US Muslims: Obama Speech a 1st Step in Fixing Ties

June 4, 2009 - 3:48 PM
Muslim cabbies who gathered at a 24-hour Chicago cafe moments after daybreak Thursday to watch President Barack Obama's address from Egypt described his words as an important first step toward repairing the United States' strained relations with Muslims.

Muslim Americans, from left: Hasnain Syed, 30, Fatima Zahra Billoo, 24, Monira Mansoory, 17, Amira Mohtheshum, 17, and Zabie Mansoory, 23, watch live televised coverage of President Barack Obama's speech from Cairo University, in the Sylmar area of Los Angeles, early Thursday June 4, 2009. (AP Photo/Gus Ruelas)

Chicago (AP) - Muslim cabbies who gathered at a 24-hour Chicago cafe moments after daybreak Thursday to watch President Barack Obama's address from Egypt described his words as an important first step toward repairing the United States' strained relations with Muslims.
 
"A single speech is not going to make things better, it takes time," said Syed Mehdi, a manager at the Flaming Wok'n Grill on the city's north side, where a handful of taxi drivers gathered over chai to watch the speech broadcast live from Cairo University. "He's trying to build bridges. He's trying to be the cure to the damage and wounds that happened after 9-11."
 
From Los Angeles to Detroit to Boston, many U.S. Muslims who caught the early morning address said they felt Obama was genuine in his first attempts to close the divide between the U.S. and Islamic countries. The speech was the U.S. president's first to Muslims worldwide.
 
"I think he won hearts and minds in the Muslim world today," said Salam al-Marayati, the executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, who stayed up until 3 a.m. to watch the speech live.
 
During the speech, Obama emphasized Muslims' importance in American history and his commitment to addressing American laws that make it difficult for U.S. Muslims to pay zakat - a religious obligation to donate to charity.
 
Estimates vary on the number of U.S. Muslims. Obama said nearly 7 million lived in the United States.
 
Obama, who also visited one of Cairo's most historic mosques on Thursday, discussed Islam's growth across the U.S. and highlighted his own ties to Islam. Obama's father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims, and as a child, he spent several years in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country.
 
"I liked how he mentioned Muslims in America and that he mentioned his father was a Muslim," said Kemal Bozkurt of Lawrence, Mass., who publishes a directory of Muslim businesses in New England. "Now it's time for him to take action."
 
Many who watched the speech also praised Obama's recitation from the Quran and his use of the traditional Islamic greeting in Arabic "Assalamu Alaikum."
 
"The words I heard, he spoke truth," said Raja Khalid, who immigrated from Pakistan, and has driven cab in Chicago for 30 years. "It makes Muslims understand that no one is their enemy and they have to get their acts straight too."
 
Most deemed the speech as a welcomed shift from the former Bush administration's policy.
 
"He addressed all the issues in a very open way and touched on every aspect that is in the minds of a Muslim audience all over the world," said University of Chicago professor Muhammad Eissa.
 
There was little criticism for his speech, though some U.S. Muslims said the president didn't offer enough specifics on his plan for Mideast peace and he fell short on addressing Muslims' everyday concerns.
 
"The average Muslim does not wake up and think of Bin Laden," said Ahmed Rehab, the executive director of the Chicago branch of the Council of American-Islamic Relations. "They think of their families and jobs."
 
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Associated Press writers Gillian Flaccus in Santa Ana, Calif. and Russell Contreras in Boston contributed to this report.