A few years ago, I accompanied a group of CEOs from multinational media conglomerates on a visit to Turkey led by Henry Kissinger. Alcohol is banned in Islam. Yet at a gala dinner at his home, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the Islamist Justice and Development party, sat with his wife, whose head scarf is a controversial symbol of political Islam in Turkey, as waiters poured wine for the guests. Afterward, there was cognac. It was a vivid sign of this Islamist leader's non-dogmatic approach.
By visiting Prime Minister Erdogan, Obama is overtly reaching out to what Americans would call "moderate" Islamists. Going to non-Arab Turkey also appears to be an effort to separate US relations with Muslim countries from US policy toward the Arab world. The need for that is evident in a recent University of Maryland poll.
With Pakistan on the brink of collapse, Afghanistan soaking up American troops, and a plethora of challenges in the Muslim former Soviet republics, the US needs to find new issues of common cause with would-be allies – or at least intermediaries – in the Islamic world that surmount, or at least distract from, anger at US Middle East policy.