Page last updated at 17:55 GMT, Wednesday, 3 June 2009 18:55 UK

Hopes high for Obama's Islam speech

A Palestinian man yells in anger as his companions try to put out fires in fields set by Israeli settlers in the West Bank.
Palestinians want a stop to the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

President Obama will give what could be one of the most important speeches of his presidency on Thursday when he addresses the relationship between the United States and Muslims.

In his speech, to the University of Cairo, he will hope to break with the hostility of recent years and set a new tone designed not only to isolate the extremists of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, but to re-establish the understanding America gained on 9/11 and lost in Iraq.

Update June 3: the president's visit has prompted an al Qaeda response, signalling that al Qaeda knows fully well the potentially dangerous implications for itself from this new American leader.

A tape said to be from Osama bin Laden himself said that Mr Obama had "sown new seeds to increase hatred and revenge on America."

Although the president is not expected to go into detail about a new Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative, his words will be examined closely to see if they show signs of what many in the Muslim world hope will be a more even-handed approach than that shown by President George W Bush.

In a briefing for the White House press in Saudi Arabia, the press secretary Robert Gibbs said the president would try to ?break the stalemate? in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. He would not be presenting a new peace plan but would articulate what needed to be done on all sides and ?personally how he views the conflict.? There would also be a good deal of ?truth telling? and urging people to see the conflict from ?all sides". This is ?one step? not the ?final step?, said another White House official.

The president will begin the process to ?re-energize the dialogue with the Muslim world,? said one official. He will also discuss the shared interest in the dignity of all people in terms of health and education.

The president is a ?believer in strong and open dialogue,? said senior advisor David Axelrod. In the speech there will also be a ?forthright discussion? of democracy, human rights and related issues. nuclear non-proliferation and ways to deal with Iran will also be discussed. The idea of President Obama issuing Israel an ultimatum on settlement activity, as reported in an Israeli newspaper, is ?not accurate.?

The White House is disseminating the speech through a variety of new media networks.

Barack Obama giving a speech.
Barack Obama hopes to set a new tone in relations with the Muslim world

In advance of the speech, the president said in an interview with the BBC that he hoped to see progress by the end of the year, through "tough, direct diplomacy".

He has already provoked a row with the Israeli government over West Bank settlements, demanding that all activities cease. This includes what is called "natural growth", which is defined - at a minimum - as the building of more housing for the children of settlers.

This is not in fact a new demand. It was made, using the same phrase, in the 2003 roadmap for the Middle East, endorsed by the Quartet of the US, the UN, the EU and Russia.

Public differences

The Israelis say that such growth will continue. One cabinet minister compared the restriction to the Egyptian pharaoh's demand that the first-born of the Children of Israel be "thrown into the Nile".

Israel says it is not bound by this roadmap provision unless the Palestinians fulfil their simultaneous obligation to crack down on terrorism and incitement.

The row has highlighted the fact that President Obama does seem willing to have public disagreements with Israel. That by itself will improve his standing among Muslims, even though he has not been able to get the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accept a freeze.

But it is a long way from delivering the two-state solution which frankly is as far away as ever.

Fostering illusion?

The president signalled his intentions towards Muslims in a previous speech, to the Turkish parliament in April, when he declared: "The United States is not, and never will be, at war with Islam."

The speech will outline his personal commitment to engagement, based upon mutual interests and mutual respect
Robert Gibbs
White House press secretary

He went on to say that the US sought a "broader engagement based on mutual trust."

Some see problems in the way he speaks about Islam as an entity and suggest that this gives ammunition to those who define Islam as a political movement as well as a religion.

Writing in The Times, Iranian journalist Amir Taheri said that this "fosters the illusion, peddled by people such as Osama Bin Laden and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that Islam is one and indivisible..."

Less ideological

His approach is likely to be less ideological than that of George W Bush. President Bush proposed a solution for the problems of the Middle East that depended on the advance of democracy and, in the case of Iraq, on the advance of his army. "Democracies do not support terrorism," he remarked in a speech in 2004.

The neo-conservative thinkers around Mr Bush felt this worked well in Eastern Europe and that it should be able to work in the Middle East and beyond.

To those who expressed scepticism, they replied that they were laughed at for holding this view before the end of the Cold War proved them right.

Mr Obama seems to want to encourage, not impose. He told the BBC that he wanted the US to act simply as a "role model".

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