He opened with greetings of gratitude and peace -- "Shukran" and “As-Salaam-Alaikum." From there, President Barack Obama set out to build a bridge between a nation born out of revolution and a faith born out of revelation.
Quoting the Quran three times and acknowledging his personal ties to Islam, Obama called on the Muslim world to embrace common principles of justice, progress and tolerance to move beyond “the cycle of suspicion and discord” between the U.S. and Arab nations.
In the Grand Hall of Cairo University, Obama’s attempt to confront tensions and seek reconciliation prompted 23 rounds of spontaneous applause and a standing ovation at the end. The president’s frank language and references to Islam's historic contributions to civilization and the U.S. also inspired respect and hope among American Muslims.
“He acknowledged the genuine challenges and aspirations of Muslims,” said Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Chicago. “He showed great nuance in the understanding of the nature of the conflicts … He showed genuine good will on behalf of the U.S. by referencing contributions of Islam and respect for Islam’s creed. He referred to violent extremism. Never once to Islamic extremism.”
Rehab noted the president's references to Palestine instead of "Palestinian territories" as a clear indication of his determination to reach a two-state solution and commended the explanation Obama provided for American troops in Afghanistan.
Dr. Zaher Sahloul, chairman of the Council for Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, wished the president had given as lucid an explanation for the war in Iraq. He said he is cautiously optimistic that Obama will translate his words into actions.
But if the goal was to start a dialogue, Sahloul said Obama chose the right way to do it, incorporating citations from the Quran.
"If you want to reach to the hearts and minds of people in the Muslim world you need to use language they understand," he said. "He used verses which are very positive. He used it more than any other Arab president I’ve heard."
Obama defended his frank talk with the Quran's commandment to "Be conscious of God and speak always the truth." He also used the words of the Quran to condemn violent extremism and insist on peace.
"The Holy Quran teaches that whoever kills an innocent is as -- it is as if he has killed all mankind," he said. "And the Holy Quran also says whoever saves a person, it is as if he has saved all mankind." He added later: "O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another."
Sahloul added that the speech's timing, near the end of American Muslims' early morning prayer time, increased its impact.
"When you pray and connect to the Almighty and then you hear positive words after that, that means the day is blessed," he said.