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After applause, each side pounces on Obama's speech

CAIRO — On one level, President Barack Obama's speech succeeded in reaching out to Muslims across the Middle East, winning widespread praise for his respectful approach, his quotations from the Koran and his forthright references to highly fraught political conflicts.

But Obama's calibrated remarks also asked listeners in a region roiled by hatred to take two steps that have long been anathema: forget the past and understand an opposing view. For a president who proclaimed a goal of asking people to listen to uncomfortable truths, it was clear that parts of his speech resonated deeply with his intended audience and others fell on deaf ears, in Israel as well as the Muslim world.

"As long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace. ... This cycle of suspicion and discord must end," Obama said. "I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect."

Again and again, Muslim listeners said they were struck by how skillfully Obama appropriated religious, cultural and historical references in ways other American presidents had not. He sprinkled the address with four quotations from the Koran and used Arabic greetings.

Imam Yahya Hendi, a Georgetown University chaplain who specializes in Koranic translation, said the first passage that Obama cited effectively framed a frank speech. The president said, "As the Holy Koran tells us, 'Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.' "

"It says, 'I'm going to be truthful,'?" Hendi said. "It says, 'Sometimes the truth is painful. I'm going to take you to it and some of it will be painful.' "

Obama took note of longstanding historical grievances like the stain of colonialism, U.S. support for the Iranian coup of 1953 and the displacement of the Palestinian people. His speech was also embraced for what it did not do: use the word terrorism, broadly seen here as shorthand for an attack on Islam.

In effect, Obama structured his speech almost like a Friday sermon, blending a political, social and religious message. In style and substance, some regional analysts said, the speech sought to undermine the message of radical terrorists like Osama bin Laden.

"Al-Qaida benefited from the previous rhetoric about the clash of civilizations in mobilizing and recruiting individuals as part of fighting a crusade," said Mohammed Abu Rumman, research editor at Al Ghad daily newspaper in Amman, Jordan.

Perhaps inevitably, by seeking to present balance to the many conflicts that divide the region, Obama angered some on both sides. Many Arabs and Israelis alike furiously rejected what they saw as his attempt to present their suffering as morally equivalent. They picked at the content of the speech almost like a biblical text.

"How dare Obama compare Arab refugee suffering to the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust," said Aryeh Eldad, a parliamentarian from the rightist National Union Party in Israel.

Said Ahmed Youssef, the deputy foreign minister in the Hamas government in Gaza, "He points to the right of Israel to exist, but what about the refugees and their right of return?"

The speech included a list of topics that have soured relations with Muslims. As each topic was addressed, from religious tolerance and women's rights to nuclear weapons and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was greeted with warm applause or icy stares, depending on who was listening.

While many listeners generally agreed with Obama's comments about violence and extremism, some said they disliked his characterization of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"What is astonishing is that he condemned violence, but he didn't say a word about what the United States did in Iraq," said Khalid Saghieh, the executive editor of al Akhbar, a Lebanese daily newspaper that leans toward Hezbollah. "If you want to call for a new beginning, you should at least apologize for tens of thousands of victims in Iraq."

Political opponents of the region's autocratic governments also expressed disappointment. "What touched on democracy and human rights in the speech was far less than what we wanted," said Ayman Nour, Egypt's most prominent political dissident, who was imprisoned after challenging President Hosni Mubarak in the last election.

On the flash point of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the president did little to impress his Muslim audience — and barely enough to calm the anxieties of some Israelis. Some seemed to understand Obama was trying to move the debate by balance and indirection.

"If I were in his shoes, what would I do?" said Mansoor al Jamri, editor of the Al Waast daily newspaper in Bahrain. "My closest friends are dictators, and the best strategic ally I have is viewed as a strategic enemy for the Muslim world. If he delivers on what he said, and it is a compromise, many people will ultimately be happy."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

After applause, each side pounces on Obama's speech 06/05/09 [Last modified: Friday, June 5, 2009 6:23am]
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