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January 27, 2013, Sunday

Why love-hate with the West?

I have long been intrigued by the love-hate relationship with the West widespread among Turkey's elites, particularly the Kemalists, but surely not restricted to them.

The West that is admired and emulated is simultaneously perceived as a force opposed to Turkey's progress and covertly aiming to subvert it. The Kemalist cliché “Westernization despite the West” perhaps best captures that mentality.

One reflection of the love-hate relationship is a certain feeling of inferiority and even shame before the West, what may be called auto-Orientalism in the Edward Said sense of the concept. Ayşe Zarakol, a young academic from Cambridge University, in a study titled “After Defeat: How the East learned to live with the West” (Cambridge University Press, 2011), analyzes what I call the love-hate relationship with the West. The study compares the reactions of three former empires to defeat by the West: the Ottoman Empire of World War I, Japan of World War II and the Soviet Union of the Cold War. She argues that the love-hate relationship has its roots in the international system, and is thus not specific to Turkey.

Western nations at the center of the international system and modernity have stigmatized the latecomers as lagging behind the West, as not being sufficiently modern, secular and civilized. Those subject to this stigmatization have gradually internalized it and developed feelings of inferiority, guilt and shame.

In the foreword to the Turkish edition of her book, Zarakol discusses the consequences for Turkey: “In the 19th century many non-European countries were stigmatized and vilified for not being European. Worst still, elites (and to a certain extent even the people receiving modern education) in these countries internalized such stigma. Who would deny that we are still trying to cope with this pathology and still have not overcome its effects?”

She points to the difference the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has made: “AKP leadership sees Turkey's relationship with the West differently than former governments and particularly diplomatic corps… This does not, however, mean that it has done away with the problems dealt with in this book, but it has managed to display a divergent, less apologetic approach compared to older cadres… When that new approach combined with changes in the international system and increasing economic power, [as if suddenly] a Turkey with aims for regional leadership and a more assertive stance towards the West has appeared on the scene…”

Zarakol does not, however, neglect to add: “The difference the AKP has made in Turkey's foreign policy cannot be denied, but this at least for now is on the surface, since it challenges only Turkey's position and not the mentality. Turkey's foreign policy is still Western-oriented. … It still sees the regions outside of the West out of this lens, and assumes the attitude of a big brother towards them. … It presumes to know the Middle East well and even to be able to save it. … But the concept of itself as leader of others who are stigmatized is in fact an extension of the psychology of the stigmatization it shares with them. … The difference the AKP has made is also under threat of dissolving as the party increasingly integrates with the state.”

The lesson Zarakol draws for Turkey is this: “All of the above does not mean that we can avoid assuming responsibility for our problems. But the resolution of those problems requires that we do not swing between self-praise and self-vilification. It requires that both the positive and the negative in history are conceived as parts of a whole.”

Zarakol's study is a highly significant contribution to the understanding of the psychology of Turkey's relationship with the West. I tend to agree with most of her analysis. What I would add to it is that the standards of human rights and democracy have evolved in the West through very costly internal struggles. Only by firmly establishing those standards can Turkey overcome those feelings of backwardness, shame and guilt Zarakol refers to, and consolidate self-respect and self-confidence.

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