WASHINGTON, June 5 (Xinhua) -- United Sates President Barack Obama gave a much publicized speech on Thursday at Cairo University in a bid to begin healing the wide rift between his country and the Muslim world.
Despite good intentions, the question remains whether he can mend relations in a region where the U.S. is often despised and where many people believe the West is waging a war against Islam, experts said.
In his speech, Obama called for a "new beginning between the United States and Muslims," and said the two sides could confront militancy and pursue peace together.
The address was laced with references to Islam's important place in history, as the president remarked how the religion carried the torch of learning through many centuries and paved the way for European enlightenment.
Appealing to the masses, however, has limited impact on governments in countries where the people have little say in how their nation is run, which is often the case in the region, Reva Bhalla, director of analysis at Stratfor, a global intelligence company, said.
She said Iran is one example, where shifting public opinion one way or another would do little to improve the government's stance toward the United States.
The strategy could pay off, however, in that it could curtail the influence of radical Islam in the region, as militants need a sympathetic population for their movements to survive, Bhalla said.
"But that's easier said than done," she said.
Still, Obama is regarded more highly than his predecessor in the Middle East, where people recognize the more inclusive nature of his diplomatic approach, which is a sharp departure from former U.S. President George W. Bush's unilateralism, she said.
But to start improving relations, he must first outline a Middle East policy, as the speech contained no official U.S. foreign policy pronouncement, Stephen Grand, director of the project on U.S. relations with the Islamic world at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute, said.
Matthew R.J. Brodsky, a fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, said that whatever the policy, the United States must either side with the pro-U.S. camp which includes Egypt and Saudi Arabia or reach out to unfriendly governments in countries such asIran and Syria.
Any attempt to work with both camps would backfire, as the two sides are embroiled in a cold war and have "irreconcilable differences," he said.
Grand said whichever official policy is implemented, it could take years to create a positive image of the United States.
He said aside from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and military operations in Pakistan, the United States is often criticized in the region for supporting governments seen by their citizens as incompetent and incapable of providing basic services, which stirs anti-U.S. anger and mistrust that extremist groups often exploit.
Those feelings of prejudice are often mutual, as many Americans, especially since September 11 attacks, unfairly equate Islam with terrorism, Grand said.
This "cycle of suspicion and discord" must stop, Obama said in his speech. "I consider it part of my responsibility as president of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear."
The same goes for anti-U.S. sentiment, Obama said. "Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire."
Grand said these sentiments can be reversed by increasing educational and cultural exchanges which Obama mentioned in his speech. Firsthand exposure to the United States would do much to reduce the level of public support that groups such as al-Qaeda need to survive..
Despite Obama's message of cooperation, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden released an audio statement on Wednesday saying that the president enraged Muslims by ordering Pakistan to crack down on radicals in the Swat Valley.
Grand said such statements underscore the reason why Obama is reaching out to the region -- to counter the influence of terrorist groups and bring Muslims over to his side.
Lisa Curtis and James Phillips, senior research fellows at the Washington-based think tank Heritage Foundation, said bin Laden's message demonstrates that al-Qaeda is worried about the president's ability to appeal to the Muslim community and is searching for ways to blunt his ability to do so.
Both said that Al-Qaeda is focusing its efforts on Pakistan, where U.S. policies are often blamed for the rash of suicide bombings in the country over the last two years.
Grand said the trip to the Middle East is likely the first of several attempts to reconcile differences, and the speech will by no means be the last one on the "new beginning" the president will deliver in the region.