Mixed Reviews for U.S. from Erdogan's Old Home

For one year from 2007-2008, Amar traveled around the world reporting on how people from all walks of life view the United States through text and video.  The following is one of a number of posts from Turkey. For more, click here.

IstanbulTurkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan shakes President Bush’s hand on the grainy television screen in Hodja Yashar’s Café on Yumak Street inKasimpasa, Istanbul, just minutes from the flat Erdogan inhabited as a teenager. The old men light their cigarettes to celebrate.

“Miracles can happen!” says one of them, smiling as the anchorwoman reports that America will increase its support of the Turkish government in its battle against Kurdish guerrillas in the southeast.

Another man who sells cleaning cloths to car mechanics is less optimistic: “I don’t expect anything from America.”

And so their banter goes back and forth, from praise for the U.S. to deep suspicion. They settle on neither.

They’re all well over sixty, with deep coughs and creased skin. Kasimpasa as a whole is an aging community of shopkeepers and laborers, many of them living off government checks of little over two hundred U.S. dollars per month. It’s not much, the men say, but they get by.

“When a place grows out of poorness, people help each other get by, and [they] become closer and closer,” explains the café owner Hodja. People on Kasimpasa’s windy, sloped streets know each other’s faces. They know who they can trust and who they cannot.

“We are allies of America,” says Hizir Balci, “but America cannot be trusted.” He’s a well regarded local council member who speaks with authority on both local issues and global ones. For years, Balci has watched the big powers play games on the TV set hovering above him, from the cold war to the Iraq wars. He and his friends talk about it all over tea. After all the years, he says he harbors a deep suspicion of the involvement of foreign powers in Turkey. But he has faith in Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

This Islamist party has done remarkably well since its birth in 2001. It has appealed directly to the grassroots, which other Turkish parties have so far resisted. AKP organizes at the local level and provides social services in what some consider a populist fashion. This kind of local involvement helped the party win 34% of the popular vote in 2002 and 46% in 2007. The party claims to be moderately conservative and pro-Western, but its opponents fear it aims to undermine Turkey’s secular character through the gradual Islamicization of the country.

Kasimpasa natives are visibly more pious than residents in other parts of the city. Most women on the street wear the headscarves, and a few wear a full black chador, though younger girls do neither.

“We have always been true to our faith here. This is nothing new,” Hodja says. “Now there is more exposure to the world. It is more democratic, and we can display our faith…like in America. That is why Erdogan has sent his children, and his daughters, to study in America: so they can display their faith.”

This is the good of the U.S. -- their acceptance of religion in public. But as a power on the global stage, and even as Turkey’s NATO ally, they say America is still not to be trusted.

"The main motivation of all foreign forces is to divide Turkey," Hodja says. As proof, he recounts World War I history and the Treaty of Sevres, which threatened to carve Turkey into pieces and divide it between its allied neighbors.

Balci chimes in: “We are allies of America [but] they are still...tricking us." He believes the U.S. is supporting the PKK as punishment for a 2003 Turkish parliamentary vote that blocked the U.S. from opening a northern front in the war in Iraq. He believes the U.S. arms the PKK to help the rebels carve out a Kurdish state from Turkey.

The day before Erdogan’s meeting with Bush he said, “We are one with America in the war against terror. But Americans do not realize this.”

Two days later, Erdogan left the White House with a smile on his face, saying cooperation was forthcoming. Bush called the PKK the common enemy of Iraq, the U.S. and Turkey. Did that make these men any more hopeful?

“America says the right things, but will it act?” asks one of the men. Hizir coughs, and replies, “We’ll wage war anyway, with or without America’s permission.”

But then Hodja, the owner of the store, steps in. “Let Erdogan decide,” he proclaims. “If he is happy with Bush, I am happy.”

TurkeyAmar Bakshi