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What they are saying: Reaction to Obama’s speech to Muslim world

President Obama delivering a speech in the Grand Hall of Cairo University June 4, 2009.
President Obama delivering a speech today in the Grand Hall of Cairo University.

Just minutes after President Obama finished his long-awaited speech to the Muslim world in Cairo today, reactions erupted worldwide, reflecting the global interest in the new path he seeks to set for U.S. policy. 

You can read the full text of Obama’s address here.

Meanwhile, let’s check the initial reaction.

Muslims in the Middle East
Obama drew mixed responses from this core audience.

On her Twitter account, Jordan’s Queen Rania said Obama’s words were “genuine and thoughtful,” and she called the speech a “much-needed change in tone,” the Voice of America reported.

Here’s a sampling of other reactions in the region reported by the Associated Press:

“There is a change between the speech of President Obama and previous speeches made by George Bush. But today’s remarks at Cairo University were based on soft diplomacy to brighten the image of the United States.” — Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza.

“Obama’s speech is an attempt to mislead people and create more illusions to improve America’s aggressive image in the Arab and Islamic world.” — A joint statement by eight Damascus, Syria-based radical Palestinian factions, including Hamas.

“The part of Obama’s speech regarding the Palestinian issue is an important step under new beginnings. … This is the beginning of a new American policy and this policy is creating a new atmosphere to build the Palestinian state.” — Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

“This is the first president we see in the United States that is talking about the Palestinian issue, resolving the Palestinian issue in the first six months of his presidency. Usually, it’s in the last two months of the presidency.” — Saad Hariri, leader of Lebanon’s parliamentary majority.

The Israeli government praised the speech, with some reservations, Haaretz reported. It said in an official statement, “We share President Obama’s hope that the American effort heralds the opening of a new era that will bring an end to the conflict and to general Arab recognition of Israel as the nation of the Jewish people that lives in security and peace in the Middle East.”

But leaders of Israeli settlers’ groups reacted with frustration. “Today, the State of Israel is paying the price of its leaders’ defeatism,” Yesha Council said in a statement. “Hussein Obama gave priority to Arab lies, which have always been told with determination and daring, at the expense of the Jewish truth, which has been said in a weak and unconfident voice.”

The council called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to emulate former prime ministers Begin and Shamir and “stand up like a proud Jew and reject Obama’s fabricated history.”

Elsewhere around the world
In Malaysia, Chandra Muzaffar, president of the International Movement for a Just World think-tank, told the AP, “There also hasn’t really been any other Western leader who has expressed such commitment to fighting negative stereotypes regarding Muslims.”

Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader, reacted before the speech, saying in remarks reported by Reuters: We either live under the light of Islam or we die with dignity … brace yourselves for a long war against the world’s infidels and their agents.” He also warned Muslims that alliances with Christians and Jews would turn them into apostates.

Pakistani students told Voice of America that “they found the speech impressive but would be more impressed by concrete changes in some U.S. policies.”

Iran’s supreme leader dismissed the speech in advance, the Washington Post reported. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that “beautiful speeches” could not remove the hatred felt in the Muslim world against America.

“People of the Middle East, the Muslim region and North Africa — people of these regions — hate America from the bottom of their heart,” Khamenei said at a gathering to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution and Khamenei’s predecessor as the predominantly Shiite Muslim country’s supreme religious leader.

The United States
The American Jewish Committee issued a statement praising Obama’s attempt to forge “a new understanding between the United States and the Muslim world,” while also defending Israel. “President Obama underlined that the rejection of anti-Semitism and the legitimacy of Israel were not negotiable.”

But the AJC also expressed disappointment “that the President was not more explicit about the danger Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons poses to the entire Middle East and to global security.”

Foreign Policy online posted this initial reaction: President Obama’s speech today in Cairo met the bar he set for himself.  In an address modeled after the Philadelphia speech on race, he forewent soaring oratory in favor of a thoughtful, nuanced and challenging reflection on America’s relations with the Muslims around the world . . . As he frankly recognized, no one speech can overcome the many problems he addressed.  But this speech is an essential starting point in a genuine conversation, a respectful dialogue on core issues.

Conservatives were quick to weigh in too.

Hot Air’s Ed Morrissey called the speech “surprisingly good” and said “the Cairo audience may have been a little surprised about the depth of the defense of Israel’s right to exist in peace.”

Morrissey also noted that Obama “added a scolding to Arab nations” in taking a “not-so-subtle jab at the practice of various Arab and Muslim states to use the Palestinian issue to whip up anti-Israel sentiment for their own domestic purposes.”

Stephen F. Hayes, posting on the Weekly Standard’s Daily Grind, found multiple faults in the speech. For starters, Hayes said, “Obama glides right past the most remarkable development in the region in decades: Iraq’s democratically-elected government. He mentions it only in passing, to note that he’s keeping his campaign promised to remove troops.”

Further, Hayes said Obama blew an opportunity to call for women’s rights in the Muslim world. “In Saudi Arabia, women cannot drive. In Iran, they’re stoned on suspicion of adultery. In Pakistan, politicians publicly defend ‘honor killings’ of young girls who have the audacity to choose their own husbands. Those women are struggling for equality.”

On the American Conservative, Freddy Gray posted mostly praise: “We should first acknowledge its considerable merits as a speech. It was well-constructed and well-judged. And the falsely modest line that ‘no single speech can eradicate years of mistrust’ was rather clever, I thought.”

Gray went on, “It was, in essence, a sophisticated piece of cross-cultural triangulation. He acknowledged America’s sins, which is not a crime; while challenging Muslims to confront terror. He presented the case for war on terror as well as anyone could…”

But Gray was less impressed with the media coverage: “One can’t help feeling uneasy when the establishment media is so predictably effusive. The voices on NPR this morning were gushing about Obama exporting ‘hope to the Muslim world.’ That seems unbearably naive and patronizing, even dangerous. What happens when those Muslim hopes are dashed?”

Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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