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.
There were relatively small protests on the streets of the Turkish capital, with one group carrying an effigy of Obama, dressed in a blue blazer and khaki pants, then throwing it to the ground and kicking it to pieces.
"Obama wants to use Turkish soldiers in Afghanistan as shields for American soldiers," said Burak Gunes, 21, an international relations student at a local university. "America killed millions of people in Iraq, so the Turkish people do not have any tolerance for the United States of America."
Dogu Ergil, a professor of political science at Ankara University, said the protesters "represent nothing" of mainstream Turkish thinking.
"There are fringe groups everywhere who think America is the devil," he said, noting that a recent opinion poll showed that 52 percent of Turks had a favorable opinion of Obama. "If he wanted to be a candidate, he could be elected and become the next president of Turkey!"
Obama appeared to succeed in avoiding controversy with his hosts on an issue of great sensitivity to Turks. As a presidential candidate, he pledged that, if elected, he would label the mass killing of Armenians by the Ottoman government more than 90 years ago a "genocide." But he declined to do so Monday.
Standing next to President Abdullah Gul here, Obama said, "I have not changed my views" on the issue and added that he supported talks underway between the governments of Turkey and Armenia to establish official diplomatic relations and address historical grievances, including the killing of between 1 million and 1.5 million Armenians by the government of the Ottoman Empire during and just after World War I. The president never said the word "genocide."
"I know there's strong views in this chamber about the terrible events of 1915," Obama said later in his speech before the Turkish parliament. "And while there's been a good deal of commentary about my views, it's really about how the Turkish and Armenian people deal with the past."
As a senator, Obama signed letters to then-President Bush demanding that he recognize "the mass slaughter of Armenians as genocide." Joining him on those letters were Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, both senators at the time.
Speaking after Obama in their joint news conference, Gul said: "It is not a legal or political issue, it's a historical issue." He said Turkey has suggested that a "joint history commission be established and that we would agree to the results or the conclusions of this commission."
Armenian-Americans reacted cautiously to Obama's comments. "The President's willingness to raise his commitment to recognizing the Armenian Genocide, even indirectly, in his remarks before the Turkish Parliament represents a step in the right direction, but far short of the clear promise he made as a candidate that he would, as President, fully and unequivocally recognize this crime against humanity," Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, said in a statement. "We expect that the President will, during Genocide Prevention Month this April, stand by his word."
Obama also reiterated U.S. support for the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, a goal jeopardized by continuing Israeli settlement construction in the occupied territories and deep divisions within the Palestinian national movement.
Obama acknowledged Turkey's helpful role as mediator in Syrian-Israeli peace talks, which have yet to yield results after more than a year. He called on Turkey's leaders, who like many Muslims were angry over the scope of Israel's assault on the Gaza Strip last year, to show the same support for an Israeli-Palestinian peace process that at the moment appears dormant.
"We must extend a hand to those Palestinians who are in need, while helping them strengthen their own institutions," he said. "We must reject the use of terror, and recognize that Israel's security concerns are legitimate."
Obama arrived in Ankara on Sunday night from Prague to begin the final leg of his first overseas trip. Appearing before reporters with Gul, Obama said the two countries are key allies and called Turkey "a true partner" in the fight against al-Qaeda and the broader threat of terrorism.
"The world has come too far to let this region backslide, and to let al-Qaeda terrorists plot further attacks," he said.
Staff writer Scott Wilson in Washington contributed to this report.