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A Year After Obama's Cairo Speech, Skepticism Among Muslims Remains

  • Elizabeth Arrott

A look at the Cairo address that held out hope of closing gap between Muslims and America on many fronts – religious, social, governmental and economic

One year ago, President Obama delivered a speech in Cairo meant to improve U.S. relations with the world's Muslims. He tried to show American respect for Islam and signal a break with the policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush, whose wars in Iraq and Afghanistan deepened suspicions on both sides. One year later, VOA has asked a sampling of Muslims – Arab, South Asian and Indonesian - if they feel Mr. Obama has made good on his promises.

Mr. Obama's Cairo address held out the hope of closing the gap between Muslims and America on many fronts – religious, social, governmental and economic.

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

In hindsight, some think his sweeping and generalized promise of progress may have been the speech's fundamental flaw. Hala Mustafa, editor of the Egyptian magazine Democracy, was in the audience at Cairo University last June.

"I feel like everybody who attended listened and heard what he or she wants to hear. So if you are working to promote democracy, you have heard that. If you are with the government side, so you have heard what could make you satisfied," says Mustafa. "For the peace process, I think the Palestinians and the Israelis they heard what each wants to hear. But anyway, at the end, I think after one year, I think the achievement is very little, almost nothing."

American University in Cairo professor Said Sadek agrees, adding that part of the problem may have been expectations.

"Because we have a long history of autocracy and chronic problems that no one can solve, there has always been the hope, the aspiration to see a hero, a superhero who would come and solve the problems, someone who would deliver democracy on a silver platter," adds Sadek. "When he came here and gave that speech at Cairo University, people were shouting 'we love you Obama! We love you Obama!' Today there is general apathy, disappointment."

On the streets of majority-Muslim lands, not everyone is despairing of the possibilities. Novie Andriani spoke to VOA outside the Sunda Kelapa mosque in Jakarta.

"I don't think America can change that quick, just by listening to Obama's speech. I do believe that they are going to change slowing but not significantly changing," Andriani said.

In Cairo, outside the university where Mr. Obama was greeted with thunderous applause, student Ahmad Gamal Khattar gives a one year progress report that is decidedly mixed.

"Most of the things he spoke about, some of them he has done, others he hasn't. He spoke about the war in Iraq and the troop pullout and that Iraq will be freed. We haven't seen this yet. About Afghanistan, he said the situation will improve, but it's worsening."

American University in Cairo professor Sadek ascribes some of the disappointment to Mr. Obama's mastery of rhetoric.

"He would say one thing and then he adds the famous, magical word but. And then we are in the old dilemma. He wants to withdraw from Iraq, but he has to keep a high military presence," Sadek said. "He wants to have democracy in the area, but he has to, at the same time, continue the same good relationship between the White House and the Arab, old dictators. This goes on and on. He wants to help the Palestinian people have a state but Israel's interests come first."

Israel looms large in U.S.-Muslim relations. In Cairo, Mr. Obama pledged to oppose Israeli settlement construction on Palestinian lands. The building has continued, to many's despair. But in Indonesia, some, including Jakarta resident Rori [one name only], still sees progress.

"With the support to the Gaza Strip and the renegotiation between the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) and Israel, I see that something has changed. So there is an effect from the speech."

But there are also long-standing suspicions and prejudices that surface with alarming ease. A university student in Islamabad, Pakistan, is quick to assign blame for a perceived sin against Islam on the website Facebook. To him, the guilty party is a frequent, and frequently erroneous, target of Muslim wrath.

"On one side, he's saying we'll have good relations with the Muslim world. But on the other side, other people from, like Jews, they gave such problems like you have just seen on Facebook. These things are getting conflicts. He's not doing good. These things should be brought to light," says the student.

The suspicions of a fellow university student in Islamabad also take a dark turn when considering U.S, and Mr. Obama's, intentions toward the Muslim world.

"He has continued the Bush policy of creating terrorism, said Ibrahim. "They are not having good relations with all the Muslims. They are trying to kill us and, you know, they are trying to pressurize Muslims and they are trying to have good relations with all other people in the world except the Muslims."

In Indonesia, where the future president lived as a child, some argue any failure to improve relations is not Mr. Obama's fault. Haji Djoni Subchan spoke to VOA in Jakarta.

"Obama wants America not to be extreme to the Muslim world, but apparently the powers behind him are not yet able to change."

Back in Islamabad, another university student, Saif Shah, takes the discussion far beyond the political powers that be.
"I don't believe in political speeches or on the else. I just believe on the reality, what is going on – and that is just hatred," Shah says. "I think hatred is a big disease. I think it is a disease between all humans and I believe Obama, or any other leader – I want that they convey the message to the people 'just leave the topic of hatred and know the value of humans'. What is the value of humans in every religion."

The sentiment echoes what Mr. Obama said in Cairo one year ago.

"America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition," said Mr Obama. "Instead, they overlap, and share common principles - principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings. I do so recognizing that change cannot happen overnight. I know there's been a lot of publicity about this speech, but no single speech can eradicate years of mistrust."

Anticipating his critics, even the president asked for patience.

[Additional reporting by Sean Maroney and Brian Padden]

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