Obama Raises Tough Issues In Speech

President Obama stood before a red curtain in a packed hall at Cairo University in Egypt Thursday and spoke directly to the tension between the United States and the Muslim world. He tackled all of the most contentious issues including: U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Islamic extremism and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Administration officials are said to be pleased with how well the speech went over.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

When President Obama stood before a packed hall at Cairo University in Egypt yesterday, he spoke directly to the tensions between the United States and the Muslim world.

President BARACK OBAMA: …tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate. The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of coexistence and cooperation but also a conflict and religious wars.

MONTAGNE: President Obama tackled all of the most contentious issues including: U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Islamic extremism, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Joining us to talk about the politics of this speech is NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What kind of reaction are we seeing, both here in the U.S. and also abroad?

LIASSON: The reaction was mixed but generally positive across the board. The president was praised for being kind of tough and evenhanded. U.S. analysts said that he while acknowledging that past U.S. policies had been harmful in the Middle East, he didn't apologize. He did stand up against extremism and for tolerance and pluralism. On the other hand, Middle East leaders seemed very appreciative that he talked about the daily humiliations of the Palestinians. He used the word Palestine.

He did get some criticism from Israelis and some of Israel's supporters in the U.S., that there was too much moral equivalence between the suffering of the Palestinians in the Holocaust. But he did also strongly condemn those who would deny the Holocaust. So I think this speech had something for everyone in it. It was aimed at multiple audiences and it appears to have worked, at least in its initial goal, which is using the power of a speech by this new U.S. president, with Muslim heritage, to try to really hit the reset button to plant some seeds and start a new beginning in U.S.-Muslim relation.

MONTAGNE: What about the president and his administration? Do you think they're pleased with the way the speech was received? I mean they got a standing ovation at the end, of course (unintelligible)…

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIASSON: I think they're very, very pleased. I received an 11-page press release detailing every single review from, you know, dozens of commentators in the Middle East and America about how great the speech was. It was separated into sections - general analysis, reaction from Middle East leaders. I think they're very, very pleased with it. They wanted a speech to show that the president was asking for a new beginning, holding up a mirror, being tough and evenhanded. And I think that they got the reaction that they wanted.

MONTAGNE: Mara, let's get back to the whole question of the Israelis and Palestinians. Of course, a big issue here in America for the president. And Mr. Obama said that they would have to make some hard choices if they want to move towards peace. Let - let's hear just a little bit of what he had to say yesterday.

Pres. OBAMA: But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth. The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met, through two states where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.

(Soundbite of applause)

MONTAGNE: Are these remarks, Mara, likely to bring us closer to negotiations or did he upset both sides?

LIASSON: Well, first of all we don't know if these remarks will lead us to negotiations. The Middle East peace process has been frozen. This is always the question with speeches by any president, particularly this president, how to leverage his powerful words and his popularity into real clout to get some results. But I don't think he unnecessarily upset both sides. I think the Israelis, especially after his meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu, knew what they were dealing with.

They knew that this administration is taking a slightly different approach to Israel, not changing the basic approach, but it's being much, much tougher about settlements. The president said he doesn't recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories, although the U.S.-Israeli bond is unbreakable. So, I think they knew what they're going to get and we'll see if this gets some results.

MONTAGNE: And just briefly, the president has some additional stops on this trip to Germany, today, in France. But when he gets back to Washington, what awaits him?

LIASSON: Health care and Sonia Sotomayor. Those are the two big things that he'll come back to. He wants to try to get a date for Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings. He wants to push health care to get a bill voted on by both Houses of Congress before the August recess. And I think, after a trip like this, where he's received well abroad, it can't hurt, and it probably can only help him at home.

MONTAGNE: Mara, thanks very much. NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson.

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Obama Seeks 'New Beginning' With Muslim World

President Obama waves as he boards Air Force One at King Khalid international airport in Riyadh i

President Obama boards Air Force One at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, bound for Egypt to make a momentous multimedia address to the world's 1.5 billion Muslims. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama waves as he boards Air Force One at King Khalid international airport in Riyadh

President Obama boards Air Force One at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, bound for Egypt to make a momentous multimedia address to the world's 1.5 billion Muslims.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Highlights From The Speech

Click the links below to hear President Obama's remarks:

Watching Washington

NPR Washington Editor Ron Elving says the president foresaw a better world for Muslims in his speech, but didn't offer a clear path or plan for getting there.

Iraqi men in Baghdad watch a live broadcast on satellite TV of President Obama's speech in Cairo i

Iraqi men in Baghdad watch a live broadcast on satellite TV of President Obama's speech in Cairo. Obama vowed Thursday to forge a "new beginning" for Islam and America in a landmark speech to global Muslims, evoking a vision of peace after years of smoldering "suspicion and discord." Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images
Iraqi men in Baghdad watch a live broadcast on satellite TV of President Obama's speech in Cairo

Iraqi men in Baghdad watch a live broadcast on satellite TV of President Obama's speech in Cairo. Obama vowed Thursday to forge a "new beginning" for Islam and America in a landmark speech to global Muslims, evoking a vision of peace after years of smoldering "suspicion and discord."

Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

Pledging "to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims," President Obama reached out to the world's 1.5 billion followers of Islam on Thursday, addressing an appreciative crowd at Cairo University.

Quoting from the Quran, the Talmud and the Bible — and closing to a standing ovation — Obama said his address was an effort to "speak the truth" about U.S. relations with the Muslim world. Several times during the hour-long speech, members of the audience shouted, "We love you."

In the Middle East,initial reaction to the speech was mixed.

A Hamas spokesman dismissed Obama's remarks as "soft diplomacy" meant "to brighten the image of the United States," while a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority hailed it as "the beginning of a new American policy."

An Israeli government spokesman said he heard no major surprises, but a spokesman for the West Bank Settler's Council said the speech was "out of touch with reality ... the Muslim world is at war with the Western world."

Obama said he sought a fresh relationship "based upon mutual interest and mutual respect" and "based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition."

"I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors," Obama said. "There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground."

Throughout the speech, the president touched on elements of his own life story that many analysts say are advantages in his dealings with the world beyond America's borders.

"I am a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims," he said. "As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk. As a young man, I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith."

The address echoed tones and themes heard during Obama's startling rise to become the first U.S. president of color — an effort that bridged divisive gaps in the American culture in a search for "common ground" and "common principles."

"Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire," he said. "The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known. ... We are shaped by every culture, drawn from every end of the Earth, and dedicated to a simple concept: E pluribus unum: 'Out of many, one.'"

7 'Sources Of Tension'

The speech covered seven major "sources of tension," ranging from violent extremism, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and nuclear arms to democracy, freedom of religion, women's rights and economic opportunity.

The White House took pains to distribute the president's remarks as widely as possible. The speech will be posted on the White House Web site with links to fully translated transcripts in 13 languages.

Echoing a Cold War-era speech by President Kennedy, Obama noted that "the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart."

He emphasized the need for the West and Islam to work together to address mutual concerns.

"For we have learned from recent experience that when a financial system weakens in one country, prosperity is hurt everywhere. When a new flu infects one human being, all are at risk. When one nation pursues a nuclear weapon, the risk of nuclear attack rises for all nations," he said. "When violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains, people are endangered across an ocean. And when innocents in Bosnia and Darfur are slaughtered, that is a stain on our collective conscience. That is what it means to share this world in the 21st century. That is the responsibility we have to one another as human beings."

Israel And 'Palestine'

Addressing the seemingly intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, Obama vowed to pursue a peaceful outcome "with all the patience that the task requires."

He termed America's ties with Israel "unbreakable," but also pledged not to "turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own" — and said that "just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's."

He called on Hamas to "put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, and recognize Israel's right to exist," saying "America will align our policies with those who pursue peace.

"Violence is a dead end," he said. "It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered."

He found hope in recounting America's own, long-standing problems with racial divides and applying them to the conflict in the Middle East:

"For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation," he said. "But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding."

Iran And Nuclear Arms

Turning to the nuclear issue, Obama focused on Iran, acknowledging that "it will be hard to overcome decades of mistrust" between the two nations, but saying "my country is prepared to move forward."

Yet moving forward does not mean that Iran should pursue nuclear weapons, Obama warned:

"It is clear to all concerned that when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point," he said. "This is not simply about America's interests. It is about preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path."

At the same time, he "strongly reaffirmed America's commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons ... and I am hopeful that all countries in the region can share in this goal."

Democracy And Religious Freedoms

Tackling the thorny issue of democracy in a region with deep-rooted despotic traditions, Obama said "America does not presume to know what is best for everyone."

But he added: "I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere."

Obama appealed for Muslims to observe religious freedom.

While citing Islam's "proud tradition of tolerance," Obama criticized what he called a "disturbing tendency" among some Muslims "to measure one's own faith by the rejection of another's."

"Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together," he said. "Indeed, faith should bring us together."

But Obama said Western countries must practice what they preach with regard to religious freedoms. He cited laws and regulations that "impede Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit," such as telling Muslim women what they can or can't wear.

"We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism," he said.

Women's Rights

Obama followed his entreaties for religious freedoms by urging an expansion of women's rights — noting that his concerns range far beyond nations which have Muslim majorities.

"The struggle for women's equality continues in many aspects of American life, and in countries around the world."

"I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality," he said. "And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well-educated are far more likely to be prosperous."

He said the United States will "partner with any Muslim-majority country to support expanded literacy for girls, and to help young women pursue employment through micro-financing that helps people live their dreams."

Economic Development

Going forward, such partnerships can cover many types of "economic development and opportunity," Obama said.

"Human progress cannot be denied," he said. "There need not be contradiction between development and tradition. Countries like Japan and South Korea grew their economies while maintaining distinct cultures. The same is true for the astonishing progress within Muslim-majority countries from Kuala Lumpur to Dubai. In ancient times and in our times, Muslim communities have been at the forefront of innovation and education."

Innovation and education, he said, "will be the currency of the 21st century, and in too many Muslim communities there remains underinvestment in these areas."

Obama had promised during the 2008 election campaign that as president he would deliver a major address to the Muslim world.

The president viewed the speech as "a chance to hit the reset button" on U.S.-Arab relations, opening "an honest, real dialogue," according to NPR's Don Gonyea, who was in Cairo for the speech.

Tensions between the U.S. and Islam have been inflamed in recent years by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the detention of terror suspects at Guantanamo and unflinching U.S. support of Israel.

The day before the speech, pan-Arab Al-Jazeera Television broadcast a new audio tape from Osama bin Laden, who warned that Obama had stoked hatred toward the U.S. by ordering Pakistan to crack down on militants in Swat Valley and block Islamic law there.

And Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei approached the speech with skepticism.

"The nations of this part of the world ... deeply hate America," the Reuters news service quoted him as saying in a televised speech. "Even if they give sweet and beautiful (speeches) to the Muslim nation ... that will not create change. Action is needed."

Before the speech, Obama met privately with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The talks focused on Iran's nuclear goals and the potential for a peaceful solution to the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Obama has been criticized for setting the address in Egypt, where Mubarak has jailed dissidents and clung to power for nearly three decades.

White House aides say Obama chose Egypt because it is an important strategic partner — and promise that Obama will not shrink from addressing U.S. concerns about human rights in the region.

For his part, Mubarak said: "We opened all topics with no reservations."

Obama visited Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, seeking the advice of King Abdullah, monarch of the nation that contains Islam's two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina. The president also spoke with Abdullah about Arab-Israeli peace efforts and the nuclear Iran's nuclear ambitions. Surging oil prices were also on the agenda.

The Cairo speech follows other outreach efforts to the Muslim world, including visits to Turkey and Iraq in April, a student town hall in Istanbul and a video greeting from Obama marking the Persian New Year.

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