Across Middle East, a sense of possibility after Obama speech

While they expect action, many warmed to words that bespoke a knowledge and appreciation of Islamic culture.

Eyad Baba/AP
Palestinians watch US President Barack Obama's speech on television at their house in the Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, Thursday. Obama appealed for 'a new beginning' between Muslims and America.

For Khalil al-Anani, President Barack Obama's speech today could signal an historic turning point.

"Today might be the 12th of September, 2001, because I think he closed that chapter of 9/11 and called for a new chapter in U.S. relations with the Muslim world," says Mr. Anani, a political analyst at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

"He did his job, and now it's the responsibility of the Muslim world to react to those good intentions," adds Alani, a former visiting fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

His positive response to President Obama's 50-minute address at Cairo University was shared by many others.

"It was a balanced speech," says Mohamed Kamal, a member of Egypt's Shura Council (upper house of Parliament), who was among the 3,000 invited guests seated in the university's elegant theater, where Obama made his appeal for "a new beginning" between Muslims and America. 

"It talked about the US responsibility in improving relations [with] the Muslim world," observes Mr. Kamal. "But it also talked about the responsibility of the Muslim world. So it's a shared responsibility."

Millions more throughout the region viewed the speech live on television, including patrons at Wadi El Nile cafe in downtown Cairo.

In a Cairo cafe, quiet attention

The crowd there gathered slowly. But by 1:10 p.m., when Obama stepped to the podium right on time, the small coffee house had filled with men smoking hubbly-bubblies and drinking sweet tea. Their faces – curious but not excited – turned upward toward the TV on the wall.

Afterward, most expressed appreciation of the US president's remarks.

"He has a very good vision," said Mohammed Mahrous, a bank employee, adding that he most liked Obama's mention of the contributions made to human civilization by Islamic culture.

Amal Salem, who nodded his head in agreement with Obama a couple of times, said afterward that he was happy to hear that he "put aside the label 'terrorist' and made a distinction between terrorists and Muslims."

But not everyone was impressed.

"Americans are all liars!" blurted out one heavyset man in a blue shirt, to no one in particular.

Others, far from Cairo, but who were definitely intended targets of the president's remarks, also rejected Obama's conciliatory stance.

Speaking shortly before the US leader began his speech, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said people in the Middle East "hate America" because of its history – much of it recent – of interference in the region.

"The nations of this part of the world deeply hate America because during many years they have seen violence, military interference, rights violations, discrimination from America," Ayatollah Khamenei said in a televised speech. "Even if they give sweet and beautiful talks to the Muslim nation, that will not create a change."

Obama also made a deliberate effort to highlight his personal experiences of Islam, mentioning that "I have known Islam on three continents," and that his "father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims.

"As a boy," he added, "I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk. As a young man, I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith."

On display: a knowledge of Islamic culture

He also displayed an understanding, appreciation and knowledge of Islamic culture unprecedented in US presidents, paying homage to the Arab world's contributions to human civilization in the areas of math, music, and literature.

"He was very respectful," said Rania al-Malky, chief editor of Daily News Egypt, noting the president's three quotes from Islam's holy book, the Koran. "No other president has done that before."

Ms. Malky said that the speech was well-received because Obama "put his fingers on all the major issues that have been troubling the Muslim and Arab world."

But, she added, "to be honest, many people were expecting him to be more specific about some topics, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

While what he said was welcome, it had mostly been said before, Malky added, except perhaps for his reference to Palestine, a word most American politicians have avoided because it signals acceptance of a Palestinian state.

Afghanistan was another topic people would have liked more details about. "But as a good will gesture, it succeeded," she said of the speech.

Converting words into reality

Anani, the political analyst, said that the potentially historic nature of the speech will hinge on "actions to convert" the good words into reality. "This is the main question people are asking now, 'What's next?'"

Nabil Abdel Fattah, assistant director at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said that "all these new terms used by Obama open the door for a more hopeful future for young people in the Islamic world.... A big part of his message is that young people have a right to a good, solid education. That is very important for people in the Arab and Islamic world to hear, because we are facing a very backward educational system."

'Words we needed to hear'

Many Muslims were impressed with both the beauty and the breadth of his words.

"His words about Islam and the Muslims encouraged us, and made us want to move forward with him. We've needed to hear these words for a long time," says Sheikh Ishaq Abdel-Jawad Taha, who is the director of the Palestinian Authority's Al-Fatwa Council.

"We forgive those in America who spoke harsh words against Muslims in the past," Mr. Taha adds. "We hope this means that people will understand us better, and know that we don't hate them."

Politics, in poetry

Even critics of Obama agreed that it was a triumph in a technique at which he is known to excel: the art of making political positions into poetry. But for those with an ear for the sensitivities and soft spots of the Middle East, the Cairo speech seemed particularly well-crafted and, for the most part, well-received.

"As a Muslim, it resonated with me. In some ways, these were the most important parts of the speech: the style of it, and the sensitivity toward Islam as a religion and a culture, and his recognition of the contributions of  Islamic civilizations to the Western world," says Maha Azzam, an expert on political Islam at Chatham House, also known as the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

"His references were well-grounded. They weren't superficial. They came across as both sincere and knowledgeable," Ms. Azzam adds. "I'm hearing some mixed feelings from other Muslim and Arab analysts, but I think what he said was outstanding and historical. It is such an opportunity to break new ground. As he said, it doesn't mean that one speech can change things."

• Staff writer Scott Peterson contributed from Tehran, Iran.

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