The myth of anti-Westernism

Published 17.11.2014 00:07

In the formative period of modern Turkish politics, how the West was perceived played an equally important role as the nation's relations with the West. The Kemalist ideology's sole objective was to become part of the West, which it viewed as the only civilization in the world. Islamists and conservatives, in turn, passionately argued that there was more to Western civilization than mere positivism, on which the Kemalists concentrated - a civilization committed to its spiritual values that fueled its productivity. At the end of the day, the struggle between the West's advocates and opponents has become one of the most fertile elements of political life in Turkey.

Over the years, relations with the West - and the United States, in particular - as the founder and protector of the existing world order served as a reference point for the future plans of political parties and governments. More important, the nation's relations with the West moved beyond strategic interests and alliances as the charge of anti-Westernism helped administrations identify their ideological adversaries.

Presenting one's opponents as anti-Western, of course, had a serious impact in the international arena. Let us recall that secular-authoritarian regimes in the Middle East constantly exploited this label to discredit Islamic movements. Despite a brief rupture against the backdrop of the Arab Spring revolutions, this approach has gained new momentum once the Muslim Brotherhood was forcibly removed from power in Egypt. At the same time, a great opportunity to nurture democratic Islamism was lost as various actors including Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran joined forces to further their strategic interests.

In recent years, similar arguments have been voiced regarding the Turkish government at home and abroad. Having been accused of serving as the West's proxy in its first term, the AK Party is said to have moved away from the West at least since 2009. Nowadays, we witness pundits moving beyond charges of pro-ISIS sentiments to accuse the Turkish authorities of effectively promoting anti-Westernism and anti-Americanism.

Thus far, the AK Party opted for a critical approach to integration with the West. Charging the government's Turkey-centric foreign policy with anti-Westernism, to be sure, serves the interests of a number of groups. For the U.S. and Europe, this discourse helps impose limits on Turkish foreign policy, which, in turn, would force the authorities to play defense or at least conform to the Western position in key foreign policy areas including Syria. Again, observers hope that the label of anti-Westernism will render the AK Party government's criticism toward injustice at the international arena ineffective.

For domestic actors such as the secularists, Kurdish radicals and the Gülen Movement, voicing this form of criticism aims to present themselves as credible Western allies - which is why a new wave of charges of pro-Westernism and anti-Westernism have surfaced in Turkey's political landscape. In a way, the nation's contemporary history, built around a love-hate relationship with the West, seems to repeat itself.

A new set of tactical moves and coalitions add to the opposition's sense of weakness and give rise to new takes on a range of issues including Westernism and national interests. Surely enough, we have not witnessed the branding of the opposition as pro-Western and the government as anti-Western at least since the Welfare Party was in power in the mid-1990s. Furthermore, it is quite ironic that a supposedly pro-Western opposition seeks to undermine the possibility of Turkey's critical integration into the West. Meanwhile, charges of anti-Westernism join forces with the accusation of authoritarianism against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to generate an all-out operation against the country.

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