Post Turkey: Obama's Challenges and Opportunities in the Muslim World

05/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I recently returned from Turkey where Barack Obama managed to take the country by storm and, as he had signaled at his inauguration, also reached out to the Muslim world. Why was he so successful? What was his message and does it matter?

Coming off the G-20m, the President and Michelle Obama scored a second success in Turkey, a bridge between Europe and the Middle East. In his first visit and address as president in a Muslim country, Obama's performance in Turkey was flawless; he met the expectations of his admirers and won approval from many skeptics. His schedule reflected his distinctive style, combining not only meetings with the president, prime minister and other senior government officials and delivering a major address to Turkey's parliament but also closed sessions with religious leaders and with university students as well as visits to major religious sites, the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. Obama balanced charisma and charm with candor and substance as he addressed not only the Turkish people but the Muslim world.

In many ways, Turkey reflects issues that are so frequently raised post 9/11: "Is there a clash of civilizations?" and "Is Islam compatible with modernization, secularism, democracy, and pluralism?" Established as a secular state by Mustafa Kemal, Attaturk (popularly known as the Father of the Turks), Turkey's political elite and military often defined and implemented their brand secularism (laic) as a hardline secularism, more autocratic than democratic, that was often anti-religion with little space for Islam in the public square. To wear a headscarf or be openly religious restricted access to university, government buildings and many positions in society.

Turkey today grapples with and reflects both its authentic secular and Muslim heritage and its role in the international community. it is both a secular republic, long dominated by its military that has intervened in politics, and a budding democracy; its identity is secular and Muslim; its location and orientation are West and East, Europe and the Middle East/Muslim world; it is a Western ally and NATO member as well as a leader in the Muslim world and an example of the synthesis of Islam and democracy.

Obama caught that balance: "Turkey's greatness lies in your ability to be at the center of things. This is not where East and West divide -- it is where they come together: in the beauty of your culture; in the richness of your history, in the strength of your democracy." In a surprise move, he took a position at odds with France's Sarkozy and some other members of the EU, declaring, "The US strongly supports Turkey's bid to become a member of the European Union.... "Europe gains by the diversity of ethnicity, culture and faith - it is not diminished by it. And Turkish membership would broaden and strengthen Europe's foundation once more."

While praising Turkey and its leadership, he did not shrink from addressing sensitive issues like Turkish-Armenian relations, the Kurds and religious minorities, acknowledging the current government's accomplishments but underscoring the need for continued progress.
Although he did not choose to give a major address to the Muslim world, Obama did take the occasion to continue his dialogue with the Muslim world, referring many times in his public statements to Islam and Muslims explicitly. He spoke directly to the widespread beliefs among Muslims during the Bush administration that the war against global terrorism had become a war against Islam and Muslims and that the West did not respect Islam and denigrated Muslims. Acknowledging that the war in Iraq had sown widespread Muslim mistrust of America, Obama affirmed "The U.S. is not, and will never be at war with Islam." Praising Islam's contributions to civilization, Obama reiterated his desire for a new partnership, rooted not just in opposition to terrorism but broader engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect and on common goals.

Moreover, he stressed both America's and his personal connection with Islam, noting "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."

But what does this all mean and does it matter? Despite his knowledge and experience, growing up in Indonesia and in his family, of Islam and the Muslim world, Obama's image among many Muslims who admire and supported him is of a candidate who remained silent or distanced himself from Muslim issues and American Muslims. Although he did reach out in his Inaugural and Al-Arabiya interviews, his track record and that of his administration on Muslim issues from Gaza to American Muslim civil liberties has been minimal at best. His visit to Turkey as president, acknowledgment of its political and religious significance, and acknowledgment of his personal connection to and admiration of Muslim accomplishments hit the right notes. But they also create a set of expectations as well. As one senior prominent Middle East diplomat said to me with a smile: "His words are wonderful but we still have not seen much action."

President Obama faces a Muslim world where he enjoys great respect but also one that has great expectations. As we know from polls of Muslims globally, in particular Gallup World polling representing the voices of a billion Muslims, the widespread growth of anti-Americanism was due to Bush foreign policy not to a clash of religion, values of cultures. Indeed, a great reservoir of admiration for American principles and values exists despite the perception of a double standard in U.S. support for self-determination, democratization and human rights in the Muslim world.

Muslims, like many others, will be watching carefully to see how this charismatic president with his deep faith and commitment to diversity and social justice not only talks but also walks. The range of concerns and opportunities includes the Obama administration's appointment as well as foreign and domestic policies. But these are also opportunities. At present, despite their numbers, education and professional skills, the presence of Arabs and Muslims in government agencies and as ambassadors is minimal to non-existent. The administration has a strong pool of potential candidates for positions including the inclusion of an Arab or Muslim American to its Middle East negotiating team. Palestinian-Israeli negotiations will be difficult, given the current Palestinian leadership and the newly elected hardline Israeli team of Netanyahu and Lieberman and their refusal thus far to freeze the construction and expansion of Jewish settlements Israelis and honor their international commitments. However, an Obama administration that takes a strong "even-handed" approach, even if not successful in the short term, will strengthen its image and respect in the Arab and Muslim world and broader international community.

The administration has moved constructively in reaching out to Iran while remaining firm in its concerns. Iran's upcoming elections could provide a more pragmatic and less militant Iranian president. But a major potential challenge will be avoiding the pitfall of another Iraq. Assuring that the modest increased American military involvement in Afghanistan strengthens the Afghan government, brings greater security and stability and avoids significant "collateral damage" will be a tall order. However, Obama can score a success if the U.S. can train and work with Afghan forces to create a more stable involvement conducive to significant American and European economic and educational development. Finally, although less in the news, despite the announced closing of Guantanamo, the Obama administration's Justice and Homeland Security Departments have seen little reform of Bush policies to balance legitimate concerns about national security with the protection of civil liberties and human rights of Arabs and Muslims in America.