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.
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.