Obama Seeks Common Ground, 'New Beginning' Between West and Muslim World

Highlighting his own Muslim roots and embracing Islamic culture, President Obama on Thursday defined himself as the linchpin in a "new beginning" between the West and Islamic world.

The U.S. president delivered a sweeping, hour-long address in Cairo, Egypt, aimed at reaching out to the world's 1.2 billion Muslims, an address he promised during the presidential campaign.

Obama's speech cycled through the most contentious of issues between and among Western and Islamic societies -- from Iraq to Afghanistan to democracy and religious freedom.

"I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world -- one based upon 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 said.

The president sought to highlight Muslim contributions to the modern world and stress common ground between his country and Muslim states, drawing heavy focus to his early life in Muslim Indonesia as well as his Muslim family members. He noted that while he is a Christian, his father came from a Kenyan family that "includes generations of Muslims."

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Obama quoted the Koran and greeted the Cairo University audience with the Arabic, "assalaamu alaykum," or "peace be upon you." He used his full name, Barack Hussein Obama. The audience applauded thunderously when the president cited lessons from the Koran and at one point someone shouted, "We love you."

Obama declared he has experienced Islam on three continents, which has shaped an attitude of tolerance toward its religion and culture.

"That experience guides my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn't. And I consider it part of my responsibility as president of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear," Obama said to applause. He said neither Muslims nor Americans, though, can fit the "crude stereotype" they are sometimes assigned.

He closed his speech by citing passages endorsing peace from Christian, Jewish and Islamic scripture.

"There is 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," he said.

Obama expressed regret for the U.S.-led war in Iraq -- a war he opposed when he was a state legislator -- and called it a reminder of the need to use diplomacy over force when possible. But he attempted to convince Muslims that the current conflict against extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a worthy one, and their fight as well, though he said the U.S. does not seek a permanent presence in the region.

"In Ankara, I made clear that America is not -- and never will be -- at war with Islam," he said, referencing his speech to the Turkish parliament on his last overseas tour. "We will, however, relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security. Because we reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject -- the killing of innocent men, women and children. And it is my first duty as president to protect the American people."

He continued: "Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism -- it is an important part of promoting peace."

As he addressed a series of sensitive topics, Obama handled one in a way sure to stir added controversy.

The speech included a message to Hamas, which the U.S. Department of State labels a terrorist organization, calling on the network to join the mainstream Palestinian coalition.

"Hamas does have support among some Palestinians, but they also have to recognize they have responsibilities, to play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, recognize Israel's right to exist," Obama said.

Obama also waded deeper into the debate over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The president, while calling the United States' bond with Israel "unbreakable" and shaming those who deny the Holocaust, continued to step up pressure on Israel's leadership to follow U.S. terms for a roadmap to peace. He called on Israel to stop constructing settlements in Palestinian territory and declared that Palestinian statehood is the only resolution to the conflict in the region.

"The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace," he said. "It is time for these settlements to stop."

In the days leading up to his address, the president's prior call for Israel to abandon all settlement construction drew criticism in the Jewish state, and had been rebuffed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israelis note that "natural growth" like doctors' offices and schools will continue to occur in settlements.

Obama also called on Palestinians to abandon violence, comparing their struggle to that of blacks in South Africa and slavery-era America and suggesting only peaceful resistance would be productive.

And he condemned Holocaust denial as "ignorant" and "hateful," as well as other anti-Semitic rhetoric.

"Threatening Israel with destruction or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews is deeply wrong and only serves to evoke in the minds of the Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve," he said.

Obama spoke at Cairo University after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He first traveled Wednesday to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, where he met with King Abdullah.

From Egypt, Obama will head to Germany and France.

To all those nations, a continuing hot topic is Iran, which is believed to be developing nuclear weapons. Obama did not call on the United Nations to sanction the Islamic Republic, instead suggesting that to stop proliferation all nations must get rid of their nuclear weapons.

"I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not. 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," he said.

But he said, "any nation, including Iran, should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty."