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Muslims respond with cautious welcome to Obama's speech

Mail & Guardian Online reporter and Sapa, Mail & Guardian Online reporter, Reuters and Sapa

South African Muslims gave a cautious welcome to United States President Barack Obama's speech on the Middle East in Cairo on Thursday.

United States President Barack Obama sought a “new beginning” between the United States and Muslims in a speech on Thursday but offered no new initiative to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, an omission likely to disappoint many.

Jamiatul Ulama from the Council of Muslim Theologians in South Africa, said in reaction that Obama’s speech was a welcome one, but came after years of mistrust.

‘It will also take years before such doubts and suspicions are dispelled,” said Ebrahim Bham, the organisation’s secretary general, in a statement.

Bham said ‘inconsistencies” remained in the US’s policy in the Middle East.

‘For instance, it remains to be seen whether Israel, an acknowledged nuclear power, yet a non‐signatory of the Non‐Proliferation Treaty, is going to be held accountable in the same way Iran is being taken to task for her nuclear programme in the US’s effort to prevent an arms race in the Middle East.”

Khadija Patel, editor of Al Huda magazine in Johannesburg, told the Mail & Guardian Online, said: ‘I am not living in the east and yet I am Muslim so I am not sure if Obama’s speech applies to me. However I must say that his speech was acknowledging a place for Muslims in the world.

‘I personally applaud him for making the comment about Muslim woman not being oppressed because they wear the Hijab. It was refreshing to hear him say that because Western media keeps throwing that in our faces.

‘We should not get overexcited though because Obama is like the uncle who comes to visit and brings sweets, but are those sweets really for us?”

Moulana Ighsaan Hendricks, the president of the Muslim Judicial Council in South Africa, said on Thursday that Obama had taken a step closer to understanding the intricacies of the Muslim world and the Middle East.

‘He shows a sense of recognition of Muslims but there are some parts of his speech that I don’t agree with and that is where he talks about extreme violence, because the United State’s foreign policy is partly responsible for the extreme violence in the Middle East.

‘We hope that he continues to position himself to spread a positive message about the Middle East and the US because the way his predecessor George W Bush handled that situation left a negative perception about the United States.”

Nabil Abu Rdainah, spokesperson for the Palestinian president said: “His call for stopping settlement and for the establishment of a Palestinian state, and his reference to the suffering of Palestinians ... is a clear message to Israel that a just peace is built on the foundations of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.”

“President Obama’s speech is a good start and an important step towards a new American policy.”

Ali al-Dabbagh, the Iraqi government spokesperson, said the speech was historic and important and reflected a positive direction for the new administration and it is a new start.”

“The government of Iraq is comfortable with the clarity of the president in respecting commitments to Iraq and the timetable for withdrawal stipulated in the security pact.”

Hazim al-Azim al-Nuaimi, an analyst at Baghdad university, said Obama had given nothing new to Iraqis.

“He gave one promise, to respect the rights of minorites and work with consensus. In all he says, he tries to remove himself from all that happened in Iraq.”

Hassan Fadlallah, a lawmaker for Lebanon’s Hezbolla, said the Islamic world did not need moral or political sermons.

“It needs a fundamental change in American policy beginning from a halt to complete support for Israeli aggression on the region, especially on Lebanese and Palestinians, to an American withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Mohammad Marandi, head of North American studies Tehran University said: “With regard to Iran, the tone is significantly more positive than before, compared to the previous [US] administration, though still in some aspects negative.

“But I think Iranians alongside the people of the region expect the same change that Obama was promising to the American people, for American policies in the Middle East region as well.”

“America has to change. Talking is not enough. He can make a few more speeches but people are starting to ask: What are you going to change? The US has to re-evaluate its policies towards the region, whether towards Iran, or whether towards Palestine.”

Mohamed Habib, Muslim Brotherhood deputy leader, said the speech was a “public relations address” more than anything else.

“There’s an unjust perspective on the part of the American president towards the Palestinian issue, one that does not differ from former President Bush’s and the neoconservatives’ perspective.”

Sheikh Abdulahi Sheikh Abu Yusuf, from the moderate Somali Islamist group Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca, said: “Obama’s speech is good and Islam means peace. Obama, let’s follow the verses you quoted from the Koran.”

“Al-Qaeda has misinterpreted Islam and turned out to be the enemy of all mankind. Islam says let all nations live peacefully and may the chaotic ones be punished. Islam does not order anyone to destroy mosques and churches. Westerners, al-Qaeda is a bomb you planted—let’s remove it together.”

Sheikh Mohamed Ibrahim Bilal from Somali insurgent movement al-Shabaab,
said Obama’s speech was useless unless he stopped his political interference with Somalia and the Muslim world.”

“If he means what he says, let him withdraw his troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Stop supporting Amisom (African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia) and the Somalia government.”

Eric Goldstein from Human Rights Watch said he thought that with regard to human rights there were many things that were commendable.

“He was specific about settlements. He was specific about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. But it is disappointing that when he talked about democracy in the Muslim world he wasn’t more specific about some of the problems.”

“I don’t expect that he would single out Egypt as the host country, but he might have mentioned for example a state of emergency that has been in effect ... He could have mentioned the imprisonment of dissidents.”

Yossi Shain, head of the Hartog School of Government at Tel Aviv University, said: “What he told the Arab world about Jews, about Israel’s right to exist, about the Jewish suffering and history and about anti-Semitism was essential. The fact that he called on Hamas and the Arabs to stop hatred and senseless violence is essential. The fact that he told Israel to keep the rule of law and abide by resolutions it signed on issues of settlements is essential. The fact that Israelis have to recognise the suffering of Palestinians is essential.”

“But most of all, for the Israeli point of view, as he said, we as Americans have a special bond with Israel which is unbreakable, and that is essential for the Arabs to understand.”

Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai, a former Afghan prime minister, said: “From one side, he opens his bosom to Islam. From the other side, his troops are killing Afghanistan, what he says is totally different from what his soldiers are doing here.”

Hikmet Karzai, director of the Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies in Kabul, said: “I think the useful thing is that Afghans have realised this is another opportunity for Afghanistan, and they know President Obama has made Afghanistan a top policy.”

“As a whole, people will be optimistic. Hearing the speech only reaffirms the fact Obama knows what to do in Afghanistan and in the region.”

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