In Turkey, Obama says US not at war with Islam

US president discussed Armenian massacre, democracy, and EU membership.

Jason Reed/Reuters
President Barack Obama addressed Turkey's Parliament in Ankara, Turkey, on Monday.

As part of his effort to repair the strained Turkey-US strategic relationship, President Barack Obama today delivered a wide-ranging speech to Parliament, stressing the country's importance as one rooted in both Europe and the Muslim world and encouraging its leaders to continue on the path of democratic reform.

Obama also used his speech to reach out to the Muslim world, telling the applauding parliamentarians, "The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam."

"In fact, our partnership with the Muslim world is critical in rolling back a violent ideology that people of all faiths reject. But I also want to be clear that America's relationship with the Muslim world cannot and will not be based on opposition to Al Qaeda. Far from it. We seek broad engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect," the president said.

The two countries have clashed over the last several years, particularly regarding the 2003 American invasion of Iraq (Turkey refused to allow US troops to enter Iraqi territory via Turkey). During the Bush administration, Turks grew increasingly antagonistic, with only 9 percent holding a favorable view of the US according to polls in 2007 – down from 52 percent in 2002.

But Obama used his speech to reaffirm the Turkish-US relationship.

"Turkey is a critical ally. Turkey is an important part of Europe. And Turkey and the United States must stand together – and work together – to overcome the challenges of our time," the president said, listing a number of issues that concern both countries, among them terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and energy security.

Analysts say Obama sounded the right notes here.

"To me, his speech says that there is going to be a lot of cooperation between the United States and Turkey in the future," says Sahin Alpay, a professor of political science at Istanbul's Bahçesehir University.

Obama's reiteration of American support for Turkey's bid to become a member of the European Union (EU), as well as his call that Turkey continue with the political reforms required by that effort, were also important, Professor Alpay says.

"He emphasized the importance of democracy in this country and he pointed to almost all the issues that concern democratization in Turkey, indirectly referring to the Kurdish question, the rights of minorities, including non-Muslim minorities, and he also emphasized how countries are in need of changing. These are all very welcome remarks for people who care about democratization in Turkey," he says.

Obama also tackled the one issue that again could derail Turkish-US relations: how to deal with the 1915 massacres of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire.

In his election campaign, Obama said he’d call the killings of the Armenians genocide. A resolution to do so was introduced in the US House of Representatives last month.

"I know there's strong views in this chamber about the terrible events of 1915. 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.

And the best way forward for the Turkish and Armenian people is a process that works through the past in a way that is honest, open and constructive" Obama said.

"We've already seen historic and courageous steps taken by Turkish and Armenian leaders. These contacts hold out the promise of a new day. An open border would return the Turkish and Armenian people to a peaceful and prosperous coexistence that would serve both of your nations. So I want you to know that the United States strongly supports the full normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia. It is a cause worth working towards."

Analysts say even if there are challenges ahead for Turkey and the US, the tone set by Obama's visit may help dampen their impact. [Editor’s note: The original version included an Obama quote from a different forum, not his talk before parliament.]

"I think so much can be solved by such outreach. One of the reasons that anti-Americanism in Turkey is so accentuated is that no one was visiting and no one was talking to Turkey. That's half the battle," says Hugh Pope, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, a policy and advocacy organization based in Brussels.

"I think that he's setting a great example to the European Union. In a way, he's challenging European Union leaders to follow him and reconnect with Turkey."

On EU membership, Obama said: "The United States strongly supports Turkey's bid to become a member of the European Union... [but] Turkey has its own responsibilities." He praised Turkey for progress on freedom of religion and expression, and for gains among minorities, such as ethnic Kurds.

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