In one 55-minute speech Thursday, President Obama tried to wrap his hands around the myriad challenges confronting U.S. and Muslim relations.
With the words, "Assalaamu alaykum," or "God's peace be upon you," the president launched into a lecture where he asked people to abandon the shackles of past mistrust and embrace a new partnership between America and the Middle East: "One based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition."
Obama took a verbal whirlwind historical tour of violent religious extremism, the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, global democracy, religious freedom, women's rights, and worldwide economic development.
Quoting from the Koran, the Talmud, the Bible, as well as Founding Fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Obama acknowledged the ongoing tension between Muslims and the United States but called for cooperation.
"It's easier to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share," he said toward the end of a speech that Cairo listeners interrupted 42 times with applause. "But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path. There's one rule that lies at the heart of every religion-that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This truth transcends nations and peoples. . . . It's a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization, and that still beats in the hearts of billions around the world."
Obama repeatedly urged his listeners, which included those tuning in on televisions and radio stations in Egypt and Israel as well as Arab satellite stations Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera, to "act on what everyone knows to be true."
He said many Israelis privately admit to the need of a Palestinian state while many Muslims recognize that Israel is here to stay. These thoughts, he said, need to be acknowledged in the public arena.
Obama's section on Israel and Palestine got the biggest global reaction. He called on Hamas to end its violence and recognize Israel's right to exist. He said the Palestinian Authority must develop its ability to govern while Israelis must stop its settlements on the West Bank and outskirts of Jerusalem. The city of Jerusalem, he added, should be a "secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims."
But Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, said the remarks "were based on soft diplomacy to brighten the image of the United States."
Meanwhile an Israeli government statement said, "We share President Obama's hope that the American effort will herald the beginning of the end of the conflict and a general Arab recognition of Israel as the state for the Jewish people."
Obama's speech did not make it to Iran, where government officials jammed satellite signals to block the broadcast.
In the speech, Obama said he is a Christian, but he also took time to speak about the Muslim family heritage of his Kenyan father. He promised to fight both negative stereotypes of Islam, and of Americans as being a self-interested empire.
"Freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one's religion," Obama said. "That is why there is a mosque in every state in our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders."
Danielle Pletka, an American Enterprise Institute foreign and defense policy specialist, quickly dubbed the speech a "Cairo Capitulation" that amounted to little more than the "an endorsement of the Arab world as it is-the rule of the one over the many." Obama, Pletka said, failed "to acknowledge either America's symbolic importance or to advance our vital national interests. When America doesn't stand for something, we stand for nothing. And our enemies know it."
Obama did not ignore the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, saying terrorism is not an opinion to be debated but a fact to be dealt with: "The enduring faith of over a billion people is so much bigger than the narrow hatred of a few. Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism-it is an important part of promoting peace."
The president promised to use diplomacy and international consensus-building to resolve problems in the future, adding that all U.S. troops would be out of Iraq by 2012.
He went on to implore that the nuclear weapons situation has reached a decisive point, that women need greater freedoms and more education, and that Muslim must reject their "disturbing tendency to measure one's own faith by the rejection of somebody else's faith."
Obama ended his speech with rhetorical flourishes about "an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things" such as freedom, justice, and equality. But even the president acknowledged that poetic words and stirring speeches are the easy part. It will take more than heavily promoted oratory to overcome violent religious extremism, quell nuclear ambitions, and bring long-sought peace to the Middle East.