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Kenyan Muslims Welcome Obama's Words, But Wait For Action

U.S. President Barack Obama's speeches regularly command considerable attention in Kenya, where he has long been adopted as a native son. The president's Cairo speech was being watched particularly closely by Kenya's sizable Muslim community.

President Obama's Kenyan father, born in the western village of Kogelo, has become an integral part of the president's personal narrative. And early on in his speech at Cairo University, President Obama drew on a particular angle of his Kenyan heritage, noting there are many Muslims on his father's side of his family.

But the specific policy issues of Obama's speech focused on the Middle East. Apart from an appeal for better protection of civilians in Sudan's Darfur region, which he called "a stain on our collective conscience", there was little specific discussion of sub-Saharan Africa.

Te chairman of Kenya's National Muslim Leaders Forum, Abdullahi Abdi, says Muslims in Kenya closely follow issues in the wider Muslim world, and noted that some of those issues have a direct impact in Kenya.

"The Kenyan Muslims always feel concerned when there are issues that affect Muslims globally ... Some of the problems we have had in this country, like terrorism, is caused by external forces," Abdi said. "We also hope that those external forces will be influenced by the statement."

An al-Qaida attack on the U.S. embassy in Nairobi killed more than 200 people in 1998, and a suicide attack also killed 15 people at an Israeli-owned hotel on the Kenyan coast in 2002.

Kenya's Muslim leaders have largely reacted positively to the contents of President Obama's speech, but say they are waiting to see if the words are followed by concrete action.

"I think he has taken the first step towards reconciliation with the Muslim Umma in the world, and definitely I believe the Muslims as well will join in the dialogue that he is proposing," Abdi said. "The issue which is at hand right now, is the statement, as I told you, is very good. The question is putting words into action. So first, is what he said going to be part of the policy of the American government?

The coordinator of the National Muslim Human Rights Forum, Al-Asmin Kimathi, felt similarly. He says even before the Cairo speech, President Obama had offered attractive rhetoric on challenging autocratic regimes in the Muslim world, but has provided little actual movement.

"Not with the kind of vigor that we had expected from his statements earlier," Kimathi said. "That can be explained by the circumstances he finds at home with his focus on the economy. He should reach out more than he has so far and also implement some of his promises."

In general, Kenya's population is one of the most favorable in the world towards American foreign policy. In a BBC World Service poll released last year, about 80 percent of Kenyans surveyed approved of the role of American influence in the world. And that was before Mr. Obama became president.

But many of Kenya's Muslims have expressed displeasure with aspects of American foreign policy, including the transfer to Ethiopia of Kenyans detained after the U.S.-backed offensive by Ethiopia against Islamists in Somalia in early 2007. A Kenyan citizen has also been detained at America's Guantamo Bay prison since early 2007.