Senior Correspondent

WASHINGTON ( – After eight years of open hostility, warfare and deteriorating relations between Muslims throughout the world and the American people, a President of the United States called for a “new beginning”–a rebirth–of friendship and mutual respect between America and the Muslim world.

“I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” said President Barack Hussein Obama June 4 in an address hosted jointly by Cairo University and 1,000-year-old Al-Azhar University, which was viewed live by tens of millions of Muslims and other people around the world.

From his opening breath in which he offered the goodwill of the American people “and a greeting of peace from Muslimscommunities in my country–As-Salaam-Alaikum”-through his frequent references to the Islamic sacred text, the Holy Qur’an, as well as with anecdotes from his own personal life, Mr. Obama sought to be a bridge between the two worlds, reciting rhetoric not unlike that which the Hon. Min. Louis Farrakhan and other representatives of the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad have been preaching in this country for nearly 80 years.


“Now, part of this conviction is rooted in my own experience,” said Mr. Obama. “I’m a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the (Adhan) at the break of dawn and at the fall of dusk. As a young man, I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith.

“As a student of history, I also know civilization’s debt to Islam. It was Islam, at places like Al-Azhar, that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment.

“I know, too, that Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second President John Adams wrote: ‘The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.’

“And since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States,” Mr. Obama continued, referencing his experiences as a community organizer on the southside of Chicago in the footsteps of Muslim pioneers, including boxer Muhammad Ali and countless others, who built the Nation of Islam and propelled Islam and Muslims to the forefront of contemporary U.S. history.

“And when the first Muslim-American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Qur’an that one of our founding fathers–Thomas Jefferson–kept in his personal library,” Mr. Obama said, referring to Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) a Black man, a convert to Islam who first accepted Islam as taught by the Hon. Elijah Muhammad.

Each time Mr. Obama recited lessons from history, stories well familiar to Muslims, his words were greeted with applause–more than 30 times his speech was interrupted by applause from the almost entirely Islamic audience in attendance.

“Barack Obama, we love you!” shouted one man. The Cairo speech was the highlight of a six-day trip to four countries in the Middle East and Europe, which included an audience with the king of Saudi Arabia, a visit to a German WWII concentration camp and a commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the Normandy landings.

“President Obama’s comprehensive, balanced and forthright address covered almost all the bases in terms of issues of concern to Americans, American Muslims and those in Muslim-majority nations,” the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) said in a statement after hosting a live viewing session at its Washington headquarters. “It may serve as a turning point in what have been deteriorating relations between America and the Muslim world.

“By quoting the Qur’an on issues such as diversity, justice and the sanctity of human life, the president acknowledged Islam’s contributions to universal values.

“CAIR appreciates the president’s acknowledgment of the contributions American Muslims have made and continue to make to our nation and to the protection of civil rights. We applaud the president’s commitment to work with American Muslims to ensure that they can fulfill their religious obligation of charitable giving.

“I would hope it’s well received in other parts of the world,” CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper told The Final Call. “The feedback I’m getting so far in media reports seems to be positive, and we would hope that would continue.”

Mr. Obama outlined six major challenges he hopes to confront and resolve in his hope for new partnership between the U.S. and Muslim world.

The six areas he outlined are: violent extremism, much of it originating in the Islamic world, and the U.S. intention to “relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security.”

The second source of tension according to the president is the Palestinian situation, and America’s “unbreakable bond” with Israel and her aspiration for a Jewish homeland on occupied Palestinian land.

The third source of tension, Mr. Obama pointed out is Iran and a “shared interest in the rights and responsibilities of nations on nuclear weapons.”

The fourth issue he cited was “democracy,” and human rights, particularly in light of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Mr. Obama also pointed out the “disturbing tendency” seen in some Islamic countries recently “to measure one’s own faith by the rejection of another’s.” Mr. Obama compared recent troubling developments to the “proud tradition of tolerance” that is seen throughout Islamic history.

The final area Mr. Obama would like to successfully address with the Muslim world, he said, is women’s rights. “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,” the president said.

Mr. Obama received sharp criticism from both the Muslim leaders of Al-Qaeda and from Jewish extremists who condemned his new, more even-handed approach, but most mainstream reaction was positive.

“I think there were significant things he did not say,” Phyllis Bennis, a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies told The Final Call. “He did not say, for example, that he would make sure that Israel implemented what Obama said it had to do, such as freezing settlements. The only way to do that is to say that he would condition U.S. military aid to Israel–which now totals $3 billion a year–on implementation or compliance with that requirement. Short of that there’s no real reason to think that Israel will comply.

“On the question of Iran, it was very good that he spoke of a new diplomatic initiative and actually used very important language, talking about negotiations without pre-conditions and based on mutual respect. That is very much what Iran is looking for.

“On the other hand, he didn’t say the crucial question of, will he come to the table without reasserting the longstanding U.S. position that if Iran doesn’t do what the U.S. wants, that the U.S. is prepared to escalate significant sanctions, or from some people even, talk about a military strike–this language of ‘no option is taken off the table.’ So there are a number of things he did not say.

“I think overall, he said a number of very important things deliberately designed to make clear his distance from the positions of the Bush administration that were based on the idea of legitimizing reckless imperialism, in the form of unilateralism as the sole basis of U.S. foreign policy. This was a very important, I think, statement of the intention to re-craft U.S. foreign policy in a different direction.

“It didn’t yet get to the policies, but it did reshape the discourse. And given the dangerous impact that the Bush administration had on the discourse about the Muslim world, and about the Middle East, about the Arab World, justifying unilateralism and militarism, this was very, very important,” said Ms. Bennis.

The new U.S. foreign policy tone and Mr. Obama’s critique of past, belligerent policies which diminished U.S. standing worldwide, and which produced a violent anti-American backlash in the Muslim world drew praise from one former president.

“I think it (the speech) was designed to show that the United States is perfectly willing to move toward a harmonious relationship,” with Muslim countries such as Iran former President Jimmy Carter told Reuters in a June 5 interview in Beirut.

Mr. Carter, who brokered the 1979 Camp David peace accords, said Israel now faces a decisive moment after Mr. Obama called on the Jewish state to freeze settlement building, and praised the president’s speech “as one that was committed to peace, harmony, cooperation.” Other expert observers agree.

“I think it is a historic speech, and I think it’s comparable to the kind of speech that Roosevelt gave in the ’30s, when he changed around U.S. relationship to Latin America and adopted a good neighbor policy. And I think historians will look back upon it as a turning point,” Prof. Juan Cole, an internationally respected historian at the University of Michigan told Pacifica Radio’s “Democracy Now!” Dr. Cole is the author of several books, including, “Engaging the Muslim World.”

“Opinion polls show that what the Arab world, in particular, cares about most is the U.S. getting out of Iraq. And (Mr.) Obama was very forthright on that issue. They say they care about, you know, not being humiliated by Western dominance. He made pledges in that regard.

“And, of course, they care very much about the plight of the Palestinians, and (Mr.) Obama went further in talking about displacement, the situation of refugees, the lack of a state, than … I can’t think of any other president that’s gone that far in empathizing with the Palestinian situation,” said Prof. Cole.