ISTANBUL—The young, well-educated, secular Turkish woman who hated Bush had never heard of the presidential candidate Barack Obama. I told her Obama was black and his middle name was Hussein. “Really?” she said, raising her eyebrows on cue. She understood why these tiny facts made an American curious about a Turk’s opinion of Obama, and she smiled politely.
“Is he a good person?” she finally said.
In June, a Pew poll found that out of 47 countries, Turks had the least favorable view of the United States. This must have been confusing news to Americans who heard it: Isn’t Turkey our ally? What did we do to them? Didn’t we do much more terrible things to other countries? And what would it take to change their minds?
In Turkey, the “America” conversation—the one you have while sitting in cabs, or waiting to get your phone/Internet/electricity/heat/water turned back on—goes more like this:
“Where are you from? Germany?”
“I’m from America.”
“America! Very nice.”
“You like America?”
“America is very good. I don’t like Bush, but I like Americans.”
Such generalizations are easiest to communicate in simple Turkish, but there are thousands of specific grievances. One source of Turks’ antipathy toward Bush—only one, but a big one—blew up during this holiday season of elections, assassinations and teen pregnancy. Turks not only opposed the war in Iraq, but grew infuriated that America was also preventing them from chasing down the PKK, the Kurdish guerrilla organization that had been hiding out in northern Iraq and attacking Turkish soldiers. The oppressed Kurds have been America’s treasured allies in Iraq, but a few weeks ago, the U.S. provided Turkey with satellite imagery and the air space to invade.
“It will take a while, but if this doesn’t work, then anti-Americanism is beyond repair,” said Soli Ozel, a professor at Istanbul’s Bilgi University and a columnist and writer for various Turkish and international publications.
Since then, hundreds of Kurdish militants have been killed by the Turkish military (according to the Turkish military), and Turkish newspapers seem more kindly disposed toward America. “Hey, don’t say anything bad about Bush!” said one Kurdish man with heavy sarcasm. “He is our best friend now!”
But President Bush, for now, remains the symbol of all suffering, and this makes the case for Obama, most eloquently made by Andrew Sullivan in The Atlantic, all the more seductive. America will get a new president this year, but sometimes it seems like what America needs is “re-branding,” as Sullivan put it.
“If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology,” Sullivan wrote, among many other things, “Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.”
Isn’t that comforting: Barack Obama not only as a corrective to our own bloody history, but as a challenge to the foundations of anti-Americanism, and perhaps as a salve for international wounds, too. I don’t know exactly what Sullivan meant by “Islamist ideology,” and whatever he meant, I don’t think it applies to most of moderate-Muslim Turkey, but it’s easy to understand what he meant about Obama’s face. Americans believe so deeply in images.
Sullivan’s idea, of a young Pakistani Muslim (the article was written before the assassination of Benazir Bhutto) watching “this new face of America,” convinced me that he was right. My American inner image-response system lurched forward eagerly to receive Sullivan’s message, even as I knew we were disregarding foreigners’ complex knowledge of American domestic politics and foreign policies, and ignoring the extent to which Bush has radicalized people against the U.S. in the past seven years.
Many Turks I spoke to thought Obama would change something. Some hadn’t heard of him. While dribs and drabs about Obama’s experience or Hillary’s support for the Armenian genocide resolution or which candidate Steven Spielberg supports pop up in the Turkish media, the election is, for them, still a long way off.