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Using New Language, President Shows Understanding for Both Sides in Middle East

By Glenn Kessler and Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 5, 2009

There was no mention of "terrorists" or "terrorism," just "violent extremists." There was the suggestion that Israeli settlements are illegitimate and the assertion that the Palestinians "have suffered in pursuit of a homeland." There were frequent references to the "Holy Koran" and echoes of Muslim phrases.

President Obama, who aides say spent many hours "holed up" in the past week revising his Cairo speech, clearly believes in the power of his oratory to win people to his point of view. In many ways, he used his address to promote American values, but his efforts to use new language to recast old grievances have already prompted debate and consternation in some quarters.

At the same time, he avoided specific complaints about the lack of freedoms in the Muslim world. Instead, he spoke of the need to obtain concrete political goals, such as the fair administration of justice. He made no mention of his host, President Hosni Mubarak, a snub surely noticed by Egypt's autocratic ruler of nearly three decades.

In discussing the Arab-Israeli conflict, Obama was both resolute in expressing support for Israel and remarkably sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians. In an Arab capital, he spoke of America's "unbreakable" bond with Israel and condemned anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, an apparent repudiation of the anti-Israeli rhetoric that periodically emanates from Iran. Yet he also seemed to draw an equivalence between Jewish and Palestinian suffering, noting "the daily humiliations -- large and small -- that come with occupation."

He said they were "two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive."

For some hawkish Israelis, the comparison was too much. Aryeh Eldad, a member of parliament with the National Union party, decried what he called "a shocking parallel between the destruction of European Jewry and the suffering that the Arabs of Israel brought upon themselves when they declared war on Israel."

Some Palestinians said they were gratified by Obama's words. "He compared Palestinians under Israeli occupation with slaves. This was powerful. He made everyone feel close and at home," said Eyad El Sarraj, a psychiatrist who heads the Gaza Community Mental Health Program in the Gaza Strip.

In contrast to what Obama called "the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity," the president was sharply critical of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank: "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements." Not since Jimmy Carter has a U.S. president in his own voice declared the settlements to be illegal, but Obama tiptoed very close to the line. He also deftly referred to a "Jewish homeland," slightly different from Israel's demands that it be considered a Jewish state.

Obama also appeared to break ground on Israel's possession of nuclear weapons, without even mentioning them specifically. He seemed to acknowledge the double standard of accepting Israel's weapons but opposing Iran's nuclear ambitions, and then made a specific reference to the responsibilities and rights of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran has signed but Israel has not. Nuclear power should be the right of any nation that complies with its responsibilities under the treaty, "and it must be kept for all who fully abide by it," Obama said. "And I'm hopeful that all countries in the region can share in this goal."

Obama quoted from the holy books of all three Abrahamic faiths -- Islam, Christianity and Judaism. But, most especially, he drew on the Koran as well as other Islamic religious teachings and sayings to provide the spiritual underpinnings of his speech.

Mohamed Magid, imam at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center, a Sterling mosque, and vice president of the Islamic Society of North America, said he was "amazed" at the sophisticated use that Obama made of Islam's holy text. "He was taking verses from the Koran to support his arguments," Magid said. "He was looking to persuade them to believe in the ideas that he wanted to share with them -- 'Not only listen to my words, but your own religion asks you to do the same.' "

Obama quoted three times from the Koran, the 114-chapter Islamic holy book that Muslims revere as the word of God revealed to Muhammad, the founder of Islam, in the 7th century.

The first, quoted by Obama as "Be conscious of God and speak always the truth," is from Chapter 33, Verse 70, titled "Ahzab," or "The Confederates," and addresses the issue of those who are hypocritical in their faith and maintaining one's faith in hard times. It was quoted by Muhammad in his final sermon before he died, and imams worldwide use it frequently in Friday sermons, said Jonathan Brown, a Muslim who is a professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Washington.

When Obama used that verse, said Brown, "he wasn't just quoting from the Koran, but he was doing what any Muslim preacher would do when speaking to an audience."

Most striking to many Muslims was Obama's use of the phrase "May peace be upon them" when referring to Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. It is a term of respect and reverence that Muslims use when referring, in speech or in writing, to such figures, and rarely is used by non-Muslims.

Ben Rhodes, Obama's chief foreign policy speechwriter, said Obama told him "to cast a wide net" in preparing the address. That included conference calls and meetings between Muslim Americans and national security staff.

Tariq Malhance, the president of the largest Muslim community center in Chicago, was invited to participate in one of the calls, and later he sent an e-mail to the White House urging Obama to "be mindful" that most Muslims around the world are not Arabs.

Almost two weeks ago, senior Obama advisers met with an even broader group of Muslim leaders at the White House, including activists and academics from across the political spectrum, according to participants. One of those at the meeting, University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami, said the result was a speech that provided a far more specific description of Obama's goals on a series of issues related to Muslims, Middle East peace and the Arab world.

"Now the pressure mounts, though, because expectations rise," Telhami said. "Once you designate specific issues, people start looking for actions. This speech raises the stakes, and the pressure is going to mount to deliver something more than just a dialogue."

Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.

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