President Barack Obama on Thursday called for "a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world."
That is a timely and necessary appeal. Obama deserves praise for both the words and symbolic nature of the setting in which he spoke them, to young Egyptians at Al Azhar University in Cairo, one of the hearts of Islam.
But as the speech acknowledged, moving from words to action gets tricky.
Obama was correct in stating: "So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. This cycle of suspicion and discord must end."
And, the president made a point that has been made before, and should be repeated: "America is not – and never will be – at war with Islam."
Obama did not shy away from the fact that America is engaged in a necessary fight with al-Qaida, the Taliban and extremists who identify themselves with violent jihadist Islamic thought. He talked about Sept. 11, 2001, and the 3,000 innocents who died because of such ruthless, radical and wrong-minded beliefs. He noted that al-Qaida "even now states their determination to kill on a massive scale."
Those are strong reminders that the U.S., in taking on extremists, has not simply "gone cowboy," but is on a necessary mission.
But that brings up the dicey aspect of his speech. Obama called for bold action. How will that work?
The nation's policymakers, and most of its citizens, do not blame the 9/11 attacks on the collective Islamic world. But, in practice, acting against al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan has led to the tragic deaths of those not involved in an anti-western struggle. That collateral damage ignited passions throughout the Islamic world. Can the U.S. advance an anti-al-Qaida agenda while sparing innocent lives and winning hearts?
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