May 07, 2006
Turkey: Anti-Western Sentiment and "Islam is the Solution"
Earlier this year I saw the Turkish movie Kurtlar Vadisi Irak (Valley of the Wolves - Iraq - Website). It is reportedly the most expensive Turkish movie ever made but that's not why it made a big splash. Being a movie spin-off from one of Turkey's most-watched TV series, addressing a very emotional topic, and playing to popular sentiments resulted in record audience numbers - in Turkey itself and among Turkish communities abroad.
Since there are already good movie reviews I will save precious 'Aqoul space by not providing a content description - the esteemed reader is kindly invited to read the Wiki entry and then return to this article.
I would like to make some additional comments and highlight some issues that I found particularly interesting:
- What struck me was that all those bad, vile Americans were played by ... American actors. And some of them aren't exactly "unknowns": The #1 bad guy, the crusader "Sam" is played by Billy Zane (of Greek origins). The (nameless) Jewish doctor who runs Abu Ghraib - portrayed as a collection station where Iraqi prisoners are tortured and have their organs surgically removed and sent to Israel, the U.K., and the U.S. (in order to make it clear to the audience - the organ boxes have labels with "To: Tel Aviv", "To: London", and "To: New York" on them, with the sender given as "-----") - is played by Gary Busey. I really would like to know why people like Zane and Busey would agree to play such parts - are they not afraid that they'd never get work in Hollywood again?
There is a differentiation between the U.S. Army and mercenaries/special forces (it's not clear whether "Sam"'s guys are part of the U.S. military or not). There is one scene where an Army Lieutenant threatens to arrest a mercenary (special forces?) because of an atrocity but is immediately shot dead by the villain. Also, the wedding massacre starts with an accident - a young Iraq boy wants to stick a flower into the barrel of a U.S. soldier's M16 whereupon the soldier accidentally discharges his weapon and kills the boy, triggering a gunfight-turning-into-massacre.
- The ethnic stereotyping is quite interesting. The Kurds are allies of the Americans, yet held in contempt by the latter - apparently even the vile Americans know that Kurds are despicable. However, the team of Polat Alemdar (the Turkish hero) has a Kurdish member, Abdülhey Çoban, and in some dialogues he speaks Kurdish with Iraqi Kurds and translates for the two Turkish team members. At one point Memati Bas, the #2 hero, curses the Kurds. Being confronted by Abdülhey with "But ... I'm a Kurd" he answers: "Yes, but you're a good one."
Arabs come in four versions: regular folk, passionate woman, jihadi extremists, and voice-of-reasoned-authority shaykh. They are portrayed as victims of aggression and occupation - like the wedding massacre - but the real victims are the Turkmen. Their houses are marked with "x" signs and their inhabitants subsequently evicted and told to leave the area. Their leader (recognizable by the Turkmen flag in his living room) is the only one ever speaking up to "Sam" and also the only one who helps the Turkish heroes. Consequently, he is shot dead by "Sam". The depiction obviously emphasizes Turkish-Turkmen brotherly bonds and suggests "members of our tribe" are being victimized and dispossessed. There are two depictions of Jews in the movie: one is Gary Busey's Mengele-like character and the other one an orthodox Jew (with kaftan and payot) who weasels out of a hotel restaurant when "Sam" shows up to confront the movie's heroes without the audience ever learning why there would BE any orthodox Jews in Iraqi Kurdistan to begin with.
- The main tone of the movie shifts from Turkish (secular) nationalism - after all, the heroes set out to seek revenge for the "hood event" - to the message that "only pan-Islamic solidarity can help making the ummah strong again". While the movie's heroes are secular - recognizable by their dark suits and white shirts they wear on EVERY occasion -, others are strongly identified through their religion: "Sam" prays to a cross for God's help in his mission, we learn of the "Doctor"'s Jewish-ness only through a conversation with "Sam" where they debate which group gets to go to Paradise, and the Arab "Shaykh" ... well ... he's a shaykh of the Qadiriyyah Sufis. Interestingly enough, there are almost no Qadiriyyah in Iraq, but it is quite important in Turkey.
The "Shaykh" serves as the voice of reason and Muslim unity. He is played by Ghassan Mas'ud, one of Syria's most famous actors and known in the West through playing Salah al-Din (Saladdin) in Kingdom of Heaven. He argues that suicide attacks are against Islam, against Muhammad's teachings and constitute two wrongs: (1) one shows that one does not trust in Allah and (2) one cannot know beforehand if the attack would not also kill innocent bystanders and "one innocent killed is like killing all of mankind" (Qur'an, Sura al-Ma'idah, 32). He argues that suicide attacks only serve to sow discord among Muslims and adds "and who knows if the enemies haven't committed some themselves." He says that "unity & freedom" (a core concept of Turkey's state ideology) go hand in hand and it is because of disunity of the Muslims that they are in the bad state that they're in.
So far, apart from a brilliant Jon Stewart piece on The Daily Show (video here) and some articles there has been little reaction in the U.S.
The reactions to the movie among Turks were quite powerful. Emine Erdogan, the wife of Turkey's Prime Minister, said upon leaving the movie theater "This is a very good movie. I congratulate the film makers." Turkish youth in Europe stated that "This is what happens every day in Iraq and Palestine." A BBC article quotes Turks who saw the movie thus:
"I'm back to see it for the second time already," says one student, waiting impatiently outside Screen 10.
"It is anti-American, but we already know what they've done in Iraq. That's the reality. Now we can see it on screen."
"Everything we've been hearing on the news about Iraq is in this film," one woman says as she emerges from the auditorium.
"We condemn this war and will continue to condemn it. But I don't see America as our fundamental enemy," she adds.
"I'm really upset after this, really upset," an older man says, as rushes away.
"If I see an American when I get out of here I feel like taking a hood and putting it over their head."
Yet a number of Turkish film critics were not quite as convinced - like Baris Şanli of the Turkish Weekly - and there has been quite a debate in the Turkish blogosphere, from which I would like to highlight Ali Yıldırım's post.
The movie caused great controversy in Germany, home to one of the largest Turkish communities in Europe, with politicians calling for it to be banned (next to impossible under German law), sending undercover policemen to "observe" showings, and prompting Germany's most famous "Turkish" politician, Cem Özdemir of the Green Party, to write a lengthy critique in the country's most important news journal.
I am quite curious to find out what the movie's reception will be once it is released in the Arab world. I don't know whether it has already come out in Syria - I'd love to get feedback from anyone "over there".
When it comes to popular anti-"West"ernism Valley of the Wolves - Iraq is not an isolated phenomenon. Orkun Ucar and Burak Turna are an author team that has produced both Metal Storm and The 3rd World War. Both books pin Turkey against seemingly superior foes - first the U.S. and then Europe - which it defends with the help of strong allies that both times include Russia. Think Tom Clancy a la turc.
There is also at least one ironic take on these kinds of books: in America Is Ours by Erdoğan Ekmekçi and Adem Özbay, an alien from outer space grants an angry, young Turk his wish to take over the U.S. but it results in complete cultural and economic chaos.
While the books mentioned stay within the general secular "strong, proud Turkey" paradigm, the movie transcends it and not only posits Turkey and the Turks within the Middle East and the Muslim World but also argues that Muslim solidarity is the solution to the problems that the peoples in the region are facing. Granted, it's a very "soft" Islam but still the movie shifts the basis of group identity from nation to religion, and has not "Turks/Turkmen & Arabs" facing "Americans and Kurdish lackeys" but "Muslims" facing "Christians + Jews + Muslim traitors".
I think that this is very significant. It should be seen within the framework of a popular re-Islamization of the Turkish middle class - as shown in votes for Islamist politicians as well as student defiance of the no-hijab law -, of the increasing identification of the EU's refusal to grant Turkey membership because it's perceived to be an "Islamic" country, and of such concepts as "Islamic Calvinism". We keep talking about the "pious middle" and whether it is modern or traditional - it seems in Turkey we have an example for how public opinion and identity can shift quite rapidly.
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All I'm getting from that brilliant video is a short movie about milk and cookies.
Russia as an ally to Turkey? Is there really a significant number of Turks who feel more warmly towards Russia than the US and the EU?
"His novel pours scorn on the West in passages like one in which Russian and Turkish officers discuss how they will carve up Europe after defeating it:"
Ah! More a sign of ressentiment than anything.
Posted by: Baal_shem_ra at May 7, 2006 10:26 AM
i fixed the link. should work now. enjoy.
Posted by: raf* at May 7, 2006 11:26 AM
I'm still just getting the milk and cookies link instead of the daily show thingie.
Posted by: homais at May 7, 2006 01:14 PM
I remember a documentary a few years ago on Radio France International where they were dealing with mafia activities in Istambul. Part of it was dedicated to Israeli mafia stealing and smuggling organs and selling them to rich Western or Israeli businessmen who needed them. I don't know how important is such a phenomenon - I guess like most criminal activities, statistically insignificant - but RFI is very professional (a la BBC) so its content is quite reliable. I also have no idea of the level of awareness around this phenomenon but it could be what inspired the Gary Busey character. Just a wild guess...
Posted by: Shaheen at May 7, 2006 01:15 PM
I got the Stewart video earlier, but now I'm getting milk and cookies.
Perhaps a bandwidth issue at their end.
i now put the original link (i.e. the site, not the vid feed) in. if it doesn't work - cut/paste this:
or google "jon stewart valley of the wolves"
Posted by: raf* at May 7, 2006 02:48 PM
"We keep talking about the 'pious middle' and whether it is modern or traditional"
Sorry - maybe you've explained this before, but how do you define "modern" and "traditional"?
Bulent Arinc (Parliament leader), if I'm not mistaken, said the film represented "the truth". Some also have said that there was no alcohol served during the premier of the film (which is pretty unusual), hence "the Islamist's wet dream" tag on the film.
Being confronted by Abdülhey with "But ... I'm a Kurd" he answers: "Yes, but you're a good one."
I think what he said was "yes, but you're different," not that it matters that much, but I find the phrase more amusing.
What was also pretty funny was that when Sam launches a verbal assault on the retardness of Turkish politics, Rambo sits silently, seemingly and unironically reaffirming that the welfare of state pales in comparison to the shame of hooded soldiers.
an orthodox Jew (with kaftan and payot) who weasels out of a hotel restaurant when "Sam" shows up to confront the movie's heroes without the audience ever learning why there would BE any orthodox Jews in Iraqi Kurdistan to begin with.
In 2004, there was a Seymour Hersh article about Israelis training Kurdish commandos. It caused a stir here...Newspapers in Turkey claimed that one of the "senior Turkish officials" was our FM. Wouldn't you send a Hasidic Jew in full gear to train Kurdish commandos in Iraq? I think that's pretty damn accurate. He probably knows a few dancehall riddims as well, cause Israel's the new Jamaica dem say.
Posted by: aegean disclosure at May 7, 2006 04:51 PM
i personnally are (overly?) careful with these terms. in my view, EVERYone in this world save a few groups in some very isolated places (amazon etc.) lives in modern societies, not in traditional ones. now, within all those modern societies there are (among others) modernists and traditionalists. if you believe in the evolutionary trajectory moving from primitive to developed, from traditional to modern societies that everyone has to go through, then you're probably a modernist. if you think you can and actually want to "restore society" to some imagined "correct" past, then you're probably a traditionalist. but both groups are modern in the sense that their worldview is modern. nobody thinks like people did 200 years ago. al-qa'idah is modern.
all contemporary socio-political movements are modern. they conceptualize the world in a modern way. just think of the islamic republic of iran and them having a parliament and elections and all that ... even the taliban are a modern movement, in the sense that their organisation of society is based on a fundamentally modern understanding of the world - they think in terms of nation-ness, of nation-state borders, etc.
maybe i should've used "modernist/traditionalist" instead of "modern/traditional".
Posted by: raf* at May 7, 2006 05:11 PM
Breath and depth and relevance in one entry. I'm lucky to nail one of those.
Posted by: matthew hogan at May 7, 2006 05:28 PM
Link works, thanks.
What if someone does not believe that societies have to (with the problematic part being "have to") go from primitive to developed and that one does not want to restore society to some correct past? What would that person be?
Posted by: baal_shem_ra at May 7, 2006 09:42 PM
What if someone does not believe that societies have to (with the problematic part being "have to") go from primitive to developed and that one does not want to restore society to some correct past? What would that person be?"
If I understand you correctly, the society's present will become the society's 'correct past' in the future. Unless you are arguing that the society will remain the same forever. Before every primitive society there came a more primitive one.
Posted by: Ali K at May 7, 2006 10:38 PM
that would be someone who doesn't believe in the evolutionary trajectory of history. i can't think of a label for this person right now.
in any case, the point is that there is no "going back to the times of xyz" since nobody today can know what those times were like and hence any representation/imagination of said times is and will be a modern one. and with "modern" i do not mean "contemporary" but i mean that it is based on a modern understanding of the world.
or lets look at it from the (seemingly) opposite point of view: the "new veiling" that is happening in many muslim societies is often decried as "they want to go back to a pre-modern past, the want to turn back time, they want to remove 50 years of progress". well, i'd call the "new veiling" a modern phenomenon since it is caused by other modern phenomena (like a perceived-or-real secularization of society and a perceived-or-real threat of the destruction of a value system that is seen as both "true" and "indigenous"), implemented with modern means of organization, and since many of its "members" are arguing that they are just developing their own kind of "modernity".
i do agree with ali that there seems to be something intrinsic to human-ness that makes human groups/societies to make their lives ever more complex, to attempt to improve their living conditions, etc. note, however, that there ARE examples of societies that did not do that. we're still not sure what exactly moves a group to not accept a certain status quo. last time i checked environmental conditions seem to have played a much greater role than usually thought of - i cannot recommend jared diamond's book "guns, germs, and steel" highly enough.
these days the ideology of "progress", and one where a society is judged on a very "western" check-list whether it is on the right path or not, is prevalent, and maybe even hegemonic.
Posted by: raf* at May 8, 2006 03:31 AM
The terminology discussion is so very academic.
I understand, by the way, the utility and importance of course of precision in terms and recognise there are some issues with modern / traditionalist.
At the same time, these kinds of discussions highlight why obsessing about them when 'speaking to the public' can be a bit of precious whanking at times.
From my heathen perspective as someone gainfully employed in the financial sector and long away from academic and journalistic concerns, let me say that while sensitive to unfairly and grossly describing things as 'primative' or 'modern' - there are in practical terms, real benchmarks.
Traditional certainly is a useful term to describe (in economic terms) more-or-less traditionally organised low-added-value socio-economic activities in contrast with higher-added-value socio-economic activities organised along 'rationalised' or impersonal organisational lines.
For someone concerned about issues of economic growth, there are real and important differences.
In society, however, I agree with Raf Bey's point regarding veiling - wearing of hidjabs; decried as being backward, the style and modes of veiling are far from traditional and in fact are modern. Not modern the way say Western feminists like to define modern, but modern.
BTW, I am not sure all political movements are modern - e.g. the Taleban certainly had a strong non-modern component.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at May 8, 2006 11:47 AM
dear L and the others,
does NOBODY have anything to say about ... uhhh ... turkey and the turn to islam and things related to the post?
since i seem to have a teacher streak in me i'd be happy to answer "what do you mean when you use the word xyz?" questions but i'd hoped that the comment section wouldn't be almost ENTIRELY focus on that last throwaway line of the post.
dear aegean disclosure,
good to have someone from the dürüm faction on aqoul! and thanks for the correction - i saw the movie a while ago & quoted from memory. what do you think about the movie? have you read the books i mentioned? what do you think of those? do you think there is a shift from looking west to looking east in turkey? does that have anything to do with the discovery that - GASP!!! - the ottoman period wasn't ALL bad? ahhh, i do see a guest post at 'aqoul in the making ...
Posted by: raf* at May 8, 2006 01:07 PM
"If I understand you correctly, the society's present will become the society's 'correct past' in the future.Unless you are arguing that the society will remain the same forever."
More that a society can get better (however one defines better) but that it doesn't have to and that it can get a lot worse for a very long time. Progress is not a certainty and its opposite can occur. E.g.: Europe during Rome's apogee was much better than most of the 1000 years that followed. By most accounts, the European 500CE-1000CE period was more primitive than Rome or Athens at their peaks yet Rome and Athens came first. There was no assurance that it was going to get better and no assurance that it would not get worse. Tomorrow and yesterday both need not be better than today though they can be.
Instead of seeing history/progress like a line that goes from A to B (and has to get there, advancing at different paces but always advancing) or a cycle (where you always go through the same thing) I see it more like a pyramid/tower of potentialies (you can build on top of what others have done and what they have done can help you do that) which can crumble in part or in whole. Thus, there can be change but this change need not be positive.
Perhaps it is noteworthy that a lot of the fathers of modernity (not Descartes, at least intentionally, more those from the Enlightenment) saw themselves as wanting to go back to some correct past or at least being greatly inspired by it. Their corrupted present and recent past were the Middle Ages and their idealised correct past was Antiquity.
As for the terms modern and traditional, Tonnies' terms are less slippery and perhaps closer to what we mean ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gemeinschaft_and_Gesselschaft )
Yes, he's a German sociologist but a German philosophy clock can still be right twice a day.
Posted by: baal_shem_ra at May 8, 2006 05:28 PM
what exactly do "Gemeinschaft" & "Gesellschaft" have to do with "traditional/modern"? both - Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft - can be either modern or traditional.
i have nothing against german sociologists (although they write way too cumbersomely) but i fail to see where tönnies applies here.
Posted by: raf* at May 8, 2006 05:34 PM
raf*...it might take me a while to respond to your questions in depth.
In the meantime, for those interested, BBC's Hardtalk recently had a week in Turkey.
Posted by: aegean disclosure at May 8, 2006 09:57 PM
I now better understand your argument. My own view in the matter is that there is such a thing as objective and subjective progress. Objective progress is technological in nature and there is no denying that this kind of progress is continuous. Not in a straight line mind you, but if you are familiar with the concept of entropy then it is analogous to that - always increasing, no going back.
Subjective progress on the other hand is the point of contention, for there isn't a consensus on what constitutes non-technological progress. Is it liberalism, traditionalism, human rights, world government, marxism? choose your favourite.
My observation is that, left to their own devices (ie. without outside imposition), societies will oscillate between liberalism and illiberalism depending on their overall environment. In other words, yes, there is always progress, but it might not be to everyone's liking. This adds the condition that when progress veers too much into either limit, discontented factions will try to steer it to the other direction. The deciding factor therefore on whether progress will go either way is these discontented factions themselves, how powerful they are, and how the 'middle' are willing to be taken along for the ride.
Posted by: Ali K at May 8, 2006 10:32 PM
What can I say mate, the Homos in MENA thread ended up talking about Maghrebine sexuality.
On Turkey, despite being a Turkophile (family tradition), I have little profound to say. Like Iran, I feel a vague discomfort blithering on when I can't claim insights due to speaking the language and talking to people that Tom Friedman doesn't talk to (or that talentless cretin, Totten).
But good work.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at May 8, 2006 11:56 PM
Speaking of anti-Semitism, I haven't seen any 'Aqoul commentary on the Walt/Mearsheimer debate. Of course, that's really American politics, but its obviously related to the Middle East, and with much the same pundits involved.
Anyway, since there's no suggestion box to drop this in, I'll just leave a note here, and see what happens.
Posted by: alle at May 9, 2006 10:24 AM
Personally I dislike touching the American domestic politics rail, which gets quite enough whanking in blogs, and US discussion of Israeli issues tends to the irrational (as a mirror of MENA).
Perhaps another author will feel differently, but certainly this one is uninterested.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at May 9, 2006 10:49 AM
I find Israeli-Palestinian issues tedious (esp in the context of US Foreign Policy), which is why I rarely write about them. I didn't follow this story too closely, so my impressions are superficial at best:
1. Generally speaking, it seems there is a wide and blurry line between criticism of Israeli policy and anti-Semitism. I think there is a reasonable incentive on both sides to keep this area murky and use it as "cover" while sniping at each other, rather than engage in dispassionate discourse. Empty, emotive provocation characterizes much of the debate on I-P issues, even among "intellectuals".
2. Some of the claims in the report did not appear to have much supporting evidence, but were passed off as fact. Other assertions (e.g. the US has a terrorism problem because of its close association with Israel) were more than a bit off-base.
3. Not sure if this was covered in the paper, but I'd like to see a comparison between AIPAC and any other sophisticated sector/issue lobby. Guns, pro-life, defense contractors, farmers, etc. There is nothing particularly scandalous about the fact that lobbies influence domestic and foreign policy, but "X lobby makes Y state act against its national interests" is a very difficult argument to make in general. The difference between "influence" and "distort" is quite subjective.
Hmm. Now you've got me thinking about this.
Posted by: eerie at May 9, 2006 11:40 AM
". . . to hear the views of the writers here on both the report and the
pro/contra debate that followed, and the recent response of the authors."
2) Heat trumps light all the time.
Posted by: matthew hogan at May 9, 2006 05:44 PM
amerika gerçeğini sinema yoluyla herkese gösteren başarılı bir filmdir.amerikalılar izleyin canınız sıkılabilir
TURKISH, LEARN, READ, : *)
Posted by: gökhan at May 26, 2006 05:21 AM
3liesh n3mlou dirasa turkiya bash ma3ndnash 3leqat bizef b-iletrak? Ou l-ouataniya moumila
Posted by: The Lounsbury at May 26, 2006 03:48 PM
Well, went to see it in Beirut. It was at Concorde, which usually gets the second pick of new movies coming into Lebanon (oddly, it was also where Brokeback Mountain showed). It was in the big theater (Cinema 1), but there were maybe 5-10 people tops watching (admittedly, on a Wednesday night a week after it opened). So it hasn't really made a big splash, you couldn't say.
Weird that so much of the dialogue was in English. Also, I thought it was effective how the Sheikh, who had been speaking formal fusha Arabic the whole time, suddenly came over all Sha'abi when he was in negotiating with the kidnappers.
Posted by: Tom Scudder at June 7, 2006 03:23 PM