from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Turkey: Orientalists’ Delight

April 7, 2014

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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There has been a lot of commentary and speculation about what is likely to happen in Turkey now that the country is past the March 30 municipal elections.  The Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) resounding tally—44 percent of voters chose the party’s candidates—has renewed questions whether Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will seek the presidency, about the disposition of the armed forces in Turkish society, and concerning the future of the Gulen movement.  There are also significant accusations of electoral fraud, especially in Ankara.  I have thoughts on all of these issues, but for the moment I will leave them to others.  All the recent attention lavished on Turkey as a result of last summer’s Gezi Park protests, the corruption scandal that broke last December, and now the municipal elections has me ruminating on how to write about the country. This may seem like excessive navel gazing to some, but the way in which analysts and journalists write about other countries (and their own) can have powerful political effects.  Ideas and images can become rooted and shape the way people view a given government or society.  The image of the “Terrible Turk,” for example, is a remnant of the late 15th century that lives on.

Turkey is no different from other countries, of course: Check out the way the rest of the world portrays Americans.  But in some discrete ways Turkey seems particularly susceptible to clichés and misrepresentation.  One is geography, which leads to endless imagery of the country as “a bridge between East and West” (like fingernails on a chalkboard), another is religion and the fact that 99.8 percent of Turks are Muslims, which is always excellent fodder for discussions of the country’s “perennial kulturkampf between secularists and Islamists.” I have never understood why people writing in English tend to choose the German instead of just “culture war” nor why all pious Muslims are categorized in these tales as Islamists. Then there is the fact that Turkey is the inheritor of a great empire with a fascinating history and some seriously stunning architecture.  I mean, who would take a first look at the “city of 1,000 minarets” without their oriental juices flowing?  Bring on the kebap, water pipe, and harem.

The Gezi Park protests last spring and Prime Minister Erdogan’s war on Twitter have added a whole new dimension to hoary cliché writing.  According to one Wall Street Journal dispatch last week, there is something called the “Gezi generation,” which is apparently made up of angry Turkish hipsters who congregate in the coolly gentrified Cihangir neighborhood of Istanbul and who tweet. This makes good copy, I guess, but it utterly fails to capture the diversity of the worldviews and goals of Gezi Park protesters, many of whom were well into middle age or older, pretty unhip looking, and did not seem to be firing off tweets.  For all the problems the Journal had capturing the complexities of contemporary Turkey, the New York Times’ Alan Cowell subjected his readers to one cheese ball platitude after another in, “Turkey Turns its Back on the E.U.” Here is a sampling:

At the height of the Cold War, Turkey’s great landmass cemented its place in the Western alliance, its huge conscript army deployed across the sweeping expanse of Anatolia to safeguard NATO’s southeastern flank.

I do not know how many times in my life I have read that sentence in one form or another, but Cowell was just warming up.  He the pivots to Turkey’s  “overlapping dilemmas” that are “brought into sharp relief” by—surprise—“ its geography”:

While it straddles Europe and Asia, only a fraction of its soil lies west of the Bosporus that divides the two continents.  For all the boutiques and business of Istanbul that look west to Frankfurt and Milan, the country’s distant east surveys a much rougher neighborhood.

Those two sentences tell us much more about what Cowell does not know about Turkey or the “distant east” than anything else, but he saves the best for last:

While Western-looking, secular, middle-class Turks are frequently hostile to him, Mr. Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party still command the political bedrock among the working class and in the countryside where Islam—Turkey’s dominant faith—is strong.

Never mind the fact that it is hard to talk about an urban-rural divide in Turkey any longer, but Cowell is telling his readers that Erdogan and the AKP keep winning elections because backward people respond to politicians based on faith and “Western-looking people” don’t.  No one would deny the ideological appeal of the AKP to pious Turks, yet Cowell neglects among other things that in the last decade under the Justice and Development Party’s stewardship, more people have healthcare, greater access to transportation, and jobs in addition to the development of an environment where they can express their religious identity openly without fear of persecution. Cowell does not know this so he falls back on what he imagines must be an explanation for Erdogan’s success—Islam.

I did not spend the weekend marinating myself in Edward Said’s Orientalism, but Said is relevant here. Accusations of “orientalism” have become frequent among pro-AKP journalists and commentators in Turkey. It is usually deployed to delegitimize a perfectly legitimate criticism of Prime Minister Erdogan and the AKP.  At the same time I understand why Turks might be put out by what is written about them.  Too many observers seem hard-wired to believe certain things about Turkey, notably that geography and religion are the destiny from/to which all else flows. Of course these factors matter, but they do not explain everything in Turkish politics and society.  To believe that is not to be an orientalist; it is to be ignorant.


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