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Obama's tone, wording have resonance for many listeners

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - The tone of respect was set from the opening lines of President Obama's address to the Muslim world.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - The tone of respect was set from the opening lines of President Obama's address to the Muslim world.

"Assalamu Aleikum" - Arabic for "peace be upon you" - he said, triggering applause from the crowd at Cairo University and bringing nods of approval in places like a coffee shop in the West Bank town of Ramallah, where some began calling him "Abu Hussein" - using his Muslim middle name - as a sign of honor.

Obama's ambitious speech marked an opportunity to shape his image in the eyes of Muslims. He quoted from the Quran, paid homage to Muslims' cultural and intellectual achievements, and noted his middle name and his father's ties to the faith.

"As the Holy Koran tells us, 'Be conscious of God and speak always the truth,' " Obama said. "That is what I will try to do today, to speak the truth as best I can."

Whether political stagecraft or sincerity, his gestures resonated strongly among many Muslims who often complain that their traditions and culture are devalued in the West and have become overshadowed by Islamic radicals.

"He came across as sincere and credible," said Sheikh Muhammad al-Nujaimi, a member of a committee in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that tries to moderate the radical views of jailed militants.

Obama's closing line

The president also sprinkled his address with Arabic words well-known to all Muslims: hijab for the Islamic coverings for women; zakat for alms giving, which is one of the Five Pillars of Islam.

Even these few references carry powerful significance in the Arab world, where their language is cherished as an important ethnic bond, revered for its connection to the Prophet Muhammad, and filled with elaborate greetings and finely crafted formalities that display respect.

Obama's closing line - "And may God's peace be upon you" - rings with authenticity and cultural sensitivity to Arabic ears.

There were obvious comparisons with Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, whose use of language - such as calling for a "crusade" against terrorists after the Sept. 11 attacks, a term that brought to mind the Christian Crusades against Islam in the Holy Land - helped stir anti-American anger in the Muslim world.

Obama "was fair on basics, soft on tone," said Labib Kamhawi, a political analyst in Amman, Jordan. "He avoided using provocative terms of the previous administration like war on terrorism."

Hints of praise

Even some extremist Web sites, which have carried statements from al-Qaeda and other groups in the past, added rare hints of praise amid the scorn for Obama.

One posting in a chat room noted admiration for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's "wearing a head scarf ... and she and Obama taking off their shoes" during a visit to a Cairo mosque. The contributor also praised Obama's quotation of verses from the Quran, "while many of our leaders don't memorize these verses."

But another writer said Obama "is manipulating the emotions of the people the same as a lute player does."

Obama cited an account from the Quran in pleading for peace in Jerusalem among "all the children of Abraham" - Muslims, Christians, and Jews. The president referred to a miracle called al-Isra, or the Night Journey, in which an angel took Muhammad to the heavens, where Muhammad prayed with Moses and Jesus.

In Saudi Arabia - home of Islam's holiest sites - Rabah al-Mutawa said at her Riyadh home, "I challenge any Arab leader to go to the U.S. or the West and quote the Bible like Obama quoted the Quran."