The ringing affirmation of partnership came during a speech to Turkey’s parliament but was clearly addressed to a far wider audience: the entire Muslim world. The speech was widely watched outside Turkey’s borders, with live coverage on Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, the largest Arabic-language satellite channels.
The U.S. president also hailed what he described as warming ties between Turkey and its neighbor Armenia, which have long been strained by Turkey’s official denial that the mass killing of ethnic Armenians in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire constituted a genocide.
Sidestepping the question of how the Armenian deaths should be characterized, Obama instead urged a full normalization of relations, including an open border, saying it would bring greater prosperity to both nations.
The president’s reaching out to the Muslim world, however, emerged as a centerpiece of his visit.
“Let me say this as clearly as I can,” Obama told lawmakers and assembled officials and dignitaries. “The United States is not, and never will be, at war with Islam. In fact, our partnership with the Muslim world is critical.”
On a personal note, the U.S. leader noted that many Americans had ties with Islam through family connections or by living in and visiting Muslim countries.
“I know, because I am one of them,” he said. Obama’s father was a Muslim from Kenya, and he lived for a time in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation.
Gazing around the ornate chamber, the president said the relationship with the Muslim world must encompass more than the fight against terrorism.
“America’s relationship with the Muslim world cannot, and will not, be based on opposition to Al Qaeda,” he said. “We seek broad engagement based on mutual interests and mutual respect.”
Turkish analysts said Obama’s speech was proof of determination to repair relations with Muslim countries, which were badly tattered during the Bush administration.
“We can say that U.S. policy has changed,” Hasan Koni of Bahcesehir University told Sky Turk television. “In the Bush era, it was as if, ‘If you clash with the U.S., you are fundamentalists, radical Islamists.’ Now it seems they have moved away from this.”
Both in his speech and at his earlier news conference, Obama stressed the importance of Turkey’s contribution to the NATO force confronting the Taliban in Afghanistan and said Turkey’s views on conflicts in both Afghanistan and Iraq would receive close attention.
Many Turks felt their strong opposition to the Iraq war was brushed aside by the Bush administration, which led to a deterioration of relations.
Earlier today, the president attended a wreath-laying ceremony at the hilltop tomb of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s revered founding father. “I’m honored to pay tribute to his name,” Obama said.
The U.S. leader also held separate talks with Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and with opposition political leaders.