Obama vows peace with Islam, war with extremists

By MARTIN SIEFF  |  June 4, 2009 at 2:35 PM
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WASHINGTON, June 4 (UPI) -- U.S. President Barack Obama called for a "new beginning" in his speech Thursday at Cairo University.

America "is not and never will be at war with Islam," Obama said in his speech, the second in what looks like an ongoing series of addresses on visits to the Muslim world. But he pledged that the United States will confront "violent extremists" who pose a threat.

"Indeed, none of us should tolerate these extremists," the president said. "They have killed in many countries ... (and) people of different faiths," including Muslims.

Obama also promised to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to fight negative images of Islam. "I consider it part of my responsibility as president of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear," he said.

The president also sought to present a positive, friendly image of the United States as a partner to the Muslim world. "Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire," he said.

"Violent extremists have exploited these tensions in a small but potent minority of Muslims," the president said. "The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians have led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights. This has bred more fear and mistrust."

In a ringing declaration, Obama said he had "come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles -- principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.

"So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. This cycle of suspicion and discord must end," the president said.

"The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known. We were born out of revolution against an empire. We were founded upon the ideal that all are created equal, and we have shed blood and struggled for centuries to give meaning to those words -- within our borders, and around the world."

Obama also tackled the subject of anti-Semitism head on, including the Holocaust-denying claims of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"Around the world Jewish people were persecuted for centuries. ... Six million Jews were killed ... more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant and hateful," Obama said.

But he also emphatically stated, "It is also undeniable that the Palestinian people -- Muslims and Christians -- have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. ... The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own."

Obama's speech was vast and ambitious in scope. He sought to launch a new warm relationship between the United States and the Muslim world. He committed the United States not merely to a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict or to the establishment of a Palestinian state, but also to be a partner with the Palestinians in their quest for statehood.

In Israel, parliamentarians affiliated with the left praised the speech, saying it instilled hope in the region, but parliamentarians affiliated with the right said the speech raised fears over the price Israel will be forced to pay for the sake of peace.

Knesset member Michael Ben-Ari declared, "We survived Pharaoh; we will survive this."

Concerning nuclear weapons and Iran's nuclear aspirations, Obama noted the rocky history between the United States and Iran. But, he said, U.S. officials were willing to move forward "without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect."

No one nation should be able to dictate which countries have nuclear weapons and which do not, he said. "That is why I strongly reaffirmed America's commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons," he said.

Some critics said the American president stumbled in failing to mention the word "terror" in his speech even once, opting instead to use "violence."

Noting there was debate on women's rights, Obama said, "Our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons, and our common prosperity will be advanced by allowing all humanity -- men and women -- to reach their full potential."

Initial reaction to the speech across the Arab world was broadly positive. But experts have cautioned that Obama will have to follow up his visionary rhetoric with substantive progress on real issues, and that he will have to show himself a credible defender of moderates against Islamist extremists and against the power plays of Iran and its allies if he is to have any hope of translating his optimistic vision into reality.

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