Turkey, anti-Americanism and Obama

Michael Rubin’s WSJ op-ed on why the US should support the removal of Turkish PM Tayyip Erdogan is bothersome. Having followed Turkey for the last two years somewhat closely (I make a conscious effort to listen to Turks in Boston and to look at Turkish newspapers and websites in my daily rotation around the web and the library), I view the series of events he describes somewhat differently, and I view the role of the AK as less inherently pernicious than he seems to. I do not care to get into the nitty gritty, partially because it would not accomplish much (and trying to dignifying such a weak comparison between Erdogan and Putin would be as silly as drawing one), but even more so because there is one bit that I think is more relevant than the rest of the article.

Rather than bridge the gap between Islam and the West, he has widened it by encouraging the most virulent anti-American and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. According to the Pew Global Attitudes survey, Turkey is now the world’s most anti-American country.

The first thing that comes to mind is the degree to which Erdogan’s role in the growth of Turkish anti-Americanism is exaggerated here, and especially considering that Rubin leaves any semblance of a causal factor absent. There is a myriad of reasons that Turks so especially dislike or disagree with America, chief among them being the perception that the United States has not taken Turkish national interests seriously when dealing with Iraq or Iran and particularly the Kurds. There are other seemingly minor transgressions that in the context of Turkey’s hypersensitive nationalism become much more offensive in Turkish eyes, such as the Armenian genocide business that became so popular in Washington and around the EU last year and the years before. This is to say nothing of the widely held view that the invasion of Iraq has exacerbated Turkey’s battle with Kurdish militants and that the United States is conspiring with the Kurds against Turkey.

Since 2003, Turkish opinions of the United States have rapidly declined. This has been correlated with the rise and consolidation of the AK in Turkey. But this does not mean that these sentiments are the result of the rise and consolidation of the AK. Indeed the data and anecdotal accounts seem to show that AK supporters and their opponents do not disagree in their views of Americans; anti-Americanism is strong throughout the body politic and has roots in issues that are common to most Turks.

Given America’s overwhelming dominance in the world, it is not hard to believe that a country perpetually paranoid of its neighbors and friends (partially the result of an ethnically chauvinistic national cult and a quest for mission and identity in the post-Cold War era) would project conspiracy theories and hostilities onto a country that is seen as being dismissive of their regional and national priorities. And while politicians have not done much to assuage anti-Americanism — it is popular in AK circles as well as Kemalist ones — I think these sentiments would likely exist under any other government in Turkey at this point in history.

This brings up another distant topic though: could Barack Obama improve America’s relationship with the Muslim world? Would his face alone, as Andrew Sullivan believes, be enough to patch things up with the people of a country like Turkey? My initial instinct is to say No, and I stand by Reza Aslan’s op-ed several months ago on this topic: re-branding America is not enough. The Observer begged the question in January.

One Turkish shop owner smiled when I mentioned Obama. “The mixed guy? Oh, right. And he has some Muslim name. Right, Hussein. Well, it wouldn’t change my opinion of America, but maybe it would for other people!” he said brightly. “But you know he wouldn’t really make the policies anyway, so it doesn’t matter.”

“Wait, who makes the policies?” I said.

“The petroleum companies. That’s what they tell us, anyway.” (“Leftist” arguments blithely discredited on American television sound perfectly humdrum in Turkey.) The shopkeeper also thought it was nice that Obama hadn’t supported the war in Iraq, but pointed out that was probably just because Obama was a Democrat and those who started the war had been Republicans.

“Obama wouldn’t change their opinions of the U.S.—that would be childish,” said one Turkish man, a professional in his 30’s. “But they might feel less aggressively than they do now.”

The reporter, like many, focuses on Obama’s blackness as an asset outside of the United States. It is not quite PC to ask whether or not it would be a hindrance. My view is that, when one gets to a certain level of power, his color does not matter whatsoever. He will be treated with respect by heads of state, though there may be some gaffes on the part of European or Asian leaders.

It is interesting, though, to ask, just for asking’s sake, whether or not Turks, Syrians, Egyptians, or other peoples in the Muslim world would elect someone like Barack Obama. My guess is that they would not. (The status of blacks in Middle Eastern countries, in everyday life and even folk traditions lead me to this conclusion.) This also makes me skeptical as to the extent to which Obama’s “face” could dissuade people in the region from becoming or remaining anti-American. There is an exceptional amount of severe contempt that many Levantines hold for black people (and other dark skinned people), that many Westerners, especially Americans, entirely miss. I do not know for sure where it comes from on the whole. Part of it is surely the identification of blackness with social and racial inferiority, the result of the fact that blacks and most dark-skinned Arabs have slave ancestry (Arabs have very little sympathy for the descendants of slaves, especially from what African-Americans who have been to the Gulf have told me, and my own understanding of the way that most Arabs view black people). Being black is not as much an asset in the Muslim world as it is in American white liberal circles. What is an asset for Obama in these places is more that he is a winner and that he is black. Arabs like rags to riches stories and the idea of overcoming societal hindrances. It is a fairly common theme in classical Arab-Islamic literature.

In any event, Arab sympathy for Obama comes from this tradition of rooting for an eventually triumphant underdog. Many Arabs think his views on Palestine will be tempered by his experience as a black man, though I believe this to be false (as I have said before, black American politicians have not been more kind to the Arabs than white ones have). Arab Americans believe that his experience as a black man will make them more sensitive to unjust racial profiling and less disposed towards confrontation in the Middle East. In recent months, though, he has been silent or against the grain on Arab issues. Civil liberties seem to have been forgotten as the campaign has become more centered on the economy, and to a lesser extent foreign policy. His speech to AIPAC seems to have shown just as much swagger as all the others, but he has nevertheless attempted to salvage the pragmatic image that many held of him, especially on Middle Eastern issues. So much for re-branding.

Addendum: “Obama’s Pie,” voices Arab frustration with Obama’s AIPAC speech, running through what could be a major problem for a candidate who raises such high hopes:

Obama made his mind up when he confirmed that is “the true friend of Israel,” and when he expressed his “satisfaction with the ties that cannot be destroyed between the US and Israel.” With these remarks, he shredded the theories of some of his Arab and other supporters who expected that the Democratic candidate would return to his African roots and the principles of his ancestors who had suffered from injustice and fought persecution.

[. . .]

Arabs, of course, were angry at these statements by Obama who was speaking before AIPAC and not in a mosque, among members of the Arab community in the US, to an Arab leader or in an Arab country.

Did we really expect anything different from a contestant in the American presidential race hosted by the largest pro-Israel group in the US? Why should Obama or any other candidate try to earn favors with Arabs if the only thing they bring with them is a loss? Why would the man sell out Israel when he knows that he stands in front of those who support it and when he is seeking their support?

What have Arab leaders, tycoons or organizations done to win over a candidate for the US presidency and prompt him to use a different type of rhetoric, one that supports the Arabs and condemns Israeli injustice? Arabs have done nothing. As usual, they were stunned and surprised as usual before issuing condemnations and decrying their lost hope, and the candidate who sold out.

This sense of disappointment seems to be the perpetual fate of Arab American voters. The disillusionment that his presidential policies could bring about might be even stronger than it would be otherwise (if he were, say, a Kennedy or the like) because there is a sense that he was supposed to have a deeper sympathy, he was supposed to try to bridge the gap, he was historic and charismatic: voters have projected their grandest feelings onto him, and to have those smashed is rather traumatic and disconcerting. In 2000, they were hoodwinked by George Bush who promised to put an end to the use of secret evidence and racial profiling. In 2004 they were too divided to be a decisive grouping. 2008 may offer more of the same, even with transformative candidates running.

I will be working on a critique of this piece at Salon by Anne Applebaum, in which she argues that Obama’s presidency “could begin to change European, Arab, and Asian attitudes about race.” Really?

11 thoughts on “Turkey, anti-Americanism and Obama

  1. Interesting point, and you’re right that no one has asked the obvious, if Obama’s background could be a hindrance as much as help.

    (Arabs have very little sympathy for the descendants of slaves, especially from what African-Americans who have been to the Gulf have told me, and my own understanding of the way that most Arabs view black people)

    I don’t disagree with you about racial prejudice in the Arab world, but it needs to be differentiated between regions. The Gulf is probably at an extreme end, given that slavery persisted until the 1970s there, and was very white-on-black. In the Saharan countries, you also had slavery until very recently (in some areas still), but there it was less skin color than bloodline, even if they generally coincide. And it’s not just a side effect of slavery: consider the Janissaries, of Greek or Albanian descent, whose descendants may enjoy very high status (and also be “whiter” than most Arabs where they live).

  2. alle,

    Good point. I agree with your assessment, which is why I tried to keep my references in the Levant/Gulf. I also think that prejudice is more contemptuous in the east than in the Maghreb, for whatever reason, as that has been my general observation. Both are terrible nonetheless.

  3. I think it’s hard to even discuss the Maghreb, or even individual countries, as a separate unit here. Rabat, Tunis or Algiers are probably much more similar in this regard to Damascus and Jerusalem than they are to traditional slave societies in the Saharan areas down south. For example, remember Ben Bella’s rather brutal crackdown on the Tamanrasset slave markets (and on Touareg feudal independence generally) once Algeria was liberated. He was clearly more foreign to that sort of socially integrated caste slavery in his own country, than he would have been to the various forms of classist urban-society racism in far-off Damascus or Paris.

    Actually, this would make for some really interesting comparisons. You don’t happen to know of anything worth reading on the subject?

  4. “Being black is not as much an asset in the Muslim world as it is in American white liberal circles. What is an asset for Obama in these places is more that he is a winner and that he is black”
    Though you may speaking of the arab region as the pinnacle of Western attention on the Muslim world. I think you’re conclusion needs a bit of tweeking, the Gulf region contain just a fraction of the worlds Muslim population, so it’s misleading to think that all Muslim leaders would not welcome the sight of Obama. I think this presidential candidate will fare much better outisde of the Gulf, and into countries with more high muslim denisities such regions in Southeast Asia.

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