ANKARA: US President Barack Obama, on his first official visit to a Muslim nation, declared yesterday that America ‘is not at war with Islam’ and called for greater partnership with the Islamic world.
Addressing the Turkish Parliament, he called the country an important United States ally and urged a greater bond between the US and the Muslim world.
He said the relationship between the US and Turkey, which has a secular government but a Muslim-majority population, had made the world ‘more secure’.
And that alliance, he said, could be used to bridge the religious and cultural divide between the West and the Muslim East. ‘Turkey’s greatness lies in your ability to be at the centre of things. This is not where East and West divide, it is where they come together,’ Mr Obama said.
‘It is a member of Nato and it is also a majority Muslim nation, unique in that position and as a consequence has insights into a whole host of regional and strategic challenges we may face.’
The US President is trying to mend fences with a Muslim world that felt it had been blamed by America for the terror attacks of Sept 11, 2001, and has been angered by the invasion of Iraq and war in Afghanistan. That task has been made more urgent by a resurgent Al-Qaeda and Taleban insurgency in Afghanistan.
‘Let me say this as clearly as I can,’ Mr Obama said. ‘The United States is not and never will be 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.
‘America’s relationship with the Muslim world cannot and will not be based on opposition to Al-Qaeda.
‘We seek broad engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect.’
And he vowed: ‘We will listen carefully, bridge misunderstanding…We will be respectful, even when we do not agree.’
Promising specific programmes on trade, education and health care in the Muslim world, he also added a personal touch, saying: ‘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.’
Turning to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said: ‘Let me be clear: the United States strongly supports the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.’
He held out an olive branch to Iran too, calling it a ‘great civilisation’ and saying he sought engagement with the Islamic Republic.
At the same time, however, he said of Teheran’s controversial nuclear programme: ‘Iran’s leaders must choose whether they will try to build a weapon or build a better future for their people.’
On a strategic level, Turkey is important to the US as a major transit route for troops and equipment destined for Iraq and Afghanistan, and Mr Obama offered Turkey backing in its own struggles.
He pledged US support to combat the ‘terrorist activities’ of the Kurdish separatist movement, the PKK, winning applause from lawmakers. MPs also applauded his statement of US support for Turkey’s bid to join the European Union.
Mr Obama had said during his election campaign that he would give an important speech to a major Islamic forum within his first 100 days in office.
Aides said the Turkey trip did not mark the expected address, but would not say when or where it might appear.
ASSOCIATED PRESS, BLOOMBERG, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE