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World's Muslim Media React To Obama Speech

Audience members listen to a translation through headphones as U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at Cairo University on June 4.
Audience members listen to a translation through headphones as U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at Cairo University on June 4.

The speech U.S. President Barack Obama gave to the Muslim world from Cairo University on June 4 made headlines from Morocco to Indonesia. RFE/RL correspondent Abubakar Siddique takes a look at what the Muslim press had to say.

* Correction appended

In Rabat, U.S. President Barack Obama's mention of Morocco during his speech as the first country to recognize the United States made a big splash.

But for the Arab press in general, Obama's comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iraq, Iran, and his overarching message to the Muslim world as a whole mattered most.

Writing in the English-language "Saudi Gazette" newspaper published from Jeddah on June 5, columnist Sabria S. Jawhar said Obama's speech puts Arab and Israeli leaders on notice.

"If there ever were a speech by an American president that detailed the complexities of the Middle East with simple common sense, it was President Obama's historic foreign policy address Thursday in Cairo to the Muslim World," Jawhar wrote. "Although the tangibles I had hoped for were missing, Obama's speech offered something not witnessed in American foreign policy for more than a decade: balance."

The London-based and widely read Arabic-language "Al-Quds Al-Arabi" tried to summarize the crux of Obama's message. "In his speech, the U.S. president has numerous messages for several countries and several sides. And he criticized the Iraq war," the paper wrote.

Middle East

Arab television scrambled quickly to analyze the impact of Obama's message.

"The U.S. president reiterated the need for the creation of a Palestinian state and negotiations with Iran," offered Qatar-based satellite news channel Al-Jazeera. "In the first reactions to his speech, the Palestinian Authority called it a 'nice beginning'. But Hamas, on the other hand, said that there is a need for real change [in U.S.] policies."

One of the United Arab Emirate's influential English-language dailies, the "Khaleej Times" was all praise for Obama. "Everyone knows Obama can make a fine speech. But this one was truly historic and is likely to be remembered long as much for its respectful tone and tenor as its refreshing content," the paper wrote in a June 5 editorial titled "A New Beginning In Cairo."

But another UAE newspaper, "Gulf News," demanded action. In a June 5 editorial titled "Obama Must Match His Words With Actions," the paper concluded that the "onus is now on him to carry his positive messages forward. After all, everyone is anxious to see action on the ground."

Obama's speech widely reverberated in the Turkish press.

"Today's Zaman," a major English-language daily in Turkey, characterized Obama's Cairo speech as "historic" and headlined its coverage with: "Obama Calls For New Start Between U.S. And Muslims." In a separate story, the newspapers reported that since Obama's April visit to Turkey, approval ratings of the United States have doubled to 49 percent.

The Israeli-Palestinian issue topped coverage on CNN Turk, the country most-watched news channel.

"Obama said, we would not turn our back to the demands of establishing a Palestinian state. He also gave important message to Israeli leadership, saying that they are not going to accept the establishment of new settlements," CNN Turk said. "That's how the White House made its views clear about the Middle East conflict after a long time."


Although Iranian-government owned Arabic-language television "Al-Alam" carried Obama's speech live, Iranian media have yet to widely comment on the speech. Most newspapers were closed on June 4 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's death, and Iranians were observing Friday Prayers on June 5.

Iranian state television's news bulletin, however, had this take on Obama's speech: "In his speech, the U.S. president acknowledged the role of Islam in the development of global civilization and promoting America as a nation. Barack Obama, while pointing to the beginning of efforts to do away with the wall of mistrust between the U.S. and the Islamic world, said that it cannot be eradicated overnight. The U.S. president acknowledged Iran's right to access nuclear energy, and he added that he is ready to engage with Iran unconditionally."

Central Asia

In Central Asia, the reaction to Obama's speech was mixed.

In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the media praised Obama for his "open message to the Islamic world." But many newspapers stressed that the general lack of much anti-American sentiment in Kazakh and Kyrgyz societies meant that the public did not receive Obama's message as a message for them.

In Uzbekistan, coverage mainly consisted of small reports that stressed that "under the current circumstances, when Uzbek-U.S. relations are improving, Obama's speech was of great importance for Uzbeks."

In Tajikistan, the only Central Asian country that has an official Islamic party, the reaction was very mixed.

Leaders and activists of the Islamic Revival Party were seemingly skeptical of Obama's speech, arguing that the U.S. leader might have good intentions, his foreign policy is framed by other people. Many insisted that, in reality, the United States is more pro-Israeli than pro-Palestinian.

However, representatives of the Tajik government interviewed by local press praised Obama for "his first steps to establish a real dialogue with Muslims of the world."

South Asia

In South Asia, Obama's speech was closely scrutinized for messages on "Af-Pak" issues.

"He said that it is not possible to solve the problem in Pakistan and Afghanistan by military force alone," the newscaster offered on a major private news station in Pakistan, Urdu-language ARY News. "In his historic speech in Cairo University, the U.S. president said that Islam is not an obstacle to end the violence in the world. He said that world can only be made a better place by negotiations, rather than confrontation. He said that a nuclear-arms race in the Middle East can prove catastrophic."

A June 5 editorial in "Dawn," Pakistan's largest English-language daily, concluded: "At the very least though, the speech was yet more evidence that the U.S. has put behind it the roughest edges of the Bush years."

A rival newspaper, "The News," had a more cynical take on the event. It ended its June 5 editorial called "Rhetoric and Reality" with these thoughts: "No American president has ever gone out of his way to reach out to the Muslim world in the way that President Obama has. We applaud that. But our applause is discreet rather than rapturous for these are as yet mere words. Were we ever to see all -- or any -- of them transition from rhetoric to reality then the applause would thunder across the world, and bring together the hands of every faith."

Indonesia's largest English-language newspaper, "The Jakarta Post," published the full text of Obama's speech. One of its stories focused on parts of his speech that praised his childhood home, Indonesia. "U.S. President Obama touted Indonesia,... saying the nation with the largest Muslim population in the world played a role in promoting religious tolerance and gender equality."

Another story on Indonesian reactions captured mixed feelings regarding Obama's speech. While some Indonesian Muslims lauded it as "impressive" and "high quality," others said that its substance was "hardly new."

Muhammad Tahir of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, Ajaml Sedeeq of RFE/RL's Afghan Service, Mehrad Mirdamadi Khouzani of Radio Farda, and correspondent Merkhat Sharipzhanov contributed to this report

* The original version of this story suggested that there was a strong mood of anti-Americanism in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, while the opposite is true.

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