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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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