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Obama offers change to Muslim world
US president's speech in Cairo comes as Muslim attitudes towards the US are shifting.
Last Modified: 03 Jun 2009 02:06 GMT

Obama will be trying to build on more favourable attitudes towards him in the Middle East [EPA]

Barack Obama began his overtures to Muslim countries moments after he was sworn into office in January.

"To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect," Obama declared in his inauguration speech.

Soon afterwards, he announced plans to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and pull combat troops out of Iraq - two actions that resonated strongly in the Muslim world.

And on a trip to Ankara, Turkey in April, Obama went further, stating: "The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam."

'No illusions'

Obama is likely to declare peaceful intentions again in Cairo, analysts say, despite his escalation of the war in Afghanistan, continued drone strikes against al-Qaeda in Pakistan and growing tensions over Iran's nuclear programme.

Obama must walk a fine line in dealing with Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president [EPA]
As Edward Walker, a former US ambassador to Egypt, says: "He has got to make it very clear that we are not anti-Islamic, that indeed the US is a complex country, very much committed to freedom of worship and respect for other religions, with no illusions about overturning Islam."

The White House says Egypt was chosen as the venue for Obama's speech because of its traditional role as the cultural heart of the Middle East.

But in venturing on to the home turf of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's authoritarian president who has ruled for four decades, jailed opponents, reportedly fixed elections and stifled dissent, Obama must walk a fine line.

In his inauguration speech, he indirectly criticised the incompetent and undemocratic governments that rule many Muslim countries, saying: "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history."

Obama will want to avoid insulting his host, while maintaining US commitments to democracy and human rights - commitments often stated but frequently ignored in practice.

In his Ankara speech, Obama drew on his childhood in Indonesia and family roots in Kenya to forge a personal connection with the Muslim world.

"The United States has been enriched by Muslim-Americans," the president said.

"Many other Americans have Muslims in their families or have lived in a Muslim-majority country - I know, because I am one of them."

Shifting attitudes

Obama's speech in Cairo comes at a time when Muslim attitudes towards the US are shifting.

Obama approval ratings in Muslim world

Egypt: 25%
Saudi Arabia: 29% 
Syria: 15%
Lebanon: 22%
Palestinian
Territories:
7%
Mauritania: 56%
Algeria: 47%
Tunisia: 37%

Source: Gallup

Throughout most of his predecessor George Bush's presidency, approval ratings of US leadership in most Muslim countries were at rock bottom.

But as a survey of 11 majority-Muslim nations by the Gallup organisation shows, since Obama's inauguration those ratings, while still low, have risen.

In countries including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria, approval rose by double digit margins between 2008 and 2009, while declining in Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories.

Nonetheless, US relations with Israel and Obama's success or failure in efforts to broker the establishment of a viable Palestinian state will be key determining factors in re-shaping relations with the Muslim world.

"The second message he has to get across is that we are absolutely committed to doing something about the Palestinian problem," Walker notes.

While Obama's well known knack for soaring speeches will be showcased in Cairo, action, not rhetoric, is the most effective way of increasing mutual respect and appreciation between the US and the Muslim world.

Source:
Al Jazeera
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