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
"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
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