Addressing Turkey's parliament on his first visit to a Muslim nation as President, Barack Obama reached out to followers of Islam everywhere. "Let me say this as clearly as I can: the United States is not and will never be at war with Islam," he said to applause. "In fact, our partnership with the Muslim world is critical in rolling back a fringe ideology that people of all faiths reject." Obama said the U.S. has been enriched by Muslim Americans, including members of his own family.
His comments came as a new Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that while 81% of Americans think it's "very important" or "somewhat important" to improve relations with the Muslim world, 48% have an unfavorable opinion of Islam. (See pictures of Obama's overseas trip.)
It's no coincidence that Obama chose Turkey to cap his first trip abroad. Turkey is a significant player in foreign policy issues that matter to the U.S. concerning Iraq, Iran, Israel and the Palestinians, and Afghanistan. It also combines a mainly Muslim population with a secular democracy. Washington's close ties here exemplify the type of relationship Obama hopes to build with the rest of the Islamic world. "Some people have asked me if I chose to continue my travels to Ankara and Istanbul to send a message to the world," Obama said. "And my answer is simple: Evet yes."
The President spoke strongly in favor of Turkey's effort to join the European Union an issue that has divided the bloc, with heavyweight members like France and Germany firmly opposed to the prospect of a large, mainly Muslim member state. "The United States strongly supports Turkey's bid to become a member of the European Union," Obama said. "We speak not as members of the E.U., but as close friends of Turkey and Europe." (See pictures of the Obamas behind the scenes.)
Although Obama's praise for Turkey was plentiful, there was some tough love too. Using the example of the U.S. and its struggle in dealing with the legacy of slavery, he urged Turks to "reckon with their past" in dealing with the killings of hundreds of thousands of Armenians by Ottoman Turkish forces in 1915. During last year's presidential campaign, Obama had said he would officially recognize the deaths as genocide. But in Ankara, he steered clear of the term which Turkey rejects and instead voiced support for Turkey's efforts to normalize relations with Armenia.
He also urged Ankara to improve minority rights and democratic reforms. The work of a democracy, he said, "is never over."
Obama's address met with rousing applause from Turkish MPs and is likely to please Turks, many of whom had chafed at the Bush Administration's efforts to position Turkey as a "moderate Islamic state," weakening its officially secular identity. "He said Turkey is a country that's part of the Western world that happens to be Muslim. He's endorsing Turkey as a role model," said Soner Cagatay, head of the Turkish program at the Washington Institute, on CNN. "It's a speech that many Turks will remember for years to come."