x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Obama highlights dangers of extremism

The US president emphasises the mutual benefits that can be derived from establishing a lasting peace between India and Pakistan.

Barack Obama, the US president, greets the children of workers who restore New Delhi’s historic buildings at Humayun’s tomb yesterday.
Barack Obama, the US president, greets the children of workers who restore New Delhi’s historic buildings at Humayun’s tomb yesterday.

MUMBAI // In a string of stirring, unscripted answers, Barack Obama, the US president, responded to some tough questions posed by college students about American policy in Pakistan and India, urging the two countries to resolve their issues.

"It may be surprising that I am absolutely convinced that the country which has the biggest stake in Pakistan's success is India," the president told about 300 students from St. Xavier's College in Mumbai, and other area schools.

"If Pakistan is unstable, that's bad for India. If they are stable and prosper, then it is good. It is absolutely in your interest, in a time you are starting to succeed in the global-economic stage, then you don't want instability in your region."

The president encouraged a slow-moving dialogue between the countries to give leaders a basis for tackling the toughest aspects of their relationship, notably the divided territory of Kashmir. "My hope is that, over time, trust develops between the two countries, that dialogue begins perhaps on less controversial issues building up to more controversial issues," he said.

In due course, the president said he hoped "there's a recognition that India and Pakistan can live side by side in peace and that both countries can prosper".

Mr Obama said that although Islamabad was making progress against what he called the "cancer" of extremism, it was not happening quickly enough.

"I think that the Pakistani government understands the threat that exists within its own borders," he said.

"Now, progress is not as quick as we would like," he added, explaining that the Pakistani military faced difficulties cracking down on extremists in the rugged north-west of the country close to the Afghan border.

The US administration recognised that progress would not happen overnight, he added, saying they would continue to support Pakistan in its efforts.

One of the first questions posed to Mr Obama, after he was introduced by the first lady, Michelle Obama, was how he would define the word jihad, a term used to refer to violence in Islam. Mr Obama responded by speaking about the peaceful message that Islam preaches. "The challenge is to isolate extremists," he said. "You must observe your faith without violence."

The president also answered questions about balancing spirituality over materialism.

Mr Obama said he regularly reads and tries to follow the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr, but "I find myself constantly falling short of their examples."

For a country such as India, where immense poverty still rules the lives of the majority of the one billion population, he urged pupils to work on developing education and help those around them.

In response to the final question about the planned 2011 withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, Mr Obama responded by saying that India's investment in development in Afghanistan is appreciated and that "Pakistan has to be a partner in this process."

In a day that followed a series of business deal announcements with India to boost the US economy, Mr Obama rolled up his sleeves and sat back to enjoy the festivities of Diwali, the festival of lights, the Indian national holiday. Imparting a sense of informality, Mrs Obama joined her husband at the Holy Name School in Colaba, in South Mumbai, to watch children perform traditional dances. Mr Obama clapped along as the couple watched the performances, including the Koli, a lively dance of Mumbai's indigenous fishing community.

Mrs Obama spontaneously broke into dance with the group of pupils, matching their steps before the president joined the dance with the first lady. On Saturday, Mrs Obama danced to Rang De Basanti, a popular Bollywood song when visiting a group of college students who volunteer their time to teach English to orphans.

The performances were followed by an online interaction through a video link with the villagers in Kanpura, in Rajasthan, who talked to Mr Obama about how their lives had been transformed by technology.

The president and first lady then departed for Delhi to visit Humayun's tomb, a tomb Mughal ruler Humayun dedicated to his wife Hamida Benu Begum in 1562. The trip was to be followed by a visit to the US Embassy and a dinner with the embassy staff and Indian politicians.

Today, Mr Obama will address India's parliament.

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse