ANKARA, Turkey – Barack Obama, making his first visit to a Muslim nation as president, declared Monday the United States “is not and will never be at war with Islam.”
Calling for a greater partnership with the Islamic world in an address to the Turkish parliament, Obama called the country an important U.S. ally in many areas, including the fight against terrorism. He devoted much of his speech to urging a greater bond between Americans and Muslims, portraying terrorist groups such as al Qaida as extremists who did not represent the vast majority of Muslims.
“Let me say this as clearly as I can,” Obama said. “The United States is not and never will be at war with Islam. In fact, our partnership with the Muslim world is critical … in rolling back a fringe ideology that people of all faiths reject.”
The U.S. president is trying to mend fences with a Muslim world that felt it had been blamed by America for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
For instance, at a news conference earlier with Prime Minister Abdullah Gul, he dealt gingerly with the issue of alleged genocide committed by Turks against Armenians during World War I, urging Turks and Armenians to continue a process “that works through the past in a way that is honest, open and constructive.”
Al Jazeera and Al Arabiyia, two of the biggest Arabic satellite channels, carried Obama’s speech live.
“America’s relationship with the Muslim world cannot and will not be based on opposition to al Qaida,” he said. “We seek broad engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect.”
“We will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over so many centuries to shape the world for the better, including my own country,” Obama said.
The president spoke for about 25 minutes from a small white-marble-and-teak rostrum in the well of a vast, airy chamber packed with Turkish lawmakers who filled the sea of orange leather chairs.
Except for a couple instances of polite applause, the room was almost completely silent throughout his speech. There was a more hearty ovation toward the end when Obama said the U.S. supports the Turkish government’s battle against PKK, which both consider a terrorist group, and again when he declared that America was not at war with Islam.
Obama also heard applause in response to his statement that the U.S. supports Turkey becoming a member of the European Union.
Earlier, Obama said he stood by his 2008 assertion that Ottoman Turks had carried out widespread killings of Armenians early in the 20th century, but he stopped short of repeating the word “genocide.”
Gul said many Turkish Muslims were killed during the same period. Historians, not politicians, Gul said, should decide how to label the events of those times.
In his 2008 campaign, Obama said “the Armenian genocide is not an allegation,” but rather “a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence.”
Now that he is president, the genocide question may not be Obama’s best issue for taking a tough stand that antagonizes a key ally. It is important in U.S. communities with large numbers of Armenian-Americans, but it has a low profile elsewhere.
In his speech to the parliament Monday, Obama said the United States strongly supports the full normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia.
Obama’s visit is being closely watched by an Islamic world that harbored deep distrust of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
In talks with Gul, and Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Obama hoped to sell his strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He hoped to find welcoming ears given the new U.S. focus on melding troop increases with civilian efforts to better the lives of people in both countries.
Obama recognized past tensions in the U.S.-Turkey relationship, but said things were on the right track now because both countries share common interests and are diverse nations. “We don’t consider ourselves Christian, Jewish, Muslim. We consider ourselves a nation bound by a set of ideals and values,” Obama said of the United States. “Turkey has similar principals.”
Obama’s trip to Turkey, his final scheduled country visit, ties together themes of earlier stops. He attended the Group of 20 economic summit in London, celebrated NATO’s 60th anniversary in Strasbourg, France, and on Saturday visited the Czech Republic, which included a summit of European Union leaders in Prague.
Turkey is a member of both the G-20 and NATO and is trying to get into the EU with the help of the U.S.
Turkey has the largest army in NATO after the United States. It and tiny Albania, recently admitted, are the only predominantly Muslim members of NATO.
Turkey opposed the war in Iraq in 2003 and U.S. forces were not allowed to go through Turkey to attack Iraq. Now, however, since Obama is withdrawing troops, Turkey has become more cooperative. It is going to be a key country after the U.S.
withdrawal in maintaining stability, although it has long had problems with Kurdish militants in north Iraq.
Turkey maintains a small military force in Afghanistan, part of the NATO contingent working with U.S. troops to beat back the resurgent Taliban and deny al-Qaida a safe haven along the largely lawless territory that straddles Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan. Turkey’s participation carries enormous symbolic importance to the Muslim world because of its presence in the fight against Islamic extremism. Albania, one of the poorest nations in Europe, has a small contingent in Afghanistan.
Turkey has diplomatic leverage with both Pakistan and Afghanistan.