CAIRO, June 4: Quoting from the Holy Quran for emphasis, President Barack Obama called for a “new beginning between the United States and Muslims” on Thursday and said that together they could confront violent extremism across the globe and advance the timeless search for peace in the Middle East.
“This cycle of suspicion and discord must end,” Mr Obama said in a widely anticipated speech in one of the world’s largest Muslim countries, an address designed to reframe relations after the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001, and the US-led war in Iraq.
Mr Obama’s speech contained no new policy proposals on the Middle East. He said American ties with Israel were unbreakable, yet issued a firm, even-handed call to the Jewish state and Palestinians alike to live up to their international obligations.
In a gesture to the Muslim world, Mr Obama conceded at the beginning of his remarks that tension “has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations”.
“And I consider it part of my responsibility as president of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear,” said the president, who recalled hearing ‘azaan’ at dawn and dusk while living in Indonesia as a boy.
At the same time, he said the same principle must apply in reverse. “Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire.”
Mr Obama’s remarks were televised on all radio and television stations in Israel, and with Arabic voice-over translations by Arab satellite stations Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera, Egyptian TV and Al-Manar, an outlet for Hezbollah. The speech was not broadcast in Iran, where the government allegedly jammed signals to block satellite owners from watching.
Mr Obama spoke at Cairo University after meeting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on the second stop of a four-nation trip to the Middle East and Europe.
Speak the truth
Mr Obama said the actions of violent extremist Muslims were “irreconcilable with the rights of human beings,” and quoted the Holy Quran to make his point: “be conscious of God and always speak the truth ...”
“Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism — it is an important part of promoting peace,” he said.
“Hamas must put an end to violence, recognise past agreements, and recognise Israel’s right to exist,” he said of the organisation the United States deems as terrorist.
“The Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of its people,” he said.
“At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements” on the West Bank and outskirts of Jerusalem, he said. “It is time for these settlements to stop.”
As for Jerusalem itself, he said it should be a “secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims ...”
Mr Obama also said the Arab nations should no longer use the conflict with Israel to distract their own people from other problems.