Obama aims to repair U.S. image in Muslim world

President Obama will give a crucial speech in Cairo, Egypt, on Thursday.
President Obama travels to the Middle East on Tuesday in an effort to repair a damaged U.S. image — and seemingly reset relations with the Muslim world.

It’s a process that has been in the works since his first week in office. “My job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world, that the language we use has to be a language of respect,” Obama said in a January interview with Al-Arabiya television network. “I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries.” In a speech to the Turkish Parliament, Obama tried to make a clean break from the rhetoric of the Bush era. “So let me say this as clearly as I can: The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam,” he said. According to estimates, there are more than 1 billion Muslims in the world, the vast majority of them moderates who want to hear that they are part of the solution to world security. Obama says the goal of the speech that he’ll deliver in Cairo on Thursday — and of recent efforts to reach out to Muslims — is to “open a dialogue.” Watch more on the challenges Obama faces in the Middle East ยป “There are misapprehensions about the West on the part of the Muslim world. And, obviously, there are some big misapprehensions about the Muslim world when it comes to those of us in the West,” Obama said in a recent interview with the BBC. “And it is my firm belief that no one speech is going to solve every problem. There are no silver bullets. There are very real policy issues that have to be worked through that are difficult.” In Cairo, expectations are building — perhaps too high. “He is creating a more conducive environment in the Arab and Muslim world for a different beginning, a different page, and I think that is why millions of Arabs and Muslims are going to watch every world he utters in Cairo on Thursday,” Al-Arabiya’s Hisham Melhem said.

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Obama will first travel to Saudi Arabia, an ally in the region both economically and strategically, despite cultural differences. He will later visit Germany, and then France for a D-Day commemoration ceremony. In the meantime, Arabs and Muslims wait to hear his words on their most important, most intractable problem: the Arab-Israeli conflict. “He needs to deliver a message of reassurance that he means peace in the Middle East, fair and balanced peace between us and the Israelis,” one man in Ramallah said. James Zogby, writing on the Arab American Institute’s Web site, said Egypt will be a tough country for Obama to crack. “This points to the steep hill which President Obama must climb as he struggles to convince a weary Egyptian and Arab public that he is committed to changing direction in the wake of failed US leadership that preceded his ascent to the Oval Office,” he wrote. “While he might have faced a more supportive audience in the United Arab Emirates or the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, it is Egypt where attitudes toward America are harshest that Obama faces his greatest challenge, and it is here that the US President has chosen to deliver his speech.” Mamoun Fandy, a Mideast expert, says Muslims want more than talk; they want action. They want to hear “that he is very serious about solving the Israeli-Arabian problem, that he is very serious about engaging the Muslim world on the basis of recognizing the equality,” Fandy said. Ibrahim El Moallem, a media mogul and influential cultural figure in Egypt, says years of frustration have built up on the streets. “Everybody is looking for him as the magical man,” he said. “We think, if he can handle the problem of the Arab-Israeli conflict not in a biased, not in a double-standard way, and if he can really begin to reach an overall, comprehensive, just peace, this will immediately win the heart and mind of the Arab and the Muslim.” iReport: Are you concerned about the way Muslims have been portrayed in recent years That’s one reason why, in advance of his trip, the president has been getting tough on Israel, pushing a two-state solution in meetings with a resistant Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu, speaking to the Knesset Foreign Affairs Committee on Monday, said that a freeze of settlement activity is not reasonable. And Obama used a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas last week to issue a warning to Israel. “In my conversations with Prime Minister Netanyahu, I was very clear about the need to stop settlements, to make sure we are stopping the building of outposts, to work with the Palestinian authority in order to alleviate some of the pressures that the Palestinian people are under,” he said. The president reiterated that tough-love stance in an interview with National Public Radio. “Part of being a good friend is being honest,” Obama said. “And I think there have been times where we are not as honest as we should be about the fact that the current direction, the current trajectory, in the region is profoundly negative, not only for Israeli interests but also U.S. interests. And that’s part of a new dialogue that I’d like to see encouraged in the region.” But the president has made concessions to Israel as well, by pressing the Palestinians to help stop rocket attacks and by agreeing to a timeline on diplomatic negotiations with Iran. It’s a reminder of just how difficult it is for any U.S. president to make progress in this long-running conflict. Obama says that if both sides agree to some common ground on settlements and use of violence, progress can be made. “If all this surrounding Arab states, working with the quartet, are able to encourage economic development and political development, then I think that we can actually make some progress,” Obama told the BBC. But the speech in Cairo is not just an outreach to Muslims and Arabs; it’s also for the people back home. In a new CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll, 21 percent of Americans surveyed have a favorable view of Muslim countries. More than twice as many — 46 percent — have an unfavorable view.

That’s up from 2002, when 41 percent indicated that they had an unfavorable view. Analysts say that even a whale of a speech, which the president is capable of giving, cannot make much of a dent in attitudes in the United States and throughout the Muslim world.