Obama, in Eqypt: U.S., Muslims need 'new beginning'

WASHINGTON — President Obama called for a "new beginning" between the United States and the world's Muslims in a June 4 speech at Cairo, Egypt, urging a cooperative effort to produce global peace.

The highly anticipated address, one promised by Obama during his presidential campaign, focused on seven issues the president said America and Muslims need to face together. They are "violent extremism," the relationship between Israel and Palestinians, nuclear weapons, democracy, religious freedom, women's rights and economic development, he told the audience at Cairo University.

Church-state specialist Richard Land said the president's speech contained both positive and negative elements.

Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, applauded Obama's comments on battling extremism and supporting religious freedom. He was disappointed, however, in the president's apparent implication of a "moral equivalence" between the Holocaust and the suffering of Palestinians, as well as his failure to cite the U.S. military's part in freeing oppressed Muslims during the last two decades.

Describing this as a "time of great tension" between America and the world's Muslims, Obama said the "cycle of suspicion and discord must end."

"So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity," he said.

The president said the parties "have a responsibility to join together on behalf of the world that we seek — a world where extremists no longer threaten our people, and American troops have come home; a world where Israelis and Palestinians are each secure in a state of their own, and nuclear energy is used for peaceful purposes; a world where governments serve their citizens, and the rights of all God's children are respected."

Obama said he believes it is part of his responsibility "to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam," but he also said the "same principle must apply to Muslim perceptions of America. Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire."

He reaffirmed "America is not — and never will be — at war with Islam," a point President Bush made shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by Islamic terrorists. "We will, however, relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security," Obama said.

"The enduring faith of over a billion people is so much bigger than the narrow hatred of a few," he added.

The U.S. commitment to combating terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan "will not weaken," Obama said. He described the conflict in Iraq, unlike Afghanistan, as a "war of choice." America has a responsibility both to help Iraq build a better future and "to leave Iraq to Iraqis," he said.

The president described the bond between the United States and Israel as "unbreakable." He said denying the Holocaust, in which the Nazis killed an estimated 6 million Jews, was "baseless" and called threats to Israel's existence "deeply wrong." The leadership of Iran's Islamic government has done both.

Obama also said, "On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people — Muslims and Christians — have suffered in pursuit of a homeland."

Obama called for a Palestinian state, a two-state solution promoted by Bush during his presidency. He also called for an end to the construction of Israeli settlements.

U.S.-Iran relations "have reached a decisive point" regarding nuclear weapons, the president said, but he contended any country, including Iran, "should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power" if it abides by the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

On democracy, Obama told the audience no type of government "should be imposed" on a country, but he said "government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who would hold power."

The president urged religious freedom in Islamic-dominated states. "The richness of religious diversity must be upheld — whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt," he said. "And if we are being honest, fault lines must be closed among Muslims, as well, as the divisions between Sunni and Shi'a have led to tragic violence, particularly in Iraq."

Land said he "appreciated the unequivocal commitment to confront violent extremism in all of its forms, although I did note the word 'terror' or 'terrorism' was never used. It seems to me the difference between terrorism and violent extremism is a distinction without a difference."

He also commended Obama's defense of religious liberty, citing two comments from the president: "Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together. People in every country should be free to choose and live their faith based upon the persuasion of the mind and the heart and the soul."

Land said, "One can't ask for a better affirmation of soul freedom, the soul freedom that is a treasured gift of our Baptist ancestors to America."

Land also said the president "seemed to imply a moral equivalence between the Holocaust and the sufferings of the Jewish people versus the sufferings of the Palestinian people. They are not equivalent. Any suggestion or intimation that they are diminishes our understanding of the horror of the Jewish experience in the Holocaust.

"Also, the fact that there was no mention of the role our military has played in the liberation of millions of Muslims from oppression in Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq was disturbing," Land said.

At the close of his speech, Obama quoted verses on peacemaking from the Koran, Talmud and Bible, saying, "The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God's vision. Now that must be our work here on earth."

Egypt, the site of the president's speech, is one of the world's most repressive countries regarding religious liberty. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has placed Egypt on its "watch list," a category reserved for countries that "require close monitoring due to the nature and extent" of abuses of religious freedom. Saudi Arabia, which Obama visited prior to his speech, has an even worse record on religious tolerance. The U.S. State Department has designated it as one of its "countries of particular concern," which are regimes that are the world's most severe violators of religious freedom.