Police and security forces sealed streets around the ancient capitol metropolis of Istanbul for miles in every direction when US president Barak Hussein Obama and his entourage arrived for the Alliance of Civilizations conference.  The boldfaced Hussein is not a misprint.  For days before and since Obama’s visit, a quick glance at the Turkish newspapers or television might lead you to believe that Hussein was Obama’s only name.  It is ironic that during the presidential election, Obama and company successfully managed to almost completely erase any trace of his middle name from the American consciousness because of the potential negative connotations it carried, but now that he is president, the name Hussein has became his ticket into the hearts of Muslims everywhere.


Before concluding his visit to Turkey in Istanbul, Obama addressed the Turkish parliament in the modern Turkish capitol Ankara.  The reigning Islamist AK party warmly welcomed Obama and his lengthy speech given before the hundreds of parliament ministry and broadcast to millions of Turks and beyond to potentially a billion and half Muslims worldwide.  In a deft act of rhetoric, Obama declared that America is home to many Muslims and families who have Muslim members.  He said that he knows these things firsthand, because, as he said, “I am one of them.”   The Turkish media and Turkish blogistan quickly picked this up for lengthy analysis and commentary.  The way it was worded, then translated into Turkish, could easily lead someone who wasn’t carefully listening or reading to understand Obama to mean that he is “one of them,” one of the Muslims.  The tricky wording (wasn’t Obama a lawyer?) coupled with the repetitive emphasis on his name Hussein certainly had the effect of deeply satisfying some deep tribalistic impulses in the Middle Eastern psyche.  “Finally, here is a black man named Hussein, whose ancestors had to put up with the shame of colonial rule by the white man, so it is very easy to include him as ‘one of us’.”

For those Turks who took to time to read or listen closely, Obama’s correct meaning became clear.  He in fact did not say he personally is a Muslim, at least he wasn’t sharing those intimate details openly. He said he is one of those Americans who come from a family with Muslim members (which was a bit misleading because his Muslim family live in Kenya not America).  The confusing issue about Obama for Muslims is that religion isn’t something chosen, it is something inherited.  The children of a Muslim man are legally considered Muslims, it matters not one whit what those children want or think.  At a very young age, the male children of Muslim fathers are circumcised and formally, publicly identified as Muslims.  So in this sense, Obama’s father was a Muslim (and step-father), he was given a Muslim name and by heredity is a Muslim.  A Turk and most Muslims would naturally understand religious identity in this way.  But more sophisticated Turks realize that Obama rejects being considered a Muslim and has identified himself as a Christian.  That may cause some problems for the devout, but they seem willing to overlook that fact as long as Obama offers words like he did to the parliament, words that affirm and flatter.

You could chalk up Obama’s placating the Muslim world as political expediency and no more.  Perhaps he is just trying to serve as Ambassador in Chief, the one offering good will after the pressurized anti-Americanism built up since 9/11, which reached its highest level in Turkey, traditionally an American ally.  That is well and good.  Maybe the Kenyan-American Hussein Obama will overcome hurdles that would prove impossible for a traditional white protestant president.  But with this enormous reservoir of favor Obama experienced in Turkey, does he have any vision for using his popularity and platform to encourage greater freedom and exercise of human rights within the dozens of Muslim-majority countries that have a less than admirable track record in the quality of democratic liberties?  In his recent trip to Turkey Obama could have taken the opportunity to be an advocate for the millions of non-Muslim minorities who experience restrictions and worse in their home lands.  On any number of points Obama could become a voice for the minorities who suffer discrimination.

Given the overwhelming positive press and warm reception he had in Turkey, Obama now has the attention of a vast swath of the human race.  Perhaps the elegant words spoken to the Turks and the bow before the King of Saudi Arabia are ways to strengthen his position even more so that when he offers constructive criticisms, the Muslims won’t immediately tune him out.  His public addresses in two major cities of the Muslim world have come and gone.  His name Hussein, his African ancestry, and his Muslim background have created an unprecedented opportunity for the president of the United States to use his influence to enhance the freedom and safety of millions of non-Muslim minorities around the world.  He didn’t use the opportunity this time.  Maybe he will yet.

The Waynedale News Staff
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Ron Coody, Istanbul, Turkey

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