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Local leaders react with cautious optimism to Obama's Cairo speech

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 5, 2009 - President Barack Obama called Thursday for a "new beginning" and a recognition of shared values between the West and the Muslim world. Obama directed his Cairo University speech toward the world's more than 1 billion Muslims in an effort to rebuild trust in the wake of 9/11. While pressing the importance of democracy, religious freedom and women's rights, Obama also strongly condemned violent extremism.

"So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity," Obama said. "And this cycle of suspicion and discord must end."

Obama's speech came with high anticipation, both politically as a new Democratic president, as well as with relation to his personal history: Obama lived part of his childhood in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country, and has Muslim family in Kenya.

"I think it was very balanced," said Ghazala Hayat, chair of the Public Relations Committee for the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis. "If you always say 'I am right and you are wrong,' the other side will not listen to you." Hayat said Obama did not make any breakthroughs, but that it was a "breath of fresh air." She pointed out that Muslims in the United States have felt marginalized since 9/11, and that this speech will make them feel like their president is listening.

"People in the margins, who could be attracted to extreme ideas or violence, they might think twice because now there are voices where he or she can hear themselves," Hayat said. But she pointed out that Obama did not talk about the prisoners in Iraq who were abused by American soldiers, an issue she finds still very relevant to Muslims.

Although the speech was said to be for the Muslim world, it really focused on the Middle East, said Ahmet T. Karamustafa, professor of history and religious studies at Washington University. He would like to see Obama talk about parts of the Muslim world that are not Arabic-speaking, and which actually make up the majority of Muslims.

Nonetheless, Karamustafa saw the speech as a significant gesture. "He took a step toward them. Coming from the American president, that has significance."

Obama also made a plea to Israel and the Palestinians to stop the violence. He pushed for Hamas to recognize Israel's right to exist, while maintaining that the Palestinians have a right to a state. "Violence is a dead end. ... That's not how moral authority is claimed; that's how it is surrendered," Obama said. "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 line stood out as incredibly important to Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in St. Louis. "We believe that the president is taking a careful, inclusive approach to what is a very complex situation in the Middle East," she said. "This was the formal opening of what I believe will be an intensive, constructive approach."

But for those who see Israel and Palestine as the crux of the problem between the West and the Muslim world, a speech in Cairo was not enough. Hedy Epstein, a local activist and Holocaust survivor, said that Obama should have visited Palestine. "He had time to have dinner with the king of Saudi Arabia. I wish he had time to go to Gaza," Epstein said.

Epstein also pointed out that Obama asked Hamas to recognize Israel as a state, but did not ask Israel to recognize Hamas as a democratically elected party. "That troubles me," she said.

Obama also addressed the relationship between Iran and United States, challenging Iran to move beyond the tumultuous past and face the future "with courage." A nuclear arms race in the Middle East "could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path," Obama said.

To Abramson-Goldstein, the mention of Iran's nuclear program was noteworthy. "This was a significant speech, and every word was weighed. The fact that he did focus on this is important," she said.

But a speech is not going to matter unless actions back it up, Hayat said. "If it's just one speech and it's not repeated, people will say 'those are just words.'"

"On such a complex issue, there is going to be need for many words and many actions," Abramson-Goldstein said. "We believe that the words and actions will follow as well."

Sara Barbier Bularzik is a freelance writer.