[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News]
I spent the past two weeks in the United States, flying from one city to another for a series of meetings – including lectures on “Islam and liberty” at the Michigan-based Acton Institute. This great country, as usual, was welcoming, entertaining and inspiring. But it also was quite tiring – especially in my very last night there, which turned out to be a small nightmare.Things began in the early afternoon, when I arrived at the JFK international airport of New York City from midtown. I was hoping to have plenty of free time in the terminal before my 4:45 p.m. Istanbul flight. But since it took a staggering two hours just to check in and pass the security control in an inadequately air-conditioned and madly packed Delta Airlines terminal, I could barely make it to the plane – in sweat and stress.
Nightmare at JFK
But that was just a warm up. As all the passengers got onboard, the pilot announced that there was a “mechanical problem” with the plane’s breaks, so we had to wait for about 30 minutes to get it fixed. The 30 minutes turned into 90, and finally we were told to leave the plane and go back to the terminal, for the problem turned out to be bigger than initially detected.
Back in the terminal, we learned that the flight was delayed until 10 p.m. The Delta crew kindly gave us “meal vouchers” – a modest six-dollar sum, with which I could only buy a small can of pineapples. (Those pineapples were darn good, I should admit.) Towards 10 p.m., though, the breaking news came: The flight was delayed until 11 a.m. the next morning, and we would all have to spend the night in New York – in hotel rooms that Delta would arrange for us.
Then we, the three hundred exhausted and frustrated passengers, lined in front of four Delta employees, who began arranging hotel rooms for us. I had to wait about two hours for my turn. But right at that moment, around midnight, the not-so-obliging gentleman at the counter said, “Sorry, it seems that the hotels we work with are out of room.” Then he kindly suggested that we could perhaps convince the more fortunate passengers to share their rooms with us.
I was lucky at least on that part. I had been chatting with Mehmet Yörük , an 81-year-old man from a village in the Turkish city of Denizli, who had just visited his sons in Brooklyn. With his white beard, green prayer cap and zero knowledge of English, the adorable Mr. Yörük man had a hotel reservation in his hand, but no idea how to get there. And there was no employee around to help him.
“Uncle, you have a hotel room, but I don’t,” I said to him. “Would you like to share it?”
“Of course, son,” he replied. “Thank God for giving me a companion like you!”
So, we together made it to the hotel, shared the room – which, to my relief, had two separate beds – and went back to the terminal in the morning. There I learned that not all passengers were as lucky as I was. Some just slept on the chairs of the terminal. Others went to the hotel, only to hear, “Sorry, we are full,” and then go back to the terminal, only to find it closed. They had to sit on the pavement for quite a while.
I even learned that this was happening to some passengers for the second time in a row. “Nothing like this ever happened to me on Turkish Airlines,” said one of them. “I will never fly with an American carrier again.”
The rise of the rest
Now, maybe it is too much to infer a geopolitical lesson from such a one-night story, but I will still try. For I think even this very small experience hints that the common 20th century belief that most people on earth shared – that “America does everything best” – is slowly fading away.
Yes, America doesn’t do everything best anymore. The age of its fancy cars is long gone, as the appeal of its fast-food, which has become globally notorious for unhealthiness. Even in skyscrapers, the very icons of American success, the U.S. is now outdone by other nations. On the list of the highest buildings on Earth, Chicago’s famous Willis Tower is now surpassed by towers in Kuala Lumpur and Taipei. Even taller ones are coming soon in Mecca and Dubai.
In his new book, “The Post-American World,” Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria points to such examples and notes that rising countries of the world are catching up with the United States. He explains that these nations have learned “America’s game” – market economy, creative technology and entrepreneurship – and now are playing it themselves. Hence they are becoming a little less fascinated with America, and a little more confident in themselves.
The much-debated shifts and adjustments in Turkish foreign policy have a lot to do with this global transformation. As one of the world’s emerging economic and political powers, Turkey could not have remained as an insecure country that blindly says “yes” to everything that Washington asks for.
Hence, the inevitable happened: Turks now realize that they are powerful enough to pursue their own values, goals and interests. They, including me, even realize that they have better airlines than those of the legendary Americans.