By Sue Pleming
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama promised to improve U.S. ties with the Muslim world in his inauguration address on Tuesday, after tensions that followed the September 11 attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
â€œTo the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect,â€ said Obama, who became the first black president of the United States.
Obama, a practicing Christian, spent several years of his childhood in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation. His American mother, Ann Dunham, married Muslim Indonesian Lolo Soetoro after the end of her marriage to Obamaâ€™s Kenyan father.
â€œTo those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,â€ Obama said.
Under President George W. Bush, U.S. relations with Muslim nations have often been fractious, particularly after the September 11 attacks.
Many Muslims were angered by the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the opening of a prison for foreign terrorism suspects at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, widely seen as a symbol of human rights abuses of mostly Muslim prisoners carried out in the name of the â€œwar on terrorism.â€
The Council on American Islamic Relations welcomed Obamaâ€™s promise on seeking better relations with Muslim nations.
â€œWe hope this encouraging statement, coupled with a change in Americaâ€™s previous policies toward the Muslim world, will help improve our nationâ€™s image and promote a safe and prosperous future for all of humanity,â€ said Nihad Awad, executive director of the council.
The first Muslim to be elected to the U.S. Congress, Minnesota Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, said Obamaâ€™s words were an important signal of goodwill to Muslims in the United States as well as the rest of the world.
â€œI do believe it could undermine recruiting for al Qaeda,â€ he told Reuters, because â€œtheir message depends on trying to demonize the United States as a country that is somehow hostile to Islam and the Muslim world.â€
Ellison said Obamaâ€™s outreach would make it hard for al Qaeda to sustain its anti-American message.
Many Muslims are already excited about Obama, he said.
â€œIf you were to go to Damascus, or Cairo, or Jerusalem today, you could find an Obama tee shirt. People are excited about the possibilities for what this means around the globe.â€
The population of Ellisonâ€™s district is three or four percent Muslim, he said. Since his election to Congress in 2006, another Muslim has also been voted in: Democrat Andre Carson of Indiana.
About 300 young Muslims from 76 countries signed a letter published in the Washington Post on Tuesday, urging the new president to make policy changes that could improve relations between the Muslim world and the West.
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; editing by Patricia Zengerle)