President Obama in Turkey

Giancarlo Casale, a reader of Inside Islam: Dialogues and Debates writes:

A day after his departure, Turks are still basking in the afterglow of President Barack Obama’s first visit to their country. His arrival on Sunday night followed weeks of anxious speculation about the reasons for his visit, concerns that he would be unprepared to navigate bewildering minefield of Turkish politics, and dark rumors that he intended to publicly embarrass the country by raising delicate issues that continue to weigh on its collective conscience. But now all of this is a distant memory. “Hussein” has taken the country by storm.

In fact, the love fest had already begun even before the President’s arrival on Sunday night, as earlier that day he had delivered a speech to European leaders in Prague chastising them for not moving more decisively to include Turkey in the European Union. By the next morning, rapturous reports of Obama’s goodwill towards Turkey were on the front page of every newspaper, and were further confirmed by Obama’s first meeting with the Turkish press. There, when asked if his decision to include the country on his first official overseas tour as president was a sign of its special importance, Obama surprised the room with a resounding “evet”—Turkish for “yes.”

Thereafter, he could do no wrong. His red tie was interpreted as a show of respect for the Turkish flag; His visible fatigue during a visit to Ataturk’s grave explained as the effect of his being overcome with solemn emotion; His appetite at lunch an indication of his love for Turkish cuisine.

By Monday afternoon, Obama was ready to being tackling serious issues, but even so still managed to appear all things to all people—a seeming impossibility in a country racked by divisions between secularists and Islamists, Turks and Kurds, and civilian and military authorities. He held a sympathetic meeting with the parliamentary leader of Turkey’s Kurdish party, and then another with the head of the country’s resurgent party of extreme Turkish nationalists. He told the Islamist prime minister that he was “inspired by his leadership,” then announced that Turkey’s real strength was its secular democracy. He even managed to convince the members of the country’s powerful Military High Command to visit parliament for his speech, something they have refused to do since Kurdish separatists were first elected as MPs in 2007.

All of this presaged most delicate moments of the visit, which came during Obama’s address to parliament. Here he raised pulses by bringing up dangerously controversial subjects such as Turkey’s refusal to acknowledge the Armenian genocide, and its poor record of civil rights for ethnic and religious minorities. But he did so with characteristic tact and delicatesse, quoting from Turkish proverbs, bringing up the United States’ own spotted history of minority rights, and otherwise taking pains to assuage national pride even as he provoked. He ended the speech by announcing a new day in US relations with the Muslim world, and outlining Turkey’s role as central to this project. In so doing, he sent the room into paroxysms of applause when describing the large number of Americans who have Muslims in their families or have lived in Muslim countries, adding for emphasis “I know, because I am one of them.”

Admittedly, not every moment of Obama’s visit went off without a hitch. On Monday, he visibly jumped at the sound of a 21-gun salute in his honor—interpreted by some as an unseemly sign of skittishness for the commander-in-chief of the world’s greatest army, and by others as an indication of a lack of confidence in Turkey’s security apparatus. And on Tuesday, he opened a “town hall” conversation with a group of university students by suggested the meeting be cut short in order to accommodate the Muslim noon prayer—something unthinkable in the secular culture of Turkish universities.

But in the end, these were minor hiccups in an otherwise blazing performance. No public figure has done so well for himself here since Pope Benedict visited Turkey in 2006. Now the only question is: “When will be come back?”

One thought on “President Obama in Turkey

  1. Just wanted to say that I work at a large Pharmaceutical company in Clayton NC and I endroce Barack Obama with all my heart. I invite all my friends and colleagues to vote for Obama in 2012!! I LOVE YOU OBAMA