U.S. Policy and Turkey: Lost in Translation

April 14, 2008

How should Washington react to what is going on in Turkey? Put yourself in the place of Condoleezza Rice, who probably regrets having to deliver a speech tomorrow at the American-Turkish Council’s (ATC) annual conference in Washington. What should she say?

The reality on the ground is clear: Your close ally Turkey is once again going through tumultuous times. The governing party, which won last summer’s election by a landslide, is now facing potential “legal extinction” on the grounds of promoting an Islamic agenda. The case is in the Constitutional Court, the country is politically very polarized and the future of Turkish democracy is at stake.

All Turkish eyes and ears will be on Washington tomorrow, carefully judging and weighing the meaning of every word behind Rice’s speech. I’m sure the Turkish press will be counting how many times the secretary uses the word “secularism” versus the word “democracy.” If the result is secularism: 8 democracy: 10, the winner will be… “moderate Islam”! If, instead, secularism beats out democracy by a small margin, victory will be for “Kemalism.” If Rice really wants to confuse her Turkish listeners, she may say something like “Washington values Turkey’s long-standing tradition of democratic secularism.” Democratic secularism? Everyone in the audience will be confused, asking each other whether this one should count for secularism or for democracy.

I’m only half-joking. Turkish journalists will be seriously counting these two words. This is the sad state of affairs in Turkey’s perception of the United States. That’s what happens in a conspiracy theory-prone political culture in which people seriously believe Washington is behind everything. How else can one explain the indictment of the chief prosecutor, which refers to the US as a force that wants to promote “moderate Islam” in Turkey?

How Turkish secularists developed such a perception of the US as a pro-moderate Islam superpower is a case for the “law of unintended consequences.” It all started in 2001. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, American officials were desperately looking for “hope” in the Islamic world. They did not want to buy into Huntington’s self-fulfilling prophecy of a “clash” between Islam and the West. There had to be a country out there in the Islamic world that was secular, democratic and pro-Western. Well, in fact, there were not many. Indeed, Turkey was probably the only one. Thus, American officials hailed Turkey as “model” that proved the compatibility of Islam, democracy, secularism and pro-Western tradition. Yet, these American officials who enthusiastically embraced the Turkish model were utterly unconscious of deep cleavages in Turkish society over secularism and Islam.

That was inexcusable. All they had to do was to read Huntington himself, who called Turkey a “torn” country in his book on the clash of civilizations. Turkey’s identity problems were so polarizing that a harmonious balance between Islam, secularism and Western identity appeared totally elusive. Far from being the “model” country proving the fallacy of the clash of civilization, Turkey was instead a microcosm of the clash itself. Soon after America began referring to Turkey as a model, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came to power. This situation further fueled the conspiracy theory that America was behind a diabolical plan to push Turkey as a model of moderate Islam in the Middle East. Turks were to become the “Good Muslims” against the “Bad Muslims.” Turkish secularists were now fully convinced that something was being cooked up in Washington, probably in the dark corridors of the CIA. Just as America used Islam against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the imperial power was now ready to use Turkey’s moderate Islam against its new jihadist enemies. Of course, all this came at the expense of Turkey’s Kemalist-secularist legacy. That is why Turkey’s Kemalist academics, generals, intellectuals and civil society have now turned radically anti-American. In fact, they all believe the AK Party is a “made in the USA” phenomenon.

Thank God Americans have rapidly realized how insecure and irrational Turks can be. Today no State Department official dares to speak about the Turkish Republic as a “model” for the Islamic world. Instead, Turkey is referred to as “a secular republic with a Muslim majority population and a source of inspiration for democratic reforms in the Islamic world.” This is a rather long and cumbersome sentence, but it does the trick for Kemalists and secularists who remain deeply suspicious of American intentions to promote “moderate Islam” in Turkey. Yet, to a certain degree, the damage is already done. The secularists will never trust Washington, and Muslim conservatives will always worry that Washington may turn a blind eye to a military or judicial coup in Turkey. At the end of the day, this is why whatever Condi Rice says tomorrow will also be lost in translation.