Obama Walks the U.S.-Muslim Minefield

If the polls can be believed, President Obama will not get much credit from his political opponents and many other Americans for his attempt to reach out across the great divide in US-Muslim relations. Nor will he receive the benefit of the doubt from Muslims whose paranoia and suspicion of Washington predates the administration of George W. Bush by decades.

But the president shouldered the task of reaching out to the Muslim world for sound and necessary reasons. It seems a pity that not too many on either side are listening.

The president's speech to the Turkish Parliament on the last leg of his foreign trip was realistic and respectful, but it also contained a vision of cooperation beyond fighting the war against Islamic extremism:

I know there have been difficulties these last few years. I know that the trust that binds us has been strained, and I know that strain is shared in many places where the Muslim faith is practiced. Let me say this as clearly as I can: the United States is not 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.

But I also want to be clear that America's relationship with the Muslim work 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. We will listen carefully, bridge misunderstanding, and seek common ground. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree. And 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. The United States has been enriched by Muslim Americans. Many other Americans have Muslims in their family, or have lived in a Muslim-majority country -- I know, because I am one of them.

The fact is, President Obama is taking on a thankless and probably futile task in trying to build a bridge of understanding across the chasm that exists between the U.S. and the Muslim world. Although uniquely situated due to his family background, he will make little progress, because the reasons for U.S.-Muslim tensions are two-sided. There is only so much he can do. And the Muslim world seems unwilling or unable to come to grips with its radicals, who the vast majority  believe are evil but who are intimidated to speak up due to the violent reaction from the extremist co-religionists who disagree with moderates.

The United States has gone to war to protect or free Muslims  from tyranny several times in the last few years. Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq are place names where American blood has been shed and American treasure spent to save the lives of Muslims. Through our efforts (imperfect as they have been at times), we allowed a self-determination for citizens of those countries not seen in many other places in the Muslim world. It is disappointing that President Obama did not remind Muslims of this; it's a shame he did not proudly list these accomplishments and dare the anti-American Muslim press to criticize him.

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.