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Obama Urges Cooperation With Muslim World

June 4, 2009 at 6:00 PM EDT
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In a sweeping speech in Cairo, President Obama called for stronger U.S.-Muslim alliances, urging each to put suspicions aside and unite to combat violent extremism.

JIM LEHRER: President Obama issued an appeal today for reconciliation between America and the Muslim world. He delivered his message in Egypt. Ray Suarez has our lead story report.

RAY SUAREZ: The president arrived in Egypt after setting the stage with a brief stop in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest sites.

After a welcome from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Mr. Obama toured the 600-year-old Sultan Hassan Mosque. He removed his shoes in a sign of respect. And Secretary of State Clinton wore a headscarf.

From there, it was on to the much-anticipated speech to 3,000 invited guests at Cairo University and the world’s 1 billion Muslims. The president vowed to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam, and he urged Muslims to reject stereotypes of America as a self-interested empire.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on 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.

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, nor can I answer in the time that I have this afternoon all the complex questions that brought us to this point.

But I am convinced that, in order to move forward, we must say openly to each other 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. As the holy Koran tells us, “Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.”

Two ongoing wars

RAY SUAREZ: To that end, the president said he wanted to address points of tension with the Muslim world, starting with Afghanistan.

BARACK OBAMA: We would gladly bring every single one of our troops home if we could be confident that there were not violent extremists in Afghanistan and now Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can. But that is not yet the case.

Indeed, none of us should tolerate these extremists. They have killed in many countries. They have killed people of different faiths, but, more than any other, they have killed Muslims. Their actions are irreconcilable with the rights of human beings, the progress of nations, and with Islam.

The holy Koran teaches that whoever kills an innocent is as -- it is as if he has killed all mankind.

RAY SUAREZ: The war in Iraq, Mr. Obama said, had been a war of choice, one that brought benefits, but at a high price.

BARACK OBAMA: Although I believe that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, I also believe that events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible.

Israeli-Palestinian conflict

RAY SUAREZ: The president then turned to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying Israel must stop building settlements on the West Bank and Palestinians must give up violence.

BARACK OBAMA: America's strong bonds with Israel are well-known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.

On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people, Muslims and Christians, have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years, they've endured the pain of dislocation.

But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth. The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.

RAY SUAREZ: But, on another subject, Mr. Obama said any progress toward peace and security in the region could be jeopardized by Iran's nuclear ambition.

BARACK OBAMA: It is clear to all concerned that, when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point. This is not simply about America's interests. It's about preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path.

RAY SUAREZ: The president also advised the regions' leaders against using outside tensions to distract their own people and to suppress democracy.

BARACK OBAMA: America -- America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected peaceful governments, provided they govern with respect for all their people.

You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion. You must respect the rights of minorities and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise. You must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

Reactions of the Muslim world

RAY SUAREZ: The speech was punctuated more than 40 times by applause. Reaction was swift from across the Muslim world. In many places, ordinary people said they were pleased with the president's outreach.

MITHWAN HUSSEIN (through translator): President Obama is a brave president, and I think he has started well and we hope he will open a new chapter with the Islamic world and Arab nations, in particular.

RAY SUAREZ: And Israeli officials issued upbeat statements, without directly mentioning the issues of Jewish settlements in occupied zones.

MARK REGEV, Israeli government spokesman: Israel shares the hope expressed by President Obama that his efforts will, indeed, lead to a new period of peace and reconciliation in the Middle East. Israel is willing to play our part to achieve that goal.

RAY SUAREZ: Palestinian leaders also voiced hope, but said they wanted more concrete details.

SAEB EREKAT, chief Palestinian negotiator: I hope that, in the next few months, President Obama will lay a real plan, with timelines, monitors, and mechanisms to implement and translate the vision of two states from a vision to a realistic political track.

RAY SUAREZ: But radical Palestinian groups condemned the speech outright, and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Americans still have much to account for.

AYATOLLAH ALI KHAMENEI, supreme leader, Iran (through translator): They have done things which have inflicted blows on the people and deeply wounded and annoyed people of the region. A word, speech, and slogans cannot take this resentment, pain, and deep-seated hatred away. Action is needed.

RAY SUAREZ: And from al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, there was this warning in a new message: "We either live under the light of Islam or we die with dignity. Brace yourselves for a long war against the world's infidels and their agents."

But for this day, at least, President Obama brushed aside such threats.

Instead, he ended his visit to Egypt with a tour of the great pyramids on the outskirts of Cairo. From there, he flew on to Germany, where he'll visit the site of the Buchenwald concentration camp, before commemorating the 65th anniversary of D-Day in France.