Obama reaches out to Muslims

President Obama’s positive and conciliatory speech was well received by his audience at Cairo University and across the Muslim world generally, and, as much as a single speech can, it may indeed signal, as he said, a new beginning between the United States and Muslims based on mutual interest and respect.

The speech was the subject of intense interest in the Muslim world, and especially among Arab nations, where it was extensively broadcast live. Even radical Hezbollah TV in Lebanon carried it. In Iran, however, it was jammed.

Obama opened with a greeting in Arabic and quoted frequently from the Quran. Certainly he gets an A for atmospherics. But even as he conveyed an upbeat optimism, the subtext of his speech showed the intractable problems the United States faces in the Mideast and in dealing with traditional Muslim societies.

The audience was intensely interested in his views on the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. Obama was critical of Israel’s continued settlements on Palestinian land, a point on which the Israeli government has bluntly ignored him, but emphasized America’s "unbreakable bond" with Israel. Meanwhile, he said, "America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own." Reconciling those two conflicting goals would be more magic than diplomacy.

He repeated his determination to have U.S. troops out of Iraq by 2012, a timetable that it not entirely in his hands if a renewed insurgency should threaten Iraq’s fragile government. And he said he would "gladly" bring our troops home from Afghanistan except for the small matter of violent extremists there and in Pakistan still determined to kill as many Americans as they can.

Obama spoke of the importance of freedom of religion in a region where oppression and harassment of religious minorities are common. And he called for the rule of law, and transparent and honest government in a region where these are in short supply.

His speech and the attention it received should go a long way toward undercutting Islamic extremists’ repeated charge that America is implacably hostile toward Islam. But Obama was in the heart of conspiracy country, and radical Syrian-based Palestinian groups, including Hamas, and radical cleric Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq said, as al-Sadr put it, the president’s "honeyed and flowery" words were only a smokescreen to mask America’s aggressive ambitions to subdue the Arab and Muslim world.

You can’t please everybody, but Obama gave it a good try.