Obama vows 'new beginning' with Islam

5th June 2009, Comments 0 comments

In what may be one of the defining moments of his presidency, Obama laid out a new blueprint for US Middle East policy, promising to end mistrust, forge a state for Palestinians and defuse a nuclear showdown with Iran.

Cairo -- US President Barack Obama Thursday vowed to forge a "new beginning" for Islam and America in a landmark speech to the world's Muslims, vowing to purge years of "suspicion and discord."

In what may be one of the defining moments of his presidency, Obama laid out a new blueprint for US Middle East policy, promising to end mistrust, forge a state for Palestinians and defuse a nuclear showdown with Iran.

"So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace," said Obama, who was greeted with a standing ovation as he stepped alone up to the podium at Cairo University.

Obama, fresh from talks in Saudi Arabia with King Abdullah and with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, drew applause as he sprinkled his text with allusion to the Koran and the Bible.

In the university's imposing domed Great Hall, Obama said the US bond with Israel, the source of much Arab distrust of the United States, was unbreakable.

He rejected "ignorant" rants by those who deny the Nazi Holocaust -- in an implied shot at Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But breaking with his predecessor George W. Bush, Obama also rebuked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's refusal to halt West Bank settlement expansion.

"I have come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world," Obama said in a speech targeting the globe's 1.5 billion Muslims via television, the Internet and on social networking sites.

"This cycle of suspicion and discord must end," said Obama, vowing to fight "negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear."

"But that same principle must apply to Muslim perceptions of America," he said, and touched on contentious regional issues like democracy and women's rights.

Part of Obama's motivation appeared to be to cleanse the US image in the Muslim world, which has been tarnished by events like the Iraq war, the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal and the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

Targeting young Muslims, Obama said: "I know there are many -- Muslim and non-Muslim -- who question whether we can forge this new beginning.

"Some are eager to stoke the flames of division, and to stand in the way of progress. Some suggest that it isn’t worth the effort -- that we are fated to disagree, and civilizations are doomed to clash.

"There is so much fear, so much mistrust. But if we choose to be bound by the past, we will never move forward."

As expected, Obama's speech got mixed reactions.

The Islamist Hamas group which rules Gaza said the address showed "tangible change" but also contradictions and appeared to be a bid to polish the US image.

Arab League chief Amr Mussa said the speech was "balanced" and paved the way for good relations.

Israel said it was ready to work for reconciliation with the Muslim world "while taking into consideration its national interest, first and foremost its security."

Obama called on Israel and the Palestinians to revive stalled peace talks, demanding that Palestinians halt violence and Israelis ease the plight of those in the occupied territories.

"Too many tears have been shed. Too much blood has been shed," he said.

"America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.

"The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop."

The US president renewed his offer of dialogue with arch-foe Iran "without preconditions".

"It will be hard to overcome decades of mistrust, but we will proceed with courage, rectitude and resolve," Obama said.

Ahead of his speech, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had fired a shot across his bows saying: "Nations in the region hate the United States from the bottom of their hearts because they have seen violence, military intervention and discrimination."

Obama weaved his own biography, with Islamic lineage among family members in Kenya, and several years growing up as a boy in Indonesia, into his search to pick out a new path for the United States and Islam.

He portrayed Islam as an essential part of the American cultural mosaic and said one of his duties as president was to make sure the Muslim faith was not misrepresented.

But he surprised his audience by saying Islam must also not misrepresent the United States, and warned he would "never tolerate" violence, citing the trauma of the September 11 attacks in 2001.

After his first major visit to the Middle East, Obama flew on to Germany.


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