But Turks react with surprise when they hear about his blackness and vague Muslim background: “It would, it would! Yes, of course, make a difference!” And then come the “buts.”
One Turkish shop owner smiled when I mentioned Obama. “The mixed guy? Oh, right. And he has some Muslim name. Right, Hussein. Well, it wouldn’t change my opinion of America, but maybe it would for other people!” he said brightly. “But you know he wouldn’t really make the policies anyway, so it doesn’t matter.”
“Wait, who makes the policies?” I said.
“The petroleum companies. That’s what they tell us, anyway.” (“Leftist” arguments blithely discredited on American television sound perfectly humdrum in Turkey.) The shopkeeper also thought it was nice that Obama hadn’t supported the war in Iraq, but pointed out that was probably just because Obama was a Democrat and those who started the war had been Republicans.
“Obama wouldn’t change their opinions of the U.S.—that would be childish,” said one Turkish man, a professional in his 30’s. “But they might feel less aggressively than they do now.”
Omer Taspinar, director of the Turkey program at the Brookings Institution and a columnist for two Turkish newspapers, said that Obama’s mere image did have this power.
“Turks know that Obama represents something quite different—they’ve seen Roots,” he said. (Roots was very popular in Turkey.) “They know the history. So an African-American with an African name and a name like Hussein—the fact that people are willing to give him a chance, despite that he attended a madrasa, and had a Muslim father, would represent a huge change in the U.S., compared to the Bush-Clinton dynasties.
“People are really astonished in Turkey—they keep asking me if he really has a chance,” he continued. “He represents something unbelievable.”
So unbelievable that some Turks waved away my question because they didn’t think Americans would ever elect him. Different types of Turks identify if not specifically with American blacks, then with the American underdog—from elite secularists who believe the world wants to take Turkey from them, to religious “black Turks” posed in opposition to those elite secularist “white Turks,” to Kurds, whose parallels to the African-American experience actually make the most sense.
Obama’s mixed-race, immigrant background appeals to Americans of varying backgrounds, but it’s his blackness, after a parade of white American leaders, that might strike a chord with foreigners—in ways that Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, constrained by their affiliation with Bush, never could.
Still, one Turk cautioned me about the emotional reactions I might be hearing. “Turks will tell you that it will change their perceptions of the U.S. because Turks view themselves as victims and they identify with other victims,” he said. “They’ll respond positively because you’re asking a hypothetical question. It doesn’t necessarily mean that deep down their feelings will change.”
In other words, who knows how they’d feel if Obama actually wore the label president of the United States.
“What it would do is give the U.S. a period of respite,” said Ozel.
I began to feel that the election of Barack Obama would suggest far less about the potential for change in U.S. policy than it would say about the maturity of the American electorate. When Obama came up in my Turkish class last summer, the young students, mostly from Germany and Holland and other countries that had absorbed thousands of Turkish immigrants, watched me with European civility as I explained why I thought Obama could win.
“But we still don’t understand why America voted for Bush the second time,” they said gently, that “we” presumably standing in for the whole the world. “We just don’t understand.”
“I never would have thought we could elect a black man,” I said. “But now …”
A middle-aged man from Israel, studying the language to reconnect with his Turkish roots, snapped, “I think you’re giving your country too much credit,” and having ended the conversation, turned back to his work.
Suzy Hansen is an Istanbul-based writer and fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.