Obama Sends Message To Muslims From Cairo

President Obama is calling for "a new beginning" between the United States and the Muslim world, saying it's time to focus on the interests they share rather than their differences. For more on the president's speech from Cairo, Steve Inskeep and Renee Montagne talk with NPR's Don Gonyea in Cairo, NPR's Deborah Amos in Cairo and NPR's Lourdes Garcia Navarro in East Jerusalem.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

President Obama's outreach to Muslims today included a reminder of his own past.

President BARACK 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 azaan at the break of dawn and at the fall of dusk.

MONTAGNE: That's the call to prayer, cast by loudspeakers across countless cities, including Cairo, where the president was talking today.

INSKEEP: Amid those poetic images, the president had to address friction, ranging from American-led wars in Muslim countries to Islamic extremists and the Guantanamo Bay prison.

MONTAGNE: We're going to hear more of the speech and analysis of it from several NPR correspondents now in the Middle East. We begin with NPR's Don Gonyea, who's travelling with the president.

And Don, the president even called attention to his middle name, Hussein, which was seen as a liability during his campaign in America, as we remember, but not in his speech today.

DON GONYEA: Absolutely. He called himself Barack Hussein Obama, elected president of the United States, and an African-American. It was just one of the ways that he signaled that he is a different kind of American president than they are used to. We did hear him say in that clip that he is a Christian, but he spoke as a Christian who is proud and enriched by his own family ties to Muslims. Basically, he was saying I understand. I get it. And I want to help Americans understand. I want to dispel some of the misconceptions that Americans have about Islam and that Muslims have about the West. And by - right at the top of this long speech - it was a 53, 54-minute-long speech. Right at the top, he was establishing good credentials.

INSKEEP: Don Gonyea, it's interesting that you mentioned that he was trying to address Americans, as well as Muslims, as he stood before this bright, red curtain in an auditorium in Cairo because a little bit earlier in the program, we heard analyst Shibley Telhami tells us that the president seemed to be reaching to many different audiences at once. Who did the president think, according to his advisors, that he was addressing?

GONYEA: Well, they are hoping to reach many across the Muslim world, one-and-a-half billion Muslims. So - and they're offering this speech, you know, translating it in 13 different languages and it's all over the Internet. But if you listen to him, there seemed a special focus on young people, saying you have an opportunity, young Muslims - and young people in the West, as well - to start having a different kind of dialogue. Otherwise, you will just inherit the same mess, the same finger pointing, the same violence, the same everything else that your elders continue to deal with.

INSKEEP: You're listening to NPR's Don Gonyea in Cairo. Let's bring in another voice here, NPR's Deborah Amos, also in Cairo. She's reported extensively from many countries in the Muslim world. And Deb, was the president in a situation here where Arabs expect one thing from him, Muslims elsewhere expect something else, young people - as you heard - expect something, governments expect something, reformers expect something and maybe Americans expect, still, something else?

DEBORAH AMOS: Well, it was interesting to listen to a presidential speech that made no reference to the economic crises.

(Soundbite of laughter)

AMOS: That is not a big issue here. He dealt in Egypt with some of the issues that Egyptians care about. It was interesting to listen to the applause lines. He begins with Pakistan. And the audience was relatively quiet. It was when he gets to Israel-Palestine that you hear the big applause lines. So I think you can say that this speech struck some points in Cairo, and there's other parts of this speech that will strike outside of Cairo.

MONTAGNE: Now we're going to go to the subject of Israel and Palestinians in a moment. But Deb, you're in Egypt, which has elections, but has jailed opposition leaders. The president was met at the airport by the president of Egypt, who's ruled for decades and actually praised his - Mr. Mubarak's wide experience. But in the speech, he did come around the question of the lack of democracy in many Arab nations.

Pres. OBAMA: There are some who advocate for democracy only when they're out of power. Once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others.

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: So no matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who would hold power: You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion.

MONTAGNE: Deb, that would seem to be what Arab reformers wanted to hear.

AMOS: It was. And the biggest symbol of all, of course, is that much of the Egyptian opposition was sitting in the audience - from the left to the right, from the bloggers to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. So that was as strong a signal as the president's message from the stage.

INSKEEP: Although, is this something that Arab governments are going to be comfortable hearing?

AMOS: I think the way that the president spoke of it - you know, he - there was no lecturing, as he says - as people here say, as the former administration in America. He did it with a light touch. It was Obama symbolism. They probably will be uncomfortable with it, but they certainly will like it better than the lecture approach.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Deborah Amos, speaking to us from Cairo. Let's pick up one of the most contentious issues that she just referred to between the U.S. and the Muslim world, certainly the Arab world: It's the U.S. support for Israel. The president offered tough words for Israel today, but also tough words to the Palestinian group Hamas.

Pres. OBAMA: To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, recognize Israel's right to exist. At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's.

INSKEEP: That's President Obama in Cairo earlier today. NPR's Lourdes Garcia Navarro was watching this speech from Jerusalem, specifically east Jerusalem, which is the Palestinian area. And Lourdes, where were you, exactly?

LOURDES GARCIA NAVARRO: I was in a cafe in east Jerusalem which is frequented by quite a few young Palestinians. They were watching the speech - I'd have some were, some weren't. They expressed some interest in what President Obama was saying. But they said they really wanted to see things change on the ground, that they'd heard a lot of speeches over the years from a lot of different people, and they really felt that they wanted to see something change here. I think there's a lot of good will towards Mr. Obama here. They did say that they really welcomed the change in tone from the administration, but that they are waiting to see practical results for what he's saying.

INSKEEP: Don Gonyea told us earlier this morning that the administration wanted to send out text messages to countless people so they could download the transcript of the speech as soon as it was done. It sounds like you're saying that the young people you were with, they weren't opposed to the president. They're interested in the president, but they weren't rushing to get their text message.

NAVARRO: They weren't rushing to get their text messages. In fact, I had a bit of trouble tracking people down who actually wanted to discuss the issue, who are actually going to watch the speech in east Jerusalem. So I think this message has made - perhaps a message here, at least, it will trickle down over time, at least to the Palestinian side. The Israeli side, of course, there was a great deal of interest in what the president had to say, and a great deal of consternation. They did not receive an advance copy of the speech, which was made a big deal of here in the newspapers. They say they're used to getting advance copies of speeches which have to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They did not get it here.

There's also a - they made a big deal of - this morning's papers - they fact that the president is in the Middle East and is not coming to Israel. And, in fact, one editorial said that they now feel like the unwanted step child of the United States. So I think on the Israeli side, there's certainly a great deal more of consternation, specifically because the president has spoken of the settlements and how he wants settlements to stop expanding. That is something that the government is going to have to address here.

INSKEEP: Lourdes, thanks very much.

NAVARRO: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Lourdes Garcia Navarro in east Jerusalem, one of three correspondents we've heard from in this part of the program about the president's speech - also, NPR's Don Gonyea and NPR's Deb Amos. The president saying today I come here to seek a new beginning, as he spoke to an auditorium full of people in Cairo, the capital of Egypt. We'll have more on this through the morning.

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