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.”
Urging 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 do 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.
At a news conference earlier with Prime Minister Abdullah Gul, Obama dealt gingerly with the issue of alleged genocide committed by Turks against Armenians during World War I. He urged 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,” the president 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 in orange leather chairs.
Except for a few instances of polite applause, the room was quiet during 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 nations consider a terrorist group, and again when he said America was not at war with Islam. Lawmakers also applauded when Obama said the United States supports Turkey’s bid to join 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. He also noted that the United States “still struggles with the legacy of our past treatment of Native Americans.”
And the president also urged Turkey to help Israel and Palestine live “side by side in peace and security.”
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 melding U.S. troop increases with civilian efforts to better the lives of people in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
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 principles.”
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 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 will 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 in fighting Islamic extremism carries enormous symbolic importance to the Muslim world, and Turkey has diplomatic leverage with Pakistan and Afghanistan.