Friday, May 01, 2009

Obama in Istanbul

Asia Times Middle East
Apr 10, 2009

A town hall meeting and a mosque
By Ian Williams

ISTANBUL - Istanbul has been the pivot of East-West, and indeed North-South, relations for millennia, and Turkey was an inspired, and indeed brave, choice for an early visit by United States President Barack Obama.

If former president Bill Clinton had been accused of being a crypto-Islamist, or secret adherent to Islam, there is no way that either his spin-doctors or his own timorous instincts would have allowed him with miles of a mosque. Yet Barack Hussein Obama, demonized by web-weirdos across America as a Muslim fifth columnist, goes to Turkey and visits the Blue Mosque - accompanied by Islamist party Prime Minister Recep Erdogan - and holds a town hall meeting with young Turks.

As police barriers held up Turks in the rain-swept streets of

Istanbul, there was little audible or visible resentment. They like Obama, and they liked even more that he gave Turkey so much prominence, as well as his emphasis on his own Muslim connections.

Turkish Islamism covers a wide spectrum, and is self-reliant enough to eschew the excesses of Saudi Arabian Wahhabism. The day before Obama's arrival, Sunday, is a day off in Turkey and the Eyup Mosque - allegedly the burial place of the Prophet's standard-bearer, as revealed in a dream to a sultan - swarmed with the visibly pious, men in skull caps and women in chadors pinned across their face, coming to pray. But the men and their wives walked hand in hand, and on less-solemn occasions fundamentalist fashion includes colorful figure-hugging silk attire, with chic headscarves surrounding immaculate maquillage.

Some of the more deluded Islamists might secretly hope that Obama is indeed the crypto-Muslim his loony American detractors claim, but the secularists of both left and right share with Turkey's ruling party an appreciation of Obama's greatest asset: he is not George W Bush.

The country where popular pressure stopped the traditional military and foreign policy establishment going along with the US invasion of Iraq, will naturally share an affinity with the president whose major impetus in the primaries came from his earlier opposition to the war.

But nothing is simple. Obama has not so much united as converged the Republican military/secularist wing in Turkey with the Islamists. For example, for the last two years the army command has boycotted parliament sessions in protest at the presence of Kurdish Demokratik Toplum Partisi party legislators. It does take a step back to wonder, firstly what they are doing attending parliament meetings anyway, and secondly, who do they think they are, boycotting the democratically elected legislature?

In the case of Iraq, once again there was an element of convergence. The liberal secularists opposed the invasion for the same reasons as everyone else in the world, the Islamists for obvious reasons. The military saw the operation through their obsession with Kurdistan, tempering their usual fervent connections to Washington and Israel.

On the occasion of Obama's speech to the parliament, the military establishment decided that their affection for the American connection outweighed any distaste they had for his mentions of the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical patriarchate or Armenian charges of genocide.

This being Turkey, the mere suggestion that the Armenian charges of genocide should not necessarily be dismissed out of hand, had some of the nationalists up in arms. However, Obama's initiatives seemed to have been carefully choreographed in advance. He treaded lightly with the adroit Erdogan, who has already suggested a commission of historians to study the alleged Armenian Holocaust of 1915, and who also knows that one very definite barrier to entry of the European Union (EU) is allowing the Orthodox Patriarchate to re-open its seminary on the island of Haliki.

Obama's public pressure may well be just what the Turkish prime minister needs and wants to overcome the traditional security establishment's resistance to necessary reforms. Any rational government would see the Ecumenical Patriarchate as a huge asset to the prestige of the country, a suitable adornment to Istanbul's tenure as European Capital of Culture next year.

Most cities and countries would fight for the chance of opening an Orthodox Vatican with the huge potential for prestige and profits from pilgrims and prophets. However, Turkey has traditionally insisted that the incumbent must be a Turkish citizen, drawn from the shrinking Phanariot Greek community, which in fairness would continue an age-old tradition that the secular power must have a say in the appointment. However, Ankara closed the only seminary in the country that could provide a native priesthood from which to recruit one, which falls foul of EU aspirations for both religious freedom and minority rights.

The new Israeli government, if it were not deaf to everybody who disagreed with it, should be watching and listening carefully. Erdogan, of course, gained immense popularity across the Muslim world, and indeed much further afield, for having the courage to dress down Israeli President Shimon Perez at the World Economic Forum in Davos, when so many others prevaricated or supported Israel's attack on Gaza.

Interestingly, the tidal wave of obloquy that would normally have deluged over him was muted - and then almost silenced. The Turkish armed forces are Israel's only ally in the area. Israeli planes practice in Turkish airspace, while Ankara is a major customer for Israeli military hardware. The Generals may have their own disagreements with Erdogan, but let their Israeli counterparts know that they would be unhappy with others attacking the Turkish government. The message was acted upon, hence the rapid silence which overcame the initial vociferous pro-Israeli indignation.

Hence also Obama's emphasis on Turkey as a democracy with a majority Muslim culture which could be a bridge to the Islamic world and a possible partner in winning a Middle Eastern peace process. An essential part of which is to persuade Muslims that the US is not irredeemably Islamophobic, or for that matter, irredeemably Israelophilic.

Erdogan is using US leverage to get what he wants. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu government shows no signs of such adroitness. In his Turkish speech, Obama, yet again, sent a message to Israel's leadership that "The United States strongly supports the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security. That is a goal shared by Palestinians, Israelis and people of good will around the world. That is a goal that that the parties agreed to in the roadmap and at Annapolis. And that is a goal that I will actively pursue as president."

Erdogan is shooting into the same goal posts as the US president, while the Israeli cabinet is separately and collectively limbering up for a series of fouls and penalties.

Maybe Erdogan's generals can speak to Netanyahu's, or maybe not. But Obama's visit to Turkey before Israel shows his basic understanding that foreign policy is about dealing with foreigners, not domestic lobbies.

Ian Williams is the author of Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past, Nation Books, New York.

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