Barack Obama

A new beginning for the US in the Islamic world

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 April, 2009, 12:00am

US President Barack Obama needs to do a substantial amount of work to repair his country's damaged relations with the Islamic world. Much was therefore made of his trip this week to Turkey, his first visit to a Muslim-majority country as American leader. His speech to the Turkish parliament and talks with religious heads were handled with care and sensitivity. The groundwork has been laid; both sides must now put every effort into building on the process to bridge what has become a dangerous divide.

Turkey was an inspired choice to end Mr Obama's first overseas presidential trip. It is a secular state, despite its Muslim links. The nation straddles Europe and the Middle East. It is important to the US as a diplomatic and military power. There could be no better setting for the launch of an effort to reach out to followers of a religion angered by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr Obama has made it clear that he is as committed to fighting terrorism as his predecessor, George W. Bush. He differs markedly in his approach, though, and for this we can be thankful. Mr Bush put his case to Muslims in terms of being with the United States or against it in this fight. The new president took a reasoned and eloquent tack in his speech on Monday, saying that his country 'is not, and never will be, at war with Islam'. Partnership was held up as what was needed for moderates to defeat extremism.

To prove sincerity, difficult and sometimes contentious matters were broached. Mr Obama backed Turkey's bid to join the European Union, a move not supported by France and Germany. He addressed the delicate Turkey-Armenia issue, but avoided the word genocide and drew on his own and his country's racial experiences to make his point. Unresolved history could be a heavy weight, he rightly said, and advised that 'each country must work through its past'. Using language that treated Israelis and Palestinians equally, he reiterated that the US was committed to a separate Palestinian state. Finally, he addressed Iran, urging it to forgo nuclear ambitions in the name of peace in the region.

The biggest barrier to better relations between the west and Muslims is understanding; Mr Obama went a long way to fostering this in Turkey. But the nation is neither the Muslim heartland nor a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism. A dramatic address to the Muslim world would have to be made on a different stage.

Nonetheless, Mr Obama has expressed the necessary sentiments, and in the right way. He has embarked on the mission astutely. Mistrust lies in the way, but a new beginning has been promised and what has been created must be embraced and built upon.