What the Protests in Turkey Say About Us

As the news of large protests in Turkey began to circulate, I’ve been a bit troubled by the initial reactions and what they say about the American mindset. Where there was little information at the outset about the proximate causes and underlying issues, there was a plethora of conclusions about what it all meant, who was right, and what should be done.

To help explain why this was troubling to me, let me give you this quiz:

  1. When the Tea Party demonstrations began, was your first instinct that that Pres. Obama should immediately step down from office?
  2. When the Occupy Wall Street protests began, was your first instinct that the government should dissolve in the face of the will of the people?
  3. When police in riot gear mishandled their response to some of the Occupy protests, did you assume that such actions went all the way to the highest levels of government and would/should spell the end of that government?
  4. When you hear about protests in European nations, do you assume that those governments will/should inevitably dissolve in the face of the will of the people?

It seems to me that many Americans would answer no to all of the above are too quick to assume that every protest in the ‘Arab World’ is:

  1. a legitimate expression of the true will of the people,
  2. a movement toward greater human rights,
  3. a battle against religious tyranny, and
  4. a positive development which demands support from the U.S. government or its citizens.

I am not an expert on Turkish politics. But I have read enough to know that they are very different from our own and very complicated in their own right. As one example, many liberties we would regard as part of our religious freedom are not allowed there. Historically, in Turkey, such rights have been suppressed not by Islamists but by secularists.

Knee-jerk reactions to developing stories, predicated on some interpretation of the ‘Arab Spring’, do not serve us well. Rather, I would say such reactions reveal much more about our own pre-conceived notions of what Islam means and a lasting orientalism in our thinking about foreign affairs.

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