By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
The much anticipated address to the Muslim world delivered in Cairo today by President Barack is receiving mixed reaction from around the world.
In the 55 minute speech, which was delivered in the Grand Hall of Cairo University to a carefully selected audience of several hundred people, the president called for “a new beginning” with the Muslim world. During the speech, he quoted from the Koran twice and the Bible once.
“We meet at a time of tension between the United States and Muslims around the world — tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate,” he said during the address”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,” he said. “America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. . . . This cycle of suspicion and discord must end.”
His talk was frequently interrupted with applause and an occasional shout of “We love you!” but there were also awkward moments.
For instance, early in his speech, he received a standing ovation when he declared: “I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.”
But audience members gasped when he followed the statement with: “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.”
There was also healthy applause when the president expounded upon the plight of the Palestinians who “have suffered in pursuit of a homeland” and when he called for an end to Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
But dead silence greeted his remarks when he called America’s “strong bond” with Israel “unbreakable.”
Former U.S. Ambassador John Bolton criticized Obama for what he called “a very hard line against Israeli settlements” during the Cairo speech.
“When you criticize your strongest ally in an environment like that, it is intended to send a message to that ally,” he said.
The president’s message to Iran during the speech also drew criticism, particularly when Obama said Tehran had the right to peaceful nuclear power if it abided by international treaties.
“It is clear to all concerned that when it comes to nuclear weapons we have reached a decisive point. 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.”
Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, said she was troubled by the president’s presentation of the long and troubled history of U.S-Iranian relations during the speech.
“I was troubled by the extent to which I heard moral relativism,” she told Politico. “I heard the president talk about Iran as though we’ve done some bad things to Iran and they’ve done some bad things to us but now we just need to get together here to go forward — rather than acknowledging the fact that Iran is the world’s largest terrorist-sponsoring state.”
Not surprising, Iran’s most powerful leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all matters of state, reiterated his nation’s hatred of the West after listening to the president’s speech.
“The nations of this part of the world … deeply hate America because during many years they have seen violence, military interference, rights violations, discrimination … from America.”
He went on to say: “Even if they give sweet and beautiful talks to the Muslim nation … that will not create a change. Nothing will change with speeches and slogans.”
Other Muslim leaders were also unimpressed. Mohamed Habib, Muslim Brotherhood Deputy Leader, called the speech “a public relations address more than anything else.”
Hazim Al-Nuaimi of Baghdad University said the speech “gave nothing new to Iraqis. He gave one promise, to respect the rights of minorities and work with consensus. In all he says, he tries to remove himself from all that happened in Iraq.”
The speech also received criticism for lacking specifics on democracy, rule of law and human rights in the Arab world, issues that many hoped he would spell out.
“He should have been outspoken about democracy and the universal principles of human rights,” said Syrian lawyer Mohannad al-Hassani
The President concluded his speech by downplaying expectations of what it might achieve.
“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,” Obama 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.”
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