[Originally published in Hürriyet Daily News]
Soner Çağaptay is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is also a prolific author, whose commentaries about Turkey appear quite frequently in prestigious newspapers and magazines. When you read them, you can’t help but sense what appears to be his strong political orientation against the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, which has governed Turkey since 2002. The takeaway message, it seems, is that the AKP is perilously Islamist and is taking the country away from its secular principles. The second message is that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his authoritarian “single party” regime is the best thing that ever happened to the Turks.
In Turkey, Mr. Çağaptay has millions of like-minded thinkers. We call them Kemalists. Atatürk is a respected figure for most of us, to be sure, as a war hero and a state founder. But Kemalists also strictly subscribe to the ideological program that he imposed for 15 years by banning all political opposition. In that sense, Kemalists constitute only a faction of Turkish society. Yet they are very powerful, thanks to their dominance in the military, judiciary, bureaucracy and the media.
Kemalism at home, Kemalism abroad
But there is a striking difference between Mr. Çağaptay and his Turkey-based comrades. And you can see this only when they start to talk about the United States. In his writing, Mr. Çağaptay often refers to the rampant anti-American tendency in this country and then puts the blame on the AKP. Turkey turns out to be the most-American nation, as argues in his recent Newsweek piece, because the AKP “has taken the easy way, bashing America at home in an attempt to boost its own popularity.” The more you read him, the more you will be convinced that the AKP is turning the America-loving Turks into America-hating fanatics.
Yet on the other side of the Atlantic, Mr. Çağaptay’s fellow Kemalists promote the exact opposite thesis. For them, the AKP is an American puppet. You can come across this depiction almost everyday in the nationalist media, which abhors the AKP and characterizes it as an un-patriotic, un-Turkish “traitor” that sells the country (and Cyprus) to “Western imperialists.” When almost a million secular Turks marched against the AKP in May 2007, they denounced not just the government but also the EU and the U.S. They protested against now-President Abdullah Gül, who was then AKP’s candidate, with a pun on his name: “We want no ABDullah,” was the motto on huge posters – and the emphasized “ABD” is the Turkish for “U.S.A.”
To date, the charges that the AKP is an agent of the American conspiracies to establish a “moderate Islamic Republic” in Turkey and a “Greater Kurdistan” in the region – delusions that exist only in some Turkish minds – have been extremely popular. The CHP and MHP, the two main opposition parties, and the smaller and crazier Workers Party (İşçi Partisi) of the ex-Maoist-turned-Kemalist Doğu Perinçek, constantly bash the government as being a pawn of America, “international finance,” or “Zionism.”
So, how should we explain the fact that the AKP is being bashed by Kemalists at home as pro-American, and by Kemalists in Washington as anti-American? And also, how should we explain the curious fact that Mr. Çağaptay, who leads the latter effort, never mentions the fact that AKP’s rivals are the real sources of anti-American propaganda in Turkey?
My personal explanation is this: Kemalists are simply leading a propaganda war against the AKP, and they fashion their arguments according to the context in which they are in. If you are sitting in an institute in Washington, it is silly to bash a party for being an American pawn, of course. But that is the perfect argument if you want to bash it in a nation which is growingly anti-American.
The Kurdish Factor
Which brings me to the factual side of Mr. Çağaptay’s alarmism. Yes, there has been rampant anti-Americanism in Turkey since 2003. But the reason is not the AKP government or even the Kemalists per se. It is the Iraq War. And it is a multi-layered story.
First, there is the understandable – and, in my view, justified – reaction to the fact that America invaded a county and caused so many deaths without any credible reason. No wonder not just Turks, but almost the whole world, including Europe – and even Blue America – have been very upset with that. So, Turks are not alone in being, at the very least, anti-Bush.
The second and more poisonous factor is what made the post-Saddam Iraq more distasteful to the Turks than anybody else: The emergence of Iraqi Kurdistan under the protection, and as an ally, of America. This region, willingly or unwillingly, provided the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, a safe heaven to use to attack Turkish targets, which created great uproar in Turkish society. But besides the PKK’s terrorism, most Turks, especially the Kemalists, can’t simply stand to see a country named “Kurdistan” on the side of their borders. They perceive this as an evil scheme, which is carried out by the Kurds, but mastered by, of course, the United States! No wonder anti-Americanism and anti-Kurdism go hand-in-hand in Turkish media.
Now, Mr. Çağaptay would have done a much better job had he honestly shown all these facts, and criticized the AKP accordingly. He is indeed right about something: The AKP hasn’t shown the leadership needed to combat anti-Americanism, and other forces of fanatic nationalism, that grows in Turkish society. Moreover, anti-American tendencies exist within AKP’s grassroots and some parts of the pro-AKP media as well. It would be only fair to criticize these, and then call on Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan to work more seriously in order to mend the Turkish-American relationship, which is crucial for both nations.
But to blame the AKP for being the source of anti-Americanism, and even to breed a “tsunami of young Turks ready to die while trying to kill Americans?” Oh boy, that is way over the top. And I am sure, if he rediscovers that virtue called objectivity, Mr. Çağaptay can do much better than that.