WASHINGTON - That Barack Obama chose to grant his first televised interview as U.S. president to an Arab network was a stunning enough decision in a post-911 America that still eyes the Muslim world with suspicion.
But for a man whose campaign endured a barrage of racist accusations that he was secretly a Muslim, what Obama said during the interview was just as remarkable: he spoke unflinchingly of his Muslim roots while reassuring Arabs that "Americans are not your enemy."
"I have Muslim members of my family; I have lived in Muslim countries .. the largest one, Indonesia," Obama told Al-Arabiya, an Arabic-language satellite TV station based in Dubai, in an interview broadcast Monday night.
"And so what I want to communicate is the fact that in all my travels throughout the Muslim world, what I've come to understand is that regardless of your faith - and America is a country of Muslims, Jews, Christians, non-believers - regardless of your faith, people all have certain common hopes and common dreams."
|Watch Obama's Al-Arabiya TV Interview|
The interview was a powerful signal that Obama, a Christian whose late father was a Muslim, considers immediate efforts to repair America's tense relationship with the Arab world a top priority.
"It's impossible to exaggerate the symbolic importance," Marc Lynch, an expert on U.S.-Arab relations, wrote on the Foreign Policy website on Tuesday.
"His interview promises a genuinely fresh start in the way the United States interacts with the Arab world and a new dedication to public diplomacy."
The Al-Arabiya interview came less than a week after Obama reached out publicly to the Muslim world in his inaugural address.
Obama was the first president in U.S. history to mention the word "Muslim" in an inaugural address, and he did it as his predecessor and the man despised by the Arab world, George W. Bush, looked on.
"To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect," Obama said to cheers from the millions who gathered in D.C. to watch his historic swearing-in.
The president's interview this week with Al-Arabiya came as his new special envoy to the Middle East, one-time U.S. Senator George Mitchell, began his first official trip to the region.
Mitchell's first stop is Egypt, which has been trying to mediate a truce between Hamas and Israel. He is also expected to travel to Israel, the West Bank, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Obama said Mitchell will discuss how to solidify the ceasefires declared by Israel and Hamas, and how to tackle the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
The president said he's instructed Mitchell to use the trip to begin truly hearing the concerns of all the parties involved.
"What I told him is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating," Obama told Al-Arabiya.
The U.S. had made mistakes in the past, Obama added, but "the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there's no reason why we can't restore that."
Even those on the far right in America agree that courting Muslim moderates is critical to winning the war against extremists who are committed to jihad against the United States.
To that end, Bush gave several interviews to Al-Arabiya during his presidency, but the wars he waged against Iraq and Afghanistan have fuelled a bitter backlash against the United States in the region.
The network is viewed in Washington as being more moderate than its competitor, Al-Jazeera.
Reaction to the Obama interview on Al-Arabiya's website was divided.
Some suggested it represented a critical turning point in Arab-U.S. relations, while others argued that if Obama doesn't strongly support a Palestinian state, he won't enjoy any more successes in the Muslim world than Bush did.
Al-Sharif Abu Ananan wrote that if the cause of Muslims "is not addressed and people have their rights restored and are returned to their homes, then Obama will remain like Bush."
Wrote another viewer who identified himself as Khaled Al-Dali: "We expect a lot from you not to help us but to have a visionary and responsible position and to be truthful in your decisions. ... I trust you and many here trust that you will bring change. Don't disappoint us."
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