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Friday, June 5, 2009

Obama cracks the code to reach Islam

By Roula Khalaf | From The Financial Times

No wonder extremist leaders were nervous ahead of Barack Obama’s landmark address in Cairo, frantically firing off warnings to Muslims not to fall for his words.
For years the likes of Osama bin Laden have claimed to speak on behalf of oppressed Muslim communities as they perverted the message of Islam and exploited the conflicts in the Middle East to stoke fear and violence.
But Mr Obama took them on, not with threats to “smoke them out” or warnings that “you are with us or against us”, but with eloquence, authority, a deep grasp of Muslim history and an understanding of Muslim grievances.


Opening with a broad smile and the Muslim greeting of “Assalum Alaykum” (peace be upon you), Mr Obama drew on his family ties to Islam (mentioning his middle name Hussein) and his respect for Islamic civilisation to present himself as a credible interlocutor eager to end the “cycle of suspicion and discord”.

Rarely, if ever, has an American leader drawn so much applause from an audience in the Muslim world, or dared to quote the Koran so often (the only glitch in Mr Obama’s speech, and it was minor, was to refer to the Muslim headscarf, which he defended, as a hajib, rather than a hijab). The audience, selected by the US to include friends and foes of America, gave Mr Obama a standing ovation.

Throughout the speech his message was the US was neither weak nor looking to appease its enemies but would act with fairness and on the basis of mutual respect.
Yes, the US has made mistakes, he said, acknowledging it had played a role in the 1953 coup in Iran that overthrew a democratically elected government. But he insisted that “we must not be prisoners” of the past.

If there was a magic list of words his audience wanted to hear, he delivered it. He spoke of the pain of colonialism, the suffering of Palestinians under occupation (their situation was “intolerable”), and the need for Israel to stop expanding settlements.

He underlined the US’s resolve to withdraw from Iraq and, eventually Afghanistan, without leaving “military bases”, countering deeply held suspicions in the region. And he highlighted a continued commitment to “democracy” and the rule of law, even as he warned that no country should impose its model of governance on another.
But he stated bluntly the US bond with Israel was “unbreakable” and called on Palestinians and Arab governments to contribute to the search for peace and choose “progress” over the “self-defeating” policies of the past.

With the change of tone from the Bush years, and the gracious delivery – the word “terrorism” did not even feature – Mr Obama has started turning the page on eight years in which the “war on terror” was perceived by Muslims as an attack on Islam.

Even before the speech, there were signs that thanks to his personal appeal, the US’s battered image in the Arab world was starting to improve. There were also hints that in Iran, for example, Mr Obama was perceived by the regime as more threatening than George W. Bush because of his ability to present a more moderate face of America.

But the speech also poses risks for Mr Obama. While he addressed masterfully the conflicting pressures the US faces in the region, he will find translating them into coherent policies far more challenging, if not impossible.

Mr Obama called for a joint effort to create a world where extremists no longer threatened Americans, US troops returned home, Israelis and Palestinians lived in secure states of their own, and nuclear energy was used only for peaceful purposes. It is an ambitious vision that would transform the Middle East, but it raises expectations far beyond the US’s ability to deliver.

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2.Obama cracks the code to reach Islam
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