Harvard MESHNet Blog
April 8, 2009
by Hillel Fradkin
Towards the close of his speech to the Turkish parliament, President Obama declared “as clearly as I can” that the “United States is not at war with Islam.” He sought to reinforce that message by implying that our military actions within the Muslim world, in past and future, have only the object of “rolling back a fringe ideology” and the terrorism represented most prominently by Al Qaeda—an effort he regards as shared by Muslims themselves.
Much attention has and will be paid to this declaration—it is already being referred to as an “olive branch”—even if it stated the obvious. The United States is not in fact at war with Islam and never has been, as President Bush made clear by declaring Islam to be a religion of peace but a few hours after the attacks of September 11, 2001. For after all, why would we Americans be at war with a peaceful religion? Moreover, although our soldiers are presently engaged in fighting some Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, we are fighting side by side with other Muslims. A statement of these facts would have enhanced Obama’s declaration.
But perhaps the obvious must sometimes be stated, and Obama is perhaps in a better position to make it clear by virtue of a fact he mentioned in his speech: he is among those Americans “who have Muslims in their family, or have lived in a Muslim-majority country.” Perhaps this will put this issue to rest so long as such misunderstanding as exists is not willful. At all events, and as Obama implied, the future of peaceful and fruitful relations between the United States and the Muslim world may depend less on the United States than on the approach that the Muslim world takes to terrorism of all varieties—including anti-Israeli terrorism—and the ideologies which inform them.
But Obama’s speech was not primarily addressed to the Muslim world, but to the Turkish people and its government. In the long run, it is the substance of his remarks to them which is likely to be more important than his declaration—and not only for U.S.-Turkish relations but for the wider Muslim world. Here he placed less stress on Turkey’s Muslim heritage than its republican heritage as the first and so far the most successful Muslim-majority republic.
As Obama almost indicated directly, this emphasis comes against the background of recent concerns that Turkey under the present leadership of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) might be weakening in its fidelity to that heritage, turning away from its long-standing alliances with Western countries—including the United States—and even moving closer to radical Islamic actors such as Sudan and Hamas. Obama’s remarks, although gently stated, essentially urged Turkey to renew its historic commitment to republican democracy and reaffirm its role as the place where East and West “come together.”
Obama referred explicitly to the heroic statesmanship of Atatürk, George Washington and perhaps above all of Abraham Lincoln. In light of his appeal to Lincoln, one might say that Obama invited Americans, Turks and Europeans to listen to the “better angels of our nature,” and urged Turks in particular to rededicate themselves to the propositions upon which modern Turkish history and success have been built. This was an important message to deliver, and it can only be hoped that it will be well received. That hope may however embrace not only Turkey but the wider Muslim world, which might profit from the example of Turkish republican success both now and hopefully in the future. In the long run, the reception of that message will be more important to American-Muslim relations than the declaration that the United States is not at war with Islam.
Hillel Fradkin is a Senior Fellow and Director for the Center on Islam, Democracy, and the Future of the Muslim World at Hudson Institute.
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