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Thursday, June 4, 2009


Obama Speech Gets Solid Reaction World-Wide

In a major speech aimed at repairing ties between the U.S. and the Muslim world, President Barack Obama drew a somewhat positive response from corners of the globe not given to complimenting the U.S.

From Cairo to Baghdad, Arabs watching President Obama's speech said he won their admiration for peppering the address with the type of moral message Muslims receive at weekly homilies as well as the straightforward talk that they rarely get from their own leadership.

"He seems like a committed and serious man," said Ahmed Farouk, a 25-year-old movie producer who sat in an Egyptian coffee house a few minutes drive from Cairo University, where Mr. Obama spoke. "Just one of him is worth 10 George Bushes."

Muslims in Nairobi, Kenya, generally were encouraged by Mr. Obama's outreach Thursday, especially his emphasis on living in peace with the Muslim world, saying his speech had done much to repair damage to that relationship. But they still are waiting for action to match his words.

On a hot, busy Thursday afternoon, Muslims caught bits of the address before or after midday prayers, in their offices or on screens in quiet cafes downtown.

Sadiki Hamisi Halfani, a 42-year-old Islamic studies teacher, said he admired Mr. Obama's message of tolerance as a universal ideal.

"He was brave to talk about the things he did," Mr. Halfani said, standing outside the Jamia Mosque, the main mosque downtown, as men came from their midday prayers. Mr. Halfani was particularly struck by Mr. Obama's reference to Jerusalem as a town of the children of Abraham. "He said that Muslims, Christians and Jews were supposed to live together. And Muslims are supposed to live like brothers with other people."

But he and others were disappointed that Mr. Obama didn't include leaders of autocratic African nations in his address. "He could have talked about Africa, and insisted Africans maintain peace, just like he did with Iran," Mr. Halfani said.

Al-Amin Kimathi, the leader of the Muslim Human Rights Forum in Kenya, also wanted Mr. Obama to go further in addressing dictatorial governments. "He really toned down on addressing the autocratic behavior of Muslim regimes," Mr. Kimathi said. "But from the venue he chose, we didn't expect much."

Mr. Kimathi said the speech did mark a major shift in the American attitude toward the Muslim world that he hoped would spread. "The leadership in these parts, the Kenyan government for instance, needs to see that change of attitude. That would signify that they also need to change their attitude toward Muslims in this country."

Abdi Rahaman Ibrahim, who is 45 and unemployed, learned about the speech today and made sure he was at a café in time to watch. He followed Mr. Obama's words closely and was pleased with his bid for equality for all people, in particular the Palestinians.

"Most of us were suspicious of him, but… he knows about the Quran and the roots of Islam," Mr. Ibrahim said.

But now, he and others want action. "The Palestinians must now be given independence, so we will believe him more," Mr. Ibrahim said, as others who had gathered around to listen to him speak nodded in agreement. They also expect the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay to be closed, as Mr. Obama has ordered, and fair trials held for the detainees. "That place is not good at all for the human being," he said.

"What we were expecting [from the speech], mostly he has done it," said Abdulahi Galgalo. "Now, we are waiting for him."

Meanwhile, in Iraq, Mr. Obama's speech failed to generate a lot of interest. Many Iraqis were unaware that the American president was giving such a speech, and several Baghdad residents said they hadn't watched it. The major local newspapers didn't feature preview stories on it in Thursday's editions.

Ali Hussein, a Baghdad shop owner, happened to be flipping through channels on his television in his store when he came upon the broadcast of Mr. Obama's speech. He decided to tune in but wasn't impressed by what he heard. "There didn't seem to be anything new in it and it was similar to things he had said when he was campaigning," Mr. Hussein said. "I wanted to hear something new about Iraq because of what America did here so I was disappointed."

Ahmed Dagher, a government employee, caught the speech after he arrived home from work. He said Mr. Obama spoke as if he was halfway between a Muslim cleric and a Christian priest. But because of Mr. Obama's past ties to Islam, Mr. Dagher said the American president's speech sounded more authentic, as he wouldn't have believed those words if they came out of the mouth of former President George W. Bush.

"It was a good speech, and I enjoyed listening to it," Mr. Dagher said. "But I don't think it will bring any real changes to this region."

When focused on the details of the speech, instead of the tone, many Muslims saw disappointing holes and fewer specifics than they would have liked, especially when it came to the vexing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Since being sworn into office, Mr. Obama has taken a tougher line towards Israel than the Bush administration did. On Thursday, he reiterated his view that Israeli settlement building in the West Bank must stop, a message that has been rejected by the Israeli government.

Zafarul-Islam Khan, president of the All India Muslim Majlis-e Mushawarat, the umbrella body of Indian Muslim organizations, said that he was waiting for actions, not words, as evidence that Mr. Obama represented a tangible change from President Bush.

"He was rather mild on Israel and did not tell us what he proposes to do if Israel rejects peace with its neighbors and continues to subjugate Palestinians and occupy their land," said Mr. Khan. "In general, this is a good beginning but only future will tell how far America is ready to go after eight years of a totally uncalled for war on Islam."

—Sarah Childress in Nairobi, Kenya, Gina Chon in Baghdad and Sonya Misquitta in Mumbai contributed to this article.

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obama speech to muslims, al qaeda, obama, obama speech in egypt, osama bin laden

President Obama has spoken proudly of American Muslims, even referencing his heritage as the son of a Muslim man, ahead of his highly anticipated speech Thursday in Cairo aimed at shoring up relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world.

Obama's openness about his own Muslim heritage may seem startling after his presidential campaign last year went to great lengths to debunk false rumors about his religion -- he is Christian -- but the president showed long ago that he is comfortable talking about his roots, which are addressed in his two biographical books, "Dreams From My Father" and "The Audacity of Hope."

Now, Obama appears to be citing those roots as a tool for encouraging more moderate elements of Islamic society to rise up and ally with the United States.

He referred to his childhood in Indonesia in an interview with the BBC ahead of his trip. Adviser Denis McDonough did the same on Friday.

In an interview with a French television network, Obama also stressed the need for a better dialogue and the common ground between East and West.

"One of the points I want to make is, is that if you actually took the number of Muslims Americans, we'd be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world," he said.

And while addressing the Turkish Parliament two months ago, Obama said the United States has been "enriched" by Muslims.

"Many other Americans have Muslims in their families or have lived in a Muslim-majority country -- I know, because I am one of them," Obama said.

Obama administration officials acknowledged Wednesday that they have emphasized certain elements of the president's Muslim background as he prepares to deliver his speech.

"The background is appropriate in this speech," a senior administration official said. "It partially opens the door to dialogue. I don't think there's any question he has a unique background that has value."

Obama's father, stepfather, brother and grandfather were Muslims, and his name means "Blessed" in Arabic. But "although my father had been raised a Muslim, by the time he met my mother he was a confirmed atheist," Obama wrote in "Audacity of Hope."

When Obama was 2 years old, his parents divorced and his father moved away from the family's home in Hawaii. Four years later, his mother married an Indonesian man, Lolo Soetoro, who moved his new wife and stepson to Jakarta. Obama attended a Muslim school in Indonesia for two years as a child, he wrote in in "Dreams From My Father," his first memoir.

"The teacher wrote to tell my mother that I made faces during Koranic studies," he said.

Obama was exposed to a variety of religious experiences at a young age.

"During the five years that we would live with my stepfather in Indonesia, I was sent first to a neighborhood Catholic school and then to a predominately Muslim school," Obama wrote in "Audacity." "In our household, the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita sat on the shelf."

And yet, he was not raised as a Muslim. Nor was he raised as a Christian by his mother, an American named Stanley Ann Dunham who was deeply skeptical of religion.

As a result, he said, "I was not raised in a religious household."

As an adult, while working as a community organizer for a group of churches in Chicago, Obama was repeatedly asked to join Christian congregations, but begged off.

"I remained a reluctant skeptic, doubtful of my own motives, wary of expedient conversion, having too many quarrels with God to accept a salvation too easily won," he wrote, but after much soul searching, he was baptized at Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ.

"It came about as a choice and not an epiphany; the questions I had did not magically disappear," he explained. "But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth."

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