Before a crowd of robed Muslim clerics, dissidents who have served time in jail, students from across the region and besuited government officials from authoritarian regimes, President Obama made an historic speech yesterday to try to mend Americaâ€™s battered ties with the worldâ€™s 1.5 billion Muslims.
From such a diverse audience he received as many cheers for espousing women’s rights as he did for quoting the Koran or championing the principle of a free Palestinian state.
Mr Obama made obvious attempts to win Muslim hearts and minds — reminding them that Thomas Jefferson taught himself Arabic, and praising the Islamic world as a beacon of learning during Europe’s Dark Ages — but refused to shy away from the difficult issues of religious extremism, human rights abuses and nuclear proliferation that plague the region.
"We meet at a time of tension between the United States and Muslims around the world — tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate," he said, in the grand auditorium of Cairo University, where 2,000 carefully selected guests had gathered. Outside, Cairo’s usually chaotic streets fell quiet under a tight police cordon.
In a frank 50-minute speech — at one point interrupted by a shout of "We love you" — Mr Obama admitted to America’s mistakes, all but conceding that the Iraq war had been an error. He called on Israel to end all settlement activities in the West Bank and made a direct appeal to Hamas, the Palestinian militants who rule Gaza, to end violence and shoulder the responsibility placed on them by their 2006 election victory. He also delved into the complex entanglements between East and West, citing the latter’s Cold War use of Muslim countries as mere "proxies" and the Islamic world’s suspicions of globalism and the changes that it had wrought on traditional societies.
With a tone that owed almost as much to therapy as diplomacy, Mr Obama invited traumatised nations beset by war, repression and suspicion of the outside world to look at themselves honestly and face up to hard truths. Those included the Muslim world’s need to acknowledge the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust and its effect on Israel’s mentality, as well as the "daily humiliations" of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
He also acknowledged his country’s mistakes. "Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq was a war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world," he said. "Although I believe that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, I also believe that events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible."
He also made digs at the Arab world’s authoritarian regimes, including that of his host, President Mubarak, long propped up by America. He invited his allies to reform and embrace "the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose".
And while reaffirming America’s commitment to Israel, he made perhaps the toughest condemnation yet by a US president of the Jewish settlements spreading in the West Bank. "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace," he said. "It is time for these settlements to stop."
Mr Obama received a standing ovation and most members of the audience left buoyed by a sense that real change was coming. "His criticism of authoritarian regimes really touched my heart," said Nada Maher, a young Egyptian student. "This means that he’s taking it seriously."
Professor Mohammed Abdelhadi Imam, of the Islamic al-Azhar University, said: "The most important thing was his call for peace. I feel happy and hopeful for the world after hearing this speech. He was talking from heart to heart."
There was criticism, however, mostly from the young bloggers who have taken on Egypt’s heavy-handed regime and often been jailed. "He was addressing the religious emotions of the people, not their minds," said Wael Abbas, a prominent blogger.
Such criticism was dismissed by Abdullah Schleiffer, an American-born Jew who converted to Islam and is now a prominent scholar and broadcaster in the region.
"It is easy to say it’s words but words have a reality. The Declaration of Independence was only words but they changed the world," he said, noting the radical shift in Mr Obama’s direct address to Hamas, shunned by the international community as terrorists. "Today begins Day 1 of dialogue with Hamas," he said.
Israel welcomed Mr Obama’s promise of a "new beginning" with the Muslim world but said that safeguarding its citizens remained its priority.