Thursday, June 4, 2009
Obama, left, held talks with Mubarak prior to his speech in Cairo [EPA]
Barack Obama, the US president, has called for a "new beginning" with the world's 1.5 billion Muslims.
Laying out his vision on Thursday for a new US partnership with the Muslim world during a visit to the Egyptian capital, Cairo, Obama said the "cycle of suspicion and discord" must end.
"I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect and based on the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competittion," Obama told a crowd of invited guests at the Cairo University.
"Instead, they overlap, and share common principles, principles of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings."
But Obama, who is on a visit to the Middle East and reached Cairo from Saudi Arabia, cautioned against expecting immediate change.
"No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, nor can I answer in the time that I have all the complex questions that brought us to this point," he said.
"But 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."
"The first issue that we have to confront is violent extremism in all of its forms," Obama said, repeating his declaration in Ankara in April that "America is not - and never will be - at war with Islam."
"We will, however, relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security.
"Because we reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject: the killing of innocent men, women, and children. And it is my first duty as president to protect the American people."
Obama also acknowledged that one major issue of tension remains the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
He said US-Israeli relations are strong and "unbreakable" and are based on the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.
But he said it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people have "suffered" in pursuit of their own homeland.
"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.
"That is in Israel's interest, Palestine's interest, America's interest, and the world's interest."
He said Palestinians must renounce violence, while Israelis must halt settlement construction and ensure that Palestinians can live, work and develop their society.
Immediately after the wide-ranging speech, Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera's senior political analyst, said that we must not be dazzled by the speech if we needed a sobering analysis.
He said we must remember that the US remained the world's single largest military power.
The US president spoke before a crowd of invited guests at Cairo University [Reuters]
"However, it contrasts with the earlier harsh power empire. Obama's is a benevolent empire, but empire nonetheless. He preached about democracy, human rights and women's rights. …. He engaged with world affairs at large, especially with the Islamic world."
A spokesman for Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, described Obama's speech as a "good start".
"His call for stopping settlement and for the establishment of a Palestinian state, and his reference to the suffering of Palestinians ... is a clear message to Israel that a just peace is built on the foundations of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital," Nabil Abu Rdainah said.
"President Obama's speech is a good start and an important step towards a new American policy," he said.
Ahmad Yousuf, a senior Hamas official, told Al Jazeera that Obama's speech reminded him of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream speech".
About Obama stressing on the legitimacy of Israel, he said the Palestinians must have a state of their own before being asked to recognise another.
But the message that America is not a threat to the Muslim world is a good signal, he said.
Obama also addressed the war in Afghanistan in his speech.
He said the United States does not want to keep its troops in Afghanistan, and is not seeking military bases there.
But he said the US is in the South Asian nation out of necessity, following the attacks of September 11, 2001.
"Let us be clear: al-Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 people on that day. The victims were innocent men, women and children from America and many other nations who had done nothing to harm anybody.
"They [al-Qaeda] have affiliates in many countries and are trying to expand their reach. These are not opinions to be debated; these are facts to be dealt with."
The US leader also broached the subject of Iran's controversial nuclear programme, reaffirming America's "commitment" to seeking a nuclear weapons-free world.
"No single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons. ... And any nation, including Iran, should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power."
Obama's trip to the Middle East is part of efforts to build a coalition of moderate Muslim governments to support his efforts to revive stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and help the US curb Iran's nuclear programme.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies