Morning America." "Today, al Qaeda, from a communications standpoint ... they are more on a defensive posture."

Emanuel said Obama's speech was meant to continue a dialogue, but it should not be taken as a "silver bullet."

"If that's the standard, then you'll be disappointed, but that's not the standard and measurement, from our perspective," he said. "You're not going to see all of a sudden a turn but America's position as an honest broker."

In an interview with "Good Morning America," Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's son Gamal commended Obama for saying he wants Israel to halt settlements.

There is "no doubt in my mind that this [Israeli/Palestinian issue] is and will continue to be the core issue that feeds and fuels all the other problems" in the Islamic world, Gamal Mubarak said.

Conservative talk-show host Sean Hannity criticized the president shortly after his speech, calling it "an apology tour" that sends the wrong message to the world.

But Gamal said the U.S. president needed to directly address the people in the Muslim world.

"If you really want to address the real issues in the region, if you want to re-establish U.S. leadership in that very important part of the world, the beginning and the start of a message of respect, a message of understanding, a message of reaching out, I don't think it's a sign of weakness, I think its sign of strength," he said.

Obama has met with key leaders from the region over the last several weeks, sitting down first with King Abdullah yesterday and then newly elected conservative Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Abbas last month.

The president also discussed the need to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, saying "this 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."

Obama Heralds Democracy and Rule of Law

The president started his trip Wednesday at King Abdullah's royal farm in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and then flew to Cairo. Neither country is particularly heralded for its record on democracy or human rights, so the president faced the challenge of striking a balance between discussing those issues while not seeming as if he were imposing U.S. values or standards.

Earlier today, Obama met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at Quba Palace in Cairo. The two leaders discussed the Middle East peace process and other regional issues, and Obama said he emphasized that America is committed to working in partnership with countries in the region.

Obama and Mubarak were scheduled to meet at the White House last week, but the Egyptian president canceled when his grandson died.

The two leader toured the Sultan Hassan Mosque with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

White House officials said the speech should not be seen as an endorsement of Mubarak's government, but noted that Egypt represents the heart of the Arab world and Obama can address such issues as democracy and human rights in a broad sense.

Without mentioning Mubarak by name or spotlighting his government in Egypt, Obama said that governments that protect the rule of law, freedom of speech, human rights and equal justice are "ultimately more stable, successful and secure."

"Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them," the president said.

The White House extended invitations to dissidents and opponents of the Mubarak regime, "so the audience will be reflective of that political culture," National Security Council spokesman Dennis McDonough said.

Obama did not have individual meetings set up with these political groups on his public schedule.

Cairo University served as a compelling backdrop for Obama's message on democracy and rule of law. The 100-year-old university has been a center of student pro-democracy protests and is a symbol of liberalism in Egypt.

Obama's Cairo Speech Aimed at World's 1.5 Billion Muslims

The White House went to great lengths to make sure Obama's speech reached as many eyes and ears as possible, employing unprecedented efforts to connect through online social networking sites, aspiring to reach the estimated 20 million Arab Facebook members, using features on the site to promote the speech and Obama's message. The White House also employed MySpace, Twitter and YouTube.

The speech was streamed live on the White House Web site, and later, fully translated transcripts will be posted in 13 different languages, including Hebrew, Pashto and Indonesian.

The State Department made it possible for people to receive live text messages about the speech in four languages -- English, Arabic, Urdu and Persian -- and for them to text feedback that the department will post on its Web site.

The speech gave the president the opportunity to lay out his vision for a new and improved relationship between the United States and Muslims.

"There has been a breach, an undeniable breach between America and the Islamic world, and that breach has been years in the making," White House senior adviser David Axelrod said. "It's not going to be reversed with one speech. It's not going to be revered perhaps in one administration."

Axelrod said there are "enormous consequences" for the United States and the rest of the world to launch this dialogue, and the president wants it to be open and honest.

"This is not a trip that we ran though some political filter," he said. "This is a mission that the president has talked [about] throughout in terms of improving these relationships, opening up avenues of understanding between the Islamic world and America so that small groups of extremists can't exploit the mistrust that's existed."

White House officials said Obama asked his staff to reach out to a broad range of experts in the U.S. government, in Washington and beyond, including Muslim Americans. Officials said Obama was engaged in the speech from the beginning stages and provided all of the vision and a lot of the content.

"For the last week, he's really just been frequently holed up with his draft and editing it very heavily," said White House speechwriter Ben Rhodes.

ABC News' Huma Khan, Sunlen Miller, Habibullah Khan, Matt Gutman and Jim Scuitto contributed to this report.

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