- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 7, 2009

ANKARA, Turkey | President Obama, visiting a Muslim nation Monday for the first time since his inauguration, declared that the United States will “never be at war with Islam” and urged Muslims to join in defeating extremists whose “violent ideologies” fuel terrorism.

In a speech that echoed the public statements of his predecessor, Mr. Obama praised Islam as a religion that “has done so much over the centuries to shape the world.” His prepared remarks included the phrase “for the better,” but he left out those words.

“Let me say this as clearly as I can: The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam,” Mr. Obama told an audience of several hundred legislators inside Turkey's Grand National Assembly.

The line, which was broadcast live throughout the Arab world, elicited an excited “Yes!” from one woman and enthusiastic applause from the parliament.

Mr. Obama's pledge appeared to signal a shift from the policies of the George W. Bush administration, which had alienated many of the world's more than 1 billion Muslims, who came to believe that the U.S. “war on terror” was aimed at them.

Yet the words were eerily similar to those spoken by Mr. Bush, whose repeated assurances that he was not at war with Islam seemed to fall on deaf ears.

Later in Istanbul, Mr. Obama met with foreign ministers from Turkey and Armenia, both of whom have been working to restore diplomatic relations and reopen their borders. He encouraged them to complete an agreement “with dispatch,” according to a senior administration official.

In an effort to avoid offending the Turks, Mr. Obama did not use the word “genocide” to describe the slayings by the Ottoman Empire of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in 1915. During his campaign, Mr. Obama used the term and promised support for congressional condemnation of the killings.

“I have not changed views. What I have been very encouraged by is … a series of negotiations, a process in place between Armenia and Turkey to resolve a whole host of long-standing issues, including this one,” Mr. Obama said at a news conference before his speech.

In the speech, Mr. Obama referred to “the terrible events of 1915.” He prefaced these comments by talking about America's “darker periods,” referencing discrimination against blacks and other minorities and “the past treatment of Native Americans.”

He gave strong support to Turkey's desire to join the European Union, but called on the nation at the same time to broaden rights for religious and ethnic minorities, such as Kurds who make up 20 percent of the Turkish population. Turkey's secular constitution was designed to discourage Islam as a political force after World War I. When political parties are seen by the military and courts as too religious, they are often banned.

It was Mr. Obama's second major speech in the waning days of his first overseas trip as president, after his call for a world free of nuclear weapons in an address to several thousand people in Prague.

On the question of fighting terrorism, Mr. Obama said Monday that the United States would partner with the Muslim world “in rolling back the violent ideologies that people of all faiths reject.” But he also said his administration would not base this partnership “just on opposition to al Qaeda.”

“We seek broad engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect,” Mr. Obama said. “There are some who must be met with force. They will not compromise. But force alone cannot solve our problems, and it is no alternative to extremism.”

In visiting Turkey, Mr. Obama sought to recognize the country's status as an intermediary and key to unlocking many of the complicated and emotionally charged conflicts that have bedeviled the region and past U.S. presidents.

His visit, Mr. Obama said, was “a statement about the importance of Turkey - not just to the United States - but to the world” because of its location between Europe and the Middle East and between Islam and the West.

For the past 90 years, Turkey has sought to separate church and state while respecting its Muslim majority - a difficult balancing act.

Turkey also was facilitating talks between Israel and Syria until Israel's January invasion of the Gaza Strip - a process that could move the region closer to a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, while also peeling Syria away from its alliance with Iran.

“We are very appreciative of the fact that Mr. Obama, having been elected president, made Turkey one of his stops in his first overseas visit,” Turkish President Abdullah Gul said.

As for Iran, Mr. Obama called on it to “engage in the economic and political integration that brings prosperity and security,” instead of seeking a nuclear weapon.

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, said Mr. Obama's call for Tehran to integrate “into the region's political bodies, security arrangements and economic life” is the best way to change the nation's behavior.

“Iran is a country that has been at the center of world affairs for 2,500 years. The isolation of the past 30 years is bewildering to the Iranians. Through the promise of integration, Iranian behavior is more likely to be changed than through isolation and containment,” Mrs. Parsi said.

In pressing the European Union to admit Turkey, Mr. Obama said “Europe gains by the diversity of ethnicity, tradition and faith - it is not diminished by it. And Turkish membership would broaden and strengthen Europe's foundation once more.”

But Mr. Obama used the very same logic to press Turkey to expand rights for religious and ethnic minorities, such as Turkish Kurds.

“Robust minority rights let societies benefit from the full measure of contributions from all citizens,” he said.

Mr. Obama used America's struggle to award rights to blacks and American Indians as an example: “All of us have to change, and sometimes change is hard.”

He urged the Turks to recognize that “Israel's security concerns are legitimate,” and also promised “support against the terrorist activities of the PKK,” or the Kurdistan Workers Party, which has been active along the Turkey-Iraq border. If the United States were to help solve this problem, the move could be a key incentive for Turkey to stop blocking cooperation between NATO and the European Union.

The president met with Mr. Gul before the speech and after with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He will spend the last day of his weeklong trip in Istanbul on Tuesday.

Incoming NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen also was in Turkey on Monday for a speech at a U.N. conference, where he defended his decision in 2005 to side with a Danish newspaper's free-speech rights when cartoons of the prophet Muhammad angered Muslims.

The White House insisted that Mr. Obama's speech is not the same one that he promised to give within his first 100 days in office in an Islamic nation.

“This may be a distinction without a difference,” said Bulent Aliriza, who runs the Turkey project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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