Muslims see Obama speech as shift in US tone, but no breakthrough until actions follow

By Marjorie Olster, Gaea News Network
Thursday, June 4, 2009

Muslims see shift in Obama speech, no breakthrough

CAIRO — Muslim shopkeepers, students and even radical groups such as Hamas praised President Barack Obama’s address Thursday as a positive shift in U.S. attitude and tone. But Arabs and Muslims of all political stripes said they want him to turn his words into action- particularly in standing up to Israel.

Obama impressed Muslims with his humility and respect and they were thrilled by his citing of Quranic verses. Aiming to repair ties with the Muslim world that had been strained under his predecessor George W. Bush, he opened with the traditional greeting in Arabic “Assalamu Aleikum,” which drew applause from his audience at Cairo University.

His address from Cairo touched on many themes Muslims wanted to hear in the highly anticipated speech broadcast live across much of the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world. He insisted Palestinians must have a state and said continued Israeli settlement in the West Bank is not legitimate. He assured them the U.S. would pull all it troops out of Iraq by 2012 and promised no permanent U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

But at the top of his priorities, he put the battle against violent extremism. And he was faulted for not apologizing for U.S. wars in Muslim countries.

Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, said there was change in tone. But he complained that Obama did not specifically note the suffering in Gaza following the three-week Israeli incursion earlier this year that killed more than 1,000 Palestinians.

“There is a change between the language of President Obama and previous speeches made by George Bush,” he said. “So all we can say is that there is a difference in the statements, and the statements of today did not include a mechanism that can translate his wishes and views into actions,” said Barhoum, whose group the U.S. considers a terrorist organization.

A joint statement by eight Syrian-based radical Palestinian factions, including Hamas, was harsher in its assessment.

“Obama’s speech is an attempt to mislead people and create more illusions to improve America’s aggressive image in the Arab and Islamic world,” it said.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate who rivals Hamas for leadership of the Palestinians, welcomed Obama’s words.

“The part of Obama’s speech regarding the Palestinian issue is an important step under new beginnings,” his spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh said. “It shows there is a new and different American policy toward the Palestinian issue.”

Before the speech, many Muslims said one of the things they wanted to hear most from Obama was respect for Islam. And many said he delivered that in his speech.

“It was very good of him to address Muslims by quoting from holy Quran, something I did not expect in his speech,” said Osama Ahmed Sameh, a 45-year-old Iraqi government employee at the Ministry of Higher Education.

In Egypt, Shahinda al-Bahgouri, a 20-year-old student at Cairo University where Obama spoke, was also impressed.

“All we want as Muslims is for there to be a partnership,” she said. “And he was seriously humble. humility is important for us.”

Arab satellite stations Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera, as well as Egyptian TV broadcast the speech live, with a voice-over Arabic translation.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah leaders said they didn’t see the speech and could not comment. But the militant group’s TV station Al-Manar broadcast it live, with an Arabic voice-over translation. Syrian state TV did not air the speech but the mobile text messaging service of the official Syrian news agency SANA sent four urgent headlines on it as Obama spoke.

In Israel, the speech was broadcast live on all TV and radio stations. TV stations ran subtitles or provided Hebrew voiceovers, while radio stations provided simultaneous translations.

Afghanistan’s state television broadcast the speech live, but without translation so few could understand it.

Iranian television did not air Obama and there were no reports on it. But Iranian radio reported that Obama gave a speech in Egypt — in a single sentence report without giving details. Most Iranians who own satellite dishes could not watch it as their reception was jammed.

In Iran, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a cleric who was vice president under reformist President Mohammad Khatami, called the speech “compensation to hostile environment which was created during President Bush.”

“This can be an initial step for removing misconceptions between world of Islam and the West,” he said.

Political commentator Ali Reza Khamesian said Obama’s acknowledgment of Iran’s right to produce nuclear energy for peaceful purposes was “a step forward for better ties with the United States.”

Before the speech, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said any statements by Obama were just “words, speech and slogan” without specific measures by Washington, such as lifting sanctions on Iran.

The speech contained a mixed message for Israel. Obama strongly endorsed the U.S. alliance with the Jewish state but harshly criticized its West Bank settlement policy.

The director of Israel’s government press office, Danny Seaman, called Obama’s speech “not bad.”

“All in all, his attitude is one we certainly share as a democratic country. The state of Israel isn’t against reconciliation … We think we should be more cautious and it should be done in such a way that the extremists shouldn’t take control,” he said.

Baghdad resident Mithwan Hussein called Obama “brave.”

“I think it’s a good start and we hope he will open a new chapter with Islamic world and Arab Nation in particular,” he said.

But not everyone was impressed.

Wahyudin, the 57-year-old director of a hard-line Islamic boarding school in Jakarta, Indonesia, said “I don’t trust him.” He spoke as he watched the speech on television.

“He’s just trying to apologize to Muslims because of what America — or really Bush — has done in the past,” said Wahyudin, who goes by one name. “He’s promising to be different. But that’s all it is, a promise. We want action. We want to see an end to all intervention in Muslim countries. That’s what we’re fighting for.”

In Pakistan, where the U.S. believes many top al-Qaida leaders including Osama bin Laden may be hiding, citizens were generally skeptical that American deeds would match Obama’s soaring words.

“Whatever wounds America has inflicted on the world, they are very deep and they cannot be erased away by only one speech,” political analyst Siraj Wahab told Aaj TV. “Overall the speech was positive, but let’s see whether it was merely good words or could we ever see these words be practiced.”

Zahid Husain Gardezi, a 50-year-old landowner in the Pakistani city of Multan, seemed pleased at the gesture.

“It is the first time I have ever heard such affectionate words from an American for Muslims,” he said. “Apparently we can expect America to try to befriend the Muslim world in deeds as well. But let’s see how long it will take to see this on the ground.”


Associated Press reporters Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem, Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza, Irwan Firdaus in Jakarta, Indonesia, Khalid Tanveer in Multan, Pakistan, Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, and Amy Teibel in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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