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From Serife Turkoglu…
American President Barack Obama’s visit to Turkey was in the news for weeks before his arrival. Newspapers, magazines and TV channels all speculated on the strategic, political and economic importance of this visit for both sides. Now, many weeks later, we’re still talking about it. When I first heard Obama, an African-American, was set to run for president, I thought the USA was injecting some much-needed fresh blood into their government. Considering the fact that he is an African-American candidate, whose father was a Muslim from Kenya, people thought an Obama presidency would prove to be a challenge; both he and America were up for it.
Under Barack Obama’s presidency, the USA will undergo a big change. Barack Obama means hope for many people because he is young, idealistic, self-confident, and the first African-American president. This has captured the world’s attention and made us all very interested in what he will do. He’s very aware of this and he seems to be genuine man. I’ve always admired people like Barack Obama, who frankly reflects his ideals and sticks to them.
Above all else, Turkey is impressed by Obama’s peace policy. With that said, his strong opposition to terrorism, his diplomatic approach to Islamic countries, and his aim to mend relations with Turkey are only some aspects of President Obama’s policies that make him popular among Turks. In George Bush’s presidency, Turkey maintained a generally negative attitude towards America. Like many others around the world, Turkish people found President Bush to be overbearing and egocentric. I remember nothing positive about his presidency; nothing at all. Most everyone around me feels the same way. Even when my grandmother saw him on TV, she switched the channel, lest she might hear some other bad news due to President Bush.
Turkey was pleased to welcome Barack Obama’s presidency, despite the fact Obama’s views on Armenian-Turkish relations do not correspond with Turkish assertions. Whereas the Turkish government asserts the Armenian genocide allegations have been falsified by historical documents, Obama has frequently declared that America acknowledges the allegations, supporting Armenia in the process. I believe Barack Obama’s position on this very sensitive issue has created disappointment in the Turkish people. I’ve heard people around me saying, “Obama seems to be an honest idealist, but he’ll stab Turkey in the back, and side with Armenia… when its suits his needs.”
Nevertheless, we have to accept the fact that the USA has its own global policies, just like every country. Obama’s diplomatic and for lack of better term, old-fashioned politeness inspires us to understand this; something the previous administration seemingly never took into account. Turkey needs to maintain a flexible attitude in order to come to terms with the USA and with President Obama being more sensitive than George Bush, this becomes possible. Unlike Bush, Barack Obama never called Turkey a “Moderate Islamic Republic,” which is a tremendous insult to the Turkish secular constitution. Simply put, we are not an Islamic Republic. In terms of politics and government, Turkey has never been associated with any religion. The second article of Turkish Constitution clarifies “The Turkish Republic is a nationalistic, democratic, secular and social State, governed by the rule of law, based on human rights.”
We do not discriminate our citizens according to their faith or race. Everyone living in Turkey is a Turkish citizen. This is why the great Turkish leader Ataturk says, “How happy is he who can say I am a Turk” and not “How happy is he who is a Turk.”
This is one of the major reasons Obama is exalted in the eyes of the Turks; he has shown he knows this to be true. The Bush administration just never seemed to understand the nuances of the world they so badly wanted to influence. This was why his administration was a failure. Obama, on the other hand, has show more tact and diplomacy in a few short months, than Bush did in eight years as president. By the time he left our country, Obama’s circumspect manners and attentive word choice throughout his visit made him very popular among Turkish people. In the end, politics isn’t rocket science. I think it’s the same everywhere, no matter what the country; people just wanted to be respect for who they are.
Even in his election campaign, when he was being verbally attacked and disrespected by Republican lobbyists, President Obama never failed to speak in a diplomatic and polite tone. I have never understood why some politicians forget about the importance of effective communication. Some leaders like to patronize other countries, as if they control the universe. They love to act authoritatively and are concerned with only their own interests. During diplomatic visits, they cordial tone hardens and talks focus almost entirely on politics and policy. I was happy to see Obama was different.
Once in Turkey, Obama’s distinguished manners did not change. Whether it was the Blue or the Ayasofya Mosques, he humbly expressed his admiration for the historic beauty of Istanbul. Turkish people are just like everyone else: we like sincerity; we like to see a person’s admiration for our history, of the things we are so proud of. This is something that seems easily understood, but some world leaders simply don’t get it. Words are important and the simple act of communication should never be under-valued. As a result, we found Obama, day by day, to be more sympathetic; even closer to us. He is neither offensive, nor aggressive when he speaks about Turkish political issues. He is simply an affable figure. I’ve heard many elderly in Turks refer to him as çok beyefendi, meaning a real gentleman, and I would have to agree.
One of the most significant moments of President Obama’s stay in Turkey was his visit to Ataturk’s Mausoleum, or the Anitkabir. Almost every leader who comes to Turkey visits the Anitkabir and expresses their respect for Ataturk, the man whose vision and courage led to an independent and democratic Turkish State. After the Anitkabir, President Obama voiced his esteem for Ataturk and paid tribute to his leadership in the guest book. Declaring his wish to strengthen relations between the USA and Turkey, Barack Obama said that he would support “Ataturk’s vision of Turkey as a modern and prosperous democracy giving hope to its people and providing ‘peace at home, peace in the world’.”
This was the moment when President Obama conquered the hearts of Turkish people. Ataturk has a special place in the lives of all Turks. Turkish children learn about him even before they start school. Their parents, and even more so, their grandparents are fond of telling stories about Ataturk’s glorious victories, over and over again. Families are very concerned with their children’s nationalist awareness. Whenever I go to the Anitkabir, I see a lot of parents with their children wandering around and telling them what a wonderful leader Ataturk was. Some parents even cry when they visit his tomb. When I first learned of Ataturk, I’d just arrived from Bulgaria. I was in primary school, busy trying to learn Turkish, and found his stories of bravery and courage very interesting. Whenever I think back, I remember a story of Ataturk’s childhood, when he and his sister were running after crows in the cornfields. It was very difficult for me to think of this great leader as a child like me, but it helped me to associate him with ordinary life. He is a leader who loved his country so much, that he sacrificed his entire life to create a democratic republic. This is why our elderly often they would willingly have died in his place. Turkish people show their gratitude to Atarturk as much as they can. He is a true hero.
Even the magnificent memorial tomb built for him reflects this. Ataturk, the leader of Turkish War of Independence and former president of Turkey, has always been an idealistic figure not only for Turkey but also for several leaders all over the world. Turkey is proud of having such a great leader who founded a new republic from the ashes of an empire. Therefore Turkey very warmly received Barack Obama’s note in the guest book. For him to actually quote Turkey’s greatest leader showed us something special. It was very considerate of him to make such diplomatic and intellectual remarks, considering the recent tension between America and Turkey during the presidency of George W. Bush. Emphasizing Ataturk’s saying, President Obama both discloses his peace policy all over the world and attributes his action to Ataturk, thus becoming a follower of peace. He gained the sympathy of Turkey by referring to Ataturk’s internationally praised philosophy summarized as “peace at home, peace in the world”. When I heard him say this, I appreciated his consideration and believed in his sincerity. Words are powerful, indeed.
There are those who are skeptical about Obama’s peace policy. One of my friends said just the other day, “We’ve suffered from American policies too many times… Barack Obama can’t win us over by simply exploiting our sentimental vision of Ataturk’s ideology.”
Despite the fact that some Turks are still dubious about President Obama’s global strategy, we all hope he will keep his promise and prove this time everything will be different.
Overall, President Obama’s visit and his diplomatic attitude throughout his stay in Turkey were highly praised. Though his visit was short, which hindered him from dealing with all the issues between the two countries, it represented a significant step towards fortifying Turkish-American relations and Turkish people appreciate Barack Obama’s policy. However, no matter how sympathetic and agreeable a figure President Obama is thought to be, people must be aware of the fact that he is a politician who looks after his own country’s interests. Similarly, Turkey gives priority to its own interests in the political arena. At the Turkish National Assembly, Barack Obama declared that he was happy to see Turkey’s attempts to mend relations with Armenia, but added we need to open the border. Furthermore, he talked about the European Union, stating that Turkey deserves to be accepted as a member. Whereas President Obama’s view on Turkey is complimentary and pleases the country, it reminds people of two possible problems.
Whether President Obama did it intentionally or not, his speech about Turkey’s membership of the EU will definitely irritate the European Union, which may affect Turkey’s application for membership. Thus his remarks might upset Turkish people in the long term. Additionally, I felt his views on Turkish-Armenian relations and his call to open the borders to be a somewhat inflammatory statement, and one that interferes with Turkey’s domestic affairs. It’s up to Turkey to open the border and pursue good relations with Armenia and Turkey aims to do just that, but not because American President Barack Obama suggests we should. The Turkish Republic tries to maintain peace with our neighbors, simply because it’s the right thing to do.
Although President Obama’s declaration about these issues is controversial in political sense, Turkish people, famous for their hospitality, still greet his visit to our country with enthusiasm. Despite our problems with some of his policies, President Obama’s sensitivity and consideration for Turkey brought him ten points out of ten from the Turks. I hope he will always maintain a global peace policy and be a successful politician, dealing diplomatically with world issues. I think the world needs such leaders, now more than ever.