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Mideast, Islamic World React To Obama's Cairo Speech

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his speech at Cairo University on June 4.
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his speech at Cairo University on June 4.
(RFE/RL) -- Initial reactions from the Middle East and the broader Islamic world to U.S. President Barack Obama's "new beginning" speech at Cairo University were generally but not universally positive, ranging from a broad welcome by government officials and moderate clerics to outright rejection by some Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Nabil Abud Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas, welcomed Obama's speech as "a good start and an important step toward a new American policy" in the Middle East.

He said Obama's call for Israel to stop settlement expansion and for the establishment of a Palestinian state, as well as Obama's references to the suffering of Palestinians, send a "clear message to Israel that a just peace is built on the foundations of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital."

At Tel Aviv University, the head of the Hartog School of Government, Yossi Shain, suggested that Obama's speech struck a balance on the need to understand both the Israeli and Palestinian perspectives in the Mideast conflict.

Shain said it was essential that Obama told the Arab world about the suffering of the Jews and the history of anti-Semitism, as well as Israel's right to exist. From the Israeli point of view, Shain said, it is essential for Arabs to understand Obama's statement that the United States has an unbreakable bond with Israel -- as well as Obama's call for Hamas and Arabs to end their hatred and senseless violence toward Israelis.

Likewise, Shain said, it was essential for Obama to tell Israel that it must abide by the rule of law and stop the expansion and construction of Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land. Shain said it also was essential for Israelis to recognize the suffering of Palestinians.

Wait And See

In Lebanon, Hezbollah party lawmaker Hassan Fadlallah described Obama's remarks as "moral or political sermons" that are not needed in the Islamic world. Fadlallah said what the Muslim world really needs is "a fundamental change in American policy beginning from a halt to complete support for Israeli aggression on the region, especially on the Lebanese and Palestinians, to an American withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan."

Muhammad Habib, deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, described Obama's speech as "a public-relations address more than anything else." Habib also said Obama displayed an "unjust perspective" toward the Palestinian issue, "one that does not differ from former President [George W.] Bush and the neoconservatives' perspective."

The Gaza Strip's Hamas rulers were more equivocal.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum cautiously welcomed Obama's speech but called for his words to be followed by action.

Barhum said Obama's address "must be judged not on its form, but by the policies that Obama will apply on the ground to respect the freedom of people and their democratic choices and the right of the Palestinian people to its land."

VIDEO: Views of the Obama speech from around RFE/RL's broadcast region:

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The head of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, says he thinks Obama's speech was a "declaration of good will" that will help win hearts in the Muslim world. But Ihsanoglu says Muslim countries will be closely watching to see how Washington follows up on the speech.

The deputy mufti in Russia's Republic of Tatarstan, Valiulla Yakupov, told RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service that Obama's clear emphasis on a two-state solution between Palestinians and Israelis, "if implemented...would substantially pacify the overall situation between America and Muslims [and] that would help resolve civilizational problems as well."

Turning Point?

Mustafa Efendi Ceric, the grand mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that the U.S. president's speech went beyond his expectations.

Ceric said he thought Obama made compelling points about Islam that many Muslims would rather not hear. But he said Muslims should see Obama's message as a historic opportunity to avoid a "clash of civilizations" that ends as a conflict between the West and Islam.

"I particularly like the fact that this time Obama managed to balance the [U.S.] approach to Israel. He did tell the Jewish people that America would do anything to avoid a Holocaust and that denying the Holocaust is a crime equal to the Holocaust -- he highlighted that, so that all Muslims in the world could clearly understand it," Ceric said. "But at the same time he sent a sharp message to Israel that they have to change their attitude toward Palestinians and they have to stop the practice of building new settlements on the Occupied Territories."

A man in a Cairo coffee shop reacts as he listens to Obama's speech.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul said Obama's position on Middle East peace was "very appropriate." Gul welcomed the messages and assurances that Obama gave, saying "the U.S. president showed that he is a constructive leader with whom Muslim countries can engage in partnership for peace and stability."

In Iraq, government spokesman Ali Al-Dabbagh called the speech "historic and important," saying it is "a new start" and a positive direction for the new administration in Washington.

But Hazim al-Nuami, an analyst at Baghdad University, said Obama gave nothing new to Iraqis -- only a promise to respect the rights of minorities and work with consensus. "In all ways, Nuaimi said, "[Obama] tries to remove himself from all that happened in Iraq."

Abdullah Attai, a professor at Al-Azhar University in Cairo and an expert on Afghanistan, called Obama's speech a historic turning point.

Attai told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that Obama's remarks hit such a resonant note with Muslims around the world that it marks the beginning of the isolation of Al-Qaeda.

Watching South Asian

However, a resident in Afghanistan's southern province of Helmand told Radio Free Afghanistan that there is a great contrast between the words he heard from Obama and the military activity he sees in Afghanistan.

As Obama spoke in Cairo, his envoy, Richard Holbrooke, was seeking more aid for displaced Pakistanis.
"Right now I am in the Nad-e Ali district of Helmand, and the airplanes are flying above us as they bomb us -- so I must ask how Obama's sweet talk and strategy will benefit us. It will only benefit us if he can extinguish this fire [of violence]," the man, Bawari, said. "In my opinion, he should take what he is now is spending on the war in Afghanistan, which harms the people of Afghanistan, his soldiers and people [and] he should spend it all on [pursuing] peace."

A Radio Free Afghanistan listener in Afghanistan's southern Zabul Province posted a highly critical reaction in Pashto to the station's website forum.

Identifying himself as Faroz, the listener wrote: "Obama's speech is like giving someone poison in honey. One hand throws bombs on people and the other hand wants to be friendly with us. Bush was better than him. [Bush] had one face -- and that was the face of an enemy. [Obama] is worse because he appears as a friend and enemy at the same time. He kills us, and he wants friendship both. Muslims should not have any hope. Americans will never be Muslims friends."

But Hikmet Karzai, director of the Center for Conflict and Peace Studies in Kabul, rejected such criticism. He said most Afghans realize that Obama presents their country with another chance to rise above years of conflict. "They know President Obama has made Afghanistan a top policy," he said. "As a whole, [Afghan] people will be optimistic. Hearing the speech only reaffirms the fact that Obama knows what to do in Afghanistan and in the region."

From Iran, too, there was criticism of U.S. president  -- most notably, in an address given by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, just before Obama made his speech. Khamenei said the United States is detested across the Middle East and that the new U.S. government is trying to transform that negative image. Khamenei said such a transformation "will not be achieved by talking, speeches and slogans."

But text messages received by Radio Farda from within Iran suggest otherwise -- with overwhelmingly positive reactions from listeners, many of whom did not want their full names used out of fear of retribution from Iranian officials.

One listener in Tehran sent Radio Farda a text message saying: "Obama is a great man. A new era has begun and he will manage to lead it properly. Very good!"

Other listeners in Tehran told RFE/RL and Radio Farda that Obama did not leave any opportunities open for the Iranian government to blame the United States for Iran's own domestic problems.

A listener in Iran's southeastern province of Baluchistan, who identified himself as R.U. Barzan, sent a text message to Radio Farda saying: "This is a positive step -- although it is a small step --  toward improved relations with the Islamic world. I hope the leaders of the Islamic countries will accept this invitation from Obama."

A leading Islamic cleric in Tajikistan, former mufti and current legislator Hoji Akbar Turajonzoda, challenged the lofty language of Obama's speech and said "one of the examples of the Obama administration's real attitude to the Muslim world is Pakistan's U.S.-backed operations against Islamists in Swat Valley," where Islamabad has recently launched major military operations to retake swaths of territory from Taliban-linked extremists.

Turajonzoda said "the U.S. might gain a real respect in the Muslim world if it proved that the Muslims are of the same importance for Washington as Israel."

Abdyshukur Narmatov,  rector of Kyrgyzstan's Islamic University in Bishkek, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that he was intrigued by the differences between Obama's language and the speeches made by former U.S. President George W. Bush.

"Obama never used the word 'terrorism' in his speech -- not when he touched upon the issues related to Iraq or to Afghanistan. It is also worth mentioning that regarding the Islamic world and issues on globalization, [Obama] has the notion that it is important to avoid confrontation and to be helpful to each other -- wishing goodness and success to each other in relations between different civilizations and cultures."

Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, a Baku Shi'ite imam who is also an outspoken activist on religious freedom, told RFE/RL's Azerbaijan Service that he saw promise in Obama's remarks.

"There are words, big gestures, theories," Ibrahimoglu said. "I hope there will be more than words and all these [remarks] will be put into practice, but it is very important that Obama wants to change. Whether it will work or not is another story."

Written in Prague by Ron Synovitz, and Andy Heil with contributions from RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, Azerbaijani Service, Balkan Service, Kyrgyz Service, Radio Farda, Tajik Service, Tatar-Bashkir Service, and Mazyar Mokfi. With additional wire service reporting
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by: tony from: London
June 04, 2009 21:40
This was a brave and honest speech by President Obama. Obama is the best thing to happen to the United States in a century.

by: bharatiya muslim mansoor khan from: mumbai , india
June 04, 2009 22:44
i thank the president of amarica for the soul touching speach given in the al-azhar university,cairo.[pray to god that these praying words (either spoken from the heart or by a clever mind)be fulfilled at the earliest.<br />the venue was rightlly selected as the al- azhar university teaches the true values of islam i.e. unity, integrity, peace, progress,forgiveness, brotherhood and many more positive values.it is not a muslim univercity which has been sponcered by the people who did not like abovementioned values.these very people are the enemies of all human kind.the muslim univercities and schools sponcered by these non-human (beasts) are the places where values of islam are altered to manufacture these killing machines (terrorist)and these killing machines are responsible for (what u said in ur speach) the death of 3000 americans.<br />i appreciate the positive step taken by you as&quot;the president on amarica&quot; and pray to allah that you moove ahed in this right direction and fulfill the promises u have made today.

by: Vytautasba from: vilnius
June 05, 2009 06:15
A good speech but a lot more needs to be done than words in order to redress 8 yrs. of damage done to the Israeli - Palestinian peace process by US blind support of Israel and ignorance of Palestinian issues. Would have liked to hear the president say,&quot;Mr. Netanyanu tear down this [Jerusalem] wall&quot;

by: Numanu from: Nigeria
June 05, 2009 09:55
Hello; I am very happy of this OBAMA'S speech, just to cellebrate you. Thahk's.

by: Survival of the Shhhh
June 05, 2009 11:12
How does the president of the most violent nation on Earth have the nerve to lecture people about violence?

by: Anonymous
June 05, 2009 13:15
remember obama's words.&quot;America is a huge <br />ship.It cannot take a speedy turn just like a speed boat.&quot;<br /><br />Abdul Hameed<br />South India

by: tao from: los angeles, ca
June 05, 2009 18:43
“Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”<br />The Upanishad<br /><br />

by: Jeff from: USA
June 06, 2009 04:19
Whether the President's words become a reality is not a decision for him to make. He is a head of State in a country that is not ruled by religion, speaking to a religious body of 1 billion people. Will Hamas stop bombing? Will Israel be shamed into doing right by eliminating their excuse for doing otherwise? &quot;Redress 8 years of damage&quot;? Is this not the very historical backward looking recrimination he spoke of? The holding on to past injustice as an excuse for being violent or militant toward the process of reconciliation is a choice made- one that will make the speech become nothing more than.... a speech. Regardless of the wishes and intentions of a very well meaning and thoughtful head of state. <br />I was glad to hear the frankness and honesty of his approach, recognizing and respecting both sides of these issues. Yes he supports Israel. And he supports a Palestinian State. And reiterating evidence from the past that it isn't so doesn't work, so stop it please. Now let's get on with it. Next?

by: Fazal Habib Curmally from: Karachi-Pakistan
June 06, 2009 04:52
I like President Obama many times he reminds me of what I have read about President Abraham Lincoln and the speeches he gave.<br /><br />President Obama is just one man. The establishment in the USA and Europe,who replaced the Red Menace with the Green menace. We have to understand that with the 1970s, there was a disenchantment with the Western Democracy and the Communism.These ideologies were not meant for us because we were second class citzens from the third world. The Muslim rage starts with the killing of Meir Kahane in New York in 1990 and not 9/11. <br /><br />The Muslims have no fight with the jews. They have a fight with Zionism. Israel does not represent Jews it represents Zionism and because America supported Israel, America became the prime enemy.<br /><br />Keeping this bit of history in mind, there is nothing new that President Obama said. George W Bush had said the same thing also, when he claimed that a segment of Muslims were radicals and not islam per se. So once again what is there thats new?<br /> <br />We don't need President Obama's or the West's approval for our existence. If there is to be friendship and peace , then there must be steps taken towards peace and we would expect the West to take the first step because they called it a Crusade and us a Green menace. Just saying we dont agree with new settlements in Palestinian lands doesnt cut grass with us. Why haven't the USA sanctioned Israel or done something stronger? <br /><br />We are happy to get by at this stage and hope to do better in time but we will never ever sell our minds and sous again in the name or guise of friendship and peace to the West. You want peace, prove it. We want demonstrations of intent and not words now. The days of your words being good enough are gone.

by: glen from: usa
June 06, 2009 15:23
THE SPEACH SHOULD HAVE NEVER HAPPENED. It just openned the door for more violance. We, the American people, did not start this fight but we will end it. You the islamic world, come into our country and attacked us and noe that we are standing up and fighting back, we are wrong. You, the islamic world are you own worse enemy. You can't even live with yourselves and you blame the west for that. The way I see it, the islamic world put the target on it's own back and I will be happy to hit the bulls eye and end your useless being. When you try to impose your religion on me, get ready to be put down. The entire islamic world should be band and outlawed for that is what they are is outlaws that need to die. The world would be a much safer and better place without the islamic world. Poor us, we picked a fight and got beat up and it's everybody elses fault. Death to all of islam!
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