Video: Obama takes message of mutual respect to Muslim world

NBC News and news services
updated 6/2/2009 7:19:44 PM ET 2009-06-02T23:19:44

As he headed to the Middle East, President Barack Obama said Tuesday he sees a timely chance to open a more constructive dialogue with the Islamic world, although he downplayed the likelihood of immediate resolution to significant policy differences.

In an exclusive interview with NBC News' Brian Williams, the president was circumspect on the prospects for the trip, saying that “one speech is not going to transform very real policy differences and some very difficult issues surrounding the Middle East and the relationship between Islam and the West.”

Still, the president said, “I do hope that we can start opening a dialogue that'll be more constructive.”

Obama begins his trip Wednesday when he arrives in Saudi Arabia, where concerns about U.S. outreach to Iran, the Israel-Palestinian peace process, and the kingdom's willingness to accept Yemeni prisoners from Guantanamo will all likely be on the agenda. From there he’ll head to Egypt, where he’ll make a long-promised and much anticipated speech, extending a hand of friendship to the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims.

The multination trip will also take him to Germany and France.

While expectations for his Cairo speech are high, White House aides caution that many Muslims have felt scorned by the U.S. for years. Analysts say he’ll find a hopeful audience but, given Washington’s support of Israel and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, a skeptical one as well.

'Path of extremism'
Obama told Williams on Tuesday that people in Islamic countries recognize that the “path of extremism” won’t better their lives, and being “anti-American” won’t solve their problems.

“And so what I hope will happen, as a consequence of this speech, is people will have a better sense of how America views its relationship to the broader world and to Islam,” he said.

“I hope that Americans will recognize that Islam is not a monolithic faith, that there are all sorts of debates taking place within Islam, about how to adjust to a modern world.”

He said he will try to outline the U.S. view on specific issues such as Middle East peace talks, Iran, the war in Afghanistan and unrest in Pakistan.

“I don't expect that people will come away saying, ‘We agree with every single thing that the president said.’ I do hope that we can start opening a dialogue that'll be more constructive moving forward.”

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Obama has pitched his speech at Cairo University on Thursday as a part of an attempt to improve the U.S. image in the Muslim world.

But al-Qaida's deputy leader on Tuesday said the speech will not erase what the U.S. military is doing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Al-Qaida pre-empts
"His bloody messages were received and are still being received by Muslims, and they will not be concealed by public relations campaigns or by farcical visits or elegant words," said Ayman al-Zawahri, al-Qaida's No. 2, in a new audio message posted on militant Web sites.

Al-Zawahri said the Egyptian officials who will welcome Obama are U.S. "slaves" and have turned the country into an "international station of torture in America's war on Islam." He was likely referring to suspected Islamic militants who have been captured by the U.S. and sent to Egypt for interrogation, a process known as rendition.

Al-Zawahri urged Egyptians to reject Obama when he makes his speech, calling him "that criminal who came seeking, with deception, to obtain what he failed to achieve in the field after the mujahideen ruined the project of the crusader America in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia."

Meanwhile, a group of Muslim clerics connected with Egypt's prestigious Al-Azhar University have announced the creation of a new satellite channel to propagate moderate Islam and challenge what it describes as extremist distortions of the religion.

Al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam's premier educational institution, is co-sponsoring Obama’s Thursday address.

Sheik Khaled el-Guindy, a member of Egypt's Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs and a driving force behind the "Azhari" channel, said the idea is to use the knowledge and skills of Al-Azhar graduates to combat ignorant interpretations of the religion.

"Azhari will promote the idea that Islam is a religion of moderation free from extremism," he told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "Several satellite channels right now promote a strict interpretation of Islam and issue incorrect religious opinions that fill young people with extremist ideas."

Azhari is set to be launched in mid-August, at the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramada. It will present a mix of entertainment and educational programming, including children's cartoons, soap operas and call-in shows.

The channel will initially be broadcast in English and Arabic, with plans to expand it to Turkish and Hindi, and will be viewable from Europe to Southeast Asia.

Saudi concerns
In Saudi Arabia, Obama will likely be looking for the kingdom's support in pushing forward Mideast peace but will have to address its concerns about Washington's recent diplomatic outreach to its Shiite rival Iran, said Saudi analyst Khaled al-Dakhil.

"He will be sounding out Saudi leaders about what should be done in the region," said al-Dakhil.

Obama took office promising to step up diplomatic efforts to address concerns over Iran's nuclear program, which the U.S. and many of its allies suspect is focused on building weapons capability — a charge denied by Tehran.

Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries in the Mideast are concerned the U.S. could cut a deal with Iran that would come at their expense. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates last month pledged the U.S. will keep its allies in the loop as it reaches out to Iran.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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