The Magazine

Hating America, Turkish Style

This too shall pass.

Mar 28, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 26 • By MUSTAFA AKYOL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

LONGTIME ALLIES OF THE UNITED States, the Turks have been sympathetic to American values for decades. Nevertheless, a new BBC World Service poll of 21 countries shows Turkey to be the least friendly to America, especially the current administration. Eighty-two percent of Turks said they found President Bush's reelection "negative for peace and security in the world." While this sentiment doubtless reflects a global reaction to the war in Iraq, there are also distinctive local factors that explain the current wave of Turkish anti-American feeling.

One of these is the Kurdish question. The Turkish Republic was founded in 1923, under the influence of secularist European nationalism. Rather than building a national identity around the shared Islamic heritage of its various peoples, modern Turkey sought to achieve national cohesion by converting its non-Turkish ethnic groups--notably the Kurds--into Turks. This effort at social engineering has only partly succeeded.

Most Kurds retain their ethnic identity--and their suspicion of the Turkish state. In the 1980s and '90s, the Marxist-Leninist Kurdish radicals of the PKK exploited this distrust. The PKK carried out a bloody terrorist war against Turkish rule and assimilated Kurds--a war that killed more than 30,000 citizens of Turkey. Today the PKK is weakened--thanks partly to American support of Turkey--but the fate of the Kurds remains uncertain.

The Kurds, of course, live in Iraq as well as in Turkey, divided in two by the border between these neighbors. For hard-core Turkish nationalists of both left and right, the best Iraq is an authoritarian one, ruled by a strongman in Baghdad who suppresses the Kurds in the north of his country, keeping Turkey's southern border quiet. This explains these nationalists' enduring sympathy for Saddam Hussein. For them, a free and democratic Iraq sounds alarm bells, for if the Kurds flourish in Iraq, they may inspire their brethren on the other side of the border to attempt to secede from Turkey and join them.

That perceived threat might not be entirely fanciful, but the best solution would seem to be to make Turkey's Kurds so free and prosperous that they wouldn't want secession. Indeed, the current parliament, led by the AKP government, has granted many cultural freedoms to the Kurds in the last two years. Nevertheless, many hard-core nationalists wish to return to the "no Kurds allowed" policy of the good old days. For them, the Kurds are not countrymen to be won, but bitter enemies to be fought.

Anti-Americanism comes naturally to this mindset. The more the Iraqi Kurds can be portrayed as agents of "American imperialism," the more suspicion of the Turkish Kurds will seem justified. As the prominent Turkish columnist Cengiz Candar has noted, some Turkish nationalists are pressing an anti-Kurdish agenda under the guise of anti-American propaganda. (A U.S. crackdown on PKK camps in northern Iraq would help neutralize that propaganda and answer Ankara's justified concern about the resurgence of this terrorist threat.)

The prominence of the nationalist establishment in Turkey's media is another factor in the current anti-Americanism.

Actually, two camps dominate the Turkish mainstream media. The first and smaller one consists of hard-core nationalists--the "Kemalists," who claim to follow in the footsteps of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. What they really do, however, is carve a frozen ideology out of Atatürk's pragmatic legacy. The second, larger camp is the more relaxed, cosmopolitan, somewhat liberal, highly Westernized intelligentsia known as the "White Turks."

While Kemalists are categorically anti-Western, White Turks champion Turkey's bid to join the E.U. Most have been big fans of the United States, but they, too, have some quarrels with the Bush administration. Some of these are related to the Iraq war. The White Turks are attuned to the liberal media in the United States, and their heroes are figures like Michael Moore and, for the rare sophisticate, Maureen Dowd.

Moreover, most senior White Turks are former left-wing activists of the '68 generation. They chanted antiwar slogans during Vietnam, and their present-day protests against "American imperialism" carry a whiff of nostalgia.