[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News, with readers’ comments]
Most of us who write for this paper are engaged in a unique cross-cultural exercise: We write in a language other than our own, and to readers from societies to which we do not belong. Although I live in Istanbul, Turkey, in the midst of millions of Muslim Turks, for example, my column in these pages are mostly read by English-speaking Westerners.
This gives me with two strategic options: I can either tell my Western readers what they want to hear about the realities of my world. Or, I can tell them how I really interpret those realities, regardless of whether this would make them happy or unhappy.
Westerner in the East
Honestly, there are some who choose the first option, and it works for them well. They know there is a deep-seated distrust in the West these days about the nature of Islam and Muslims, and they simply go with that flow.
When they write about Israel and the Arabs, for example, they choose to concentrate only on the troubles on the latter side. The Arabs, in this rhetoric, are simply irrational, violent, mad people, who will not find peace of mind without destroying all the “pieces” of Israel one by one. The Jewish State, on the other hand, is absolutely justified in everything she does. Those who question that narrative, and ask silly questions about trivia such as “occupation” and “humiliation,” are just anti-Semites in disguise. Perhaps not even in disguise.
Similarly, when the same commentators write about Turkey, they push all the right buttons that will resonate with the Islamo-sceptic biases of the West. The fact that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has authoritarian tendencies is explained not by matters of personality, or the patrimonial nature of Turkish politics, but by an imagined Islamist conspiracy to dominate Turkey. Kemalism is constantly praised for teaching Muslims some manners by destroying their institutions, banning their practices, and secularizing their brains.
Now, I know this rhetoric “sells.” The fact that such views come out from at least nominally “Muslim” voices attracts great applause. Many Western leaders praise such “men of courage.” If the rest of the Muslim world, that giant mass of the unwashed, was like these “enlightened” voices, we are even told, the word would be heaven on earth.
Yet still, despite all the apparent advantages of being such “a Westerner in the East, “I can’t help but choosing the other option for myself: telling the Westerners how I really interpret the realities on the Muslim world, regardless of whether this would make them happy or unhappy.
What I said lately on bin Laden and al-Qaeda was of that nature. For me, these are simply terrorists who shed the blood of many innocents, both Muslim and non-Muslim. Like the fringe Kharijites of the early ages of Islam, they are wild-eyed fanatics who committed many non-Islamic crimes in the name of Islam.
But it is also true there are quite a few people in the Muslim world who sympathize with bin Laden for his “heroic stance” against “the imperialists.” In fact, I have been negatively surprised in the past few days on the extent of that rhetoric in Turkey. The daily Vakit and the Saadet, or Felicity Party, both boldly Islamist, announced bin Laden as “martyr,” whereas some mixed feelings could be seen even in daily Yeni Şafak, which is a bit more mainstream.
A remarkable detail was that most of these Turkish commentators who felt for bin Laden did not “believe” that the man was responsible for 9/11 and other atrocities against civilians, just like a communist would probably not believe that neither Stalin nor Che Guevara were ruthless killers, and were only depicted as such by “imperialist propaganda.” They also argued “the real terrorist” was the United States and co., and that al-Qaeda has only followed the old rule: “eye for an eye.”
I make my arguments against these fellow Turks when I speak and write to them. So, let me tell you something about the other side of the story.
As deplorable as those pro-al-Qaeda feelings might be, they must also be understood. Granted, a part of the problem lies in the culture of our part of the world. Here, there is a mind-boggling level of addiction to conspiracy theories, and a rigid “umma nationalism” that wants to whitewash fellow Muslims at every instance and accuse outside forces for every misfortune.
But these are partly created, and greatly reinforced, by the overwhelming presence of the West, and particularly the United States, a country whose “freedom” I always love, but whose foreign policy I sometimes decry. America has made for decades the terrible mistake of supporting Middle Eastern dictators for the sake of “stability,” and supporting the expansionism of Israel, which she should have restrained for the sake of not only her own and the Arabs, but also the Jewish State itself. In one sense, al-Qaeda is a reaction to all these policies.
Refraining from saying such truths might make one a bit more loveable in the eyes of a Western audience, especially among the Westerners who want to hear only affirmations of their presuppositions. But it was a long time ago that I decided to challenge, not cater, people’s dangerous illusions.