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Obama urges 'new beginning' in U.S.-Muslim relations

In a highly anticipated Cairo address, the president calls for 'mutual respect' while touching on hot-button issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, human rights and Iran.

June 05, 2009|Christi Parsons and Jeffrey Fleishman

CAIRO — President Obama's sweeping call Thursday for a "new beginning" between the United States and the Islamic world was greeted by Muslims of many countries as a conciliatory gesture aimed at setting aside suspicion and moving ahead on problems that include terrorism and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The 55-minute address at Cairo University, which was widely translated and sent across the Internet, did little to sway hardened enemies such as Iran. But it did find qualified support from unexpected voices, such as members of the Hamas militant group in the Gaza Strip and Islamist intellectuals in Pakistan.

Many listeners were disappointed that Obama did not lay out detailed changes in U.S. foreign policy. Nevertheless, interviews from Egypt to Turkey and Iraq suggested that they believed he was distancing himself from the George W. Bush era and was prepared to engage the Islamic world with openness and trust.

"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," Obama said. "America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. This cycle of suspicion and discord must end."

That discord has been prevalent for generations, but intensified after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Americans grew increasingly wary of the Islamic world. The invasion of Iraq and President Bush's declaration of a "war on terror" angered Muslims, many of whom believed Washington was using its military power to control the Middle East and its oil. Tensions were further aggravated by Al Qaeda and an increase in terrorist attacks worldwide.

Obama called for a renewed drive to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and acknowledged the importance of reaching out to Iran, whose nuclear ambitions have been a growing, contentious concern. He said he wanted U.S. soldiers out of Iraq, promised that America would not condone torture, and stated that even though he had ordered a troop buildup in Afghanistan, Washington had no desire for long-term military bases there.

"There is a difference between his policy and Bush's policy," said Mahmoud Ramahi, a Hamas member of the Palestinian Authority parliament. "But the problem is still on the ground. Would they achieve a Palestinian independent state? If he does that, that would be a relief and good for all parties."

Others were unconvinced. Iraqi radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr said: "Obama can't change America's policies. . . . The honey talk and stylish political speeches express only one thing, and that is America will follow a different path into subjecting the world to its control and its globalization."

The American president, born of a Muslim father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, insisted that the United States is "not at war with Islam."

More than at any time in the recent past, Obama emphasized his personal roots in the Muslim world. He used his full name -- Barack Hussein Obama -- and spoke fondly of spending part of his childhood in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country. The readiness of the U.S. to fulfill its guiding principles, he said, is demonstrated by the fact that "an African American with the name Barack Hussein Obama could be elected president."

The crowd responded with its first burst of applause when Obama offered the Arabic greeting of peace. He quoted the Koran and referred to stories familiar to people who grew up in the Islamic tradition.

The speech was not intended to launch policy initiatives. The White House had made it clear that Obama wanted to use the speech to move beyond the West's recent relations with Islam.

"I consider it part of my responsibility as president of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear," said Obama, who recalled hearing prayer calls of azan at dawn and dusk while living in Indonesia.

The same principle must apply in reverse, he said. "Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire."

Zafar Jaspal, an international relations analyst at Quaid-i-Azam University in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, said, "The key will be if the U.S. begins to see the Muslim world as a partner, and respects the Muslim world's wishes and rules."

Obama did not use the word "terrorism," which many Muslims associate with the U.S. drive for military action in the Muslim world. In a rare step for a U.S. leader, he referred three times to "Palestine."

And analysts said they were struck by his acknowledgment of a U.S. hand in the overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, in 1953, which still is a source of Iranian anger.

Obama appealed for a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, saying that, just as Israel has a right to exist, Palestinians deserve a state.

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