Many Muslims Praise Tone of Speech, but Call for Action

na-ay154_cairo_g_200906041820171.jpgBy MARGARET COKER
Muslims in the Middle East and beyond praised U.S. President Barack Obama for the tone of his speech Thursday, but they had more of a mixed reaction to the substance of the address.

Mr. Obama won over many Muslims for delivering what many viewed as a respectful address — peppered with the moral message Muslims receive at weekly homilies and the straightforward talk they rarely get from their own leadership.

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President Obama delivers his speech aimed at the world’s Muslims on Thursday at Cairo University.
.”The Holy Quran tells us, ‘Be conscious of God and speak always the truth,’ ” said Mr. Obama, quoting the Muslim holy book in his hour-long speech at Cairo University. “That is what I will try to do.”

Ahmed Farouk, a 25-year-old movie producer, listened in an Egyptian coffee house near the university. He pumped his fists when Mr. Obama quoted the Quran and smiled when the president talked of the need to cooperate in the battle against extremists, the quest for democracy and women’s rights, and the need for respect and understanding between Americans and Muslims. “He seems like a committed and serious man,” said Mr. Farouk. “Just one of him is worth 10 George Bushes.”

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the speech reflected greater understanding of Mideast culture and “reduces the chance of growth of extremist ideas that are trying to tarnish the image of Islam in the world.”

Ahmed Dagher, an Iraqi civil servant, said he connected with Mr. Obama on a personal level when the U.S. leader talked about his Muslim relatives in Kenya and his childhood in Indonesia.

Despite some skepticism about what policy would follow the speech, Mr. Dagher said Mr. Obama’s tie to the region boosted his trust in this U.S. leader’s sincerity more than he had in former President George W. Bush, who for seven years has ranked as the least-popular world leader, according to a University of Maryland poll of the Arab world.

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.See how Obama’s speech compares with some of his predecessors’ addresses on the relationship between the U.S. and the Muslim world.
.Mr. Obama’s speech drew a cautiously positive response from many Muslims in various corners of the globe. Most interviewed said they were waiting for action to follow the promises of increased U.S. humanitarian aid and cultural exchanges. When focused on the details of the speech, many saw disappointing holes and fewer specifics than they would have liked, especially when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In Kenya, Muslims were encouraged by Mr. Obama’s outreach, especially his emphasis on living in peace. On a hot, busy Thursday afternoon in Nairobi, they caught bits of the address before or after midday prayers, in their offices and on screens in quiet cafés downtown.

Sadiki Hamisi Halfani, a 42-year-old Islamic-studies teacher, said he admired Mr. Obama’s message of tolerance. “He was brave to talk about the things he did,” Mr. Halfani said, standing outside the Jamia Mosque. Mr. Halfani was particularly struck by Mr. Obama’s reference to Jerusalem as a town of the children of Abraham: “He said that Muslims, Christians and Jews were supposed to live together. And Muslims are supposed to live like brothers with other people.” But he was disappointed that Mr. Obama didn’t include leaders of African nations in his address.

“He could have talked about Africa, and insisted Africans maintain peace, just like he did with Iran,” Mr. Halfani said.

Al-Amin Kimathi, leader of the Muslim Human Rights Forum in Kenya, also wanted Mr. Obama to go further in addressing dictatorial governments. “He really toned down on addressing the autocratic behavior of Muslim regimes,” Mr. Kimathi said. “But from the venue he chose, we didn’t expect much.”

Likewise in India, Zafarul-Islam Khan, president of the All India Muslim Majlis-e Mushawarat, the umbrella of Indian Muslim groups, said he was waiting for actions, not words, as evidence that Mr. Obama represented a tangible change from President Bush.

“He was rather mild on Israel and did not tell us what he proposes to do if Israel rejects peace with its neighbors and continues to subjugate Palestinians and occupy their land,” said Mr. Khan.

In Iran, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, alluded to the address hours ahead of the talk. “Change and a new image won’t happen with speeches, talks and slogans,” he said. “America needs to take action and make up for its injustice toward countries in the region.”

Write to Margaret Coker at