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November 14, 2012, Wednesday

Why is the view of Turkey changing?

A recent study carried out by the independent, nongovernmental Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) has shown that for the first time in many years, the lately positive view of Turkey throughout Middle Eastern countries has begun to recede. Though perceptions of Turkey of course range from country to country throughout the region, a recent TESEV article points out the significance of results from this research. Though we wrote in a previous article about the results from this research, we decided to tackle the reasons for this decline in positive perception of Turkey for this article.

While it is true that the research results could be taken as a well-timed warning for Turkey, and that it is best not to place too much importance on public research, it is also true that there are two important realities we are facing. The first is that this particular TESEV research has occurred annually since 2009, and is thus quite helpful in illuminating general trends. According to this latest TESEV research, the vase is not yet broken; views of Turkey remain generally positive. At the same time though, there is a serious warning at hand about a decline in the positivity of the view of Turkey. To wit, in past similar research carried out in the Middle East, Iran was always at the peak of countries viewed favorably by others because of its stance towards Israel; due however to a series of mistakes it made, it lost this position to Turkey.

The second reality to be aware of is that evidence that favorable views of Turkey are on the decline is not based just on research. This finding is supported by those who watch the region closely, and by people who play key roles in the development of international relations here. One clear sign of the decline in favorable views of Turkey is the increase of articles and columns critical of Turkey in the Arab media. It is particularly notable that some authors known in the past to be strong supporters of Turkey have begun to write more critically about this country.

And while some liberal and secular circles complain about the neo-Ottoman, Islamic path Turkey appears to have embarked upon, those close to more Islamic groups note that, in fact, modern and secular Turkey is not Islamic enough to stand as a model for others in the region.

One reason for these conflicting views is that these groups are of course competitive with one another, while the names they use as references from Turkey are quite different. Another reason is that Turkey has great difficulties explaining its own position effectively to the countries in the region. As for Turkish TV series, while they bring in more tourists from the region to Turkey, their ultimate effect is only superficial. After all, every country with interests in the region has influential Arabic language channels. Though TRT does offer broadcasts in Arabic, it is questionable whether it is actually meeting needs with these broadcasts.

If one were to ask any Middle Eastern intellectual to name two well-known writers from Turkey, they would perhaps know Orhan Pamuk. But they would almost certainly know nothing about writers like Necip Fazıl, Yaşar Kemal, Fuzuli or Akif. At the same time, if the same question were turned on Turkish intellectuals, most are unable to identify many famous Arab writers outside of Naguib Mahfouz. And while there are official visits as well as summits that bring together foreign ministers from the Arab and Turkish worlds, there is a limit to how effective these official events are. There is a real need for effective participation in all this by universities, the media, political parties and civil society organizations.

One of the greatest mistakes made during the 1990s, when Turkey was really opening up to the world, was that promises that could not be kept were made, and expectations were raised to unrealistic levels. Within this framework, Turkey's Syria policies need to be examined. It is important that Turkey stake its position in Syria on the side of the people and freedom, but it is also quite clear now that we opened the path to great disappointments in indicating that Turkey would, if necessary, enter Syria and overturn Assad, and that it would absolutely not permit massacres to occur. Had Assad been overturned just three months after Ankara staked out its own position, Turkey's star would have really shone at that point. But this is not what happened. Just as there have been circles criticizing Turkey for insufficient activity on the Syrian crisis front, there are also those holding up its clear stance against the Baathists as evidence of Turkey's neo-Ottoman path.

Other factors in changes to a previously very positive perception of Turkey in the region include rising levels of incidents of terrorism, a slowdown in Turkey's democratic initiatives, and debates over media freedoms. Another effect has also been developments counter to the overwhelmingly positive photograph of Turkey reflected onto the rest of the world in previous years. Of course, certain groups have also worked to see that these negative developments are exaggerated to the perceptions of the rest of the world, and this is not a factor to be overlooked.

To all of the previously mentioned factors, one must also add in the policies being implemented by powers made uncomfortable by Turkey's rising regional power, as well as contacts set into motion throughout the region by both Iran and Russia, which now look askance on Turkey due to its policies on Syria. Is it not curious that incidents such as the Oct. 29 events in Ankara's Ulus district were shown as some sort of Arab Spring uprising? It is not difficult to guess how Turkey is portrayed on Iranian media like Press TV and al-Alam, or the similar Lebanese al-Manar and al-Medain, broadcasting to the Arab world. Clearly, it is not just officials but all of us here in Turkey who need to think some more about this general tableau, which has such influence over perceptions of Turkey throughout the Middle East.

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