In France, Obama erases the 'us vs. them' rhetoric

A Lebanese-French international relations specialist says Obama set a new tone. But there were few specifics on Israeli-Palestinian solutions.

PARIS – In France, by far the largest Muslim nation in Europe, Karim Emile Bitar watched the speech at his office near the Champs-Elysees.

His verdict? "Excellent.”

President Obama went “a long way toward overcoming all the ‘us vs. them’ rhetoric of the previous administration,” says Mr. Bitar, a Lebanese-French international relations specialist and president of the KB Consulting Group in Paris.

“My first reaction is how important it was for Obama to speak of moving past the Muslim nations as ‘proxies,’ as they were thought about during the cold war.

“But while this may have been public diplomacy at its best, one should remember that due to decades of mistrust, even America’s best rhetoric won’t make the Arab world rise to the occasion without consistent concrete initiatives and actions.

“On the Palestinian front, the language was the right language. Obama needed to mention the large and small humiliations suffered by Palestinians. But he did not clarify how we are going to get an end to settlement activity at a time when the Israeli right-wing is not interested at all in such a program. We don’t know how the new American approach is going to manage at a time of a new hard-line Israeli government.”

Speech was eagerly anticipated

Hassen Chalghoumi, the imam of the Drancy mosque outside Paris, believes Obama began connecting with the Muslim world early in his speech with the simple religious greeting: “Salaam Aleikum.”

Mr. Chalghoumi spoke with unmuted excitement about watching the speech in a packed cafe in the St. Denis suburb of Paris – the heaviest Muslim-population zone in France. The speech was taken with great seriousness, as well as a bit of anxiety, by St. Denis locals, who had hoped that the speech would go well.

For Chalghoumi, who has innovated a controversial Muslim-Jewish dialogue in France, relations between the US and Muslim majority nations have worsened since the first Gulf  war. “Religious Muslims hate America and the Americans, but today we have seen the first real change – that the American people who elected this president must want freedom and justice. I don’t think that will be easy, and the speech won’t change certain realities overnight. But this showed some will to change.”

The imam says the choice of Egypt for the speech was important. Egypt, he says, is “a country that seeks a peaceful solution to the Palestinian conflict, and the best place [Obama] could have chosen. It’s a strong symbol. He could have made the speech in Washington.”

Although Muslims appreciated Obama’s greeting in arabic, in the café thought it might harm Obama in his domestic politics, that Americans might take it the wrong way. “What I told them is that it is ok, that salaam aleikum is also just a normal way of saying 'hi,' or 'hello.' ”

Other reactions around the world

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