THE BLOG
06/05/2009 12:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A New Beginning in Cairo

by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, Ryan Powers, and Ian Millhiser

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During the election campaign President Obama to deliver a speech "at a major Islamic forum" in order "to reboot America's image around the world and also in the Muslim world in particular." It's doubtful that Obama has ever given a speech as hotly-awaited around the world as the one he delivered yesterday at Cairo University. Opening with the traditional Muslim greeting -- assalaamu alaykum, "peace be upon you" -- the President declared, "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, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition." Recognizing the historic contributions of Islamic civilizations, as well as his own experiences in Muslim Indonesia as a child, the President also acknowledged the difficult sometimes history between Western and Muslim-majority countries, including the legacy of European colonialism. He then discussed seven main challenges shared between the United States and Muslim communities around the world.

THE CHALLENGE OF EXTREMISM: "The first issue that we have to confront," the President said, "is violent extremism in all of its forms." Obama insisted that "America will defend itself, respectful of the sovereignty of nations and the rule of law [and] in partnership with Muslim communities which are also threatened." In a sign that he intended to distinguish -- as President Bush often failed to -- between Islamic political movements, like al Qaeda, that advocate violence and groups that pursue their aims through politics, Obama invited members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to the speech. Having established some credibility on the Arab-Israeli issue by taking a hard line on Israeli settlements, he told Arab leaders that "the Arab-Israeli conflict should no longer be used to distract Arab people from other problems." Over the past months, Iran's nuclear program has been an increasing source of tension in the region. Noting "our shared interest in the rights and responsibilities of nations on nuclear weapons," Obama said that "any nation -- including Iran -- should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)." As with his promise to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, Obama's stressing of the NPT was consistent with his moves to place American national security policies more firmly within a multilateral framework. In a later response to Obama's speech, Iran's supreme leader restated that Iran does not seek nuclear weapons. One young Iranian said, "[Khamenei] likes Obama! ... Did he say anything negative about him? Or the US? It's all about the Bush administration."

RECLAIMING DEMOCRACY PROMOTION: The Bush administration's attempts to make democracy promotion a priority suffered severely from its association with the Iraq invasion. "The crown jewel of Bush's democracy agenda was Iraq," observed Matt Duss of the Center for American Progress. "The people in the Middle East don't want to see that experiment repeated in their own countries." Acknowledging this, Obama said, "No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other." But, he added that it "does not lessen my commitment...to governments that reflect the will of the people." In what some have noted as a "shift in tone" toward movements such as Hamas and Hezbollah, Obama said that "America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them." Discussing religious freedom, which he said "is central to the ability of peoples to live together," the President cautioned that "we can't disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretense of liberalism." He said that womens' rights "are by no means simply an issue for Islam...our common prosperity will be advanced by allowing all humanity -- men and women -- to reach their full potential." Freedom House recently reported that, although there has been some recent progress, women in the Middle East "continue to face discrimination and significant barriers to the full realization of their rights." On economic development and opportunity, Obama acknowledged that changes wrought by globalization "can bring...fear that because of modernity we will lose control over our economic choices, our politics, and most importantly our identities." Many scholars have noted this loss of identity as a key factor in the rise of extremism. Recognizing this, the President promised to "host a Summit on Entrepreneurship this year to identify how we can deepen ties between business leaders, foundations and social entrepreneurs in the United States and Muslim communities around the world."

THE RESPONSE AT HOME AND ABROAD: Obama's speech received a mixed reaction from American conservatives. Former Bush speechwriter David Frum called the speech "worse than feared" and claimed that "a victimological approach" to Islamic history "now commands the assent of an American president." National Review editor Rich Lowry called it "a mixed bag," but when judged on whether it will "help isolate Islamic extremists," he considered it a success. Even Iraq war architect Paul Wolfowitz offered grudging praise, saying, "I could have used less moral equivalence, but he had to get through to his audience, and it's in America's interest for him to get through." Many other observers were pleased. Freedom House executive director Jennifer Windsor praised the speech, saying, "President Obama took an important step today to reaffirm U.S. support for democracy and human rights." Ghaith al-Omari, advocacy director of the American Task Force on Palestine, said, "I feel that he spoke to my emotions, and showed a sense of recognition of the dignity of Palestinians." Saneya Mohammed Rizk, a Cairo University professor, said the President "was very focused and mentioned many critical elements to us. ... He has the intent to cooperate with us, and that is good." The Financial Times reported that "even Saudi Islamists expressed their satisfaction with the speech," with activist Mohsen al-Awaji calling it "a beautiful speech." Mustafa Hamarneh, the former director of the Center for Strategic Studies in Jordan, told the New York Times that the president "spoke really like an enlightened leader from the region, more than like a foreigner. ... It was very unlike the neocolonial and condescending approach of the previous administration."