In Turkey, Obama Reaches Out to Muslim World

Barack Obama, making his first visit to a Muslim nation as U.S. president, declared Monday the United States 'is not at war with Islam' and called for a greater partnership with the Islamic world. Video by AP
By Michael D. Shear and Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 7, 2009

ANKARA, Turkey, April 6 -- President Obama made his most direct outreach to Muslims around the world Monday, telling Turkey's Grand National Assembly that the United States "is not and never will be at war with Islam."

"Our partnership with the Muslim world is critical in rolling back a violent ideology that people of all faiths reject," Obama told the assembly. "The future must belong to those who create, not those who destroy. That is the future we must work for, and we must work for it together."

Obama's speech focused primarily on the U.S. relationship with Turkey. But he also used it as a chance to continue his outreach to Muslims and to signal an approach to the region based more on pragmatism than ideology. He sidestepped a campaign pledge to label as genocide the 1915 mass killing of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire and promised the Turks a broader relationship than one focused solely on combating terrorism.

During his campaign, Obama consistently played down connections to Islam, rarely mentioning his middle name, Hussein, or his childhood years in an Indonesian state school. The tactic helped fuel false Internet-driven rumors that Obama, a Christian, had once been Muslim. But in his appearance Monday, the president noted the contributions that Muslim Americans have made to the United States, saying that many Americans "have Muslims in their family, or have lived in a Muslim-majority country."

"I know," Obama said, drawing applause from the lawmakers, "because I am one of them."

Obama's message to Muslims echoed President George W. Bush, who frequently praised Islam as a religion of peace and humanitarian values that had been distorted by extremists who killed in its name. But Bush's invasion of Iraq, imprisonment of Muslims at Guantanamo Bay, isolation of Iran, and support for Israel in its relations with the Palestinians and in the war with Hezbollah made many in Islamic nations believe that his administration was hostile to their religion.

Obama has reached out to Iran, ordered the closing of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, and taken an early interest in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the appointment of a Middle East envoy. His aides have outlined a new approach to Muslim countries that would reach beyond confronting terrorism to include a set of mutual interests on trade, education and health care.

Prior to the president's speech Monday, a senior administration official speaking on background said Obama believes the relationship between the United States and Turkey "can be something of a model for America's relationship with the Muslim world." The official said Obama is committed to "rebuilding that relationship based on mutual interests and respect" and "comprehensive engagement with Muslim peoples" grounded in "a deep appreciation for the Islamic faith." Another senior White House official said Obama will continue the outreach in the coming months by traveling to a Muslim country to deliver a speech on Islam.

After several stops in Europe, Obama told lawmakers here that Turkey, governed by a moderate Islamist administration, could serve as a bridge between west and east. He pledged to support Turkey's halting efforts to join the European Union and urged a continuation of new laws that extend democratic protections to all of its people, including ethnic minorities. In Istanbul on Tuesday, he plans to visit the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine basilica converted into a mosque 650 years ago. Today it is a museum.

"I know there have been difficulties these last few years. I know that the trust that binds us has been strained, and I know that strain is shared in many places where the Muslim faith is practiced," Obama told the lawmakers.

"We will listen carefully, bridge misunderstanding, and seek common ground," he added. "We will be respectful, even when we do not agree. And 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."

Boulevards here were lined with Turkish and American flags, and security was tight for Obama's visit. Several hundred police officers in riot gear contained protesters, while police water-cannon trucks stood ready. Hundreds more police ringed the parliament building. Helicopters flew overhead and snipers manned rooftops as Obama's motorcade entered the sprawling grounds.

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