Obama to Muslims: Democracy can't be forced

President Obama plunged head first into some of the most controversial issues dividing the U.S. from Muslim countries Thursday in a highly anticipated speech in Cairo.

Obama underlined his belief in democracy but said the U.S. would not seek to impose a style of government on other countries. He spoke out for human rights and women’s rights, but criticized Western countries that seek to prevent Muslim women from wearing the headscarf.

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On the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, perhaps the greatest difference between the U.S. and Muslims, Obama criticized the situation of the Palestinian people while describing the U.S. relationship with Israel as “unbreakable.”

The address at Cairo University was one Obama promised to deliver during the campaign. It was a speech meant to illustrate a break from the presidency of George W. Bush and a war in Iraq that set back the U.S. image with Muslims.

Obama clearly sought a new road in a speech addressed as much to the citizens of Muslim countries as their leaders.

“So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace and who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity," Obama said in his nearly hour-long speech. "This cycle of suspicion and discord must end."

Obama conceded that his speech comes "at a time of tension between the United States and Muslims around the world — tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate."

“The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of co-existence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars,” Obama said.

In discussing Iraq and the promotion of democracy, Obama made a break with Bush, who believed the spread of democracy was the best way to defeat terrorism.

“I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq,” Obama said. “So let me be clear: No system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.” 

But the president said he has an "unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose."

He said Israel must recognize a Palestinian state, and he repeated his belief, one that has angered many Israelis, that the U.S. "does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements."

“This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace,” Obama said. “It is time for these settlements to stop.”

He added, though: “Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed.”

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The president directly took on Holocaust deniers, saying to do so is “baseless, it is ignorant and it is hateful.”

Obama talked about his call to withdraw troops from Iraq and U.S. efforts to root out violent extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan while at the same time increasing economic aid to the region.

On Iran, Obama said that after years of defining itself by its opposition to the U.S., the country must now focus on what it is for and not against.

But in a major concession sure to draw fire from conservatives, the president said that "any nation — including Iran — should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty."

In talking about his own background, the president noted that because of his Muslim father and his early travels with his mother, he has “known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed.”

“That experience guides my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn’t. And I consider it part of my responsibility as president of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear,” Obama said.

But the president warned that the U.S. will defend itself, and it will fight violent extremism wherever it exists.

“America will defend itself respectful of the sovereignty of nations and the rule of law,” Obama said. “And we will do so in partnership with Muslim communities which are also threatened. The sooner the extremists are isolated and unwelcome in Muslim communities, the sooner we will all be safer.”