When President Obama declared Monday that the United States “is not, and will never be, at war with Islam,” he was addressing Turkey’s parliament. But his audience was the wider Muslim world.
The president’s ringing affirmation of partnership with Turkey, which he described as a vital bridge between East and West, was interwoven with a highly personal appeal for a change in the tone of discourse between the United States and the world’s Muslims.
The speech, the centerpiece of the president’s first official visit to a Muslim-majority nation, was widely watched outside Turkey’s borders and covered live on the largest Arabic-language satellite channels, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya.
His 26-minute speech, which was punctuated several times by applause, addressed a region where the president is personally very popular but faces large expectations. In advance of his visit, Turks had pointedly reminded Obama he had fences to mend.
Commentators in Turkey interpreted his remarks before the Grand National Assembly as a determined effort to shake off the deep-seated mistrust that characterized the Bush administration’s dealings with the governments of many predominantly Muslim nations.
Obama also hailed what he described as warming ties between Turkey and its neighbor Armenia, which have long been shadowed by Ankara’s denial that the mass killing of ethnic Armenians in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire was genocide. Sidestepping the question of how the Armenian deaths should be labeled, Obama instead urged a full normalization of relations and stressed that he did not want to make any remarks that would prejudice talks between the two countries.
His stop in Turkey generated scattered protests, but also an air of excitement. Many cafes and shops had their TVs tuned to the speech, and Turks appeared as star-struck as some citizens of other countries on his current trip. One baker created a borek, a pastry, with Obama’s image on it.
“You come to a country that is a friend of the U.S.,” the national daily Hurriyet wrote in a front-page commentary Monday. “However, our hearts have been broken in the last eight years. Now is the time to make repairs.”
As if in reply, Obama made a simple but striking overture.
“Let me say this as clearly as I can,” he told lawmakers, officials and dignitaries. “The United States is not, and never will be, at war with Islam. In fact, our partnership with the Muslim world is critical.”
Drawing on his own background and heritage, the U.S. leader noted that many Americans had ties to Islam through family connections or by living in Muslim countries.
“I know, because I am one of them,” he said to warm applause. Obama’s father was a Muslim from Kenya, and he lived for a time in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation.
Gazing around the ornate chamber, the president said the U.S. relationship with the Muslim world must be based on mutual respect, and must encompass more than the fight against terrorism.
“America’s relationship with the Muslim world cannot, and will not, be based on opposition to Al Qaeda,” he said. “We seek broad engagement based on mutual interests and mutual respect.”
In apparent deference to Turkey’s status as a secular republic, Obama’s aides refrained from characterizing his speech in the capital, Ankara, as a fulfillment of the pledge he made to address the Muslim world in his first 100 days in office. Analysts in the Middle East said there were few surprises in the speech.
“They see the small things here and there -- change in language, gestures, terminology,” said Timur Goksel, a former United Nations official who teaches at the American University of Beirut. “He has time. But because they expect so much from him he’ll be under scrutiny. They’ll be watching him carefully.”
Obama’s foreign policy focus in the first months of his presidency has largely been on the Islamic world. He has announced plans to withdraw combat forces from Iraq, but he has ordered more troops to Afghanistan and is pressing Pakistan to do more to subdue a Taliban insurgency. He also is pursuing an opening to Iran.
Though many people may believe Obama wants to change the U.S. image in the Arab and Muslim worlds, they aren’t convinced a change in tone means a change of policies. They’re disappointed by his decisions to send more troops to Afghanistan and adhere to Bush-era policies on the Mideast conflict.
New Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office issued a statement saying Israel appreciated Obama’s commitment to its security and the pursuit of peace, and promised to work closely with the U.S.
In Turkey, many feel the Bush administration took for granted that the country, a NATO ally, would provide logistical and other support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, despite strong popular sentiment against the war here.
“In the Bush era, it was as if, ‘If you clash with the U.S., you are fundamentalists, radical Islamists.’ Now it seems they have moved away from this,” Hasan Koni, a political analyst from Bahcesehir University, told Sky Turk television.
Both in his speech and at the news conference, Obama emphasized the importance of Turkey’s contribution to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force in Afghanistan, and said Turkey’s views on both Afghanistan and Iraq would receive close attention.
Obama reiterated American support for Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union -- although only a day earlier, key European partners France and Germany had again expressed their reservations about it.
Human rights activists had hoped the president would seek to nudge Turkey’s government in the direction of greater recognition of the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. He did, though cautiously.
“Robust minority rights let societies benefit from the full measure of contributions from all citizens,” Obama told lawmakers. Turkey has a tradition of taking umbrage when outsiders criticize its historically harsh treatment of ethnic groups such as the Kurds and its discrimination against religious minorities.
But the president softened his implied criticism by noting that the U.S. itself “not too long ago made it hard for someone who looks like me to vote -- let alone become president.”
He also made it clear that there was no U.S. sympathy for the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party, which has waged a violent uprising against the Turkish state. The United States designates it a terrorist organization, and the president said information-sharing about the group would continue.
In an apparent concession to the U.S. leader, Turkey’s top military commanders, including army Chief of Staff Gen. Ilker Basbug, were in the audience in parliament. It marked the first time senior military commanders had appeared there since Kurdish political parties, whom authorities accuse of ties to the PKK, won representation in the chamber.
Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Beirut and special correspondent Noha El-Hennawy in Cairo contributed to this report.