But Can Obama Walk the Talk?

I do not know how many of my esteemed readers have had the pleasure of visiting Turkey or even looking at its map. The country literally looks and acts as a bridge between Europe and Asia. In fact, halfway across the Bosphorus Bridge that connects the two continents, you find yourself into Europe. Or Asia, if you are heading eastwards from Europe.

By Aijaz Zaka Sayed

Published: Thu 9 Apr 2009, 10:15 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 12:43 AM

For Turkey, Istanbul in particular, is perhaps the only place in the world where you can gift yourself the luxury of living on two continents and enjoying the marvels of the East and West at the same time. I don’t know why but I’ve always had a thing for all things Turkish. Maybe it has something to do with traces of Turkish blood or Central Asian blood that is supposed to run in most South Asian Muslims.

Turkey was home to the Ottoman caliphate whose writ at one point of time ran across three continents. From North Africa to the Middle East to parts of Asia, Turkey ruled the Muslim world. The name of Ottoman caliph figured in Friday sermons in Mughal India as the Amirul Momineen (the leader of the faithful) – just as it did in the rest of the Muslim world—until the British arrived to spoil the party. When after the World War I, the Western powers joined hands to carve the Ottoman empire dividing the spoils amongst themselves and removed the Caliph, Mahatma Gandhi led the protests of Indian Muslims and Hindus in India.

Turkey today is not the powerful caliphate that it once was nor does it weighed down by any delusions of imperial grandeur. However, it still enjoys a pride of place in the Arab and the Muslim world.

President Barack Obama couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate place and platform to reach out to the Muslim world. Turkey, sitting at the crossroads of history and geography, epitomises and celebrates the best of Western and Islamic civilisations and values like no other country does. Straddling two continents, it has for centuries acted as a bridge between the two great faiths and communities that make up for more than half of the world’s population.

The European and Western invaders and traders have historically used this route to get to the Middle East and beyond. The same route was used by the Arabs and Muslims to conquer Europe.

Perhaps the cultural and religious disposition of Europe would have been different today if the Turkish army had not turned away from the gates of Vienna in 1529 AD after a long and bloody siege by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.

Although the Siege of Vienna marked the end of Turkish expansion in Europe, Turkey’s sultans governed large swathes of Austro-Hungarian empire for another two hundred years.

Those close encounters have influenced and changed both Turkey and Europe in more ways than many seem to realise. Which is perhaps why today Turkey is as much European in its outlook as it is Islamic in its spirit.

It has over the past half century or so demonstrated that democracy and scientific and intellectual progress do not have to come at the expense of its Islamic beliefs and values. Turkey has effectively demolished the myth that Muslims and their much-vilified faith cannot co-exist with modernity and enlightenment. As a mature democracy at peace with its Islamic heritage and traditions as well as its place in Europe as the largest and most populous nation, Turkey remains a role model for the rest of the Muslim world.

More important, the Ottoman country is in a unique position to help bridge the increasing gulf between the West and the Muslim world. President Obama, ever big on semantics and symbolism, clearly understood this when he chose to address the Muslim world standing in Turkey’s parliament.

It was not one of his best speeches. (I loved the one he delivered in Prague, the Czech capital where he was mobbed like a rock star!) But it was doubtless one of the most important ones this president has ever made—or will ever make. “Let me say this as clear as I can,” he said with his one hand raised like a preacher.

“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.” Then America’s first president with a Muslim father and bloodlines stretching into the Islamic lands hastened to add: “America’s relationship with the Muslim world cannot and will not be based on opposition to al Qaeda. We will listen carefully. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree. We seek broad engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect.”

Mutual interest and mutual respect – this is a theme that Obama first introduced in his Inaugural address, a promise to seek new way forward with the Muslim world.

Obama carried the argument forward in his news conference later and in a question-and-answer session with Turkish students a day later, repeatedly reaching out to the Muslim world and emphasising the shared values and bonds between the West and Muslim world.

While unlike his predecessor, this president has always been known for his amazing way with words, on this mission to the Muslim world, Obama talked less and listened more.

This is what the world expects the US to do, after what it had to suffer over the past eight years or so. Responding to a question by a student, Obama talked of his hopes for the Middle East peace and the difficulties of “unspooling centuries of hate” between the West and Muslim world. And he also came up with the prescription: “Learning to stand in someone else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins.”

Powerful words! And they did not fail to hit the target with the pundits in the Middle East and back home in the US nodding in approval. Like Obama, this humble hack believes in the magical power of words. They can change the world. Obama has already proved that by winning the White House against all odds. But can he be equally successful in the Middle East?

Obama’s promise of peace and a new way forward with the Muslim world is curiously uplifting. But those words will remain mere words and empty rhetoric if they are not followed up by action on the ground. Can this president for a change walk the talk? Will he succeed where all his predecessors failed—in bringing about the change the Middle East has been waiting for nearly a century? Good to hear Obama insist the US is not at war with Islam. But right now two Muslim countries are home to the US forces and a third one is under attack. All this has to change if Obama wants the Muslim world to accept America’s unclenched fist in friendship.

Aijaz Zaka Syed is KT’s Opinion Editor and can be reached at aijaz@khaleejtimes.com. Views expressed here are his own

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