Grounding himself in verses from the Koran, President Barack Obama on Thursday promised the Muslim world a new partnership with the U.S. based on mutual interest, mutual respect and a promise to “say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors.” And he delivered by the bucket, in a speech that first wooed his audience with lavish praise of Islam’s contribution to global civilization, and then delivered some bracing messages on key points of conflict between the U.S. and its Muslim critics.
On Afghanistan, Obama emphasized that the Sept. 11 attacks had left the U.S. with no choice but to deny al-Qaeda a sanctuary there squarely challenging the conspiracy theories that still prevail in Egypt and much of the Muslim world that question whether the attacks had in fact been carried out by extremists, who claimed responsibility for the event. “These are not opinions to be debated; these are facts to be dealt with,” he said bluntly. The U.S. would bring its troops home immediately if it could be sure extremists would have no sanctuary in Afghanistan.
Iraq was different, a war of choice that Obama himself had opposed. But he emphasized his responsibility to help Iraqis achieve a better future while stressing that his goal was to leave Iraq to the Iraqis and he broke with President George W. Bush by saying bluntly that the U.S. had no interest in establishing permanent bases there. He also stressed that all U.S. troops would leave Iraq by 2012, in line with an agreement with the Iraqi government.
On torture and the abuse of detainees at Guantánamo and elsewhere, Obama carefully distanced himself from some of the Muslim world’s most toxic grievances against the U.S. war on terrorism. The fear generated by Sept. 11 had prompted some Americans to act in ways that contradicted their country’s values and traditions, he said a line likely to infuriate former Vice President Dick Cheney but he stressed that he has already outlawed torture and vowed to close Guantánamo by next year, drawing raucous applause.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict marks perhaps the most enduring area of division between the U.S. and Muslim countries. On this subject, Obama’s speech was an elegant walk on a balance beam: he unapologetically stressed that the bond between the U.S. and Israel was unbreakable, emphasizing that it was based on “the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.” He cited the centuries of Jewish persecution in Europe that culminated in the Holocaust, which killed more Jews than Israel’s current Jewish population. “Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews is deeply wrong and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.”
But he was just as forceful in describing the trauma of the Palestinians that began with their displacement by Israel’s creation in 1948, which turned many into refugees and later included suffering the humiliations of occupation. Obama’s description of a stalemate involving “two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive” offered both sides a narrative in which they could recognize their own interests. “If we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.”
Obama bluntly rebuked Hamas for terrorism, offering the example of the U.S. civil rights struggle as an alternative. He also scolded Israel for its occupation of the West Bank, saying the U.S. did not accept “the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity.” He stressed both the Palestinian Authority’s responsibility for improving Palestinian governance and Israel’s obligation to ease the siege of Gaza and its security regime in the West Bank though both sides would see the speech as short on specifics. Still, the audience warmed to a U.S. President using more forceful language on Israel than either of his two predecessors.
See a TIME photo-essay on Obama in Egypt.