This seems a strange point for Jack Miles of the LA Times to think that Obama has to emphasize, since no one thinks the US is at war with Islam except Islamic jihadists. Bush spent seven years emphasizing that the US was not at war with Islam, and now the point has to be made?
In reality, he doesn’t need to say that the US is at war with Islam or not at war with Islam. He needs to speak truths: he should say that the US is in a defensive action against global jihadist movements — and invite Muslims worldwide who accept Western notions of freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and equality of rights for all people to make that acceptance open and explicit. But he is, of course, pursuing a far different course.
“Talking to Turkey, but Islam is listening: When President Obama speaks in Ankara, he can send a crucial message to Muslims,” by Jack Miles in the Los Angeles Times, April 4 (thanks to all who sent this in):
“They say we are at war with Islam. This is the whispered line of the extremist who has nothing to offer in this battle of ideas but blame. … We are not at war with Islam. But too often since 9/11, the extremists have defined us. … When I am president, that will change.” — Barack Obama, August 2007
When President Obama addresses the Turkish parliament on Monday, he will have the chance to fulfill a campaign promise. Before the secular legislature of a Muslim-majority country — and with the entire Muslim ummah listening — he can state plainly that the United States is not at war with Islam.
To make this claim plausible, the president need not trade on his ancestry or his Arabic names. Rather, he need only point to a gradually emerging, too little noticed congruency between the political traditions of the United States and those of Turkey regarding religion.
The United States has no established national religion. What it does have is an established national way of dealing with religion — namely, the distinctive American combination of government neutrality in matters religious coupled with the guarantee of free exercise of all religions.
Turkey, like the U.S., is a highly religious society with a constitutionally secular government. Turkey’s official secularism was imposed during the years after World War I by Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic and its first president.
But Turkey’s brand of secularism has lacked the balancing “free exercise” component of the American compromise. Its government, rather than stopping at religious neutrality, has often been anti-clerical in the French manner or even aggressively anti-religious in the Soviet manner. Women, for example, may not wear head scarves in government-run schools and public buildings, and men may not wear the traditional fez.
Lately, however, Turkey has begun to approach a new consensus in favor of what in the American tradition would be called free exercise of religion alongside its state secularism. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (abbreviated AKP in Turkish) has sought to enlarge the scope for the public practice of Islam in Turkey.
For its troubles, the AKP has been the target of ferocious attacks by Turkish hyper-nationalists and anti-clericals, many of them in the once all-powerful military.
Last year, the AKP’s opponents initiated a jaw-dropping attempt to depose the entire government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan by petitioning the courts to declare the party unconstitutional. Had it succeeded, the move would have thrown Turkey into social chaos and potential economic collapse.
But the court ruled the AKP constitutional, and in just-concluded Turkish elections, the party, though shaken, came in first. And so, after a titanic struggle, the Erdogan administration now seems well positioned to push forward on its agenda.
As regards the religious part of that agenda, the AKP understands itself to be offering Turks a political option comparable to what is on offer in Europe, through religiously denominated social democratic parties such as Germany’s Christian Democratic Union. But a good many in Europe see an extremist attack on state secularism in some of Erdogan’s actions — such as restrictions on serving alcohol by the drink in liquor stores and cafes. These concerns have retarded the admission of Turkey to the European Union.
Here is where Obama faces a unique opportunity. By reasserting long-standing American support in favor of EU membership for Turkey, he can offer help to an important ally.
As he does so, however, he can also declare that, consistent with U.S. law and practice, his government endorses the free and open exercise of religion in Turkey. To underscore that this is no mere personal gesture, he can quote President Eisenhower, speaking at Washington’s Islamic Center in 1957: “I should like to assure you, my Islamic friends, that under the American Constitution, under American tradition and in American hearts, this center, this place of worship, is just as welcome as could be a similar edifice of any other religion.”
In the same spirit, of course, Obama would be obliged to challenge Turkey to live up to its own ideals by promising non-Muslims no less than Muslims “no compulsion in religion” (Koran 2:256) and state protection for the free exercise of their faiths….
Miles is naive if he thinks that this Qur’an verse allows for the free exercise of religion in an Islamic context. Historically, it has never done so — unless the severe institutionalized discrimination of the dhimma is counted as free exercise of religion.