President Barack Obama’s unannounced visit to Iraq, at the end of his first official trip abroad, did not really come as a surprise. After all, Baghdad is a two-hour flight from Istanbul (where Obama had spent the past two days wooing the Turks), a distance that underscores the strategic importance of Turkey in maintaining peace and stability in Iraq as U.S. troops begin to pull out of that country.
The real surprise is the relatively warm response Obama is receiving from many Iraqis. “No flying shoes this time for sure,” quipped one Iraqi political analyst.
Obama’s public admission that mere military force cannot defeat Islamic extremism is precisely what America’s allies—both in Europe and in the Muslim world—want to hear.
Perhaps Obama’s “popularity” among Iraqis (and I use that word loosely) has to do with his promise to bring that wretched war to a close. If so, he was reminded of how difficult his task will be the day before he arrived, when a string of coordinated explosions ripped through Baghdad, killing 37 people.
But I think there is more to the albeit slight shift in perception among Iraqis than simply the promise to end a war that has become the most potent symbol for what many in the Muslim world consider to be America’s “crusader” mentality. It may have something to do with what he said the day before, while addressing the Turkish parliament in Ankara.
“There are some who must be met with force,” Obama said. “But force alone cannot solve our problems, and it is no alternative to extremism.”
It may seem like a small matter but Obama’s public admission that mere military force cannot defeat Islamic extremism is precisely what America’s allies—both in Europe and in the Muslim world—want to hear from the new president. Indeed, it is precisely that recognition, which Obama pounded home again and again during his weeklong trip through Europe and the Middle East, that led France, Germany, Britain, and Turkey to support Obama’s new vision, not just for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but for America’s place in the world and, more specifically, of America’s relationship with the Muslim world.
Obama appeared to do everything right on his first official overseas trip. He wowed the G-20 leaders in London, some of whom scrambled to get their picture taken with him as though he were a rock star (have you seen the stupid grin on Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s face as he forced himself behind Obama during a group photo?). He and Michelle Obama seemingly upstaged the elegant Sarkozys in Paris. In Prague, Obama boldly put the world on notice that it should prepare for a future without nuclear weapons. But it was in Turkey that the meaning of Obama’s presidency, and the impact his leadership could conceivably have on the world, most fully came into focus.
In his address to a rapt Turkish parliament, Obama momentarily put aside the formalities of the occasion and, in what is becoming a signature oratory style, bluntly stated what everyone everywhere wanted to hear. “Let me say this as clearly as I can,” he intoned, finger wagging in the air, “the United States is not—and will never be—at war with Islam.”
To say that these simple words have been rippling through the Muslim world would be an understatement. Here in Turkey, it is practically all anyone talks about.
Turkey is by far America’s most important ally in the Muslim world. The United States is desperate for Turkey’s help in reining in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, in reaching out to Hamas to bring lasting peace to the Middle East, and, perhaps most urgently, in recommitting troops and funds to help stabilize Afghanistan. And yet, as Obama himself admitted, the U.S.-Turkey alliance has been severely strained over the last eight years. In fact, until quite recently, almost 90 percent of Turks held unfavorable views of the United States. This is an astonishing figure, considering that Turkey is a modern, moderate, and profoundly secular Muslim state with close ties to Israel and the European Union, as well as one of NATO’s most vital members.
Obama did not shy away from this reality however, recognizing in a roundtable discussion with Turkish students at a cultural center that the overwhelming image of the U.S. throughout the world is of an arrogant hyperpower concerned solely with its own interests. “That’s not the country that I know,” Obama told the students. “That’s not the country that I love.” And then he confidently presented himself—President Barack Hussein Obama—as living proof of what America truly is, of what America truly can be.
There has been much grumbling among Republicans that Obama’s message to the Muslim world sounds exactly like Bush’s message. Dana Perino, the former president’s former press secretary, voiced frustration on CNN that Obama was being feted in Turkey and praised by the Muslim world for saying essentially the same thing that George Bush said over and over again: that Islam is a religion of peace; that America is a friend to all Muslims; that the war on terror is not a war against Islam. Yet, what Perino and others fail to recognize is that Muslims around the world are not a bunch of children who cannot tell the difference between being talked down to and being addressed with respect and dignity. Nor do they seem to realize that Bush’s banalities (“I believe that all the world, whether they be Muslim, Christian, or any other religion, prays to the same God”) could not mask the religiously polarizing, “us versus them” rhetoric that permeated everything the former president said and did. And must I say what every schoolchild knows: that actions speak louder than words?
Still, beyond all of these differences with Bush, the simple fact remains that Obama is in a unique position to, as he put it in Turkey, seek a new “partnership with the Muslim world,” simply because of who he is. On Monday morning, at the opening session of the Alliance of Civilizations' second-annual forum, where Obama made a few informal remarks to a select group of heads of state, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan compared the president of the United States—the son of a Muslim man from Africa and a Christian woman from Kansas—to the glorious, multi-faith, multi-ethnic city of Istanbul, which literally bridges the continents of Europe and Asia. It was an apt metaphor for a man on a mission to bridge the chasm that has formed over the least eight years between the U.S. and the Muslim world.
Reza Aslan is professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside and the author of most recently of How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror.