Last year, the Obama campaign promised to deliver a major speech on U.S.-Muslim relations in a Muslim capital during the president’s first year in office. Today, President Obama fulfills that promise by addressing the Turkish parliament. It’s a clever, multi-layered statement: Obama visits a capital in a majority-Muslim country as part of his first overseas trip as president; that trip is to Europe; speaking in Ankara implies that, as the Turks want, Muslim Turkey is part of Europe; and cooperation between the West and Islam is the proper order of things. “Some people have asked me if I chose to continue my travels to Ankara and Istanbul to send a message,” reads the text of his speech. “My answer is simple: Evet.” Yes.
That message is this:
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.
Some corners of the right may see this as creeping dhimmitude, and yet it’s important to recognize that Obama is interpreting U.S.-Islamic relations the way Muslim leaders worldwide have wanted them interpreted — not restrained to a narrow counterterrorism issue, but a broadly-construed and enduring partnership of mutual respect. Yet that in itself has a counterterrorism component. al-Qaeda and other extremist groups prosper through the demonization of America fueled by American disrespect for the Muslim world — the invasion of Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib; and, less comfortably for the U.S., lopsided support for Israel over the Palestinians — and therefore, forthright displays of respect for Islam are themselves counterterrorism tools. No wonder Ayman Zawahiri had no way to confront the election of Barack Obama except by a self-parodic attempt at arguing he’s inauthentically American. An America that concedes legitimate Muslim objections to U.S. foreign policy — even when it doesn’t reshape its policies along the lines of Muslim grievances — makes no sense to him, and is a danger to his efforts at indoctrinating the next generation of extremists.
There’s been a conservative objection for a few years now that suggests that speeches like this obsequiously shy away from frank confrontations of the real differences between U.S. and Muslim interests. Stipulate that framework for the sake of argument. Obama’s Ankara speech still contained lines like “We must reject the use of terror, and recognize that Israel’s security concerns are legitimate” and “Iran’s leaders must choose whether they will try to build a weapon or build a better future for their people” and “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.” Those who portrayed Obama as recently pledging his fealty to Saudi King Abdullah won’t be persuaded by this, but they wouldn’t be persuaded by anything Obama says. But the Ankara speech shows that there is, in fact, a choice between domination and subservience, between perpetual war and dhimmitude: patient, respectful cooperation, and acting like great civilizations ought to act.