U.S. Resentment in the Turkish Entertainment Industry: What it implies about Turkish anti-Americanism

The United States has benefited from amicable relations with Turkey since the end of the Second World War. But over time, a negative sentiment towards the U.S. has grown in both Turkish politics and society. This movement coincides with the rise of Islamic nationalism and the production of television series and films that explicitly display anti-Americanism and resentment toward other groups. Over the past few years, Turkish disapproval of the U.S. has ebbed but not disappeared completely. However, the Turkish entertainment industry continues to provide an understanding of Turkish anti-Americanism and could predict how future relations between the United States and Turkey will proceed.

Peter Katzenstein and Robert Keohane define anti-Americanism as a “psychological tendency to hold negative views of the United States and or American society in general”.1 Anti-Americanism in Turkey can be separated into two categories: external and internal. External anti-Americanism is defined as a “cleavage having the potential to set in motion specific episodes of reactive mobilization against the United States.2 Two of these episodes that have sparked significant increases in Turkish anti-American sentiment include the Johnson letter of 1964 surrounding the conflict in Cyprus and, more recently, Turkey’s 2003 rejection of a resolution that would allow American troops access to Iraq through Turkey. Conversely, internal anti-Americanism is a bias against the U.S. mainly for the “imperialism” it inflicts on the rest of the world. This stems from Turkey’s interactions with NATO and the lack of discretion enforced on American personnel stationed in Turkey.

According to the typology of Kaztenstein and Keohane, Turkish anti-Americanism can be labelled sovereign-nationalist since Turkey takes pride in its nationalist identity and political sovereignty.3 Furthermore, legacy anti-Americanism is also prominent due to Turkish resentment toward previous American involvement. In the past, foreign policy was identified as the root cause of most anti-American sentiment in Turkey. However, another distinct anti-U.S. bias is now has emerged in modern Turkish society.

The war in Iraq caused a great deal of tension between the United States and Turkey. The Turkish entertainment industry has highlighted this strain by explicitly portraying anti-Americanism in its films. The Valley of the Wolves is a Turkish television series turned movie franchise that has gained widespread popularity since 2003. The action series mirrors the growing anti-Americanism that has appeared in Turkey beginning in the early 2000s. The simultaneous spread of Islamic nationalism has ensured a large audience for the films and TV shows. But since Barack Obama’s election as President, anti-Americanism has slightly decreased, and Turks now have a higher approval of the U.S. Only time will tell if this trend will continue and if Turkish entertainment will maintain its negative portrayal of the United States.

Turkey-U.S. Relations Until George W. Bush

Since the end of World War II and the ensuing rise of the Cold War era, the United States has actively pursued a relationship with Turkey. Its geostrategic location as a crossroads between Europe and Asia and relative proximity to the Soviet Union appealed to the American government. Turkey was a major recipient of the Marshall Plan, which initiated such a positive relation between it and the United States.4

Anti-Americanism in Turkey appears to have developed as a direct result of actions taken by the U.S. The island of Cyprus was occupied by both Greeks and Turks for many years, and tensions between the two flared periodically. When Turkey made plans to invade Cyprus in order to defend fellow Turks, it expected the help of long-time ally, the United States. Yet, many Turks were surprised when President Lyndon Johnson issued a statement to the Prime Minister of Turkey Ismet Inönü on 5 June 1964.5 Johnson’s message urged Inönü not to intervene in Cyprus. Anti-American sentiment spread as a result of this, and the Johnson letter became a symbol of resentment towards the U.S. for years to come. When the Turkish army eventually invaded Cyprus in 1974, the U.S. instated an arms embargo against Turkey that lasted for three years.6 This further deteriorated relations between the two countries and solidified anti-Americanism in Turkey.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq was the second major incident that ushered in a wave of anti-Americanism in Turkey. During the war, Turkey feared that the establishment of a new Iraqi government, supported by the United States, would include a Kurdish state and thus, create an influx of refugees into Turkey. It therefore, increased its military presence in northern Iraq, the region most densely populated by Kurds. The U.S. felt threatened by this action and sought to intensify its operations in the area. On 1 March 2003, the Turkish parliament rejected a proposed resolution that would have allowed the passage of 62,000 American troops to enter Iraq through Turkish territory.7 Turkey felt indignant and insulted by the patronizing attitude of the U.S. following this incident, and Turkish anti-Americanism grew rapidly as the U.S. intensified its presence in the region.

The Bush administration was characterized by the highest levels of anti-Americanism in Turkish history, with Turkey having the highest rate of anti-American sentiment in the world. A study conducted by the Poll Mark Company found that 81.5 per cent of Turks were not happy with Bush’s policies, and only 5.6 per cent approved of Bush during his time in office.8 Turks also did not believe that the American presence in the region was necessary to protect the American people from terrorism. In 2006, 59 per cent of Turks did not believe that Arabs perpetrated the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 according to a Pew Global Attitude Survey.9

Besides these episodes that caused anti-Americanism to spike in Turkey, the Turkish people also are heavily influenced by conspiracy theories that make Turkish anti-Americanism appear not entirely based on U.S. foreign policy. Beginning in the 1960s, widespread rumors circulated among the Turkish public that the Peace Corps was involved in espionage activities for the U.S. and that American wheat imported into the country was deliberately poisoned10. More recently, anti-Americanism has increased due to accusations that U.S. troops committed genocide in Falluja and that the South Asian tsunami in 2004 was devised by the Bush administration. Distrust towards America has also risen due to the alleged Israeli involvement in the Kurdish area of Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. This shows how Turks group the United States, Jews, and Israel as a single entity due to the trio’s strong financial and political relationship. This conspiracy theory has led to a greater amount of anti-American and anti-Semitic sentiment in Turkey, and has also diminished the mostly amicable relationship between Israel and Turkey.

Despite the extensive history of cooperation between Turkey and the United States, widespread criticism of the U.S. and its policies has emerged in recent years. “All segments of Turkish society as well as the state have become intensely critical of American policies to an extent that has not been seen before”11. Besides the recent opposition to the War in Iraq, Turkish politics have used anti-Americanism, combined with nationalism, to support their platforms and gain a following. With “more than one hundred websites, 50 magazines and periodicals, a dozen TV channels, and more than a dozen newspapers belonging to a nationalist camp,” Islamism has penetrated Turkey via the media12.

The Rise of Islamist Nationalism

The Turkish nation-state that was established in the first half of the 20th century under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk emphasized westernization and secularization. The separation of mosque and state and the ban of headscarves in government buildings are just two examples of policies implemented that sought to make the country socially comparable to Europe. Politically, legislation was adopted that would rid the government of religious influence despite the super majority Muslim population.

However, in recent times, Islamist nationalism has grown in popularity and has mixed with Turkish politics. Necmettin Erbakan became the first Islamist prime minister of the country in 199613. The emergence of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, starting in the early 2000s brought the most intense Islamification since Ataturk came into power. What scholars have titled the “Islamic Revolution” of Turkey began on 3 November 2002 when the AKP won 34 per cent of the total popular vote for parliamentary elections. Through a legal loophole, this allowed for 66 per cent of seats in the Turkish parliament to be occupied by members of AKP, giving the party total control of the government14.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a former mayor of Istanbul and the current chairman of the AKP, began his term as prime minister in 2003. His blatant inclusion of Islam in politics has gained popularity, especially after he helped Turkey recover from an economic crisis. As mayor, he described himself as a “servant of Sharia,” the Islamic legal system15. According to Erdoğan, “Turkey has borrowed only immoral stuff from the West” and he has therefore made it his mission to eliminate examples of westernization and impose Islamist thought on the Turkish public. He saw his duty as prime minister of Turkey to start a cultural revolution, similar to that of Iran decades before, by “revolutionizing education, dominating the judiciary, taking over the police, and controlling the media”16.

As prime minister, Erdoğan has confiscated newspapers he decided were too critical or independent and transferred their control to his political allies. In 2004, the newspaper Yeni Şafak published an enemies’ list of prominent Jews. Fehmi Koru, a reporter for the newspaper published articles claiming that Jewish American policymakers were manipulating the American press and plotting a coup in Turkey17. On top of that, the AKP has hired members of the police force who are followers of the anti-Semitic Turkish cult leader Fethullah Gülen. This demonstrates how the press is manipulated under Erdoğan and the AKP to rally around nationalist sentiments. It also shows the association that the party, along with other parts of Turkish society, has developed between America and Jews. Therefore, anti-Americanism has been combined with anti-Semitism to appeal to Turkish nationalists.

Valley of the Wolves

Turkish cinema has evolved in modern times to appeal to a greater audience and to address more political issues. These include topics like the treatment and rights of the Kurdish population as well as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. International institutions, including the U.S. government, have characterized this party, also known as the PKK, as a terrorist organization for the attacks it has perpetrated against the Turkish military since it was founded in 1978. Anti-Americanism has also appeared in the Turkish entertainment industry beginning with the Bush administration and the rise of Islamic nationalism in Turkey.

The Valley of the Wolves franchise started with the premier of a television series with the same title in 2003. The name comes from a legend about a lone wolf leading the Turks out of a valley in Central Asia where they had been trapped and surrounded by enemies. Nationalists rally around this story because it exemplifies the common history of the Turkish people and the pride they take in being Turks.

The TV show has gained a massive following with 20-40 million Turks watching the series each week18. After the success on the small screen, the production company behind the series released a series of films with the same premise. The first film takes place in Iraq and was released in 2006 with movies about Gladio and Palestine released in 2009 and 2011, respectively19.

Valley of the Wolves: Iraq displays the most explicit anti-Americanism of the series because it directly responds to a military incident between Turkish and American troops during the Iraq war. On 4 July 2003, U.S. soldiers raided a Turkish Special Forces office in Sulaimaniya, Iraq and took 11 soldiers into custody20. The Turks had allegedly made plans to assassinate the governor of Kirkuk and were led out of their building at gunpoint with hoods on their heads. This was later referred to as the “hooding incident” and provoked a strong reaction from the Turkish public against the U.S.’ involvement in Iraq and the Middle East, in general.

The Iraq film was created as a response to the war in Iraq and is loosely based on the “hooding incident.” In it, a Turkish character comparable to James Bond leads his team of special forces to infiltrate the war-torn country and enforce Turkish dominance. In addition to the negative image portrayed of Americans, the film depicts Iraqis as “backward, cowardly, overtly religious, and clearly inferior to Turks”21. American actors Billy Zane and Gary Busey appear in the film, which highlights the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib by American soldiers. Additionally, a Jewish-American doctor harvests the organs of dead Iraqis, supplementing Turks’ strong dislike for Jews.

The film drew record audiences with 4.2 million ticket sales in Turkey and became the largest grossing movie in Turkish history22. The wife of Prime Minister Erdoğan publicly endorsed the film and encouraged all Turks to see it, which prompted Turkish newspapers to report that AKP supporters and Erdoğan’s aides had financed the production.

The most recent addition to the Valley of the Wolves series about Palestine highlights the negative resentment Turks have towards Israel for their actions in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Turkey and Israel cooperated politically and militarily for years. Yet, the 2010 flotilla changed popular sentiment about Israel, and writers of the movie even altered the plot to address this event. Nine people were killed aboard the flotilla, which was sponsored by a Turkish humanitarian aid organization, when Israeli navy commandos boarded one of the ships to prevent it from reaching its planned destination of Gaza.

The synopsis of the film is that Polat Alemdar, the Turkish James Bond, goes with his men to Palestine following the aid boat attack. There, they capture Israeli commander Moshe Ben Eliezer who was deemed responsible for the violent altercation that left nine Turkish citizens dead. The action movie exhibits anti-Zionism as the Turkish characters insist on calling Israel “Palestine.” Dozens of Palestinians and Israelis are killed in the film, with the Turks eventually coming out on top, as in other episodes of Valley of the Wolves. The series is so popular that 3,000 fans flocked to watch while the movie was filmed in the Turkish cities of Adana and Tarsus23.

The production company behind Valley of the Wolves does not see a problem with how it portrays Americans, Israelis, and others. Pana Film was founded by the lead actor of the series Necati Şaşmaz and his brothers. They come from a religiously conservative, nationalist family with roots in eastern Turkey. Şaşmaz, whose voice is dubbed over by that of another actor, had no acting experience prior to these productions. The brothers claim that their media accurately portrays Israel and the United States and exposes their wrongs. In response to the Palestine movie, Bahadir Özdener, a scriptwriter for company, stated, “we did not make a movie about Israeli people or Jewish people. We made a movie about Zionist killers”24. Another TV series produced by Pana Film depicts an Israeli soldier shooting a Palestinian girl in cold blood as well as Mossad agents abducting Turkish children and storming the Turkish embassy in Tel Aviv.

When asked about his response to the deterioration of relations between Israel and Turkey over the films, Özdener responded that he was happy it would further the damage. Israeli Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon eventually summoned the Turkish ambassador Ahmet Oğuz Çelikkol to complain about the popular movie and its depiction of Israel. The minister tweeted that it “endangers the Jewish community, Israeli envoys, and tourists coming to Turkey”25. At the meeting, Çelikkol was seated lower than Ayalon, which caused the Turkish ambassador to demand a formal apology from Israelis and further deteriorated Turkey’s already marred image of Israel.

Despite the widespread success that the series has garnered in Turkey, some are cynical about its appeal. “[The characters] are cartoon characters, they perform feats that the Turkish state can’t,” Uğur Vardan, a film critic for the newspaper Radikal said26. Further, the “Valley of the Wolves series appeals to unemployed, uneducated, right-wing youth who believe Europe is trying to divide Turkey, that Turkey is run by the U.S. and Israel, and that life has been unfair to them”. However, this series clearly portrays the recent growth of anti-Americanism and Islamic nationalism in Turkey. The negativity directed at the U.S. has emerged as a direct response to American foreign policy, specifically the Bush administration and the United States’ involvement in Iraq since 2003.

Recent Turkey-U.S. Relations

Since the Bush administration, the relationship between Turkey and the United States has changed significantly, but anti-Americanism is still widespread, thanks in large part to the AKP and Prime Minister Erdoğan. Turkey was considered the “world’s most anti-American country” of those polled at the end of Bush’s term in office. Turkey largely supported the election of Barack Obama as President, and he, in turn, has made a conscious effort to depict America in a positive light.

As part of his first overseas visit as President, Obama stopped in Turkey after visiting other European countries, making it his first Muslim country to visit while in office27. Many saw the country as a more immediate challenge to Obama than other Muslim countries. In 2009, a Pew Survey found that 14 per cent of Turks view the U.S. favorably while 39 per cent think favorably about Obama28. However, 44 per cent viewed the United States as the biggest threat to Turkey29.

Like in the past, much of the negativity surrounding the U.S. stems from foreign policy implemented in relation to Turkey or is based on conspiracy. In 2010, the United States House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee passed H.R. 252, which labelled the massacre of civilians following World War I as a genocide against the Armenian people30. This topic is quite taboo for Turks, and the Turkish government condemned the resolution claiming that Turkey was being accused of a crime it did not commit. It temporarily recalled its ambassador to the United States shortly after this incident. Many feared that this resolution could permanently harm relations between the U.S. and Turkey and could also affect Turkey’s relationship with Armenia.

The United States has labelled the PKK a terrorist organization and condemned the violent attacks it has perpetrated in Turkey. It has even provided Turkey with intelligence in an effort to stop the group from perpetrating more violence. Yet, many Turks wrongly believe that the U.S. supports the PKK, which is negative for the image of America in Turkey. Overall, America’s reputation has improved significantly since Obama came into office. However, a Pew Survey in 2009 determined that 40 per cent of Turks still saw the U.S. as an enemy while only 18 per cent viewed it as a friend31.

The Future of Turkish Anti-Americanism

Turkish anti-Americanism clearly stems from the legacy the United States has left behind in the region. Past events, including the Johnson letter and the American war in Iraq, have been directly linked to higher rates of anti-U.S. sentiment. The Turkish entertainment industry reflects the anti-Americanism following the Iraqi invasion and other policies of the Bush administration. The Valley of the Wolves television and movie series have explicitly responded to both the war in Iraq and the flotilla incident of 2010. These have negatively portrayed Americans, Jews, and even local populations like the Iraqis and Palestinians. The popularity of these productions can therefore be seen as a warning of how Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. might further deteriorate in the coming years.

Despite this, there might be hope for the relationship between America and the country known for its high rate of anti-Americanism. Since Obama began his first term as President of the United States, he has attempted to improve his country’s relationship with Turkey. Some propose that the solution to Turkish anti-Americanism is controlled by Turkish political leaders, who must accept the metaphorical olive branch extended by Obama.

Another aspect of this issue is that Turkey is a democratic country and therefore, must respond to the will of its people. However, as Turkey has undergone democratization, the military and bureaucratic elites have lost power within the government. This has diminished the alliance between the U.S. and Turkey because politically, Turkey is completely distinct from when it began its relationship with the U.S. following World War II.

In conclusion, as the U.S. seeks to spread democracy and democratic principles throughout the Middle East, it must bear in mind its global image and the international reception of its foreign policy. Turkish anti-Americanism increased drastically throughout the War in Iraq and Bush administration although the U.S. claimed its actions were democratic in nature. The Turkish entertainment industry highlighted this disapproval for the United States in a series of productions that were positively received by the Turkish people. Moreover, the rise of Islamic nationalism in Turkish politics adds to the problem since the Turkish “nationalist ego and pride play the key role in anti-American sentiments”.32 In 2009, a survey was conducted that asked Turks the question “Does the U.S. intend to break up Turkey?” Forty-seven per cent claimed that it does while 39 per cent said that it “definitely” does.33 Although it has appeared that Obama’s term in office has decreased this strong resentment towards the United States, only time will tell whether this positive trend will continue or if entertainment productions, like the Valley of the Wolves series, will continue to emphasize policy-based anti-Americanism and spread nationalism in Turkey.

1 Ioannis Grigoriadis, “Friends No More? The Rise of Anti-American Nationalism in Turkey”, The Middle East Journal, 64 no. 1 (2010): 53. return to main text
2 Füsun Türkmen, “Anti-Americanism as a Default Ideology of Opposition: Turkey as a Case Study” Turkish Studies 11 no. 3 (2010): 335. return to main text
3 Türkmen 342. return to main text
4 Aylin Güney, “Anti-Americanism in Turkey: Past and Present”, Middle Eastern Studies 44 No. 3 (2008): 471. return to main text
5 Güney 473. return to main text
6 Güney 475. return to main text
7 Türkmen 336. return to main text
8 Güney 482. return to main text
9 Türkmen 341. return to main text
10 Türkmen 338. return to main text
11 Güney 484. return to main text
12 Güney 340. return to main text
13 Michael Rubin, “Turkey, from Ally to Enemy” Commentary 130 No. 1 (2010): 82. return to main text
14 Rubin 82. return to main text
15 Rubin 82. return to main text
16 Rubin 83. return to main text
17 Rubin 86. return to main text
18 Bünyamin Köşeli, “Valley of the Wolves: Palestine”, Today’s Zaman, Aug 15, 2010. return to main text
19 Köseli. return to main text
20 Betül Akkaya Demirbaş, “Movies carry Turkey’s heated issues to the big screen”, Today’s Zaman, Nov 22, 2009. return to main text
21 Grigoriadis 61. return to main text
22 Köseli. return to main text
23 Köseli. return to main text
24 Jonathan Head, “Turkish aid ship thriller casts Israel as enemy”, BBC News, Jan 28, 2011. return to main text
25 “Israel-Turkey Tensions High Over TV Series”. CNN World, Jan 12, 2010. return to main text
26 Head. return to main text
27 Ben Katcher, “Armenian Genocide Resolution Passes Committee; Turkey Recalls Ambassador”, The Washington Note, March 4, 2010. return to main text
28 Soner Cagaptay, “Fixing Anti-Americanism in Turkey”, Bitter Lemons International, April 16, 2009. return to main text
29 Cagaptay. return to main text
30 Katcher. return to main text
31 Grigoriadis 59. return to main text
32 Türkmen 342. return to main text
33 Türkmen 341. return to main text

Works Cited:

Cagaptay, Soner. “Fixing Anti-Americanism in Turkey”. Bitter Lemons International, April 16, 2009. http://www.bitterlemons-international.org/inside.php?id=1096.

Demirbaş, Betül Akkaya. “Movies carry Turkey’s heated issues to the big screen”. Today’s Zaman, Nov 22, 2009. http://www.todayszaman.com/news-193596-movies-carry-turkeys-heated-issues-to-the-big-screen.html.

Grigoriadis, Ioannis. “Friends No More? The Rise of Anti-American Nationalism in Turkey”. The Middle East Journal. 64. no. 1 (2010): 51-66.

Güney, Aylin. “Anti-Americanism in Turkey: Past and Present”. Middle Eastern Studies. 44. No. 3 (2008): 471-487.

Head, Jonathan. “Turkish aid ship thriller casts Israel as enemy”. BBC News, Jan 28, 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-12306796 (accessed March 7, 2012).

“Israel-Turkey Tensions High Over TV Series”. CNN World, Jan 12, 2010. http://articles.cnn.com/2010-01-12/world/turkey.israel_1_israeli-intelligence-turkish-officials-turkish-embassy?_s=PM:WORLD.

Katcher, Ben. “Armenian Genocide Resolution Passes Committee; Turkey Recalls Ambassador”. The Washington Note, March 4, 2010. http://www.thewashingtonnote.com/archives/2010/03/armenian_genoci/.

Köseli, Bunyamin. “Valley of the Wolves: Palestine”. Today’s Zaman, Aug 15, 2010. http://www.todayszaman.com/news-219062-valley-of-the-wolves-palestine.html

Kull, Steven. Feeling Betrayed: the Roots of Muslim Anger at America. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2011.

MacNaught, Anita. “Turkish Film labelled Anti-Semitic”. Posted Jan 27, 2011. Al Jazeera English. Web, http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=ZnHuZSOf41E.

Mardin, Serif. Religion, Society, and Modernity in Turkey. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2006.

Owen, Roger. State, Power and Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East. London: Routledge, 2004.

Rubin, Michael. “Turkey, from Ally to Enemy”. Commentary. 130. No. 1 (2010): 81-86.

Türkmen, Füsun. “Anti-Americanism as a Default Ideology of Opposition: Turkey as a Case Study”. Turkish Studies. 11. no. 3 (2010): 329-345.

Volpi, Frédéric. Political Islam: A Critical Reader. London: Routledge, 2011.

Protestors in the central Turkish town of Tokat burn the American and NATO flags, March 2013.

 

Turks chant anti-US slogans and hold placards reading “America be damned, no to Islamophobia”, during a demonstration at Beyazit Square in Istanbul on September 14, 2012.

 

A Turkish demonstrator holds a banner as she chants slogans during a protest against NATO in Istanbul April 4, 2009 during Obama’s visit to that country.

 

Turkish Islamist demonstrators shout anti-U.S. and anti-Israel slogans during the Jerusalem Day demonstration in Beyazıt Square, Istanbul, September 3, 2010.

 

The depiction of how Israili soldiers treat an Arab street seller in the film Kurtlar Vadisi Filistin.

 

Following its interception by Israeli commandos on the high seas, the Mavi Marmara boat returned to port in Istanbul bedecked with the banners of the 9 slain activists, December 26, 2010.

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