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Obama in Turkey: At the Gates of Islam

By April 6, 2009

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"The United States." Obama told the Turkish parliament, "has been enriched by Muslim Americans. Many other Americans have Muslims in their families or have lived in a Muslim-majority country -- I know, because I am one of them." (White House photo)

Fresh from the frustrations of a Europe more willing to be impressed by Barack Obama than convinced to follow his lead economically and in Afghanistan, Obama headed for Turkey today to face the Muslim world's biggest paradox. No wonder Obama felt at home. Here was one paradox speaking to another, as both faced each other in the Turkish Parliament.

"I know there have been difficulties these last few years," Obama said toward the end of his 3,500-word speech. "I know that the trust that binds the United States and Turkey has been strained, and I know that strain is shared in many places where the Muslim faith is practiced. So let me say this as clearly as I can: The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam. (Applause.) In fact, our partnership with the Muslim world is critical not just in rolling back the violent ideologies that people of all faiths reject, but also to strengthen opportunity for all its people."

Those words were just build-up, however, for this:

I also want to be clear that America's relationship with the Muslim community, the Muslim world, cannot, and will not, just be based upon opposition to terrorism. We seek broader engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect. We will listen carefully, we will bridge misunderstandings, and we will seek common ground. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree. We will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over the centuries to shape the world -- including in my own country. The United States has been enriched by Muslim Americans. Many other Americans have Muslims in their families or have lived in a Muslim-majority country -- I know, because I am one of them. (Applause.)
That last line will trigger all sorts of apoplectic reactions in right-wing circles, especially with 11% of Americans, including one in five Evangelicals, thinking Obama a Muslim (according to a new Pew Research poll). But let's not get sidetracked by pettiness.

That was Obama's message, after all, in a wide-ranging speech that touched on connections between the past and the present (Ottoman Turkey's connection to the early American republic being symbolized by a marble plaque from Istanbul that Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid sent 150 years ago as his contribution to the Washington Monument), East and West, religion and secularism.

At times he was overly subtle, as when he skirted the issue of the Armenian genocide. “Well, my views are on the record and I have not changed those views,” he said during a joint news conference with Turkish President Abdullah Gul. “I want to focus not on my views right now, but on the views of the Turkish and Armenian people. If they can move forward and deal with a difficult and tragic history, then I think the entire world should encourage that.” He repeated a variation of those words during the speech in Parliament.

At times he was heavy handed, as when he endorsed Turkey's membership in the European Union. It isn't exactly his place to endorse, unless he wants to make a meddlesome point--which he did, unnecessarily on several counts. Why ingratiate himself with Turkey to that extent? Especially when there are fairly good reasons why Turkey, still an autocracy in my book, isn't yet ready for European prime time.

Turkey has a poor human rights record. It is officially a secular democracy, but Kurds and other minorities are still persecuted, while Turkey has gone to war to attack the separatist Kurdish militants of the PKK in Iraq. Its Penal Code Article 301, which forbids insults to "Turkish identity" or Turkish institutions, makes a mockery of freedom of expression. Turkey continues to deny that it perpetrated a genocide against Armenians in the wake of the fall of the Ottoman Empire toward the end of World War I. During his election campaign, Obama called it a genocide and vowed to sign a bill declaring it so. Turkey wants to join the European Union, but France and Germany are opposed on ideological and cultural grounds. Put more simply: German and France don't want a massively Muslim country among them.

Why Obama chose to make Turkey the first Muslim country he's visiting as president is itself a paradox. Obama and Turks portray the choice as symbolic of Turkey's place as a bridge between East and West, and of Turkey's example as a functioning democracy that is still 98 percent Muslim. But Turkey's image in the Arab world isn't as peppy. Much of that world was subjugated by Ottoman Turkey for about four centuries.

The humiliation was two-fold: there was the inherent humiliation of subjugation, regardless of the make on the boot. But there was also the humiliation of being subjects of a non-Arab Muslim empire, a double-whammy that reinforced Arabs' sense of fallen fortunes. That Turkey went secular in 1923 while still considering itself an integral, and powerful, part of the Muslim world salts the Arab world's wound even more. With isolated exceptions, that world either does not believe in the separation of mosque and state, or in the notion of democracy.

No wonder Turkey is the West's last great Muslim hope. That's how Obama approached it. That's what explains his subtle dance around the questions of Turkey's holocaust denial and its human rights. It's also what explains the ties between the two countries, literally and stylistically.

Turkish President Abdullah Gül wore a blue tie, for the dominant color of the American flag. President Obama wore a red tie, for the dominant color of the Turkish flag. Several times during his visit to Turkey today, his first to a Muslim country since he was elected president, Obama spoke Turkish, as when he said "Merhaba Asker" in greeting to soldiers at Çankaya Presidential Palace, where a 21-gun salute startled him. He visited the grave of Kemal Attaturk, the founder of modern Turkey whose stature is second, in that country, only to God. (Speak ill of either, and you may face criminal sanctions.)

Among the people in the audience in Parliament--a guest of the American embassy, not any Turkish politician--was Oksan Oztok, the gay-rights activist. (I was disappointed that Bulent Ersoy didn't figure in any of the entertainment provided for Obama).

Eloquent though it was throughout (it was his best performance of his European trip), the speech's final words were oddly fortune-cookie like: "Turkey's greatness lies in your ability to be at the center of things. This is not where East and West divide -- this is where they come together. (Applause.) In the beauty of your culture. In the richness of your history. In the strength of your democracy. In your hopes for tomorrow." In your ability to be at the center of things? Where East and West come together? By the time Obama reached his conclusion he'd abandoned paradox for boilerplate. Let's hope it's not the defining note of the Turkish-American relationship from here on.

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