Obama challenges the place of Islam

President ventured onto ideological battleground by praising secular democracy to Turkey's parliament.

obama 248.88 check caption  (photo credit: AP)
obama 248.88 check caption
(photo credit: AP)
Barack Obama does anything but conjure up the specter of a clash of civilizations. In his visit to Turkey two weeks ago the American president continued his efforts to engage the Muslim world, declaring in his speech to the Turkish parliament that "the United States is not at war with Islam," and professing America's "deep appreciation of the Islamic faith." Yet his message to the Islamic world is far more provocative for Islamic radicals than is properly appreciated by Western audiences hoping for reconciliation with Islam. Indeed, Obama's vision represents a departure from the West's own perspective on Islam in a sense that has so far escaped attention. In his town hall meeting with students in Istanbul, Obama displayed his respect for Islam by reminding his audience that the meeting would have to be concluded before the approaching call for prayer. But it should not be assumed that it is gestures such as these, in accordance with a "politics of dignity," that will ultimately alter the dynamics that underlie the strength of Islamic radicalism. And the way Obama conducted himself in Turkey suggests that he is well aware of that. After the Bush era, any American president would have been expected to feel the need to go out of his way to assuage Muslim feelings, and Obama, with his personal history, is exceptionally well equipped to perform the role of unifier of civilizations. His vision stands in enlightened contrast to the way conservatives in the West - in the fashion of Samuel Huntington - have perceived the Western-Islamic encounter. Indeed, what is almost revolutionary about Obama's vision is that it reintroduces a perspective inspired by Enlightenment thinking in the Western discourse about Islam - a school of thought which had been discarded not only by Western conservatives but by "enlightened" liberals as well. Prominent American liberal intellectual Mark Lilla expressed this typical opinion when he wrote: "We have little reason to expect societies in the grip of a powerful tradition of political theology (Islam) to follow our unusual path." APPEARANCES ARE PARTLY deceptive. Although the Bush administration succeeded in creating and maintaining the perception that the United States was engaged in a crusade against Islam, it actually championed "moderate Islam," notably its Turkish variant, as a model for the Islamic world to follow. In the event, the US came to be seen as having joined hands with Islamic conservatism against secularism in Turkey. What is promising with Obama's approach is his abandonment of any references to "moderate Islam." What makes the message that Obama delivered to the Muslim world from Turkey groundbreaking is not the professions of respect for Islam. It was the fact that the president seems intent on rehabilitating the notion of secularism. Addressing the Turkish parliament - with its Islamic conservative majority - Obama spoke about "secular democracy" as "the greatest monument to Atatürk's life." Obama's tributes to the secularist revolutionary were not bows dictated by diplomatic etiquette to the founding father of a host country, but politically charged interventions in the ongoing debate about secularism and Islam. Indeed, his words were near-affronts to the belief held by Islamic conservatives and liberals - the alliance which dominates Turkish public discourse - that the introduction of secularist reforms was a traumatic event. Symptomatically, leading Turkish liberal columnist Ahmet Altan recently wrote that "had it not been for Atatürk, we would not have had any problems at all over the issue of religion." The belief that secularism has created an existential void in Turkey is a theme that runs through the writings of Turkey's most prominent liberal, Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk. Obama's rehabilitation of Atatürk failed to impress Turkish liberals and Islamic conservatives. Radical Islamists plotting in Pakistan and elsewhere, for their part, are sure to have found it profoundly provocative. A decade ago Osama bin Laden planned an attack on the Ataturk mausoleum in Ankara; in his first video message after 9/11, he referred to Atatürk's abolishment of the caliphate as the insufferable pain inflicted on Islam 80 years ago. Secularism is a revolutionary concept in Islam. To this day, Atatürk's endeavor remains unique in the Muslim world. Indeed, it is striking how few have been encouraged to follow his example, despite Obama's assertion that he "did so much to shape the course of history." There is no clash of civilizations, but there is certainly a clash of ideas about the proper place of religion in society. By venturing into that ideological battleground, Barack Obama has assumed a challenge that is far from politically anodyne. The author is Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Center with Johns Hopkins University-SAIS and the Stockholm-based Institute for Security and Development Policy (www.silkroadstudies.org) and the managing editor of the Center's biweekly publication, The Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org).