"Much has been made of the fact that an African-American with the name Barack Hussein Obama could be elected President. But my personal story is not so unique," he said in the Grand Hall of Cairo University. "The dream of opportunity for all people has not come true for everyone in America, but its promise exists for all who come to our shores – that includes nearly seven million American Muslims in our country today who enjoy incomes and education that are higher than average.
The speech – delivered in Egypt, where the political opposition can be jailed, beaten or outlawed — is a major test of Obama’s ability to translate his appealing rhetoric into real change at what he acknowledged is a "time of tension" between Islam and the West.
Obama, who talked little about his own connections to Islam on the campaign trail, invoked what he called his “own experience” as he delivered on a campaign promise to make a major address on Muslim soil early in his presidency.
“I am a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims,” he said. “As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk. As a young man, I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith.”
The comments in what he called “the timeless city of Cairo” are by far the most extensive he has made about his Muslim roots. Obama added another personal note as he insisted on greater religious freedom throughout the world: “I saw it firsthand as a child in Indonesia, where devout Christians worshiped freely in an overwhelmingly Muslim country. That is the spirit we need today.”
Obama talked bluntly about some of the “sources of tension” between the cultures, including head scarves and the role of women, but did not include the word “terrorism” or its variants.
“I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” he said. “One based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.:”
Conservative critics are sure to seize on a passage in which he said: “Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners of it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; progress must be shared.”
Echoing a message aides had emphasized in their previews of the speech, Obama declared that “change cannot happen overnight.”
“No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, nor can I answer in the time that I have all the complex questions that brought us to this point,” Obama said. “But I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors. There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground.”
Obama concluded with brief quotations from the Koran, the Talmud and the Bible – the holy books of the three great faiths. Then he added: “The people of the world can live tgether in peace. We know that is God’s vision. Now, that must be our work here on Earth. Thank you. And may God’s peace be upon you.”
The administration has been signaling a tougher line with Israel, and Obama made remarks that can be taken as sympathetic to Palestinians for what he called “the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation.”
“So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable,” he said. “America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.”
In remarks that will likely rankle some supporters of Israel in the U.S. Congress, he added: “Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop. Israel must also live up to its obligations to ensure that Palestinians can live, and work, and develop their society.”