Monthly Archives: August 2012

Turkey: The most xenophobic country

During my first year as a professor I gave a class assignment that entailed each student reading an academic article of his or her choice and responding with a “critical review” of the article.  Only one student was brave enough to choose something I’d written; an article that analyzed historical relations between Greece and Turkey.

The student was a young Turkish man and his response to the article struck me at the time as downright bizarre.  Rather than critiquing the methodology of the article, which was the assignment, the student responded with several pages of ultra-nationalist bombast and concluded that the author (me) was an anti-Turkish chauvinist with Greek sympathies undoubtedly conditioned by his Western education.  I think I gave him a C.

I thought about that student a lot this week when I was looking through the most recently available (2010) global opinion polls conducted by Pew Research Center.  Pew conducts polling is some twenty-odd countries every year on a range of issues.  Some of the questions they ask relate to how people in countries feel about other countries and groups. One such question has consistently revealed in recent years that the Turkish public, compared to other countries surveyed, responds with the highest rate of “somewhat unfavorable” (15%) and “very unfavorable” (59%) when asked about their feelings toward the United States.  These numbers are even a small step above even the level of antipathy felt by the Pakistanis (13% and 55%), a country the U.S. is literally bombing on a regular basis.

Such anti-Americanism inherent in the population of an American ally is noteworthy.  Analysts have suggested several reasons for the Turkish public’s dislike of the United States.  The invasion of Iraq certainly did not help.  Secular groups in Turkey feel like the U.S. government has cozied up too much to the religiously-oriented government of Turkey led by the conservative Muslim Tayyip Erdogan.  Conservative Muslims in Turkey don’t like the United States because, well, conservative Muslims don’t tend to like the United States.

While all of these arguments might have some validity, they do not get to the heart of the issue.  Reading deeper into the surveys reveal that Turks express a strong dislike for just about everyone, a trend Pew researchers noted five years ago.

Of all the countries surveyed, Turks hold the highest level of “somewhat unfavorable” and “very unfavorable” opinions of not only the U.S., but also the EU (12 percent somewhat unfavorable, 45 very unfavorable), Russia (17% and 48%), China (16% and 45%) and (15% and 43%).  Even the fellow Sunni-majority country of Pakistan is unpopular at 11% and 39%, with only Indians expressing more unfavorable opinions.  On the plus side, Turks also express strong feelings against the terrorist groups Al Qaeda (10% and 65%), Hezbollah (10% and 64%) and Hamas (11% and 56%).

Turks not only feel a certain disdain for much of the world, but they also feel like most of the world dislikes them.  68% of Turks overall believe the world has a largely negative view of their country.  Only Americans, who express comparable numbers, are even remotely close to the Turks in feeling globally unpopular.

Most of the small handful of Turks I’ve met in my life have been really great people, but Turkish public opinion as a whole is perhaps the most xenophobic on earth.  The polling did not even account for how Turks feel about local “rivals” like the Kurds and Armenians.  Not surprisingly, Jews, who were represented in the surveys, did not fare well (78% total disapproval).

Twenty years ago, people would have cared far less about how the people of Turkey felt.  Today, however, Turkey, a country of 75 plus million people, is an up and coming force in world politics.  Economically, the country has largely weathered the global turmoil of recent years, and, over the last decade alone, GDP per capita has increased dramatically.  Within a few years, Turkey is expected to be one of the ten largest economies in the world.

At the same time, Turkey’s government has taken a more assertive stance in global diplomacy.  Since the Arab Spring, in particle, Prime Minister Erdogan has been one of the most assertive international voices of the side of the opposition in Egypt, Libya, and now Syria.  His example of “Muslim democracy” has been a source of inspiration to many of the Islamic-oriented parties in the region.  On the other hand, his involvement in issues surrounding Iran’s nuclear program and his willingness to stoke tensions with Israel has angered many in Washington.  Through agreements and disagreements, however, Turkey has arguably become the most important voice in Middle East politics.

In the future, the people of Turkey are going to continue to witness the growth of their country’s influence in the Middle East, Europe, and even, to a certain extent, globally.  I am not sure what makes Turks so angry at the world, but I do know that often times that cultural xenophobia often arises from a sense of historical victimization.

Maybe with a growing sense of empowerment, Turks will start to lose the chip that rests on their collective shoulders.  Or maybe the Turkish sense of disconnectedness with others around them will lead to a growing ability and willingness to settle old scores and cause new problems.  Whatever the future, at least Americans can rest assured; while Turks may have a lower opinion of the U.S. then any other country, they are equal opportunity haters.