Appealing Ideals, Troubling Practices
By Onder Uluyol, Engage Minnesota
Last summer I went to Turkey to visit my birthplace and my relatives who live there. During a family gathering, I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard two of my relatives agreeing on what the U.S. is doing in the Middle East and what is best for Turkey. You see, one of those relatives is a die-hard socialist who believes in extensive state control in economy, education and healthcare and sees religion as an impediment to the society. The other one is a fiery Muslim activist who sees a supporting role for the government in providing the basic needs, values the role of the religion in shaping the moral fabric of the community and abhors that the government is interfering with the free exercise of belief. For many internal ills of the society they blame each other. Yet this time, they agreed that the U.S., with its imperialistic policies, is the cause of many problems, Turkey would be the next target after Iraq, and the best way forward for Turkey would be to isolate itself from the West.
The view articulated by my two relatives of opposing backgrounds, although still the minority view, has been gaining support recently in the region. I believe the increasing popularity of this anti-Americanism is not ideological but represents a defensive posturing by the people as a result of the confusion and the fear created by the horrible destruction they see in neighboring Iraq.
Turkey has a democratically-elected government and despite the political turmoil in the region it has been enjoying one of the fastest growing economies in the world. The current ruling party, the Justice and Development, or A.K. Party, was re-elected into the majority in the parliament in July 2007 with 47% of the popular vote. The A.K. Party was founded 7 years ago and defined itself as a “conservative democratic” party. When it came to power in 2002, the A.K. Party pursued liberal economic policies while providing support for the lower income class. The second largest party, the Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi or CHP in Turkish) gained only 21% of the vote in the last election a year ago. CHP is a state nationalist and laicist party (seen as anti-religious by many in Turkey’s context). During its first term, the A.K .Party has pressed many political, cultural and judicial reform packages while it pursued membership into the European Union. Unlike my two relatives, who usually cannot agree on political matters, millions of Turks agreed and sided with the A.K. Party precisely because of these reforms, which increased individual freedoms, brought more equitable representation and empowerment.
Before I explain why the U.S. is failing in the Middle East, let me mention a few more facts about Turkey and its relation to the United States.: Turkey is a strategic ally of the U.S.; a member of NATO, with the second largest military after the U.S.; fought along side the U.S. in the Korean war; participated in the U.N.-mandated missions together with the U.S. in Somalia, the 1st Gulf war, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Lebanon; has been a multi-party democracy for more than 60 years (except a few hiccups caused by its own military); is located strategically between Europe and the Middle East; and has a population that is 98% Muslim. Also worth mentioning is that the U.S. Air Force operates an air base in Incirlik, Turkey, that is critical for operations in the Middle East.
Turning to the U.S. and its policies regarding the Middle East: No matter how much he tries, President Bush is unable to make any headway into “winning the hearts and minds” of the people of the Middle East. Bush seems to be the only person surprised by this. He appointed one of his closest friends, Karen Hughes who had no M.E. credibility and with whom people in the M.E. did not relate, as the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, giving a mandate to improve the foreign perception of the U.S. The administration also poured millions of dollars into media in the region for coverage sympathetic to the U.S. Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV were formed solely for this purpose. Yet, it did not take long for Hughes to realize the near impossibility of her mission of winning people by delivering speeches that were divorced from the reality and she resigned; Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV stations could not attain wide public appeal and other local media continues to be critical of the U.S.
Is this because “they hate us and hate our democracy and freedoms” as President Bush put it? Of course not! Many studies and surveys show that is not the case. A recent Gallup poll that surveyed a sample equivalent of 90 percent of the world’s Muslims showed that most Muslims — including so-called fundamentalists — admire the West for its democracy, freedoms and technological prowess. (See “Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think” by Esposito and Mogahed.) The study found that the opposition to the U.S. stems from policy, not from principles. Muslims from over 35 nations included in the survey share similar ambitions with Americans in terms of getting well paying jobs, access to good education and health services, valuing free exercise of expression, and rights and democratization.
Representatives like Karen Hughes, and, indeed, the President himself, talk about principles – freedom of expression, representative government, transparency, accountability, right to safety and security – yet the people of the region see U.S. policy manifesting to the contrary. No need to look further than the terrible situation in Iraq and the unwavering support the autocratic governments in the region receive from the U.S. despite the sweet talk.
Now back to Turkey. Many in the U.S. administration like to point to Turkey as an exemplary case of democratic governance in a majority Muslim country. However, the democratically-elected government in this U.S. exemplar has been undermined recently, and is facing closure of the A.K. Party by the judiciary and removal from power by force by a cabal of ex-military officers and their isolationist supporters in media and academia. Yet, the U.S. administration has hardly raised an eyebrow. This silence by the “champions of democracy” is seen by the Turkish public as tacit approval for undemocratic actions and as yet another classic example of U.S. double standards. With such actions even towards longtime allies, it is not surprising that the so-called coalition of the willing has been disappearing fast.
In this age of free and immediate flow of massive information through YouTube, blogs, and satellite TV,, it does not take long for people to take note of double standards. These double standards viewed in the context of the extremely harsh realities of the daily life in the region naturally create resentment against the West. What is encouraging though is that, as the Gallup poll shows, the resentment of double standards does not cloud the sound judgment of the people of the region in recognizing the common values for a prosperous and dignified life and the success of the American experience in achieving it.
I just hope that a genuine compassion and respect for fellow human beings replaces the insecure and arrogant behaviors soon so that we can be true to our American ideals, stay clear of double standards and start healing many broken lives and reputations.
Dr. Onder Uluyol is a board member with the Islamic Resource Group and an advisor to the Muslim-Christian Dialog Center at the University of St. Thomas. He resides in Fridley.