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Turkish perceptions of the West.


This article, based on a book published by SETA, looks at the attitudes of Turkish people towards what is conceived as the West and Western culture. While some polls suggest a deep anti-European and anti-American sentiment in Turkey with a clear opposition to Christianity as the religion of the West, the current survey suggests evidence to the contrary. Survey findings show that there is no anti-Westernism in Turkey based on religion, culture, or civilization. Perception of the West is fragmented and does not lend itself to easy categorizations. There is no animosity towards Christianity. In fact, most participants use a respectful and even venerable language when talking about the Christian religion. While most participants do not feel comfortable with the invasion of Turkish society by Western cultural products, they see no essential conflict between the core values of the two cultures. While the perception of Western religion, culture and civilization is mostly fragmented and reveals considerable diversity, Western politics is uniformly perceived as negative and hostile.


Is there an anti-Westernism in Turkey? How is the 'West' perceived in Turkish society today? Is there something like a Christianophobia" in Turkish society which can be compared to Islamophobia in Western societies? How should one analyze the rise of anti-Americanism and anti-European Union attitudes in Turkey?

These questions are key for a proper understanding of current Turkish attitudes towards what is perceived as the "West" and Western civilization. They also provide important clues for deciphering the larger debate about the relationship between Islamic and Western societies. Perusing through the headlines of the major European and American media, one hardly misses the constant coverage of confrontation, conflict, and war in relation to the Muslim world. A small minority of Muslim extremists calling for the "total destruction of the West" (whatever that means) are presented as voicing the views of the people, from state officials and professionals to religious scholars and the man on the street. Polls and surveys give numbers and percentages without offering any sound analysis as to what ordinary people in Muslim countries actually think and how they justify their positions. (1) The end result of this construction of "Muslim thinking about the West" is disturbing: an angry Muslim world, filled with hatred and resentment towards Western culture and civilization, and intent on destroying it with the most powerful weapons it can lay its hands on.

Within the context of this wider sense of tension between Islam and the West, a similar overgeneralization is recapitulated in regard to the attitudes of Turkish people towards Western countries, with similar consequences. The cultural roots of opposition to Turkey's full membership in the European Union reveal a long list of fear, suspicion and mistrust. The murders of Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist who was killed on January 19, 2007 in Istanbul, a Christian pastor in Trabzon, and three missionaries in Malatya give the impression that there is a deep anti-Western and anti-Christian sentiment in Turkish society. The drop in Turkish support for EU membership is also interpreted as indicative of a deeper problem concerning Turkish attitudes towards Europe. The laicist neo-nationalism, which is decidedly anti-Western and anti-European, has a high visibility in Turkey, and is mentioned as a dangerous trend for Turkey's relations with the West. All of these factors lead to the conclusion that anti-Westernism in Turkey is widespread, and that it is based on deep religious and cultural differences.

Our survey of Turkish attitudes towards what is perceived as the "West" and Christianity, however, suggests evidence to the contrary. Survey findings show that there is no anti-Westernism in Turkey based on religion, culture, or civilization. (2) Rather, perception of the West in Turkish society is fragmented and does not lend itself to easy categorizations. The key words which the interviewees use to describe the West suggest a variety of views and positions in terms of history, culture, religion and politics. They cover a wide range of opinions, from admiring to critical, and include the following: civilization, industrial and technological advancement, freedom and human rights, democracy, comfort, high living standards, modern life, social security, good education, work discipline, order, rule of law, entertainment, vacation, pluralism, a different culture, developed yet with problems, pretending to be civilized but in reality not so, arrogant, corrupt, Crusades, bombs, imperialism, double standards, capitalism, coldness, rude individualism, nothing.

One of the important findings of the survey is that there is no animosity towards Christianity. In fact, most participants use a respectful and even venerable language when talking about the Christian religion. As we shall discuss below, the themes and figures common to Islam and Christianity are mentioned to underline the linkage between the two religions. A similarly positive attitude emerges in relation to Western culture, especially when it is interpreted as efficiency, order, discipline on the one hand, and democracy and human rights on the other. While most participants do not feel comfortable with the invasion of Turkish society by Western cultural products, they see no essential conflict between the core values of the two cultures. The West as civilization is also seen as essentially good and in tune with Turkish and Islamic culture. While religious and cultural differences matter, they do not necessarily lead to a clash of civilizations. Turkish-Islamic civilization as a form of identity does not prevent participants from seeing a number of common values between Islam and the West.

A dramatic change is observed when we turn to questions about the policies of Western governments. Almost all participants surveyed are extremely critical of Western policies towards Turkey, Muslim countries, and the world in general. They see these policies as imperialistic, hypocritical, destabilizing, destructive, counterproductive, one-sided, irresponsible, and so on. While the perception of Western religion, culture and civilization is mostly fragmented and reveals considerable diversity, Western politics is uniformly perceived as negative and hostile. Contrary to the religious and cultural diversity of the West, Western policies are considered to be monolithic and united around the principles of self-interest and double standard.

These findings are important for a proper understanding of current attitudes towards the West as varying according to the different categories of Western religion, culture, civilization and politics. Equally important is the way in which the participants use various examples and arguments to justify their positions. In what follows, we provide a summary of these findings, and indicate how they affect constructions of the West in Turkish public opinion. The fact that politics is identified as the most problematic and contested issue is of particular importance, because it points to the areas in which we should be looking for solutions. What this finding suggests is that besides religious leaders and cultural representatives, political leaders and policy makers have both a particular responsibility and a unique opportunity to bring Islamic and Western societies closer to one another.

It should be noted that our survey findings are confirmed by the conclusions and recommendations of the Report of the High-Level Group of the Alliance of Civilizations, an initiative co-chaired by the Prime Ministers of Spain and Turkey. The Report, prepared under the auspices of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations initiative and released on November 13, 2006, noted that "... polarized perceptions, fueled by injustice and inequality, often lead(s) to violence and conflict, threatening international stability." The Report, however, also pointed out that "the history of relations between cultures is not only one of wars and confrontation. It is also based on centuries of constructive exchanges, cross-fertilization, and peaceful co-existence". (3)

Turkey's participation in the Alliance of Civilizations initiative confirms Turkey's willingness to overcome difErences and contribute to a culture of coexistence between Islamic and Western societies. The initiative concentrates on issues and problems at the political level and seeks to generate enough political will to address such pressing issues as representation, media, extremism, migration, youth, and inter-cultural dialogue. But no political initiative can succeed unless it is supported by a well-defined ethical and intellectual framework. In a separate study, we addressed this issue and argued that an ethics of coexistence can be derived from the religious and cultural references of Islamic and Western civilizations. (4) Our current study has shown that besides the political, ethical, and intellectual grounds, there is also a strong social basis in Turkish society that favors building trust while recognizing differences and embracing diversity.

The survey questions were asked in four groups. The first set of questions focused on the "West" as seen from the "East." Although the categories of East and West are too general and abstract for any survey, it was important to determine the participants' understanding of them. The second set of questions concentrated on Christianity as the religion of the West. The third concerned Western culture and its impact on Turkey. The last focused on the policies of Western countries. The following is a summary of the answers given by the survey participants.

The "West" as Seen from the "East"

The general perception of the West is fragmented, varied and occasionally contradictory. A conversation that begins with a depiction of the West as the cradle of civilization easily ends up in discussion of the Crusades, colonialism, modern capitalism and the hypocritical policies of Western governments. This is not so much a contradiction in thought as a reflection of mixed attitudes towards the West. While there is no total acceptance or rejection of the West, feelings and attitudes range from the most positive to the negative, sometimes in the thoughts of a single person. The answers to the questions in this category can be grouped as follows:

a) "The West is the cradle of civilization." Western people are seen as hardworking and disciplined; the best quality of Western civilization is described as work order and discipline. Mr. Ali, a taxi driver from Ankara, summarizes the West as denoting "health services, basic rights and freedoms, and work opportunities." Some put the emphasis on technology and economic development. Mrs. Nihal, a retired civil servant from Mersin, identifies the West with democracy. Mr. Mehmet, a manual worker in Konya, sees the West in terms of prosperity and the use of technology. In this widely-shared view, the West is an advanced technological civilization and surpasses all others. (5) While some associate the West with "entertainment" and "vacation," others think of "freedom, comfort and prosperity."

b) "The West is an imperialist civilization." Those who see the West as imperialist refer to the Crusades and argue that the imperialistic policies of the West go back to the Middle Ages. Mr. Kasim, a 51 year-old farmer from Ankara, says that "they (the West) have colonized other nations, for instance Africa. There is also evangelization they do systematically" Mrs. Melahat, a 42-year old school teacher and a mother of three, says that she was once fascinated by the achievements of Western civilization. As she grew older, however, she became disillusioned by what she describes as the "hypocritical policies of the West towards other nations." Mrs. Ayse, an old lady who spent some time in the household of Adnan Menders, the Prime Minister of Turkey who was executed after the military coup of 1960, sees the Western work system as too excessive and a kind of prison. She does not believe that those who work hard in the West are happy at all.

c) "The West is materially advanced but culturally and morally corrupt." This third view is expressed by many of the participants as an essential characteristic of Western civilization. Mrs. Sevim, who works as a secretary for a Member of Parliament from the Republican People's Party, admits that the West is advanced economically and technologically. But she also believes that the family structure in Western societies is very weak and this leads to numerous social ills. 27-year old Mrs. Yasemin, who says she has been to many European countries, shares the same view.

The West is also seen as arrogant, distant and cold, i.e., lacking human affection. Mr. Ahmet, a 35-year old accountant from Ankara, thinks that the West, because of its achievements in the process of modernization, has become a culture that is arrogant, pedantic, spoiled and dominating. Others also see the West as distant and cold compared to Turkish culture even though they admit that they have not lived in the West.

In addition to these three views, some participants claim to have no knowledge of the West. However, these respondents also show an interest in discussions about Western civilization. They admit they know very little about Western societies and avoid passing any positive or negative judgments. Mr. Isa, a 29-year old barber from Mersin, says that he has no concrete or general conception of Western culture and society. Mr. Gokhan, who runs an internet cafe in the same city, says that he is not interested in knowing about the West. "This is may be because I know very little about their daily lives", he says.

Perceptions of Christianity

Is there an opposition to Christianity in Turkey similar to Islamophobia in Western countries? A number of questions were asked to evaluate the participants' view of Christianity as "the religion of the West." The answers are varied and confirm the multiple perceptions of Christianity among Turks. According to the participants, Christianity fits one of the following three descriptions: it is one of the Divinely revealed religions and the religion of Jesus Christ who is also accepted as a Prophet in Islam; it is a different religion; and it is a religion whose original message has been distorted.

Those who see Christianity as one of the revealed religions sent to Jesus Christ speak of it with respect and even veneration. A 26-year old female teacher from Diyarbakir describes Christianity as the "religion of those who believe in Jesus as being above all other prophet." Mrs. Gozde, who works as a cleaner in a private office, says that "we Muslims believe in all prophets whereas they (Christians) believe only in Jesus." Mr. Huseyin, who identifies himself as an Alevi and works as a taxi driver in Ankara, says that "there are four sacred books. There is only one truth but there are multiple ways to it." Some participants highlight the theological differences between Islam and Christianity without expressing any strong views. Some identify it as the religion of the West. Interestingly, only one participant associates Christianity with the Crusades (most respondents relate the Crusades to the policies of Western countries). Mrs. Melahat, a teacher from Konya, remembers the Crusades in relation to Christianity but does not look at Westerners as the people who launched the Crusades against the Muslim world.

In response to the question of how they would react to having a Christian neighbor or a Church in the neighborhood, almost all of the participants responded positively and said that they see no problem with interacting with Christians, or Christians following their own religion. Their reasons for this acceptance, however, vary. Some see freedom of religion as a democratic right. Some believe that Islam is a tolerant religion that thus does not deny Christians their religious rights. Some articulate an idea of pluralism and see diversity as an asset. Some emphasize the universal qualities of being a good human being, rather than being Muslim or Christian. Some see no problems with Christians as long as they do no interfere with others' lives. Implicit in this answer is the opposition to missionary activities in Turkey (more on this below). Out of 90-plus participants, only five opposed the idea of having a Christian neighbor. They explain their opposition by saying that their children might be influenced by Christians and Christian activities around them.

To further measure the attitudes towards Christians and Christianity, a more theological question was asked: can a Christian be a good person and go to heaven? None of the participants have given a negative answer to the first part of the question. This shows that the criteria of being a good human being are not determined by religion, race or culture but by acting morally. Mrs. Ulviye, a 29-year old textile worker in Ankara, says that people can be good regardless of their religion. She says that "yes, we are all Muslims but this does not guarantee that we are all morally good and will go to heaven." Participants have almost invariably said that while they are proud to be Muslims, this does not guarantee their entry into heaven. Muslim or Christian, everyone has to do good deeds to earn salvation. Faith is important but so are good deeds. Many believe that good deeds will not be wasted and God will reward people for them regardless of the particular religion they follow. One participant believes that God cannot be so cruel and merciless as to not reward good deeds.

As for the second part of the question, i.e., the possibility of salvation for Christians, three positions emerge. The first accepts that Christians can go to heaven. The second denies such a possibility. And the third says that they have do not have enough knowledge and should consult religious scholars. Mr. Koksal believes that as long as Christians do good deeds, they can go to heaven. Mr. Ahmet from Ankara says that one has to believe in God and accept Prophet Muhammad as God's Messenger to reach salvation in the hereafter. Those who deny salvation to Christians and non-Muslims in general see this as a matter of religious faith. One participant from Malatya believes that the question of salvation should be left to God as "no one should interfere with God's business,"

Is the West a Christian civilization? Some participants see the West as a Christian civilization for primarily demographic and historical reasons. But they add that Westerners do not practice their religion today. For 25-year old Ozlem from Ankara, whether they practice it or not, Westerners are nevertheless members of a Christian civilization. The second view, which does not see the West as a Christian civilization, is supported by the argument that if Westerners were to practice the basic teachings of their religion, they would not have followed their past and current policies towards others. Some, like Mrs. Melahat, a school teacher from Konya, believe that Western civilization has developed not because but instead of Christianity. She says that the West became what it is today after Christianity began to lose its impact on Western people.

Mr. Ramazan, a retired worker from Malatya, does not believe that the West can be a Christian civilization in the religious sense of the term because "one (Christianity) is the heart; the other (the West) is the wallet." Mr. Ahmet, a lawyer from Izmir, says that Christianity is a belief system whereas the West is a political entity. He believes that the Western countries are part of an imperialist system, and that religion does not advocate colonizing other people. Some of the participants cite another reason as to why the West is not a Christian civilization; they say that in Western countries there are not only Christians but also Jews, Muslims, atheists, and followers of other faiths.

While all respondents express respect for Christianity and its followers, they are nearly unanimous in opposing missionary activities in Turkey. This finding is in conformity with the general attitude towards missionaries from the Ottoman through the Republican periods. It is widely believed that the missionaries played an important role in the spread of nationalist and secessionist ideas among the Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire, which eventually led to its disintegration. This view also explains why missionary activities were closely followed and banned by the new secular Republic of Turkey.

According to the respondents, there are two main reasons for their opposition to missionary activities. The first is that missionaries exploit the social and economic difficulties of people. Mr. Lutfi from Diyarbakir opposes missionary activities because the missionaries exploit people's difficult conditions to convert to Christianity. He believes that the missionaries approach people in need of help, give them money, and promise foreign citizenship, education abroad, etc. This is seen as being both irreligious and unethical. Similarly, Mrs. Melahat, the teacher from Konya, says that people should be free to choose a religion, not exploited to make an uneducated choice. One respondent says that Christians should teach Christianity first to their own people.

The second main reason for opposing missionary activities in Turkey is the belief that the missionaries have plans to divide and conquer Turkey by changing the country's culture and religion. These political plans are usually traced back to the end of the Ottoman Empire. Mr. Selami, a cellular phone vendor from Istanbul, accuses the missionaries of dividing and assimilating non-Western societies. Mr. Celal from Izmir says that "the missionary does not have a religion. They are only interested in protecting their own interests. This is as crucial for our country as terrorism. The easiest way to destroy a society is to do it from within. This is precisely what the missionaries are doing." Mrs. Cigdem from Bursa and Mr. Ahmet from Ankara see missionary activities as part of the plans of "great powers" and a tool of "big Western capital."

At this point in the survey, many participants criticize the AK Party government for turning a blind eye to missionary activities and passing the new associations laws that would allow Christian minorities to own land and property. While some respondents say that the missionaries are effective only with non-Muslims in Turkey, Mr. Ali, who has identified himself as an Alevi Turkish Muslim, complains about the large number of Alevis influenced or converted by missionaries. He attributes this to the lack of proper religious education among the Turkish Alevis. He says that "the missionaries work much harder than we Muslims do even during the month of Ramadan. They give people money. They provide dual citizenship. They send people to any country they want. And they convert the educated ones. As an Alevi, what makes me sad is that they have more Alevi followers than others. Why? Because they haven't been to the mosque or read the Qur'an. No one has taught them their religion. In other words, they know nothing and when they see this (what the missionaries say), they think this is the best."

A very limited number of participants see no problem with missionary activities in Turkey. Mr. Deniz and Mrs. Sumeyra believe that all religions advocate missionary activity. Mr. Levent, a civil servant in Ankara, says that he has been to some missionary events out of curiosity. After listening to the pastor, he says he was not convinced. But he sees this as a question of religious freedom. He adds that every view, right or left, religious or anti-religious, should be free in Turkey. Mr. Murat, a businessman from Istanbul, looks at it from a different angle: "When people distribute the Qur'an on the street, they say that the Islamists are coming, etc. But they (the missionaries) openly distribute the Gospel in Taksim (one of the busiest sections of Istanbul) and wash people's brains."

Western Culture and the Problems of Living With it

Attitudes towards European and American cultures are intertwined with Turkey's long experience of Westernized modernization on the one hand, and the recent effects of globalization on the other. The respondents are usually critical of Western culture and its impact on Turkish society. This is especially true when the two cultures are compared and contrasted. When specific questions are asked about Western culture, however, the responses are usually more positive. This suggests that cultural differences can be brought to a minimum within a larger context of universally shared values.

When asked to compare and contrast Western and Turkish cultures, the respondents emphasize differences and separate the two cultures in a clear manner. The differences are expressed in terms of religion, traditions, customs, ethical norms, family structure, attitude towards parents and relatives, way of life, dress, wedding, cuisine, and other norms that shape people's social behavior. The respondents usually consider Western culture egotistic, individualistic, too lax and liberal, and open to crime, drugs, sexuality, and other morally unacceptable practices. Mrs. Fikriye from Izmir says that Western and Turkish cultures are incompatible because the differences are too deep. Mr. Cuneyt, a religious official from Ankara, sees the family structure as the most important difference between the two cultures. Mrs. Sinem, who describes herself as close to communism, says that the Turkish people are warm whereas Westerners are too cold to have a serious cultural contact.

Some participants see some areas of compatibility and describe them as economic opportunities and social services. A limited number of people see the two cultures as getting along because they see Turkish culture as "wide ranging and inclusive, tolerant of others, and able to adapt to other cultures." Mrs. Fadime from Konya also believes that the two cultures can live in peace "as long as everybody follows his/her religion."

A general trend is that while differences are emphasized in the areas of religion, culture and customs, there are grounds for similarities and commonalities in the areas of economy, education, use of technology and other services. Mrs. Berna from Bursa refers to the shared history of Muslims and Christians under the Ottoman Empire. But she believes that such a value-based co-existence is no longer possible except in the areas of material services. Mr. Deniz, who completed his college education in Netherlands, defines Europe as a large and complex continent. He believes that Turks have more affinity and similarity with such Mediterranean countries as Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal than such northern European countries as Germany, France, and the Scandinavian countries. Turkey's share in Mediterranean culture brings it closer to some European societies.

Whether believing in the compatibility or incompatibility of Turkish and Western cultures, all respondents are unanimously concerned about the impact of Western culture on their daily lives. Many define the spread of Western culture in Turkey as a result of cultural imperialism. Only one respondent sees it as a result of globalization. One common complaint is the negative impact of Western culture on Turkish youth. The parents in particular express concern about their children coming under Western influence and adopting Western modes of behavior. Another criticism is the spread of consumerism among the youth. Those who hold this view imply that Western cultural products are exported to Turkey and other countries to open up markets for Western capitalism.

Mrs. Nuray is unhappy about the use of non-Turkish and mostly English words in shops, movie theaters, companies and other places. Mrs. Sumeyra from Konya interprets this linguistic displacement as losing one's own identity. Mr. Selami from Istanbul sees the impact of Western culture on Turkish youth as extremely harmful for the future of the country. Mr. Ali from Ankara sees the Turkish youth as devoid of any ideal: "The youth used to have an ideal for themselves. Rightist, leftist or Islamist, they had an ideal, a goal. The new generation knows nothing but rock music; and I don't trust them." According to Mr. Tamer, a research assistant in Ankara, the invasion of Turkish youth and culture by Western culture is a way of undermining the cultural revolutions of Ataturk.

Despite the above concerns and general opposition to the spread of Western culture, some respondents see no problem with living in a Western country. They explain their reasons as follows: Turks are adaptive to other cultures; Western countries have better economic conditions and established human rights for every one; and life is more difficult in Turkey.

When asked how they would live in a Western cultural setting, the respondents anticipate certain problems but are confident that they can be overcome through dialogue and mutual respect. They identify the difficulties as language, religion, food, relationships, and other cultural issues. One respondent refers to the Greek and Armenian citizens of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic to assert that such an experience of co-existence has been possible and can be relived today.

Many respondents shared a generalized sense of fear and anxiety about the uncertainties of living in a foreign country. Some other respondents see serious problems with living in a Western country. They consider the cultural and religious differences too serious to be ignored. Mr. Gokhan, who runs an internet cafe in Mersin, sees Western attitudes towards sexuality to be too liberal and incompatible with ethical norms. Mr. Ibrahim, a contractor from Istanbul, expresses concern about his cultural and religious rights in a Western country. Tuba, Merve and Fatma, all of whom wear headscarf as part of their religious belief, are concerned about the reactions to their outward appearance. They also fear that they would be treated as backward religious fanatics. Many also mention the neo-Nazi attacks on Turks in such countries as Germany. Mrs. Nuray thinks that most of Turks living in Europe are faced with serious problems. One major source of concern mentioned repeatedly is the belief that Western societies are exclusivist and even racist towards others. Most believe that they would be subjected to discrimination and intolerance in a Western country. While it should be noted that those who fear living in the West have never lived abroad and have heard several bad stories about life in Western countries, their perception is that the Western cultural milieu would not be a suitable place for them to live.

How about a Westerner living in Turkey? Most of the respondents believe that Westerners would have no problem living in Turkey. The reasons they cite are the following: Turks are tolerant people; Turks have lived with different cultures and religions before; Turks are hospitable; Westerners are economically well off; we are not as exclusivist as they are. Mrs. Selma and Mr. Celal, both from the city of Izmir, believe that since Turks are tolerant people, Westerners can easily live among them. For Mr. Mustafa, there would be no clash between "Hans and Hasan" as long as political ideologies do not get in the way. Mr. Huseyin from Ankara believes that the problems are not between people but between policies.

Those who do not think a Westerner would have a problem living in Turkey do caution against certain problems such as bureaucracy, traffic, Westerner's liberalism in their dress, and their tendency to report even the smallest disputes to the police. Those who anticipate problems for Westerners living in Turkey also cite the reasons above. They mention such issues as religion or religious service, language, culture, dress, and shopping. Mr. Yucel, who lived in the Netherlands for many years before settling in Mersin, believes that discrimination exists on both sides. He says that "we form our ghettoes there and they form their ghettoes here. Everybody buys a flat from the same apartment complex because they feel a need to protect themselves ... instead, we should all integrate."

Since most of the respondents have not lived in Europe, their responses are usually based on what they have heard from their relatives and friends as well as what they read in newspapers about Neo-Nazi attacks on Turks in Germany and the developments after September 11th. The general belief is that Turks in Europe are faced with discrimination and intolerance in such areas as economic life and education. This makes their integration more difficult. According to some respondents, it is primarily Westerners who are responsible for this. According to others, the Turks are also responsible because they do not try hard enough to integrate into the societies in which they live.

One major concern is the loss of Turkish language among the third generation of Turks in Europe. Some add the loss of religious and cultural traditions. For Mr. Deniz from Mersin and Mrs. Ayten from Bursa, Turks living in Europe now have very little connection with Turkish and Islamic values because of their cultural and religious assimilation. Three respondents from Mersin believe that the Turks and Muslims living in Europe enjoy cultural and religious rights which they cannot have even in Turkey.

Western Policies

The harshest criticism of the West emerges in regard to Western policies. The relatively positive image of Western religion and culture takes a sharp turn when Western policies towards Turkey and Muslim countries are brought up. The participants describe Western policies as biased, hypocritical, exploitative, belligerent, and "unable to overcome the crusaders' mentality."

The association of Islam with violence and terrorism is seen as a convenient plot used by the West to defame Islam and advance Western political and economic interests. Ms. Ozlem, a research assistant from Ankara, believes that Westerners do not have a problem with Islam itself, but they attack and defame Muslims and Muslim countries in order to control their energy resources. She is also disturbed by the Western identification of Islam with violence but she says she does not blame the Westerners because some people do commit violence in the name of Islam. Mrs. Fikriye from Izmir believes that the Western countries divide Muslim nations and play them against each other to take control of their material resources.

The same negative attitude is detected in regard to the West's attitude towards Turkey. Most of the respondents believe that Europe is hypocritical and unfriendly towards Turkey because it is a Muslim country. Mr. Yusuf, a furniture shop owner from Bursa, believes that the West does not have friendly relations with Turkey because of its Muslim identity. But Mrs. Berna believes that Europeans change their view of Turkey after visiting the country. Some, like a female teacher from Diyarbakir, blame Turkey for its negative image in Europe because of Turkey's poor record on such issues as human rights and torture.

According to the participants, the specific reasons for the negative perception of Western policies are the following: Western countries do not support us in our fight against terrorism, i.e., against the PKK; some European countries harbor PKK militants and supporters; they support the Greek-Cypriot side rather than Turkey despite Turkey's rightful position; and finally the so-called Armenian genocide claims are taken seriously by some Western countries.

How do the Western people look at Turkey? Most of the participants believe that the Western people see Turkey negatively, in some cases even as uncivilized and barbaric. Some attribute this negative misconception to the lack of a proper and healthy line of communication between the two sides. Mr. Huseyin, a taxi driver from Ankara, does not think that Westerners know Turkey well. Their perception is shaped by negative events that happen outside Turkey. Some Westerners have difficulty identifying Turkey on the map. On the other hand, Mr. Ahmet from Ankara believes that the West is not monolithic and there is as much misunderstanding on the Turkish side as there is on the Western side.

Most of the participants hold that the Western people look at Turks in the same way as they look at Muslims in general. Some mention the fact that the Turk and the Muslim are one and the same in the Western mind and this goes back to the times when the Ottomans led the Muslim world against Europe. Mr. Murat from Istanbul, however, believes that the image of Turks in the Western mind is better than that of Arabs and Iranians.

Half of the participants hold that the public in Western countries does not support the policies of their governments, thus making a clear distinction between the people and the state. Mr. Serdar, who is unemployed, is of the opinion that Western publics do not support the policies of their governments. He also mentions the protests against President Bush's policies by some Hollywood starts at the Grammy and Oscar events. Mr. Yusuf from Bursa mentions the street demonstrations against the Iraq war as more evidence for the disapproval of Western policies by their own public.

The other half believes that the Western public supports their governments' policies towards Muslim countries. As evidence and example, most mention George Bush's election for a second term in the United States. Mr. Mert, a computer specialist from Samsun, says that even though he has no evidence, he believes that the 9/11 attacks were carried by the American government to deceive and mislead their people. Mr. Suleyman from Istanbul says that the West has never been tolerant towards the religion of Islam and cites as an example the end of Muslim presence in Spain.

Are all Western countries the same? Most of the respondents believe so, but they find certain countries closer to themselves than others. All of them see the United States as the most distant. The UK follows the US in negative perception. These two countries are specifically mentioned as responsible for imperialistic policies towards the Muslim world. Some also mention France, Germany and Israel among the Western countries that cause trouble for Turkey and other Muslim countries. The countries which the participants find sympathetic and somewhat closer include Spain, Italy, Portugal, Germany, Switzerland, and France, as well as Japan and Korea.

Attitudes toward the EU are important indicators of how the category of West is understood and debated in Turkish society. Given Turkey's bid to join the EU, many would identify it as one of the most concrete embodiments of the West. In this sense, it was important to ask questions about how Turkish people relate to the EU. Most of the respondents support Turkey's EU membership. They describe the EU primarily as a union of economic development and welfare on the one hand, and the rule of law and human rights on the other. Few consider it a "Christian club" but see religion playing some role in the EU's policies towards Turkey.

Mr. Ahmet believes that the EU process provides the external incentive that Turkey needs to carry out political and economic reforms. He thinks that the process is more important than the outcome. Whether or not Turkey will ever become a full member of the EU, the legal and political reforms are important. Mr. Ali, an Alevi taxi driver from Ankara, supports EU membership because he holds that the Turkish state does not treat the Alevis equally whereas in the EU this will not be a problem.

Another group of respondents says that they had once supported EU membership but lost their hope because of EU policies over the last years. They believe that Turkey is being forced to make more concessions than it should. Mr. Isa, a barber from Mersin, complains about the loss of national pride vis-a-vis Europe. He adds: "Yes, we should enter. But we shouldn't beg them. They should invite us."

Those who oppose Turkey's membership hold that as a member in the EU, Turkey will loose its sovereignty. They see sharing national sovereignty with an international body as a threat to national unity and security. One person believes that the EU will always keep Turkey under its control. Echoing a similar theme of national unity, another person says that he would not want to use a money bill that does not have Ataturk's picture on it. A 32-year old engineer from Istanbul fears that full membership will bring assimilation. Mrs. Nihal, a retired worker, believes

that the economic incentives of the EU are not as strong as some claim because "our own income is enough for all of us."

Is the Muslim identity of Turkey an obstacle to Turkey's membership in the EU? This question was asked to find out what people think about Turkey's image as a Muslim country in Europe. Some, including Mrs. Fikriye from Izmir, believe that while Europe's Christian identity is not a problem for Turks, Turkey's Muslim identity is a problem for Europeans. Most believe that had Turkey been a Christian country, it would have been in the Union by now. Some think that religion, whether Christianity or Islam, should not be an impediment but admit that in practical terms, religious identities do matter. Mr. Ahmet from Diyarbakir, Mrs. Esin and Mr. Akif from Izmir, and Mrs. Yasemin from Istanbul hold say that "we respect their religion and they should respect ours ... religion should not be a deciding factor."

Others hold that Turkey faces problems not because of religion but for political and economic reasons. Mr. Ahmet, an economic consultant from Ankara, believes that the EU membership includes not only religious but also economic, cultural, social, military and security dimensions. Mr. Taner, a research assistant from Ankara, mentions demography, arguing that Turkey's strong population will be a problem for some European countries.

Within the context of the above discussions, the interviewees were asked about the Alliance of Civilizations Initiative supported by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero. Not a single person knew anything about the initiative. This is rather surprising because most of the respondents follow developments about Turkey's EU membership, debates in Europe about Islam and Muslims, and the infamous clash of civilizations thesis. It is clear that the Turkish public has not been properly informed about the initiative.

When given some information about the initiative, most of the respondents approached it with suspicion and cautious optimism. While some think that the initiative could lead to dialogue and tolerance between Islamic and Western cultures, some consider it impossible to change the deep-seated problems through meetings, declarations, and the like. Some of the participants find Spain to be a good partner for such an initiative.

In the last set of questions about Western policies, the participants were asked about the state of human rights in Turkey. Most admit that there is a human rights problem in Turkey. They feel that Turkey should do more to improve its human rights record. But they all agree that the West is not in a position to criticize or impose anything on Turkey as far as human rights are concerned. They explain their reason by saying that the West does not have a clean record either. They also criticize the West for applying double standards to non-Western countries. Ms. Pinar, a university student, says that Western countries claim to oppose capital punishment, but the U.S. had Saddam Hussein executed. Some mention the silence of Western countries over human rights abuses by Israel. While most of the interviewees believe that the human rights are universal, and thus cannot be simply a domestic issue, they oppose any interference from outside.


As the foregoing quotations and analyses show, Turkish perception of the West as a social, cultural, religious and political entity is multiple and fragmented. There is no overarching view that defines the West as either an absolute friend or an absolute enemy. There are many shades of color in the respondents' sketch of the West, ranging from positive, constructive, and friendly, to negative, imperialistic, and exploitative. While Western culture and religion are not seen in antagonistic terms and the participants usually respect them, Western policies emerge as the main sources of concern, criticism and rejection.

The wide variety of attitudes can be interpreted as a positive sign, indicating that the current tensions between Islamic and Western societies are the result of political rather than cultural and religious issues. A situation in which cultural and religious differences really were divisive and antagonistic would have created more problems for both societies. The focus on policy also suggests that relations can be improved if policies are revised in tandem with the principles of justice, peace, and equality.


(1.) Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think by John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed is a major exception. The book is based on six years of research and more than 50,000 interviews from 35 nations that are predominantly Muslim or have sizable Muslim populations. The findings by Esposito and Mogahed confirm our survey findings in the case of Turkey.

(2.) The survey was conducted in 10 cities, and is based on in-depth interviews with 90 participants. The cities surveyed are Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Mersin, Diyarbakir, Bursa, Konya, Erzurum, Malatya and Samsun. Selection of cities is based on NUTS 1 (The Nomenclature of Territorial Units for Statistics). The distribution of interviewees among cities is as follows: Istanbul 17, Ankara 13, Izmir 10, Mersin 8, Diyarbakir 8, Bursa 8, Konya 8, Erzurum 6, Malatya 6, and Samsun 6. The interviews were conducted between October 2006 and June 2007. For further details of the survey, its methodology and questions, see Bulbul, Ozipek, Kahn, Ask ile Nefret Arasinda: Turkiye'de Toplumun Buti Algisi (Between Love and Hatred: Perception of the West in Turkish Society) (Ankara: SETA Publications, 2008). The English version of the book will appear among SETA publications.

(3.) Alliance of Civilizations Report of the High-Level Group,, p. 1.

(4.) Cf. Kudret Bulbul and Bekir Berat Ozipek, From the Dialogue to the Alliance of Civilizations: A Collective Initiative for Universal Peace (Ankara: SETA-Orient Publications, 2007). Richard Bulliet makes a similar case for an "Islamo-Christian Civilization." See his The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).

(5.) The identification of the West with science and technology goes back to the 19'h century Ottoman thought. For a survey of the concept of "civilization" (medeniyet) among Ottoman intellectuals, see Tuncer Baykara, Osmanlilarda Medeniyet Kavrami ve Ondokuzuncu Yuzyila Dair Arastirmalar (Izmir: Akademi Kitabevi, 1992). For discussions of science and technology, see Ibrahim Kalm, "Three Views of Science in the Islamic World" in God, Life and the Cosmos: Christian and Islamic Perspectives, Ted Peters, Muzaffar Igbal, Syed Nomanul Haq (eds.), (Ashgate, 2002), pp. 43-75.


* Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Kirikkale University, Kirikkale,

** Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Gazi Osman Pasa University, Tokat,

*** Dr., SETA, Ankara,
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Author:Bulbul, Kudret; Ozipek, Bekir Berat; Kalin, Ibrahim
Publication:Insight Turkey
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:7TURK
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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