- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2006

According to the latest survey in the Pew Global Attitudes Project, the number of people in Turkey who have a favorable view of the United States has dropped 40 points — from 52 percent to 12 percent — in the past six years. Clearly, the war in Iraq is the major factor in turning world opinion against the United States. However, out of more than 90,000 interviews in 50 countries, Turkey — a NATO ally with a majority Muslim population — had the least positive view.

To begin with, Turks are definitely not happy about September 11, and the country’s growing anti-American sentiment isn’t solely a result of the Iraq war.

Turks are, however, confused about where the United States places Turkey in the “big picture” of a changed Middle East. They’re concerned that Washington’s true aim is to “Islamify” Turkey — to change the current secular character of the country and turn it into an Islamist government — in order to divide it and take away sovereign land. As a result, many Turks hold the West responsible for encouraging political Islam’s rise to power.

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The Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey’s 2002 national elections, and most Turks believed the party’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had Washington backing. He visited the White House to talk about whether Turkey would commit to giving U.S. troops a northern front into Iraq even before he became prime minister, which raised Turks’ suspicions and caused them to think the AKP’s ascension signaled a heavy U.S. hand in Turkish affairs. Now that Mr. Erdogan is prime minister, he’s “never” used his platform to counter anti-American feelings in the country. In fact, Islamists have always been traditionally anti-American.

The Justice and Development Party won less than 35 percent of the vote in 2002. At the time, people were fed up with corruption and the “perennials” in power. Voting the veterans out of Parliament may have given the Turkish people the feeling that for the first time they controlled their own democracy. But both inside and outside the country people forgot how democracies work: Political parties can only stay in power from one election to the other, but the states are there to live forever.

Every time Mr. Erdogan went to Washington, the Turkish media concluded that President Bush had offered his “exclusive” support to Mr. Erdogan. In his last visit to the oval office the headlines read, “The White House decided to continue with the Justice and Development Party.” In addition, that early visit to the White House before Erdogan became prime minister was interpreted as a sign that he was in the U.S.’ pocket. Then the United States should question if AKP is that popular in Turkey, why not the United States, too? Ironically, the AKP seems to need U.S. support to stay in power.

Turkey’s talks to join the European Union may not last long. The EU is demanding that Turkey open its air and sea ports to Greek Cyprus, another EU member. Ankara, however, demands “justice.” When the country agreed to open the ports, Turkish leaders said, they believed that the sanctions imposed on Turkish Cyprus side would be lifted as well. Erdogan said last week that if Cyprus is the issue that would torpedo the accession talks, then the talks should end. No Turkish politician can take a different position. Thus, the AKP needs the United States to lobby the EU on Turkey’s behalf before the talks are derailed. It’s chillingly possible that a Turkey rife with anti-American sentiment could also lose its dream of EU membership as soon as next year.

Turks elected the then-untested AKP party to lead the government. Yet under the AKP, although Turkey took significant steps forward, like opening the EU accession talks, Turkish society has been polarized like never before. And the constant debate about secularism, illustrated most keenly with the headscarf issue, is the reason. In fact, according to AKP’s own public opinion poll, less than 2 percent of the population cites the headscarf, and allowing it to be worn in government offices, as its most important concern. But each time Mr. Erdogan discusses U.S. secularism as a model, he seems to misunderstand the idea that freedom of speech and religion can be exercised simultaneously. The American way of life would not tolerate freedoms picked selectively. Erdogan is exceptionally sensitive to criticism; heaven knows what the outcome would be if he were in President Bush’s place.

What really sharpened anti-Americanism in Turkey was the capture of 11 Turkish Special Forces soldiers who were arrested and held with bags over their heads. That sealed the perception that America — Turkey’s NATO ally — chose the Kurds over the Turkish Republic, which further insulted the troops. Now that the AKP is trying to normalize Turkey’s relationship with the United States, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul will visit Washington on July 4 — on the anniversary of a date when Turkish people believe they were “insulted” by the United States. So far, public opinion polls don’t indicate that it will do much to win over the Turkish people.

Tulin Daloglu is a freelance writer.

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