MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
We're going to spend a good bit of time today on President Obama's much anticipated address in Egypt. It's been billed as his outreach to the Muslim world. In a few minutes we'll ask, where is this Muslim world? Is there any such thing? One Muslim writer and activist says no, and another says, yes there is. That conversation in just a few minutes but first the speech. Early this morning while most Americans were still asleep, President Obama delivered one of his most anticipated speeches to date. Called "A New Beginning," it was delivered at Cairo University in Egypt. It's part of the president's whirlwind trip throughout the Middle East. And the speech is already being hailed as a landmark address.
President BARACK OBAMA: I'm grateful for your hospitality and the hospitality of the people of Egypt. And I'm also proud to carry with me the goodwill of the American people. And a greeting of peace from Muslim communities in my country: Assalaamu alaykum.
(Soundbite of applause)
MARTIN: The president talked about a wide range of issues, everything from women's rights to nuclear weapons to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to governance. We decided to get reactions from a group of people President Obama is particularly interested in. Young people whom he has challenged repeatedly to, quote, remake the world, unquote. Joining us now is a group of people who got up at the crack of dawn today to watch the president address the issues that deeply affect friends and family back home. Zaina Arafat recently graduated from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. She is originally from the West Bank. She is here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio.
Ahmed Attiah comes from Egypt. He is a security consultant for an international management consulting company. He is a member of the Egyptian-American Society. He is in New York. Also with us is Niloufer Siddiqui. She is from Pakistan and just graduated from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. She is also here with me in Washington. Welcome to you all. Thank you so much for joining us.
Ms. ZAINA ARAFAT (Graduate, Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs): Thank you for having me.
Ms. NILOUFER SIDDIQUI (Graduate, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies): Yeah. Thank you for having us.
MARTIN: I just want to say...
Mr. AHMED ATTIAH (Security Consultant, International Management Consultant Company): Same here.
MARTIN: Okay, thank you. I just want to begin with your overall reactions to the speech. Zaina, will you start with us?
Ms. ARAFAT: Yes. I thought that President Obama did a great - job. He showed a deep understanding and respect for Muslims - for Islam. He shared his own experiences with the religion. He, you know, as a Palestinian, I thought he did a great job of addressing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And, you know, he showed sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians. He spoke of humiliation and suffering under occupation. And as a woman I was pleased to see him (unintelligible) address women's access to education in the Middle East and then in the Muslim world.
MARTIN: Ahmed, I'm sorry, forgive me, I understand that you're in Chicago, not New York. I apologize. What were your first reactions to this speech?
Mr. ATTIAH: Well. Actually, Michel, I was wowed by President Obama's speech today. I think it was a historical speech by all means. I had very high expectations. And he has risen up to all these expectations. I expected President Obama to explain that he believes Islam is not America's enemy, never was and never will be. And he literally mentioned that. He was very clear in the language he used. He used very interesting terms such as Palestine, violent extremists, which is different from what we are used to hearing in terms of Islamic extremists or Islamic fascists. So I think that was a significant step towards bringing the Muslim world and the Western world together and creating a healthy dialogue.
MARTIN: Niloufer, what about you? Your reaction?
Ms. SIDDIQUI: Yeah I completely agree. I think President Obama did a fantastic job. I think that he set the tone immediately by saying assalaamu alaykum and recognizing the civilization of Islam and the impact it had throughout history. I think that he made very effective use in quoting the Holy Quran. I think that people around the world were really taken by that. I think also that he recognized the limitations of his speech by pointing out that at the end of the day, it was just a speech and just an hour of, you know, a lot of things have to still be done. I think that he very effectively addressed some of the specific issues. There really wasn't anything that he left unturned. He spoke about Pakistan and Afghanistan. He spoke about Israel and Palestine.
He spoke about Iran and nuclear issues and women's rights. And I think that he very effectively, without really bringing anything new into the equation, which I don't think was required at this time.
MARTIN: You don't think it was required. In fact, I was going to ask you about that - did you feel that there ought to be more specific policies, more specific sort of targeted diplomatic initiatives identified?
Ms. SIDDIQUI: Well, I think that - going into the speech I really wasn't sure whether that he would take that course, whether he would bring in some new things, whether he would talk about very specific initiatives. But I think that he didn't do that, really. But at the end of the day, it really was a very effective speech for what it was. I think that he opened dialogue. He talked about changing the course of U.S.'s relationship with Islam. And I think that he did it without just making (unintelligible) generalizations. I think that in the case of Pakistan and Afghanistan he spoke about the amount of money that's being invested, the long-term commitment that President Obama and the U.S. has towards the region. And I think he did that with all the other issues that he mentioned, women's rights for instance was a place where I think he showed deference - respect towards religion without showing deference to it at the expense of human rights.
MARTIN: Ahmed, I wanted to ask you about the venue. This was billed as a speech to the Muslim world. And in a few minutes, as I said, we're going to talk about whether there is such a thing. And you may have an opinion about that but what about the choice of venue for the speech?
Mr. ATTIAH: I think President Obama did very well in his choice. Egypt has been a significant player in the Arab world in terms of being policymaker or standing up for the Arab cause, supporting the Palestinian cause. Egypt has been known as a cradle of civilization. A lot of the religions have long and strong history in Egypt, whether it's Christianity, Judaism or Islam. And we have also to remember that throughout the 19th century and the 20th century the Islamic renaissance was led by Egyptian fighters and started from Egypt. And Cairo University on its own has a significant value and a lot of very prominent figures in the Arab world and in Africa. And even President Eisenhower has spoken there before, so it was a very good choice.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Zaina Arafat, Niloufer Siddiqui and Ahmed Attiah about their reactions to President Obama's speech to the Muslim world, delivered today in Cairo. Zaina, there was a lot of anticipation about the president's comments about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Israeli-Palestinian relations, let's say that. I just want to play a short clip of what he had to say and give me your reaction.
Pres. OBAMA: Privately many Muslims recognize that Israel will not go away. Likewise, many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state. It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true.
MARTIN: His embrace of a two-state solution is not new policy for the U.S. But how do you respond to the tone of his remarks, his challenge to both parties in the conflict?
Ms. ARAFAT: Well, I thought that he was very practical about the conflict. You know, he spoke of - he addressed the grievances on both sides. He went into great detail I thought with regards to the grievances of the Palestinians and really showed a great deal of empathy for their plight. And...
MARTIN: Is this new? Is this a new tone, do you think, from a high American official - the highest obviously?
Ms. ARAFAT: Absolutely I do. I don't think that any, you know, any American official has gone into that much detail and shown that much understanding of what Palestinians are going through. I mean he spoke of the humiliation and suffering - he used the word occupation, which is, you know, which is unprecedented. And I think that, you know, he wasn't - he didn't really come out strongly on either side but just by expressing that - his understanding with both, he was able to articulate points that he hadn't - that previous administration officials have not reached.
MARTIN: And you feel that it showed an understanding of the daily lives of Palestinians, in a way that you feel you had not heard before.
Ms. ARAFAT: Exactly, yes. And I think that at this point, you know, what - as much as we appreciate that understanding what we're going to need to see is action. And, you know, we're really going to need to see him applying pressure to Israelis to halt - illegal settlement activity and to really pushing forward with achieving a peace settlement and a two-state solution.
MARTIN: Niloufer, you and Zaina both mentioned the president's comments about women's rights and the role of women. And I want to play a short clip about that if I have it. And I want to get your reactions to what you think he was trying to say and how you responded to it. Here it is.
Pres. OBAMA: I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal. But I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality.
(Soundbite of applause)
MARTIN: What was important to you about that?
Ms. SIDDIQUI: Yeah. In my opinion that was actually a brilliant point because it was a very simple point that he was making. But he brought up two very important issues. And one was that almost undue emphasis and symbolic emphasis that had been placed on something like the head scarf. And then he took it from there and brought it to an important issue, education. And I think by doing that he really came to the core of the issue and the core of women's rights. And I took it away from some of the rhetoric and some of the discourse about women. In Islam this is obviously a much debated topic.
And I think that he also mentioned earlier, I think something about, like, the guise of liberalism and how that sometimes disguises hostility towards religion. And, I think that - both of those together made really important points about the importance of women's rights in Islam but how women's rights was an issue for all societies to face.
MARTIN: How do you feel that these remarks will be received? And obviously that's - there are so many audiences for this but among your friends, your family and perhaps people who don't agree with him on these points, who don't agree that women should have equal access to education, how do you think these remarks will be received?
Ms. SIDDIQUI: I think for most part they would be received very well because I think that - I mean of course I completely agree with you there are people who don't believe that a woman has a right to education. But I think that those people are hopefully in my opinion, like far between, they're still the minority in a lot of places.
MARTIN: They may be in the minority but they have been bombing schools in parts of - I mean in Afghanistan and Pakistan…
Ms. SIDDIQUI: Right.
MARTIN: …and actively working to prevent girls from going to school, throwing acid on them. And you think that that's a fringe minority?
Ms. SIDDIQUI: I think, I mean they're a radical minority. And they make their voices heard for sure and they are a problem. But I think that what President Obama did that was great was, you know, not bow to those groups. He was making it very clear that - what the U.S. stands for and what he believes in and what the rest of the world should also understand is the importance of women's education. And so, I think he was speaking to, you know, a large middle, people who would hopefully work with him. He was talking about partnerships, and building partnerships with a lot of these countries and a lot of people in the countries.
MARTIN: We need to take a short break but when we come back we're going to continue this conversation about reactions to President Obama's speech today. And we're - also going to ask, is there really a Muslim world? Please stay with us on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, President Obama's speech today was aimed at reframing American relations with the Muslim world. But some people challenge the idea that there is a Muslim world. We'll talk more about that in just a few minutes. But first we're going to continue hearing reactions from young Muslims who are studying and working in the U.S. about President Obama's speech. With us are Zaina Arafat, Ahmed Attiah, and Niloufer Siddiqui.
And Ahmed, I wanted to get your reaction to some comments that President Obama made about governance. He talked about the U.S. commitment to democracy around the world, which is something that of course is a major source of discussion and some tension in the last administration. Here's some of what he had to say. Here's a short clip.
Pres. OBAMA: America respects the right of all peaceful and law abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected peaceful governments provided they govern with respect for all their people. This last point is important because 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 clapping)
MARTIN: Ahmed, how do you interpret these - these remarks?
Mr. ATTIAH: I think these were very strong remarks and they were exactly what the public was looking to hear from President Obama during his visit. Egypt has been criticized as one of the states in the Middle East that doesn't have a great profile in regards to human rights and democracy or having a full democracy. But the way President Obama presented his ideas about democracy were very acceptable by both the government side and the public. He did not sound like he was imposing an agenda. He did not say that democracy is the only way of life that's going to be acceptable or the American model of a government is what the whole world has to follow. But he explained that human rights and transparent governments is something that everyone is looking for whether they are part of the Muslim world or in the Western society.
MARTIN: Niloufer, what about that? There are human rights activists, advocates around the world who feel that Americans need to make strong stances on behalf of democracy and human rights because if they don't, no one else really has the stature to do so. And others, as you certainly know, say, well, the U.S. has no right to impose its own set of system and governance on others. How do you interpret these remarks?
Ms. SIDDIQUI: Yeah, I think that President Obama did a really good job of balancing the two. I think you're completely right that I think that this debate has been going on for a while in terms of imposing U.S. values and imposing democracy and then ensuring that there's home growth movement - home grown movement towards these issues. And I think that like what I said in the discussion of women's rights he made a point towards acknowledging that there are certain universal human rights that he believes in, the right to religious freedom, the right to education. But at the same time he also acknowledged that the discourse and the rhetoric surrounding U.S. or Western versions of democracy isn't often recognized elsewhere.
MARTIN: And Zaina, a final thought from you. And I apologize that there's so much to talk about in so little time. What would you like to see happen next? And you opened our comments by saying that, you know, it's just the first speech. And you can't do everything in a speech. But now that the speech has been given what would you like to see happen next to build on the things that the president had talked about?
Ms. ARAFAT: I'd like to see some action ensuing here. I would like to see, I mean, particularly as I mentioned with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I'd like to see - I'd like to see the implementation on that front. And I would like - and he spoke, he gave some details about, you know, what he would like to see with regards to, you know, scholarship programs, bringing Arab, Muslim students to the U.S. And I would like to see that carried out. I would like to see, you know, increased - I would like to see increased activity between the two worlds, the U.S. and the Muslim world. I think that we're really, you know, used to hearing great speeches and really what everyone is hungry for at this point is actions to be taken.
MARTIN: Do you think he will?
Ms. ARAFAT: I'm hopeful that we will. Yes, I certainly am.
MARTIN: Zaina Arafat is a recent graduate of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. She's also a frequent contributor to the Huffington post. Congratulations on that graduation.
Ms. ARAFAT: Thank you.
MARTIN: Niloufer Siddiqui just graduated from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. They were both here with me in Washington. Congratulations also to you.
Ms. SIDDIQUI: Thank you.
MARTIN: Ahmed Attiah is a security consultant for a global management consulting company. He joined us from Chicago. Thanks to you all for coming. Thank you all so much for joining us and continued good luck to you all.
Ms. SIDDIQUI: Thank you.
Mr. ATTIAH: Thank you.
MARTIN: Remember, at TELL ME MORE the conversation never ends. We'd like to hear your thoughts about President Obama's speech and his call for a new start to U.S. relations with Muslim and Arab countries. How much responsibility does the U.S. bear for past difficulties with Muslim states? How much is the fault of Muslim countries themselves? Was the president strong enough in his defense of American values and human rights? To tell us more please call our comment line at 202-842-3522, that's 202-842-3522. Please remember to tell us your name or you can go to our website, the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org. and blog it out.