Monday, April 06, 2009

Obama Seeks Cooperation with Muslims

Turkey is living proof that Rudyard Kipling’s “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet” is an anachronism. Both physically and metaphorically, the nation is defined by the confluence of East and West. Turkey has flourished because of this confluence. That it is a Muslim nation makes it that much more important in the post 9-11 world in which the idea of a clash of civilizations unfortunately still resonates with many.

That's why Barack Hussein Obama’s address to the Turkish Parliament on April 6 seemed like the arrival of spring after a bleak winter. “So let me say this as clearly as I can: The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam. In fact, our partnership with the Muslim world is critical not just in rolling back the violent ideologies that people of all faiths reject, but also to strengthen opportunity for all its people … I also want to be clear that America's relationship with the Muslim community, the Muslim world, cannot, and will not, just be based upon opposition to terrorism. We seek broader engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect. We will listen carefully, we will bridge misunderstandings, and we will seek common ground. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree. We will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over the centuries to shape the world -- including in my own country. The United States has been enriched by Muslim Americans. Many other Americans have Muslims in their families or have lived in a Muslim-majority country -- I know, because I am one of them.”

Of course, Obama had to deal with issues specific to Turkey. He gave his unqualified support for the country’s entry into the European Union. “Turkey is bound to Europe by more than the bridges over the Bosphorous. Centuries of shared history, culture, and commerce bring you together. Europe gains by the diversity of ethnicity, tradition and faith -- it is not diminished by it. And Turkish membership would broaden and strengthen Europe's foundation once more.” (Leaders of France and Germany promptly poured cold water on any such possibility). He commended Turkey’s tentative acknowledgment of its dark past vis-à-vis Armenians but reminded his audience that much still needed to be done. He praised Turkey’s recent overtures to its minorities. “For democracies cannot be static -- they must move forward. Freedom of religion and expression lead to a strong and vibrant civil society that only strengthens the state, which is why steps like reopening Halki Seminary will send such an important signal inside Turkey and beyond. An enduring commitment to the rule of law is the only way to achieve the security that comes from justice for all people. Robust minority rights let societies benefit from the full measure of contributions from all citizens.”

The president also sought Turkey’s help in negotiating with Iran, in the importance of two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, “living side by side in peace and security … That is a goal that I will actively pursue as President of the United States.”

The Ankara speech was suffused with symbolism but I wish Obama had also addressed the ferment transforming Muslim countries currently run by despots and dynasties. The Web has let loose a million Muslim voices. From Cairo to Karachi and Jakarta to Jeddah, through blogs and unconventional forums and festivals, young Muslim activists - women and men - are integrating Islam with modernity, reducing the influence of the traditional, hidebound ulema in their lives and on their societies. It is no longer an either-or proposition for them: devout or liberal, religious or secular, with no middle ground. These activists are discovering values in Islam on their own, without being hectored by Imams who focus only on God’s punishment and rarely on God’s mercy. It has given them the confidence to meet the demands of the 21st century on their own terms, just as a young and brash Muhammad Ali took on the Jim Crow South of the ‘60s in his inimitable way.

Obama could have touched a nerve with these young Muslims, telling them that he too had to forge his path in life when he was their age, and that self-discovery and a sense of purpose can transform people and nations, not inherited privilege and foreign aid.

But all in all, this was an inspiring beginning. Predictably, Obama has come under attack by rabid right-wingers for acknowledging in Strasbourg that America has been arrogant in the past and in Ankara that many Americans have Muslims in their family, or have lived in a Muslim-majority country, which he knows because he is one of them.

“You have belittled America! You have been a closet Muslim all along!” these deeply-disturbed people are braying. Most Americans are impressed with the president’s performance, however, and are relieved that the antagonism and distrust that characterized George Bush’s foreign policy are giving way to friendship and respect with Barack Obama at the helm.

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