Skip to main content

Obama aims to repair U.S. image in Muslim world

  • Story Highlights
  • Al Qaeda No. 2 says Obama will not be welcomed in Egypt
  • Obama delivers a speech to the Muslim world in Cairo on Thursday
  • Obama has said he wants to repair the U.S. image in the area
  • Middle East observers say Muslim and Arab worlds will listen to every word
From Ed Henry, Candy Crowley and Ed Hornick
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font

(CNN) -- President Obama departed for the Middle East on Tuesday in an effort to repair a damaged U.S. image -- and seemingly reset relations with the Muslim world.

President Obama will give a crucial speech in Cairo, Egypt, on Thursday.

President Obama will give a crucial speech in Cairo, Egypt, on Thursday.

It's a process that has been in the works since his first week in office.

"My job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world, that the language we use has to be a language of respect," Obama said in a January interview with Al-Arabiya television network. "I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries."

In a speech to the Turkish Parliament, Obama tried to make a clean break from the rhetoric of the Bush era.

"So let me say this as clearly as I can: The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam," he said.

According to estimates, there are more than 1 billion Muslims in the world, the vast majority of them moderates.

Obama said the goal of the speech he'll deliver in Cairo, Egypt, on Thursday, and of recent efforts to reach out to Muslims, is to "open a dialogue." Video Watch more on the challenges Obama faces in the Middle East »

"There are misapprehensions about the West on the part of the Muslim world. And, obviously, there are some big misapprehensions about the Muslim world when it comes to those of us in the West," Obama said in a recent interview with the BBC. "And it is my firm belief that no one speech is going to solve every problem. There are no silver bullets. There are very real policy issues that have to be worked through that are difficult."

In Cairo, expectations are building.

"He is creating a more conducive environment in the Arab and Muslim world for a different beginning, a different page, and I think that is why millions of Arabs and Muslims are going to watch every word he utters in Cairo on Thursday," Al-Arabiya's Hisham Melhem said. Video Watch how radical Muslims are reacting to the visit »

Obama will first travel to Saudi Arabia, an ally in the region both economically and strategically, despite cultural differences. He will later visit Germany, and then France for a D-Day commemoration ceremony. Learn more about President Obama's itinerary »

In the meantime, Arabs and Muslims wait to hear his words on their most important, most intractable problem: the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"He needs to deliver a message of reassurance that he means peace in the Middle East, fair and balanced peace between us and the Israelis," one man in Ramallah said.

James Zogby, writing on the Arab American Institute's Web site, said Egypt will be a tough country for Obama to crack.

"This points to the steep hill which President Obama must climb as he struggles to convince a weary Egyptian and Arab public that he is committed to changing direction in the wake of failed U.S. leadership that preceded his ascent to the Oval Office," he wrote.

"While he might have faced a more supportive audience in the United Arab Emirates or the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, it is Egypt where attitudes toward America are harshest that Obama faces his greatest challenge, and it is here that the U.S. president has chosen to deliver his speech."

In a new audio message posted online and titled "Tyrants of Egypt and America's agents welcome Obama," al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri said Obama will not be welcomed in Egypt but rather "welcomed by his slaves who benefit from his aids and bribes -- but the free men of Egypt will reject him, his policies and crimes."

Al-Zawahiri's message aside, Mamoun Fandy, a Mideast expert, says Muslims want more than talk; they want action.

They want to hear "that he is very serious about solving the Israeli-Arabian problem, that he is very serious about engaging the Muslim world on the basis of recognizing the equality," Fandy said.

Ibrahim El Moallem, a media mogul and influential cultural figure in Egypt, says years of frustration have built up on the streets.

"Everybody is looking for him as the magical man," he said. "We think, if he can handle the problem of the Arab-Israeli conflict not in a biased, not in a double-standard way, and if he can really begin to reach an overall, comprehensive, just peace, this will immediately win the heart and mind of the Arab and the Muslim." iReport: Are you concerned about the way Muslims have been portrayed in recent years?

That's one reason why, in advance of his trip, the president has been getting tough on Israel, pushing a two-state solution in meetings with a resistant Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Before embarking on his trip, Obama dropped in unexpectedly on a meeting Tuesday in Washington between Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and National Security Adviser Gen. Jim Jones, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported. The two were discussing the controversy of West Bank settlements.

Obama intends to give Netanyahu four to six weeks to update his position regarding construction in the settlements and Palestinian sovereignty as part of the so-called two-state solution, the newspaper said.

The newspaper cited an official Israeli source who said Obama wants to complete the formulation of a preliminary six-month plan for progress toward a Middle East peace agreement and to present it in July

Netanyahu, speaking to the Knesset Foreign Affairs Committee on Monday, said a freeze of settlement activity is not reasonable.

And Obama used a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas last week to issue a warning to Israel.

"In my conversations with Prime Minister Netanyahu, I was very clear about the need to stop settlements, to make sure we are stopping the building of outposts, to work with the Palestinian authority in order to alleviate some of the pressures that the Palestinian people are under," he said.

The president reiterated that tough-love stance in an interview with National Public Radio.

"Part of being a good friend is being honest," Obama said. "And I think there have been times where we are not as honest as we should be about the fact that the current direction, the current trajectory, in the region is profoundly negative, not only for Israeli interests but also U.S. interests. And that's part of a new dialogue that I'd like to see encouraged in the region."

But the president has made concessions to Israel as well, by pressing the Palestinians to help stop rocket attacks and by agreeing to a timeline on diplomatic negotiations with Iran. It's a reminder of just how difficult it is for any U.S. president to make progress in this long-running conflict.

Obama says that if both sides agree to some common ground on settlements and use of violence, progress can be made.

"If all the surrounding Arab states, working with the quartet, are able to encourage economic development and political development, then I think that we can actually make some progress," Obama told the BBC.

But the speech in Cairo is not just an outreach to Muslims and Arabs; it's also for the people back home.

In a new CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll, 21 percent of Americans surveyed have a favorable view of Muslim countries compared with 46 percent who have an unfavorable view.


That's up from 2002, when 41 percent indicated that they had an unfavorable view.

Some analysts say even a great speech cannot make much of a dent in attitudes in the United States and throughout the Muslim world.

CNN's Zain Verjee contributed to this report.

All About Barack ObamaEgyptIslamIsrael

  • E-mail
  • Save
  • Print