"The welfare of humanity is always the alibi of tyrants" - Albert Camus

Friday, September 16, 2011

Turkey: Influence of Media, Intellectuals, and Religion on Public Opinion in a Quasi Modern Republic

On this tenth anniversary of the unspeakably evil and tragic event that we ought never forget, a facebook posting regarding 9/11 commemorations in the U.S. by my nephew in Turkey grabbed my attention.  Loosely translated, it alluded to the 'murderers crying over their own act not fooling anyone else, not even little children' - an obvious give away of a 9/11 truther. He happens to be a well educated, professional, non-religious, modern thirty some year old - and he is not alone in his convictions!
This same sentiment is one that is scarily prevalent among most Turks - educated and ignorant alike as reflected by results of a poll conducted by Pew Research:

The most puzzling observation is how Turks view other religions and the culprits for 9/11 attacks compared to other Muslims.  By the results of this poll, they appear to be more radicalized than Arabs themselves; at least on the surface.  Immediately, several questions come to mind:  What are the reasons for their propensity to believe in 9/11 conspiracy theories?  Furthermore, despite being relatively more secularized than Muslims in other countries polled, why do they hold significantly more unfavorable opinion of Christianity than even Arabs?  Finally, can the U.S.A. count on Turkey as an ally any longer?

First, we must undertake a quick overview of who the Turks are if we are to understand the impetus behind the answers to the questions I posed above.

Turks are a highly mixed race of people whose ancestors were essentially nomadic warriors from the steppes of Central Asia.  After migrating to Asia Minor in a rather disorderly fashion just over a millenia ago - between 6th and 11th centuries -, they established the Seljuk Dynasty, followed by the House of Osman (the Ottoman Empire) about two centuries later.  During the long and glorious reign of the Ottomans that featured conquests of eastern Europe, southern Caucasus, the Middle East, and north Africa, Turks gradually mixed with local populations.  The pragmatic side of Ottoman sultans also furthered the process of integration as many minority groups within the empire were favorably treated and given prominent positions in the government.  After dissolution of the empire, the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1922 by Ataturk on principles of western secularist democracies.  This was the decisive process that eliminated many of the cultural traces of Islam (which the Turks had converted to by the end of 7th century) by forcing western alphabet and attire on the Turkish people (among other reforms).  It is also critical to note that Turks have never been, nor presently are, fundamentalist/radical Muslims though Islam plays an important role in the lives of many.

So, if historic tolerance of Turks is legendary and they have gone through a westernization process that other Muslims including the Arabs have not, why does religious intolerance exceedingly exist as indicated by the Pew poll?  My answer to that question is ignorance.

Although Turkey today is a contrast between a modern western style society and a typical Middle Eastern society, and the Turkish economy being the 17th largest economy in the world, Turks remain on the whole rather ignorant.  For example, the average Turk does not read despite a high literacy rate (as in book sales are dismal in Turkey among a large segment of the society).  Logic as well as empirical evidence shows that people who are ignorant and relatively poor are more easily manipulated by outside sources.  This can be exploitation by religious or ideological forces, both of which are prevalent in Turkey.

The less educated segment of the society in Turkey is currently largely influenced by the Islamists who are in power.  Erdogan and his AKP party have been steadily transforming Turkey back to its old days before Ataturk.  Today, there are far more mosques and religious schools in Turkey than there are libraries and secular schools.  With the impetus provided by the U.S. involvement in Iraq, Turks have decidedly become more sympathetic to the Islamic cause.  For example, the recent rumblings by the Erdogan government, outright threatening Israel, is atypical for Turkish-Israeli relations.  Turkey was the first predominantly Muslim country that recognized the Jewish state and until recently, maintained close diplomatic and military ties with Israel.  This is the segment of the society that would also reject leftist ideology as much as they reject Christianity as a symbol of western culture.

Many Turks who are highly educated and cultured also prescribe to such nonsense as 9/11 truthism because they are predisposed to believing such conspiracy theories as a result of years of brainwashing by the media as well as the intellectual class.  Many of the so-called intellectuals are hard line Marxist-Leninists who are still fighting the cold war as far as they are concerned.  As with ideological blindness of progressives in the U.S., this segment of the society stubbornly remains close minded about 9/11 despite volumes of technical reports, facts on the ground, and common sense that thoroughly dismisses conspiracy theories.  This should be expected since many belonging to this group are also progressives who feel at home with the collectivist ideology and dismiss the U.S. as representation of free market capitalism.  As much as we may be convinced logic and evidence based classical approach to the argument would carry the day, I have found that there is little, if any, hope of breaking through to these otherwise well meaning people.  It is my opinion, as also backed by a recent University of California research finding, that there are genetic differences between those with progressive and classical leanings; but I digress.

While one might find such rampant anti-Americanism ironic in a country that has been a steadfast ally of the United States, that is also exactly the reason why such reactionaries exist in Turkey.  These intellectual reactionaries' influence is quite apparent in most news papers as well as literature.  Over time, lacking strong philosophical immunity, many educated Turks who read their work fall under their influence.

Ever since the 1960s, at the height of the cold war, Turkey's alliance with the west has galvanized its Marxist communist movement, which on the most part was suppressed by the military.  I still remember the "Yankee go home" signs from my youth in the 1960s.   This movement was periodically suppressed by the Turkish military, which is the guarantor of the secular republic.  In those years, religious extremism did not exist in Turkey.  Back then, Turkey was an up and coming country with wide spread relative poverty.  Far left ideology incubates best under such conditions.  The scapegoat is there - the U.S. - to blame the shortcomings regardless of fundamental reasons for the real problems.  The same movement has also been active in Greece - a neighbor with somewhat similar economic and societal conditions.

In conclusion, Turkey is a study in societal contrasts in a quasi modern society.  The ultra modern and the devout Islamists coexist uneasily side by side, united in their distrust - and at times distaste - for the West, especially the United States.  These Islamists and progressive leftists have formed an unholy alliance to undermine the free society that Ataturk envisioned eight decades ago.  As such, Turkey is travelling on the same road that countries experiencing Arab Spring like Egypt and Libya are: a road that leads to disaster and terrible consequences that may well reach well beyond Turkey's borders.

The question whether Turkey can be relied upon by the U.S. will only be answered affirmatively if the next U.S. Administration can exert smart leadership that treats Turkey as more than the model of moderate Islam as the Bush Administration did, or foolishly as an intermediary of sorts to gain favor among the Muslim world as the current Administration is doing.  Along with honest and co equal treatment, this smart leadership must also invariably restore the confidence of the Turkish military as the guarantor of the secular republic by clearly signalling our willingness to diplomatically stand behind them should periodic interventions be required as most socially unstable societies require.  It is not a pretty picture but it may be the only way to avert the coming disaster rest of the world may be drawn in to.


Common Snse said...

Am Pat - Fascinating discourse.

The last time I was in Turkey was in 1992. It was during a NATO exercise where USS Saratoga mistakenly fired a Sea Sparrow missile that hit a Turkish destroyer. I was on the ground in Turkey with a large US contingent. Our first thought was that there would be a backlash by the Turkish people. However they all seemed to take it well understanding that it was an accident.

In my experience we always worked well with the Turks. Their peaceful reaction was evidence in my mind of that close relationship. I hope that hasn't changed - though from recent news - it may be changing.

US maturity is on the way - January 2013 and President Perry.

The Patriot said...

Common Snse:

hope you enjoyed your stay in Turkey. I was born ther eand lived there until I moved to Switzerland in 1971. I moved here in 1977.

Turks are really the nicest and most hospitable people you will find, but they are misguided. I still visit family evry other year or so and enjoy my time there, but for all that matters, I am an American first through and through.

I pray that Turks can wake up in time before disaster befalls them (and rest of the Middle East). I find the developments in the region very troubling to say the least.

Tel said...

You would probably be interested in the Q Tau blog, he has similar perspectives.


The Patriot said...


Thank you. It is a great blog.

Common Snse said...

Am Pat - I did enjoy my time in Turkey. As you say - all the Turks that I met were friendly and helpful.

Sinan Unur said...

I ascribe the poll results to the fact that citizens of the Republic of Turkey are freer today than at any other time since 1923 to express themselves.

In addition, both anti-Semitic and anti-American attitudes are well-mixed throughout every segment of society. When things go wrong, it is either the Jews' or the Americans' fault (and this attitude is expressed openly and frequently).

On an individual level, people do not display this type of animosity. It is only when thinking of general world issues that the attitudes become apparent. It is weird.

I don't think the situation was helped by various U.S. media sources and politicians also espoused and spread the same views in the aftermath of 9/11. Those reports did find their way into Turkish media and were featured prominently. Many people I meet can recite all the stupid stuff in "Loose Change" as "proof" that W arranged 9/11 together with Mossad.

Heck, they even take Charlie Sheen seriously.

I am afraid the situation is beyond repair.

The Patriot said...

Thank you Sinan for your insight. I share your sentiment that he situation is beyond repair.