Thursday, 4 June 2009
WHITE HOUSE NOTEBOOK: Highlighting ties to Islam
CAIRO (AP) — There was a time when Barack Obama wasn't eager to highlight his ties to Islam. Now, Obama is the U.S. president. And his audience is bigger and more diverse: a world that includes 1.5 billion Muslims.
Just a year ago, he was a presidential candidate trying to counter false Internet rumors that he was a Muslim as he sought the support of American voters.
Obama sought common ground with Muslims on Thursday by tracing personal links to Islam throughout his life as he laid out his vision for a strengthened relationship between America and followers of that faith.
"I am a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims," Obama said.
"As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk," he continued. "As a young man, I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith. As a student of history, I also know civilization's debt to Islam ... I know, too, that Islam has always been a part of America's story."
He also referred to himself by his full name — Barack Hussein Obama — and said he's "known Islam on three continents," experiences he said guide his convictions for a renewed relationship between Americans and Muslims.
And, he quoted from the Quran and issued a greeting of peace heard in Muslim communities in the United States, saying "assalaamu alaykum."
There also was a time when Obama wouldn't have gotten praise from Hillary Rodham Clinton. Just a year ago, she was his Democratic primary rival nearing the end of a bitter 2008 campaign in which she blistered him at every turn. Now, she's his secretary of state and gushes that he gave a "wonderful speech." "He set forth a clear challenge to us and all in the world who share hope for peace and security," Clinton said. "Now we have to get to work to translate that into concrete action."
Obama played both diplomat and tourist in his brief visit to Cairo. After spending the night at Saudi King Abdullah's horse farm in the desert outside Riyadh, Obama had a relatively low-key arrival in Cairo compared with the lavish scene that greeted the U.S. president in Saudi Arabia.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak dispatched Foreign Minister Ahmad Aboul Gheit to meet Obama at the airport before heading to Egypt's imposing, ornate Qubba Palace on a lush property in the middle of Cairo. Nearly two dozen horses led the motorcade down the wide, palm-lined palace drive.
The U.S. president jogged up the steps to greet his Egyptian counterpart with a handshake and the region's traditional double cheek kiss. As the two leaders stood on a balcony, a military band in blue dress uniforms played both countries' national anthems. Then, the leaders headed into private meetings on a range of issues, including Iran's disputed nuclear ambitions and the quest for peace in the Middle East.
Next up was a visit to the Sultan Hassan mosque, a 600-year-old center of Islamic worship and study whose image appears on Egypt's 100 pound note. The mosque is considered the jewel of Egypt's unique style of Islamic architecture under its medieval Mamluk rulers. Its courtyard is surrounded by four massive 100 foot arches each dedicated to the teaching of Sunni Islam's four schools and in its heyday its dormitories held students from around the Muslim world.
Obama and Clinton removed their shoes and, in stocking feet, sauntered down an ancient stone passageway as lanterns swayed gently from metal cables overhead. Obama peppered the tour guide with questions throughout.
After the speech, the president met with reporters from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Palestinian territories, Malaysia and Indonesia. Later, he was stopping at the Great Pyramids of Giza on the capital's outskirts.
Talk about a traffic headache. By the time Obama had arrived, some of Cairo's main thoroughfares, normally packed with cars in the morning rush, were nearly empty. Many residents chose to stay home rather than try to navigate the sprawling city of 18 million with the heavy traffic restrictions imposed for the U.S. president's visit.
Some major streets were closed to traffic and lined with police in white uniforms and central security forces. Near the Sultan Hassan mosque, Egyptian authorities moved an entire bus station to keep crowds far away. Traffic police spread flyers to let drivers know which roads were closed.
Obama was greeted in Cairo by a front-page banner headline in the independent newspaper Al-Dustour that read: "Today Obama visits Egypt after evacuating it of Egyptians." Another paper's headline said: "Cairo closed."
Associated Press Writers Maggie Michael and Patrick Quinn contributed to this report.