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President Obama to Address World's Muslims

Barack Obama has been making overtures towards Arabs and Muslims in general even before he was sworn in as president. In March he recorded a video message for the Persian Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, and his first television interview as president was given not to a U.S. broadcaster, but to the Arab-language network al-Arabiya.

For months political analysts speculated about which country President Obama would choose to make his global address on U.S./Muslim relations. Finally, White House officials announced that Egypt had been selected as the venue for the long anticipated speech saying that the country in many ways represents the heart of the Arab world.

Barbara Slavin, Managing Assistant Editor for the Washington Times, thinks that Egypt is an excellent choice because for centuries, that country has been the center of Islamic intellectual thought.

"Egypt seems to me a very good choice for the Obama administration for a number of reasons," she said. "It's a country that has a long history of peacemaking, was the first to make peace with Israel, it's really a center still for Sunni Islamic thought, Al-Azhar University in Cairo is a 1,000-years old and this is the most important theological institute in the Sunni Muslim world so it makes a lot of sense if he wants to address particularly the Sunni Muslims, and I think the U.S. has had the most problems obviously with the Sunni Muslim world. It's also a way to boost U.S. ties with Egypt which is going through a kind of a difficult period. President Mubarak has been in power since 1981, he perhaps will pass from the scene within the next few years, maybe try to hand over the presidency to his son."

But there are some potential drawbacks to the venue. For the past 28 years Egypt has been ruled under emergency laws which have curtailed or suspended certain freedoms. At least 8,000 political prisoners are still kept in Egyptian prisons. Human rights advocates hope that during his visit President Obama will make clear that he supports the Egyptian people and their aspirations for basic rights, human dignity and freedoms. On the other hand, there are some legitimate U.S. and global interests in Muslim-majority regions which demand his attention and regional cooperation.

Matthias Rueb of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung explains: "Obama actually has to address two problems in the Middle East. First of all there is the Israeli-Palestinian peace effort that is stalled for a long time, and the other issue is Iran. So he has to rally support within the Arab world from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, even to Morocco and Northern Africa against Iran that is probably trying to acquire nuclear weapons."

Matthias Rueb continues by saying that as in Turkey, President Obama's speech in Egypt will present another opportunity to fix America's broken image in the Arab and Islamic world. As President Obama indicated in his address to the Turkish Parliament in April - America's strategic relationship with Islamic states cannot rely exclusively on joint opposition to al-Qaeda. It must also rest on other shared interests and mutual respect. As Barbara Slavin of the Washington Times says - this is perhaps the most significant strategic change that Mr. Obama has introduced as part of his solution to improve U.S.- Muslim relations.

"President Obama has established already a different way of addressing the Muslim world than the Bush administration did," said Barbara Slavin. "He uses language such as 'mutual respect', he talks about his own background as someone who spent a part of his childhood in a Muslim country, and I think he tries to cast this very much not as 'a U.S. war on Islamic fundamentalism' or 'U.S. war on terror' but the United States trying to deal with extremism, but reach out to those who are moderate from all religious persuasions."

It is not so much what Barack Obama says, but how he says it. Nadia Bilbassy is Senior News Correspondent for the Middle East Broadcasting Center based in Washington DC:

"So I think it is how he is going to address the Muslim world," said Nadia Bilbassy. "Now, we know that he is a very effective communicator - so far he struck all the right notes, he said all the right things from the beginning. He is going to emphasize the message that America is not and never will be at war with Islam, he will dismiss the notion that the West is in clash of civilizations with the Muslim world, so I think the focus is on how he's going to open a new page."

Ultimately though, according to Nadia Bilbassy, Muslims are hoping that President Obama's positive rhetoric will translate into equally positive policies toward Muslim communities around the world.