Obama calls for a "new beginning" with the Muslim world in speech that hits home in Orange County.
ANAHEIM – In the tobacco shops and bakeries of the Anaheim neighborhood known as Little Arabia, people welcomed President Barack Obama’s speech to the Muslim world Thursday with new hope for what he called a new beginning.
One community leader described the speech as historic; the publisher of an Arab-American newspaper planned to write that Obama may be a “political messiah.” But there was skepticism, too, and the question of the moment was not so much what the speech meant but what happens next.
“You cannot solve all the world’s problems in one speech,” said Sami Mashney, who publishes a newspaper for the Arab-American community called The Independent Monitor. “It’s not like he’s solving one plus one. We’re talking about immense problems that have existed through the decades.”Shalom Elcott, the president of the Jewish Federation Orange County, used a Hebrew word to describe what Obama still needs to make clear: “tachlis.” It means the bottom line, the heart of the matter.
In this case, he said, it means translating words into action – supporting Middle Eastern economies, pushing for religious freedom and addressing the extremists who lurk on all sides of the debate.
“As we’ve learned,” he said, “going from vision to implementation in the Middle East has been a challenge for decades, if not for centuries.”
In his speech, Obama acknowledged years of mutual distrust between the Muslim world and the United States and called for a “new beginning.” He spoke in Cairo, but some people in Anaheim’s Little Arabia stayed up to see the live broadcast at 3 a.m.
Alaa Allabadei was one of them. He heard a tone of peace from the president, a willingness to talk rather than fight.
“I was glad to hear the president talking about Palestine and Israel as two countries that can work together for the future – for peace,” said Allabadei, a tobacco-shop owner originally from Lebanon.
The president’s message “is on the right track,” said Rolan Halwani, a glass contractor in Anaheim. “A lot of U.S. presidents have talked about similar messages of peace in the Middle East. But Obama seems very sincere, like he really means what he’s saying.”
Hussam Ayloush, the executive director of the greater Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, called the speech monumental and historic.
He said Obama had presented America as a “sincere partner” to the people in the Middle East, showing respect for their history and religion. He heard in the speech a read-between-the-lines admission that the invasion of Iraq had been a mistake.
But, like the others, Ayloush said the speech was just a first step on a long and difficult road. Obama, he said, “provided an outline – an honest outline – of what the problems are, and a courageous roadmap for addressing them.”
But Rabbi Stuart Altshuler, who teaches Jewish studies and history at Chapman University, cautioned that some of the president’s remarks could lead down a “very dangerous road.”
He took issue with Obama’s criticism of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, saying the president never defined what he meant by settlements. “In large parts of the Muslim world,” he said, “all of Israel is a settlement.”
Altshuler also said he thought Obama equated, unfairly, the suffering of Palestinians with the historic sufferings of the Jews. And he thought Obama “soft-pedaled” the threat posed by Iran and Muslim extremist groups.
“We should encourage all dialogue and learning and conversation about each other,” Altshuler said. But, he added, the president “needs to be a little more careful about making sweeping generalizations.”
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