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Africans Evaluate Obama Speech to Muslim World

U.S. President Barack Obama has called for "a new beginning" in relations between the United States and the world's one billion Muslims, saying the cycle of "suspicion and discord" must end.

In a speech at Cairo University Thursday, Mr. Obama said violent extremists have exploited tensions between Muslims and the West. Quoting repeatedly from the Muslim holy book, the Koran, he said the United States and the Muslim world must work together to confront extremism in all its forms.

Mr. Obama noted his plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and to leave Iraq for Iraqis. He said the United States wants its troops in Afghanistan to return home too, but he said he is committed to continuing the fight against extremists there determined to kill Americans and others.

He called the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a major source of tension and reiterated the need for a separate Palestinian state alongside Israel. President Obama said Palestinians must abandon violence and Israelis must acknowledge Palestine's right to exist.

Mr. Obama also said the United States is ready to move forward with Iran and overcome decades of mistrust.

VOA spoke with several people in Africa about President Obama’s speech.

Lamia Gritli of VOA’s French to Africa Service talked to many of the students at Cairo University who’d seen the speech.

She told VOA’s Kim Lewis they liked Obama’s emphasis on young people and his experience living in Islamic countries. But other said they were a disappointed “because he was not concrete. He talked about the Israeli-Palestinian issue but did not say how he would help the Palestinians and Israelis achieve peace, even though he talked about the two-state solution.”

Gritli said many women students were moved by Obama’s emphasis on female education: “They were touched and said, ‘Yes, we are the future, and it is important for girls and women to go to school.’”

Gritli said some Muslim journalists she spoke to were disappointed: “They said he was vague,” said Gritli. “They didn’t learn anything new from him.”

But others appreciated his precision about plans for cooperation between the US and the Muslim world. Mr. Obama announced, for example, that the US will launch a new fund to support technological development in Muslim-majority countries and help transfer ideas to the marketplaces so they can create jobs. He said the United States will also support academic exchange programs and will create what he called “centers of scientific excellence” in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

Dr. Howaida Mustafa, a professor of mass communication at Cairo University, told VOA’s Douglas Mpuga the US president’s speech was conciliatory and “objective.”

“It starts a new vision toward the Islamic world,” she said, “especially when he talked about Islamic values and quoted from the Koran and other religions.

“The problem of women is very related to the human rights issue. We worry about the situation of women, the problem of equality is not very established in the Islamic world. Education is a very important aspect (for women).”

In South Africa, Farid Esack, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Johannesburg, told VOA’s Ashenafi Abedje that he was impressed by the U.S. president’s willingness to challenge Americans to look at their anti-Islam stereotypes and for Muslims “to acknowledge [their] own stereotyping of Americans as power hungry cowboys going into the Muslim world.”

He said he thought Mr. Obama should continue to reach out to the Muslim world by closing Guantanamo, despite the reservations by some in the U.S. Congress. Esack said he also favors “a general (military) withdrawal from a number of Muslim countries and not an escalation of the war Afghanistan and in the north of Pakistan.” In recent months, fighting has intensified in those areas between civilian authorities and the militants who have moved in and in some cases taken over local government.

“I don’t think a shifting of (attention) from Iraq to Afghanistan or Pakistan,” he said, “is going to allay anxieties [among Muslims], and there could even be greater disillusionment that this man who reached out to us escalated wars on other fronts.”

He said he thinks Muslim response in South Africa to Mr. Obama’s speech is positive, but he said opinion among Muslims could change “if there is another invasion of Gaza or another bombing of a predominantly Muslim area.”

Kenyans welcomed President Obama's address to the Muslim world on Thursday, although some Muslim leaders said they will watch closely to see if his words are followed by action.

Early in the speech in Cairo, Egypt, Mr. Obama noted his father was born in Kenya and many of his relatives living there are Muslim.

The leader of Kenya's National Muslim Leaders Forum, Abdullahi Abdi, predicted Muslims will respond to Mr. Obama's call for a dialogue on reconciliation. He also said Muslims will monitor whether the speech leads to changes in U.S. policy.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, one man expressed hope that Mr. Obama will be able to change the minds of Americans who think Muslims are criminals and the minds of Muslims who think of Americans as enemies.

Mr. Obama said he is committed to supporting governments based on democratic ideals of justice, transparency and freedom.

The president also called for religious tolerance. His remarks in Egypt come as activists criticize the country's record on human rights and democracy.

After leaving Egypt, Mr. Obama heads to Germany and France, where he will meet with European leaders and attend ceremonies marking the 65th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied forces' landing in Normandy, which helped lead to victory in World War II.