Obama sets out to rebuild ties with world's Muslims

  • Updated: May 30, 2009 - 7:20 PM

In a defining speech in Cairo this week, the president will try to lay out an agenda starting with a clean slate.

WASHINGTON - President Obama has a sweeping goal for his speech Thursday in Cairo, Egypt: to begin remaking the dynamic between the United States and Muslims abroad.

He'll declare a clean break from the Bush administration's "war-on-terror" approach to foreign affairs and forcefully endorse establishing a Palestinian state.

He'll talk about his respect for Islamic culture and call for an era of partnering with Muslim nations in areas of common interest, among them curbing violent extremists before they destabilize Muslim nations and threaten the West.

Having publicly demanded that Israel stop building settlements in the predominantly Palestinian West Bank, he'll also ask Arab nations collectively to recognize Israel's existence.

Tying together all the elements of such a speech is no easy proposition, for his worldwide audience -- Muslim and non-Muslim -- reflects competing priorities and concerns.

Consider: Lebanese go to the polls just three days after he speaks, Iranians will be preparing for pivotal elections June 12, and both contests pit moderate parties against radical forces. Afghans and Pakistanis are girding for increased U.S. military and political engagement.

Palestinians and Israelis have conflicting stakes. In the United States, Republicans will be looking for any window to paint the Democratic president as anti-American, anti-Israel or soft on terrorism.

"It's a very high bar to clear. The expectations are immense," said Tamara Cofman Wittes, the director of the Middle East Democracy and Development Project at the Washington-based Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. "No matter how broadly he speaks, what he says will be parsed through the lens of those disagreements."

Obama won't lay out a detailed vision for resolving the Arab-Israeli crisis. "I want to use the occasion to deliver a broader message about how the United States can change for the better its relationship with the Muslim world," the president said Thursday. "That will require, I think, a recognition on both the part of the United States as well as many majority Muslim countries about each other, a better sense of understanding and, I think, possibilities to achieve common ground."

Obama would like to rally Muslim countries to join in efforts to contain Iran's nuclear program. But while many Arab governments also see Iran as a threat, the issue divides Muslims, in part because Israel is pressing for military action.

The speech will fulfill, with about a month's delay, Obama's campaign promise to make a major address in a Muslim city in his first 100 days in office.

Muslims tell pollsters that one of the most important things Westerners can do to improve relations with them is to stop seeing them as inferior, said Dalia Mogahed, the Egyptian-born executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies.

Mogahed also serves on the White House Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which provided input for Obama's speech.

"If I were to convey the three major themes that I think would be important to cover in the speech, they would be the idea of respect, cooperation and a demonstration of empathy," she said.

White House aides have emphasized that Obama will gear his remarks in Cairo to the masses, more than to governments, and to all Muslims, not just Egyptians.

Obama has been laying a foundation for goodwill with Muslims for months now, with an interview in January with Al-Arabiya television, videotaped remarks to Iranians on the Persian new year and a speech while he visited Turkey in the spring.

Mogahed said Muslims considered Obama "a testament to what people say they admire the most about the United States, which at the end of the day is meritocracy. He's the son of a nonwhite immigrant in America and was able to go from being the son of a single mom to being president. So it's very significant historically for Muslims around the world."

Obama's familial ties to Islam through his father's side of the family and his experience living in Indonesia as a boy, even though he chose Christianity, make "people believe that he won't have the level of prejudice that they believe George Bush had," Mogahed said.

His audience will want more details about the future, however. Will former Guantanamo detainees be tried in civilian or military courts? Will Obama use U.S. leverage to ensure that Israel doesn't attack Iran, to compel a halt to settlement construction and to adopt a more humanitarian approach to Gaza?

"The speech just can't be only about culture and religion," Mogahed said, "without dealing with the very real policy issues that have divided the societies."

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