Obama Walks the U.S.-Muslim Minefield

Nor did President Obama use the occasion of his speech to the Turkish Parliament to remind Muslims of why we are fighting the extremists. He took a very narrow tack when talking about terrorism:

Make no mistake, though: Iraq, Turkey, and the United States face a common threat from terrorism. That includes the al-Qaeda terrorists who have sought to drive Iraqis apart and to destroy their country. And that includes the PKK. There is no excuse for terror against any nation. As president, and as a NATO ally, I pledge that you will have our support against the terrorist activities of the PKK. These efforts will be strengthened by the continued work to build ties of cooperation between Turkey, the Iraqi government, and Iraq's Kurdish leaders, and by your continued efforts to promote education and opportunity for Turkey's Kurds.

Finally, we share the common goal of denying al-Qaeda a safe-haven in Pakistan or Afghanistan. The world has come too far to let this region backslide, and to let al-Qaeda terrorists plot further attacks. That is why we are committed to a more focused effort to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda. That is why we are increasing our efforts to train Afghans to sustain their own security, and to reconcile former adversaries. And that is why we are increasing our support for the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, so that we stand on the side of their security, their opportunity, and the promise of a better life.

That is all well and good and these were words that needed saying. But in this, the first address by an American president that was ostensibly for the ears of the entire Muslim world, why no mention of September 11, 2001?  Why no word about the Khobar Towers, the attack on the USS Cole, or the African embassy bombings? There were many Muslims who took grim satisfaction in those attacks, and if the president had the courage a few days before to call out the Europeans for their "casual anti-Americanism," why not chastise the Muslim world for their own skewed attitudes toward America?

The answer is at least due in part to the location of where the president chose to address the Muslim world.

Turkey is at a tipping point. The forces of regression and fundamentalism have been making headway in recent years, while the nation's traditional and proud heritage of secularism has been under attack. The ruling Justice and Development Party, which  espouses conservative Islamic values, has gradually been remaking the face of Turkey in the six years since it came to power. The recent outburst by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan at Davos, where he berated Israeli President Shimon Peres over Israel's Gaza policy and then left in a huff, made him a hero to Muslims across the globe. Erdogan has desires to be a bigger player on the world stage and has enlisted American help in convincing the European Union that Turkey should be invited to join.

But in many ways, Turkey is a microcosm of the Islamic world. The clashing realities of modernity and religious fundamentalism force politicians from Jakarta, to Islamabad, to Kabul, to Ankara to walk a tightrope between the two. The president may have scored points with an American audience by taking Muslims to task for not condemning  al-Qaeda with the vigor they deserve, but the fight against terrorism is seen differently by our Muslim friends. They fear the extremists and recognize the silent support they receive from a large minority of Muslims who find nothing much wrong with attacking America and killing Americans. They themselves would not harm anyone. But politically, they quietly celebrate each attack against western interests as a blow against those they have been taught are their "oppressors."

So Obama tred carefully and wisely while in Turkey. No attitudes were changed. No breakthroughs were achieved. No terrorists were convinced to surrender their arms and rejoin civilization. The two sides stare at one another across a canyon of misunderstanding and fear. Nothing the president said changed that either.

But perhaps -- just perhaps -- a start was made. No one should expect miracles. But if Obama's address will make it easier in the future for Muslims to listen to an American president, then that small success would make his efforts in Turkey a worthwhile endeavor.