US Muslims greet Obama speech with hope, relief

CHICAGO, Mira Oberman- For eight years, US Muslims cringed at the divisions created at home and abroad by the White House's use of terms like "Islamo-fascism" and "Islamic terrorists."
On Thursday, many here breathed a sigh of relief at the major shift marked by President Barack Obama's call for a new beginning with the Muslim world in a much-anticipated Cairo speech.
"The speech has done more to undermine Al-Qaeda than anything (former president George W.) Bush did," said Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago branch of the Council on American Islamic Relations.

"The greatest fodder Al-Qaeda had in the past was to say, 'the US hates you.'"
There is a power to language, according to Rehab. But Obama's speech contained more than just promising rhetoric and a shift from cowboy diplomacy to a display of what he called "humility" and respect.
Obama also offered concrete plans to work with the Muslim world to fight polio and expand cultural exchanges and economic development projects.
"There is a clear feeling within the Muslim audience that President Obama is genuine," Rehab told AFP as he fielded calls in his bustling Chicago office where employees crowded around a television set to watch a replay of the speech.
"President Bush at times said the right things but he never seemed genuine."
Amina Sharif was touched by Obama's recognition of the contributions of Muslim Americans and his willingness to acknowledge the suffering of the Palestinian people.
"What he's doing will help to break stereotypes Americans have of their Muslim neighbors and of Muslims in other countries," said Sharif, who coordinates communications for CAIR.
"There will always be demagogues who try to criticize all his actions," she added.
"But I think the American people are intelligent enough to ignore those rabble rousers and understand he's bridging the gap and he's enabling us to mutually understand one another and forging partnerships that will make our country safer."
Similar sentiments were expressed across the country.
Michigan's bustling Arab American community applauded the speech during a gathering at the Lebanese-American Heritage Club in Dearborn.
"It's a great step toward reconciliation," Osama Siblani, the publisher of the Arab American News, said in a telephone interview following the event.
"He really made our country a proud country today."
Siblani cautioned that a great deal of work remained to "translate the words into reality" but said he has faith in Obama's ability to understand and be sensitive to the Muslim world.
The speech was also welcomed by prominent Washington-based groups.
"The president's speech in Cairo is one of the first major steps in improved relations based on 'mutual interests and mutual respect,'" the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee said in a statement.
"By acknowledging the accomplishments and contributions of Islamic civilization, the president already began to fulfill his commitment to dispel harmful and inaccurate stereotypes about Arab and Muslims throughout the world."
But the very breadth of the speech spoke to "how massive an undertaking will be required to heal these many divides," said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute.
"After dealing with the sources of tension, he laid out a broader agenda for change that forms the basis for a new relationship," Zogby added.
"Those who seek peace will be heartened, those who do not, will be angered."

Friday, June 5th 2009
Mira Oberman

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