Obama in Cairo: Address to the Muslim World

In a highly anticipated speech in Cairo, President Barack Obama called for a new beginning to the relationship between the U.S. and Mulsim world. Obama's visit to Egypt is his second stop on a four-country trip. Video by AP
Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writer and Jerusalem Bureau Chief
Thursday, June 4, 2009; 1:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and Jerusalem bureau chief Howard Schneider was online from Cairo Thursday, June 4, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss President Obama's visit to the Middle East, which included meetings with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Wednesday and a speech on Thursday that is being billed as a major address on the American relationship with the Muslim world. Schneider will offer analysis and international reaction to the president's visit.

In Cairo, Praise for Obama's Remarks (Post, June 4)


Howard Schneider: Hi all...I am in Cairo and happy to field whatever questions you have about the speech today at Cairo University. I was watching from a neighborhood coffee shop as opposed to being in the room there with the 3200 ticketholders. As someone who lived in Egypt through the late 90s, and on into the start of the Iraq war in 2003, I can offer a little perspective as well about attitudes towards the U.S. in the Arab countries...


Sterling, Va.: Some claim Obama framed the Israelis and Palestinians as experiencing equal suffering and bearing equal responsibility for the problems in the West Bank. One analyst claimed this is a rhetorical first, especially for a U.S. President. I realize both sides have complaints about US policy, but hasn't the rhetoric towards the West Bank always been "everyone put down your guns and let's get along?" Do you think Obama's message/phrasing is a departure from previous administrations?

Howard Schneider: That has been the call but a few things stood out in Obama's speech: the use of the word "occupation," "Palestine" and talk of settlements as "lacking legitimacy." These are strong words. In addition, this is a rare moment where the U.S. (and many Israeli security folks as well), have acknowledged that the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is working to hold up its side of the bargain on controlling violence. There was another shootout in Qalqilya today in which PA forces killed two Hamas suspects. So the argument, if you accept that assessment, is that Israel should move on its Road Map commitments on the settlements.


Fairfax County, Va.: How (and how soon) can we gauge the response overseas to the president's address? Is there reliable opinion polling in many countries? Or will it be a matter of editorials and comments by local opinion leaders, or reporting and "man in the street" interviews?

I would like to know the response, not just in Egypt, but in other Muslim countries, and in Israel, as well. Also, do you think Europeans like the French, with their different attitude toward Muslims, head scarves, etc., are paying any attention, or was this not on their radar, what with the plane crash tragedy and Normandy anniversary, etc.?

Howard Schneider: There are Palestinian and Israel polling groups that I am sure will be sampling opinion in the days ahead, so we will be on the lookout for that. Also U.S. groups like Zogby and others will probably weigh in...Don't know about the EU reaction..


Sun Prairie, Wis.: Good afternoon, Mr. Schneider and thanks for doing this chat. As I read President Obama's speech to the Muslim world, I couldn't help thinking it was mostly a speech to the Arab world. On those terms, it probably did more good than not, but I wonder about what the routine conflation of "Arab" and "Muslim" means for American policy.

After all, the most pressing "Muslim world" issue before us right now has its roots in the Pakistani government's longtime support for the terrorist factions it is now battling in Swat -- not an Arab issue at all, and so not one that Obama addressed in his speech. The one throwaway mention of Darfur in the speech was likewise a concession to an Arab audience that embraces the genocidal Arab government of Sudan, and communicated an unfortunate message of American indifference to its (almost entirely Muslim, but not Arab) victims.

Do you think Obama went too far in glossing over subjects his Arab audience either did not want to hear about or would have found offensive?

Howard Schneider: Good question and shows just how tough a minefield Obama had to navigate. His focus on the Arab world is built on the assumption that the continued Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the root of a lot of other problems. You can accept or challenge that assumption, but if you do, then other conclusions flow. In addition, the conflation of Arab and Muslim comes from the fact that the religion was born in what is now Saudi and emerged from that culture. Whiles its reach is now multicultural (Indonesia being the largest Muslim country), a lot of the theological gravity remains rooted in the Arab states. In addition, don't forget the ties between movements like the Taliban and the theology developed by Zawahari (Egyptian) and bin Laden(Saudi).


Franconia, Va.: Was it significant that he thanked the people of Egypt, and the educational institutions, for hosting his speech, and did not name Mubarak?

And by the way, what were the two institutions he kept mentioning as hosting the speech? One was a thousand years old, the other was Cairo University, which he said was a hundred years old. What was the first of those two, and what is its significance?

Howard Schneider: I don't think that was a slight. He had met with Mubarak earlier at the Presidential palace and I am sure they did plenty of thanking and what-not there...Mubarak did not attend the Cairo University event. Some speculation about that but remember the family is still in mourning of the death of a grandson, and from all accounts was pretty shaken up by that. I think Obama was just being effusive to the physical hosts of the event...The other institution was Al-Azhar Islamic University, which is one of the central institutions of Islamic learning from very early on...


High Point, N.C.: Why does President Obama accept the globally acceptable double standard by supporting the position that Israel needs to give up all territory captured in 1967? For example, why doesn't the world worry about Great Britain keeping the Rock of Gibraltar?

Howard Schneider: Probably because nobody really cares about the Rock of Gibraltar whereas a lot of people care about security for Israel and a fair deal for the Palestinians.


Lyon, France: Since president Obama is in Egypt, why not demand and end to the persecution of the Coptic Christians being oppressed by the Muslims in that country? Why are Obama and American liberals so afraid to ever criticize anything Islamic?

Howard Schneider: Obama did mention the Copts and Maronites and the protection of diversity today. He mentioned religious freedom within Islam as well -- and singled out the Shiites, which you could take as a veiled reference to Saudi Arabia, where that brand of Islam is "discouraged." In fact he brought out a lot of sensitive stuff -- women's rights, suppression of thought, etc. The aim here, remember, was broad -- not to isolate or hector or embarrass, but to try to get all sides thinking about how to stake a step ahead. His language on tolerance and diversity was pretty pointed...


Arlington, Va.: Hearing Obama defend Islam so eloquently and passionately raises the question in my mind: Why is it left to an American Christian to take to the world stage to denounce the extremist elements of Islam that have poisoned its image and fueled this immense rift? Why is there no Muslim religious and/or political leader standing up in a global forum to denounce extremism? Sure, you'll hear leaders say in interviews, etc. that Islam is a peaceful religion (and it is), but why isn't there a Muslim figure vigorously and systematically leading the charge to rescue Islam from the terrorists? Where is the Muslim MLK or Gandhi -- a charismatic, unifying figure building a global movement to peacefully take down the extremists who seem to have a stranglehold on so much of the Muslim world?

Howard Schneider: Two points: First is that Islam is a very decentralized religion. It has different sects and different schools of thought and jurisprudence, and no ecclesiastical body to fight out these issues. There are many clerics who make these points week by week in the mosques and in weekly sermons broadcast on the state-run televisions, but there voice tends to be pretty localized, country by country. Second, Obama, as president of the United States, can command that type of attention...


Washington, D.C.: Howard,

I am here in a classroom at Wilson Senior High School with Tim Kennedy and our two classes. Students would really like to know how the speech might have a real impact on the state of U.S. relations with the Arab world? Specifically we would like to know how the US will work with the Arab world to identify and isolate extremists and continue to develop a coalition? And how will Obama's willingness to address controversial issues affect Arab attitudes about the U.S.?

Howard Schneider: Howdy Wilson High...Lets put it this way: There's a bit of good will where there was not any before, and that will give Obama time to show he can make changes "on the ground." If, a year from now, there has been no progress between the Israelis and the Palestinians...if the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq leads to civil chaos...if things have not progressed in Afghanistan -- people will look back on this moment and say, well, the words were beautiful but nothing has happened.

Regarding identifying and isolating extremists -- some Arab states, Egypt in particular, have been doing this very aggressively for a long time...The Saudis stepped it up after 9/11...the Jordanians as well...The Syrians are a complicated case because of their relations with Hezbollah and Hamas, but in terms of any extremists who might act internally they have been very efficient in rooting them out. So whether that was rhetorical flourish, or whether there is some new initiative, I have no idea...As far as controversial issues go, again, it depends on the tone and the follow up. Condi Rice made a speech about democracy here four years ago, there was an outpouring of activism as a result -- and it all got rolled back when the Muslim Brotherhood did will in the Parliamentary elections. Reading between the lines, Obama's riff on people who win an election then suppress the opposition was a sign that he will not just push for the trappings of democracy...


Oslo, Norway: President Obama constantly mentions that Palestinian statehood is the key to peace. The problem with that is none of the parties hostile towards Israel share this view. Israel's enemies make it very clear that their goal is the destruction of Israel, which explains why the entire Arab world was at war with Israel prior to 1967, when Arabs still occupied the West Bank and Gaza. Would you agree?

Howard Schneider: Point well taken and one that Israel's security officials like to note: how can we set up a Palestinian state without knowing what happens next with Hamas...with Hezbollah on the border next door, etc.

This has led to the counterargument in Israel that the debate should shift from one over an end to the conflict, and towards a strategy of managing it over the long term...

What is boils down to is a debate over fundamental assumptions: Will formation of a Palestinian state undermine Hamas and Hezbollah, or simply be used as a stepping stone for them? That is one reason why so much emphasis is being placed right now on building the Palestinian security force in the West Bank -- to bolster confidence in their ability to assert control...


Washington, D.C.: Re: Obama in Egypt: While he's there, is there a chance that he can tie future foreign aid payments to better human rights policies, especially in handling dissidents? I'm not too crazy about my tax money be handed to corrupt authoritarian governments. As an American Jew, the only decent thing that Egypt ever did in the past 30+ years was to sign the Camp David accords negotiated by President Carter.

Howard Schneider: I doubt that will happen...And do give Egypt some credit: signing the treaty is one thing. Upholding it for 30 years is a different matter...The peace has been frosty at times, but I think both countries are glad they don't have to worry much about that long stretch of border in the Sinai...


Washington, D.C.: Will the President have any contact with Ayman Nour or other governmental opponents while in Egypt?

Howard Schneider: Not sure about contact. I believe Nour was at the speech (at least he was invited, and we did manage to get one or two Ghad party members on the phone to verify there were in the house...)


Rockville, Md.: I can see that Israel needs to return land (perhaps all of it) for peace, but don't get the "do it now" part. Isn't the usual path to have a peace conference and negotiate these points, sign the treaty and have peace?

Really, I don't understand the "Do it now." part.

But they say all of our Presidents have held this position.

But nothing happened?

Howard Schneider: The idea of a settlement freeze or halt or limit (pick your term) is an old one. It happened once, briefly, under George Bush the elder and Israeli Prime Minister Rabin, in advance of the signing of the Oslo Accords. The "do it now" part is Obama's way of affirming that the status of that land is part of the negotiation, and that Israel, as the occupying power, is under international law not supposed to move its people or stuff into the occupied space. From the Palestinian perspective new settlements mean more difficult negotiations...


Rockville, Md.: "Will formation of a Palestinian state undermine Hamas and Hezbollah, or simply be used as a stepping stone for them?"

Can we get Iran to cut them loose and not support them? What would it take?

Howard Schneider: Important question and it is one that Netanyahu very much focuses on. His feeling is, ensure first that Iran will not sustain its support...Here again, it is chicken and egg -- would an independent Palestine in itself cause Iran to withdraw?


Anonymous: Is President Obama in a position, at this stage, to take any concrete steps towards solving at least one of the many problems which mar the relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors?

Howard Schneider: They are negotiating. He is not the prime minister of Israel or the head of the Palestinian Authority. He has ways to influence both, but keep in mind that some of the cards can only be played once. George Bush (the first one) suspended a loan guarantee in order to get Israel to agree to a settlement freeze in the early 90s. It did not last long...


Howard Schneider: Well thanks for all the questions...Time is up...It was an interesting today and we will see what it means over time...


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