President Barack Obama will make a historic multimedia address on Thursday from an ancient hub of Arab civilisation to the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims, seeking to narrow a chasm between America and Islam.
After having left early on Thursday Saudi Arabia, one centre of Islam, Obama was expected to arrive in another, Egypt, to give a long-awaited speech in Cairo crafted to temper antipathy towards the United States felt by many of the faithful.
“There has been a breach, an undeniable breach between America and the Islamic world,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s top political advisor, as the president launched his Middle East mission with talks with Saudi King Abdullah.
“And that breach has been years in the making, it is not going to be reversed with one speech. It is not going to be reversed perhaps, in one administration.
“But the president is a strong believer, in open, honest dialogue.”
At the venerable Cairo University, Obama will deploy his ultra-modern new media machine to push the speech on social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, aiming to take the message viral, and maximise its impact.
The State Department website is offering listeners the chance to register for text messages from the speech in Arabic, Persian, Urdu and English and Whitehouse.gov will stream it live.
Obama will target the well of distrust in the Muslim world towards the United States, which saw its image sullied by the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal, Guantanamo Bay, the stalled peace process and the Iraq war.
He must also address those Americans, still stung by the September 11 attacks in 2001, who view the religion through the prism of extremism.
Yet critics warn Obama’s hopes may founder, given that he has no intention of changing policies -- like staunch backing of Israel -- that make the United States unpopular.
Some question whether his trademark soaring rhetoric will conceal undercooked policies towards a region in tumult.
Others fault him for undercutting his message by speaking in Egypt where critics accuse President Hosni Mubarak, who Obama meets Thursday, of repression.
The shadow of extremism also looms: as soon as Obama arrived in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, he was greeted by threats from Osama bin Laden, but his new tape was dismissed by the White House as a futile bid to steal the president’s moment.
Obama promised to address a major Islamic forum during his 2008 campaign, and expectations have mounted ever since, especially across the region where he is more popular than the nation he leads, polls show.
“He feels it’s important to speak very openly and candidly about the very full range of issues that have caused some tensions between the United States and the Muslim world,” said Obama speechwriter Ben Rhodes.
But hopes Obama will outline a major new plan to end the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict will likely be dashed.
Seeking to avoid a let-down, Axelrod and other aides were Wednesday argued that one event, albeit historic, pales into comparison with centuries of conflict and antagonism plaguing the Middle East.
In characteristic style, Obama will interweave his own story and personal ties to Islam with US foreign policy aspirations and the perilous state of a region frequently tipped into war.
Barack Hussein Obama, a Christian, has an Islamic family lineage in Kenya, and spent several years as a young boy growing up in Indonesia.
Aides said Obama would describe the divides and opportunities facing Islam and America, including US efforts to confront extremism, the Afghan and Pakistan war, Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
He was expected to mention Iran’s nuclear programme and will outline initiatives on healthcare, education and investment in the Muslim world.
Obama pushed for a new dialogue with Islam on taking office in January, vowing to rev up Middle East peace moves.
He quickly called Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas, gave an interview to the Al-Arabiya satellite network, made an unprecedented video address to Iranians and, in Turkey, reassured Muslims the United States was not at war with them.
Obama arrived in the Middle East after sparring publicly with new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over West Bank settlements, an issue he sees as an impediment to resumed peace talks.
Aides said Obama had thrown himself into the speech, consulted Muslim Americans widely on its content, and was tinkering with the final draft “down to the wire” Wednesday night.