Saturday, May 25, 2013

Why do Turks claim to hate us so much (according to opinion polls)?

Speaking of Turkey (which I did earlier today) ... I recently noticed a guest post on the very interesting Ottomans and Zionists blog that raised some perplexing questions.  The writer of that post, Alexander Slater, asked the question "Are Turks and Americans Friends?", based on the Turkish results from the Pew Research Center's 2012 Global Attitudes Survey.  Of course, results from public opinion polls always have to be taken with a grain of salt and interpreted with caution.  Nevertheless, these results are striking enough, and odd enough, that they might be worth pondering.

A few months ago, in March, Slater spent two weeks traveling in Turkey as a participant in "an intercultural exchange run jointly by the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC, and Sabanci University’s Istanbul Policy Center. [....]  The Pew survey results paint a very different picture than what I saw and heard during our travels."

Let me just quote Slater's summaries of some of the findings (which you can double-check against the Pew Survey report, if you like).
According to the survey, only 15 percent of Turks have a favorable opinion of the United States. Even fewer—only 13 percent—indicated they have a “favorable view of the American people.” (This was the lowest score of people from any of the twenty-one countries surveyed. By contrast, 32 percent of Egyptians and 39 percent of Chinese—nationals of countries with arguably more contentious relations with the United States than Turkey—had a favorable view of Americans.)
What makes those Turkish figures especially striking is that in many countries where anti-Americanism runs rampant, respondents often tell pollsters that although they hate the US government and its policies, they think the Americans are OK as people. Whether or not they actually believe it, that's what they say when surveyed. Not only didn't Turkish respondents draw that distinction, but they actually expressed a less favorable opinion of the American people than of the US overall.

And in public opinion polls in numerous other countries over the years, respondents often claim to admire American democracy—42% of Egyptians in this Pew survey, for example—while disliking the people who actually run the American government.  (Many Americans feel that way, come to think of it.)  Not these Turkish respondents.
[A]ccording to the Pew survey, only 14 percent of Turks said they “like[d] . . . American ways of doing business.” (Like the results discussed above, this was the lowest score of people from any of the twenty-one countries surveyed.)  [....]  According to the Pew survey, only 13 percent of Turks said they “like[d] . . . American ideas about democracy.” (This was the second-lowest rating, ahead of only Pakistan.)  [....]
And so on.  If we believe the survey results, they don't like anything about America, Americans, American society, or the American way of life.

This is peculiar.  Of course, I appreciate that people in Turkey, like people in a lot of other countries, have a wide range of grievances against the US, real and imagined.  Many of them, for example, are still angry with George W. Bush about the 2003 Iraq war and its aftermath.  Turks have always tended to believe that the US unfairly sides with Greece regarding controversies between the two countries, just as Greeks have always tended to believe the opposite (and there are grains of truth in both attitudes, though both are overdone).  More religious and socially conservative Turks, the sort who support the Islamist AK Party, no doubt resent the long period of friendly alliance between the US government and the secular Kemalist establishment, whereas I know that a lot of secular Turks believe that the US government has (somehow) been promoting the coming to power of Erdogan and the AKP.  Broad sectors of Turkish public opinion have become very hostile to Israel, for various reasons, and some of that hostility no doubt rubs off on the US by association.  Etc., etc.

But can any of those factors, or all of them put together, begin to explain why public attitudes in Turkey would be more thoroughly and pervasively anti-American than public attitudes in, say, Egypt??  (And that's ignoring the fact that it would also be easy to rattle off reasons that Turks might have for feeling more well-disposed toward the US.)

No, it doesn't make any sense.  Furthermore, various other bits of information and evidence make it hard for me to believe that the overwhelming majority of Turks are really that hostile toward America, American society, American democracy, the American people, and everything else about America.  And although I've only visited Turkey once myself, about a decade and a half ago, no American I've ever read or spoken to who visited Turkey has reported encountering the kinds of broad-based anti-American sentiments that the attitudes expressed in these survey results would suggest.  Frankly, my (highly non-expert and subjective) reaction is to suspect that many of these survey respondents didn't really mean it, or at least that they exaggerated the intensity of their anti-American feelings when talking to the pollsters.  But then why would they do that?

So as I said at the beginning, I'm totally perplexed.  But what do I know?  For the moment, I will just report these survey results, whatever they might be worth, as a curious puzzle to consider.  More mysteries of public opinion polling ...

—Jeff Weintraub

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