Why Obama must do more if he wants to reach out to the Muslim world

The president’s conciliatory words must be matched by action to counter plummeting support worldwide

Barack Obama has reiterated his wish to overcome "suspicion and mistrust" and forge links between the US and the Muslim world.

Speaking in Indonesia, where he spent four years as a child, the president referred to his much-vaunted speech in Cairo last year, which promised a "new beginning" in relations:

In the 17 months that have passed since that speech, we have made some progress but we have much more to do. No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust.

He added:

I have made it clear that America is not and never will be at war with Islam . . . Those who want to build must not cede ground to terrorists who seek to destroy.

Though careful to mention his own Christianity, Obama said that al-Qaeda and its affiliates could not claim to lead any religion, "certainly not a great, world religion like Islam".

His words are powerful, and he stressed that he wants the Muslim world to join America in the fight against terrorism. But is this all just empty rhetoric? When Obama came to power, people across the world hoped that he would reverse at least some of the damaging policies of his predecessor. Nowhere was this shift towards optimism more marked than in Muslim countries.

The Brookings Institution's Arab Public Opinion poll questions people in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In the 2009 poll, conducted early in Obama's presidency, 51 per cent expressed optimism about US policy in the Middle East. In this year's poll, just 16 per cent were hopeful, and a majority of 64 per cent felt discouraged.

The Pew Global Attitudes Survey shows similar results. For the past three years, it has asked whether respondents trust the president "to do the right thing in world affairs". In the Muslim countries surveyed, there was a huge jump in "yes" answers between George W Bush in 2008 and Obama in 2009 – going from just 2 per cent for Bush to 33 per cent for Obama in Turkey – but the figure has now dropped again. "Yes" answers in the five Muslim countries surveyed went up from 12 in 2008 to 33 on average in 2009, but have now dropped back down to 26.6 (note: ratings in individual countries vary substantially).

This is hardly surprising. Expectations of Obama may have been unreasonably high, but he has failed to deliver on the foreign policy that so many hoped for. By authorising a troop surge in Afghanistan, he took ownership of what had previously been seen as Bush's war. He has not delivered on his promise to close Guantanamo Bay, and he seems to have backtracked on torture, rendition and detention.

Obama was right to say that "one speech" can't change years of mistrust. But nor can two, or three, or any number of speeches, if they are not matched by actions that give reason to trust again.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue