Reactions to President Obama’s Speech to the Muslim World

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

President Barack Obama delivered a highly anticipated address in Cairo, Egypt on June 4 in an attempt to improve U.S. relations with the Muslim world. Brookings experts offered the following comments on the President’s speech.

Martin Indyk

Senior Fellow and Director, Saban Center for Middle East Policy

“The speech represented a dramatic and persuasive American manifesto for a new relationship with the Muslim World. President Obama stood his ground on American values and interests but presented them in a package that should be attractive to his Muslim audience.

“There are two competing narratives in the Muslim World: one from Osama bin Laden and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that preaches violence, defiance of the international community, and destruction of Israel as the way to achieve justice and dignity; the other that preaches tolerance, compromise and respect for human rights. That is the American way, and President Obama did much today to give it renewed credibility among Arabs and Muslims.”

Tamara Cofman Wittes
Senior Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy

“President Obama today resoundingly rejected those who argue that President Bush’s mistakes fatally tainted the cause of democracy promotion. He stood up firmly for democracy and for America’s efforts to advance it around the world.

“President Obama pulled no punches in his address. He was unapologetic in his statement of American interests and in his defense of human rights and liberal values.

“Obama also stood up for tolerance and pluralism, values whose Muslim proponents are under pressure in many countries — this is crucial support for those Muslims standing up against Al Qaeda and its ideas.”

Bruce Riedel
Senior Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy

“One of the most important points Obama made in his speech today was to attack directly the narrative and ideology of al Qaeda. For too long the war of ideas was ceded to al Qaeda. By explaining his view of Islam, his vision of Arab-Israeli peace and other key issues the President took on al Qaeda’s argument for terror.

“It is no accident Usama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri issued statements just before Obama spoke–they know the battle for the soul of Islam has now been joined and they are fighting back. The President is right to take on the enemies narrative as that is key to its defeat.”

Stephen Grand
Fellow and Director, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World

“While no one can expect one speech to eliminate decades of anger, distrust, and mutual suspicion between the United States and the larger Muslim world, this was a masterful speech. With this speech, President Obama created the possibility for what he described as ‘a new beginning.’ It will be up to his Administration in the months and years ahead to flesh out what that means the tangible policies and programs that address the major conflicts roiling the Middle East region and creating divides between the American and Muslim peoples.

“The president must also find a means of supporting change in Muslim majority societies that face profound crises of governance. Only time will tell if the United States can pursue policies vis-à-vis the Muslim world that live up to it values while at the same time advancing its interests.”

Shibley Telhami
Nonresident Senior Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy

“The president continued his tone of frankness and mutual respect but, this time went beyond tone by articulating positions on specific issues of mutual concern. He projected empathy while also demanding understanding of America’s concerns. The speech was successful in continuing to change the discourse about relations between the US and Muslims around the world, including within the United States.

“In the end, it was an important forward step but it only raised higher expectations in Muslim-majority countries especially in the Middle East. The pressure will mount for moving beyond words on the core issues and emerging American credibility will be tested early.”

Hady Amr
Fellow and Director, Brookings Doha Center

“President Obama’s speech in Cairo was a resounding victory for the power of America’s character. President Obama evoked political truths, social truths and the word of God through Judaism, Christianity and Islam to speak in such a way that ordinary Arabs and Muslims welcomed the speech with open-hearts.

“What is even more surprising is that both Israeli advisors (albeit with Labor Party leanings) and Hamas leaders said the speech was a heartwarming and landmark speech with a senior Hamas official comparing Obama to American civil rights leader Martin Luther King. If there was ever a speech by an American president that could get ordinary Arabs and Muslims, together with their leaders, to look in the mirror and address their problems, this was it.”

Mirette Mabrouk
Visiting Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy

“President Obama’s Cairo speech didn’t disappoint; those listeners who wanted to hear good things walked away hopeful, those who expected little took little away from it and those who expected to be disappointed walked away serene in their disappointment.

“With all the expected references to Islam’s contributions to history and culture and his affirmation that the U.S. had nothing against Muslims or Islam, the speech held few surprises. However, there were two important points. The first was Obama’s reference to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. To an audience tired of hearing the same old platitudes, Obama’s insistence that both parties had failed to live up their responsibilities and the U.S would not let Palestinians continue to suffer without resolution came as a welcome surprise. It was a bold move, considering the political ramifications at home, and its introduction so early in the speech earned him the goodwill needed to coast over the tide of polite banalities that followed. And his indication that many of the Muslim’s world’s problems stemmed from poverty and a growing knowledge gap between them and developed countries was another smart move – it’s one area where the U.S can help without having to negotiate political and cultural minefields. Imperfections aside, the speech earned him enough goodwill for the most vital requirement for his term; the time needed to deliver on his message.”

Maati Monjib
Patkin Visiting Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy

“Obama’s Cairo speech was, in a word, historic. It is the first time in decades that the leader of the most powerful state in the West consecrated a formal speech to the Muslim World. Since Carter, we have very rarely heard compassionate words on the plight, dislocation and enormous sufferings of the Palestinian people. In addition, to the majority of Muslims, the ideals of goodwill and friendship expressed by Obama were genuine and very welcome. Many reports in the Arab media characterized his speech as an incarnation of the true universalism of Western humanism and culture. Obama is seen as making a sincere effort to reboot with Muslims and more specifically with the Arab world.

“Although he mentioned the two-state solution to the conflict between Palestine and Israel, it is a pity that he neglected to state the basis of such a solution, which should include international legal decisions such as UN Resolution 242. One should remember that the Muslim world has seen Bush and even Sharon give their verbal support to a Palestinian state, ultimately with no practical change in the Israeli policy on settlements. The ‘Palestinization’ of the Arab political identity is such a deep reality, cultivated over generations, that the road to a new era of peaceful relations between America and the Muslim world will pass through the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While practical measures toward this goal will be necessary to win the hearts of the peoples of the region, Obama’s speech was a very good start.”

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