In his address, which he elegantly adorned with quotes from the ‘Holy Qur’an’, the use of Arabic words and blessings as well as Muslim phrases regarding Muhammad (like Peace Be Upon Him) to convey great respect for Islam, President Obama tried to show that he and the United States consider Islam a great source of culture and civilisation. At the same time he called on the Muslim world not to look upon America through the “crude stereotype of a self-interested empire”. Indeed in praising the United States he highlighted the freedom Muslims enjoy in his country and their contribution to its life in areas like sport, science and politics.
On a personal note he said “I am a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims.” In a place like America he found the space that enabled him to rise to the presidency. “But my personal story is not so unique,” he explained, noting how people from different backgrounds can have opportunities in the United States.
Moving on to other issues, the president stressed how both the United States and the Islamic world faced certain challenges together because divided, either one will fail.
To start with, he emphasised the urgent need to fight violent extremism (not its Islamic version, which he did not mention, but all its forms). For this reason he justified the war in Afghanistan, a place where US troops will not be permanently based, insisting that everyone has a responsibility to stop extremism. After all groups like al-Qaeda do not kill only Christians and other non-Muslims, but take the lives of Muslims as well, sowing the seeds of divisions between Sunnis and Shias.
As for the war in Iraq, the US leader acknowledged that his nation was divided. Today however, he said “America has a dual responsibility: to help Iraq forge a better future – and to leave Iraq to Iraqis”.
On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama insisted that the “bond” between Israel and the United States “is unbreakable,” and that “Palestinians must abandon violence.” Then again “the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable” and a solution must be found in which the “aspirations of both sides” are “met through two states”. Hence Hamas must put an end to the violence, and Israel must stop its settlements in the Occupied Territories (a somewhat ambiguous statement because it does not explicitly say whether existing settlements should be dismantled or not).
At the same time Arab countries should no longer use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to “distract” their populations from other problems. They should instead work so that the Holy Land is a place where the three monotheistic religions live side by side.
In his address the president touched upon other issues like democracy, women’s rights, and religious freedom in Muslim countries, citing as an example the situation of Copts in Egypt.
He also talked about Iran, seen first and foremost in terms of Tehran’s nuclear programme.
Although he acknowledged that Iran has the right to develop peaceful nuclear power for civilian use, he insisted that Tehran should not have access to nuclear weapons which might lead to regional and world catastrophes.
Anticipating what others might say in relation to Israel’s nuclear weapons, the US president said that “No single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons. That is why I strongly reaffirmed America's commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons.”
Obama also obliquely referred to Iran when he spoke about Israel’s right to exist, saying that “Threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong” thus rebuking in a not so subtle way Iranian President Ahmadinejad for his outbursts on the Holocaust and Israel.
Finally the US president called for cooperation on several levels with Muslims. He said that multi-faith groups should work together to fight diseases and provide social services. The United States and Muslim countries should set up student exchange programmes. The US should invest in science and technology to nurture the development of the Middle East, Africa and South-East Asia.
On several occasions Obama’s address was interrupted by long rounds of applause and ended in a standing ovation.