Thursday, June 12, 2008

I Am Not in the CIA

Asked about my recent trip to Diyarbakır and armed with the knowledge that I met two other Americans, a professor from my university and a friend who is a graduate student at Koç, I was recently asked by a group of six people if I worked with the CIA. At first, I thought this was a joke. It is common enough to joke with Americans about CIA involvement, etc., but I soon figured out that the questions were actually quite serious. The group was certainly not determined I worked for the CIA, but were quite curious about the "professor."

The questioning started after I alluded to Turgut Özal while retelling a bit about my trip and made reference to the fact that the former prime minister and president haled from Malatya. Apparently it was difficult to conceive that an American could be in possession of such knowledge without being involved with American intelligence services, and this in spite of the marvel of Wikipedia. While I do not think that the suspicions of the vast majority of Turks are so easily aroused, I was struck by their obvious mistrust of my answers and the genuine surprise that a foreigner could be armed with such very basic knowledge. Resentful of what is perceived as American-CIA assistance of the PKK—I was told this was an undeniable "fact"—and most skeptical about the United States' larger "imperial" intentions, a growing number of Turks have become distrustful of Americans in recent years (see March 16 post). It is not at all uncommon to hear that the 9/11 attacks were an insider job designed to offer justification for the invasion of Iraq and even less uncommon to hear about vast U.S. conspiracies designed to create an independent Kurdistan so that Americans can obtain oil at a cheaper price. Ömer Taşpınar explores such suspicions and charges in his recent column in Today's Zaman. His analysis concludes in a call on Turks to disband the idea that America is omnipotent and all-controlling. From Taşpınar:

Turkey is a proud country that strongly values its national sovereignty. Yet paradoxically, most Turks seem to lack self-esteem when it comes to Washington's power over Turkish domestic politics. Almost all Turks, from sophisticated political analysts to average citizens, believe Washington controls Turkey's domestic political dynamics. There seems to be an American plot behind everything. This creates a political environment where even the wildest conspiracy theories go unquestioned. For instance, when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) wins the general elections, the opposition blames America's plan to promote "moderate Islam" in Turkey. When the Kurds want to speak their own language, officials in Ankara blame Washington for promoting Kurdish nationalism. When there is a risk of a military or judicial coup, plotters are believed to have received a "green light" from Washington. You get the picture: Washington is behind everything.

In this conspiracy-prone political environment, any American commentary on Turkey naturally becomes the center of Turkish attention, as if the fate of the country depended on it. Washington's shallow debate on Turkey -- where only a few people pay attention to Turkey and even fewer understand Turkish politics -- turns into an existential matter. Since Turkish pundits irrationally exaggerate the importance of a few American pundits, whatever appears in the American press gains tremendous importance in the eyes of the Turkish public. All it takes is someone in Washington to say something about Turkey for conspiracy theories to start flying around in Ankara.

Turkey, of course, is not alone in that department. The Middle East and the larger Islamic world are notorious for conspiracy theories. A Pakistani friend once told me that the fate of his country is always determined by three big A's: America, the Army and Allah, in that exact order. I told him that the same could be argued about my country. Similarly, in the Arab world, the CIA or MOSSAD are supposedly behind everything. American, European or Israeli analysts often make fun of these "Oriental" fantasies in their own "Orientalist" way. Very few of them wonder why people in the Middle East believe in such conspiracies. Instead, they engage in cultural determinism and blame the "Arab political culture" or the Muslim "mindset" as if there was something in the Muslim DNA that made these people genetically predisposed to become conspiracy theorist.

In fact, there are some legitimate historical reasons as to why people in the Middle East feel disempowered. History has not been kind to the Middle East. Take Iran, for example. Try to convince Iranians that what happened to their nationalist leader Mossadegh in 1953 is not conducive to conspiracy theories. The whole world knows that Iran's democratically elected leader, who wanted to nationalize the oil industry, was ousted by a CIA coup. The pro-Western shah was restored to power simply because London and Washington did not want to give up their economic and political interests in Iran. Such events left deep scars in the Iranian psyche. They will not be erased from the collective memory of the region in just one generation. People in the Middle East never forget.

Yet it is equally true that blaming the West for everything develops an addiction to conspiracy theories. In time, this blame game turns into a convenient excuse for escaping national responsibility. Moreover, a country like Turkey, which was never colonized by the West, has no legitimate excuse to develop an addiction to conspiracy theories. Turkish analysts should therefore stop over-analyzing Washington and pay more attention to their own domestic dynamics. Washington may have had some influence over Turkey during the Cold War. But today's Turkey is a much more complex place than in the 1970s. It is almost impossible to single-handedly manipulate Turkish politics, military, media, markets and society. This why Turkey needs to grow out of this idea that Washington can call the shots in Ankara. America's leverage over Turkey is marginal. And most importantly, the Bush administration cannot even decide how to react to what is going on in Ankara. It is divided between those who want to unequivocally support the democratic process and others who believe that secularism is at stake. There is a dysfunctional, lame duck administration in Washington, and Turks should not read too much into the language of US officials when they talk about the domestic situation in Turkey. At the end of the day, it will be Turkish political dynamics -- not Washington -- that will determine Turkey's fate.

A quick note: Kurds are also suspicious of U.S. designs on Kurdistan. Some of the Kurds with whom I spoke expressed similar ideas and—hopefully to the relief of many Turks—were equally disturbed. No Kurd with whom I spoke wanted to see war break out in the southeast, and those that thought the United States to be up to no good expressed worry that U.S. actions might lead to violence and a civil war with the Iraqi north. And, an amusing story to show some peoples' lack of knowledge about the United States: in a conversation with a very old Syriac priest, who funnily enough had been to the United States, we were repeatedly told that the price of gas in America was under two dollars per gallon. Skyrocketing gas prices certainly tell a different story, and it took a while to convince our gracious host that, yes, soaring gas prices had affected the United States, too. No one is immune from the power of oil companies and speculators out to make a quick buck on the "free market."

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