Changing Turkey's perception on the Middle East

Published 11.07.2014 01:11

Hülya Karaçalı, a research assistant working at Sinop University, has conducted an interesting study about social science teachers' perception of the Middle East. The question "What is the first thing that springs to your mind when the Middle East is mentioned" was asked of prospective social science teachers, who will teach about the country, region and world to their students in the future. A total of 60 percent of teacher candidates answered, "domestic turbulence." When the Middle East is spoken of, the first thing that comes to mind in the entire world is "oil" however, it comes second in the minds of Turkish university students, as only 45 percent of them thought of it at first.

I am sure that you wonder about the percentage of those who first think of religion when the subject is the Middle East. The answer is 15 percent. The percentage of those who think of countries such as Syria and Egypt when the Middle East is in question is 10 percent. Actually, what I see in these results are the traces of official perception management on the Middle East that has been pursued since the foundation of the Republic of Turkey. Associating this region with chaos all the time, but not evaluating it in its cultural context means to say, "Far be it from us." In anthropological terms, chaos is a kind of filth that should remain untouched. In Turkey, the words "quagmire" and "the Middle East" are perceived as if they are adhering to each other, which is not only a reality but also an ideological vision.

As you remember, in last week's column I noted that the elite founders of the Republic of Turkey aimed to wipe the Middle East from the minds of people either through the education system or popular culture.

The essence of the matter is that refusing Arabs and hence the Middle East is part and parcel of Turkey's modernization project. This project succeeded more or less, and the Middle East was somehow excluded from people's consciousness. In Turkey's imaginary secular geography, there is no room for other countries apart from Western countries and outlandish Japan. After the 1950s, Israel, which is a small but dynamic state, has been imprinted on our minds and replaced the whole Middle East in our consciousness. Both rightist and leftist media of those times incited Israel admiration in us and alienated Arabs more and more.

As for Iran, we cared more about the Pahlavi Dynasty than the Iranian public. When these things are mentioned in today's Turkey, young people in their 20s, who come from conservative circles, greet this with astonishment.

We got out of this prejudiced picture after going through a handwringing process.

Only after the mid 1980s did the cultural influence of the Islamist movements start to find credibility in the eyes of the public. Only from then onwards, the concepts of religious brotherhood and common historical bonds started to come to the fore when the Middle East was mentioned. The political interest that was nourished about the Palestine problem has changed in nature. The leftist discourse was replaced by an Islamist approach. After the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came to power, we began to regard all questions concerning the Middle East as our sphere of
interest - a perception that has changed many things.

It is not an easy task to revive an issue that has been left out of the collective memory for a hundred years. It is also very difficult to obliterate the perceptions that have been engraved in peoples' minds all throughout a century, which traces back to the Committee of Union and Progress. This problem still continues for those who come from a secular and nationalist background.

Even the utterance of the word Middle East is enough to wipe the smile off their faces. Recently, the opposition started to reawaken the issue of Syrian refugees. To them, Syrian refugees mean that the Middle East, which should be avoided to the full extent, penetrates us. Even Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the joint presidential candidate of the opposition, unabashedly spoke of the Syrian refugees as if they pose social contamination.

l would like to end my article by saying that the sides have been separated with certain lines. On the one hand are the new powers that believe Turkey has a promising future in the Middle East, and on the other are those who try to keep Turkey away from the Middle East. We have little time left to see who will win.

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