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Viewpoint: Perspectives from Turkey

By Mark Feldstein

Journalism program director Mark Feldstein (right) at CNN Turk’s headquarters in Istanbul.

Istanbul, Turkey, a teeming metropolis of 15 million people, has a rich and globally significant history. Previously known as Constantinople and the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Istanbul is the only city on the planet that straddles two continents, Europe and Asia; a crucial strategic Mediterranean port in both ancient Greece and Rome as well as early Christendom and the Moslem Ottoman Empire. During the Cold War, Turkey also was a key American ally against communism.

And Turkey might become an equally significant geopolitical player in the years ahead. Turkey faces potential admission to the European Union, which would bolster its growing economy and more fully integrate it into the West. Turkey also is a pivotal Middle Eastern bellwether in the war on terrorism led by the United States. But unfortunately, the signs here are not encouraging.

For the past year, I have been part of a cultural exchange program sponsored by the Department of State between Turkish and American journalists that culminated this spring in a weeklong visit to Turkey. We discussed topics including programs; globalization and the media; journalistic coverage of politics and government; changing media technologies; bias and sensationalism; censorship; and freedom of the press.

But Turkish journalists and students repeatedly wanted to talk not about media issues, but about American foreign policy. Time after time, in questions and comments, in casual conversations and more formal talks, in light jokes and intense harangues, Turkish citizens angrily denounced the war in Iraq: How could Americans invade a neighboring Muslim country that hadn’t attacked the United States? How could a nation that Turks had so admired kill an estimated 100,000 Iraqi civilians? How could U.S. soldiers commit such gruesome crimes at Abu Gharib and Guantanamo Bay?

They were tough questions and there were no easy answers. I tried to explain that I was just an American professor, not a spokesman for the U.S. government or an architect of its policies. But that seemed to make little difference. In many Turkish eyes, the fact that I was an American was reason enough to channel their anger my way. After all, it was my country’s military that attacked Iraq, an invasion that was carried out in my name and in the names of every other American citizen. It was hard to know what to say.

To be sure, Turkey is hardly alone in its new-found anti-Americanism; even long-standing U.S. allies in Western Europe have been estranged since the invasion of Iraq. Hopefully this chill will eventually thaw in the future, though many experts fear it could take years—if not an entire generation—for America to regain the moral high ground.

In Turkey, most people I talked to were careful to distinguish between the politicians of the U.S. and its people. “We love Americans,” was a constant refrain, “but not your government.” Political differences notwithstanding, the Turks are warm and generous hosts, good-hearted and spontaneous.

But Turkish suspicion of the United States should not be underestimated. The country’s most popular film is an anti-American polemic about a fictional U.S. invasion of Turkey, complete with a subplot involving Jewish physicians who buy the body parts of unsuspecting Muslims in the process. At the University of Istanbul, fully half of the audience of some 200 students raised their hands when I asked how many of them believed the fantasy flick represents reality.

It was a sobering reaction considering the fact that Turkey is probably the most modern and secular Muslim country in the Middle East, a long-time ally known for being more stable and reliable—and more pro-American—than any other Islamic nation in the region.

President Bush may claim that America’s enemies in the Middle East hate us for our freedoms. But if my recent experience in Turkey is any guide, what they really hate are not our freedoms, but our policies.

Mark Feldstein, School of Media and Public Affairs associate professor, is director of GW’s journalism program and a member of the advisory board of the GW Center for the Study of Globalization.