Despite the enormous advances of the Information Age, it is still far from simple to obtain a clear snapshot of popular sentiment in another country. While easily accessible, government statements and statistical reports are frequently designed for foreign consumption, and the works of academics and journalists often adhere closely to an official line. Yet there is another source, hidden virtually in plain sight, through which analysts and policymakers can overcome governments' carefully managed efforts to shape the perception of their countries: popular culture.
Since they are written according to the demands not of literary scholars but of consumers, popular works are closely reflective of prevailing attitudes of the time and place of their creation. This tight link is no less true of the political-thriller genre. Perhaps best exemplified in the United States by the novels of Tom Clancy, political thrillers incorporate real-world developments into narratives accessible--and believable--to a general audience.
One cannot understand the recent rise of anti-American feeling in a country such as Turkey--for decades a staunch NATO ally of the United States--without reference to the unvarnished perspective of popular fiction. Two recent works, one the fastest-selling book in Turkish history and the other soon to break all Turkish film-industry records, have both crystallized a number of fears and anxieties about Turkish anti-American conspiracy theories that, although described as fiction, seem to so many to be entirely plausible.
Metal Storm, by science-fiction author Burak Turna and journalist Orkun U‡ar, became an instant bestseller in 2005, with over 450,000 copies sold since its first printing in late 2004. Set in 2007, Metal Storm purports to be an account of a two-stage war launched by the United States against Turkey, starting with "Operation Metal Storm." The American operation begins after the Turkish military enters the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk in response to a significant increase in the number of attacks on ethnic Turkmen. In the midst of preparing its own invasion of Syria, the United States quickly seizes upon the opportunity to attack Turkey, followed with an international media disinformation campaign portraying the Turks as having first fired at American soldiers. The second stage of the war is "Operation SŠvres", a reference to the much-hated agreement signed at the end of the World War I whereby the Western powers hoped to divide Anatolia among itself.
Unlike Tom Clancy, who populates his novels with fictional characters of his own design, the authors of Metal Storm refer to current leaders, from Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld to Vladimir Putin. In the eyes of some readers, this device blurs the line between fact and fantasy.
Indeed, throughout the book current Turkish military and political leaders wonder how and why the United States would attack Turkey after decades of what appeared to be a fruitful partnership. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and others are often portrayed as having difficulty grasping that the United States has actually attacked their country. Attempting to make their story more believable, the authors at one point recount, "For a long time there was speculative news about the U.S. plans on Turkey. Many people ignored these as fiction because it was considered so insane."
Moreover, the authors' vision of 2007 does not seem so far-fetched. They predict that Nicolas Sarkozy will become France's president and that Turkey's EU accession talks will end in failure, causing the country to move away from the West. This is not so unlikely an outcome, given the uncertain signals sent to Turkey by various European governments and by European public opinion prior to the commencement of the accession talks in October, and given Sarkozy's own public statements. Nor is the depiction of the deterioration of the U.S.-Turkish relationship as described in Metal Storm implausible: The Turkish government withdraws its ambassador to the United States after Congress passes an "Armenian genocide resolution" and the U.S. government ratchets up pressure on Turkey regarding Cyprus.
Turna and U‡ar submit two more reasons why the United States would launch a war against Turkey--both derived from the authors' interpretation of domestic trends in the United States. The first is to "liberate Istanbul from 500 years of occupation by the Turks", so as to permit American evangelical Christians close to the president to construct the world's largest church--with an eye to restoring Istanbul to its former glory as a Christian capital. (Nor is the Vatican is left out. At a secret meeting codenamed "The New Byzantium", the Catholic Church seeks to re-Christianize Anatolia in the hopes of reclaiming many holy sites.) This subplot is not surprising, given the amount of attention paid to the role of evangelicals in American politics. Many Turks fear that President Bush was serious when he announced the beginning of a new "crusade" after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Add to this the increased European pressure on Turkey for further reforms in the name of religious freedom, which is perceived in Turkey as a way to Christianize the country.
The second reason for the U.S. attack in Metal Storm is the American desire for energy security--specifically its need to move away from dependence on Middle Eastern oil and to develop new energy resources. In the book, the United States is desperate for access to Turkey's mineral reserves due to its desire to increase domestic nuclear power production. Turkey is endowed with rich borax, uranium and thorium mines; in fact, it has a world monopoly on borax, a mineral with great strategic value due to its many applications in space and weapons technology. Though most Americans are unaware of Turkey's mineral reserves and public support for nuclear power is quite low, there is nevertheless a real fear among some in Turkey that the United States will eventually seek control of these assets.
What may be most disturbing to the United States is the way the hypothetical Turks successfully use the current insurgency in Iraq as a template for resisting American occupation. With their field armies largely defeated, Turks rely on asymmetrical warfare against the invaders. This tactic is used with spectacular results in the closing pages of the book, in a scenario lifted right from the pages of Graham Allison's recent book Nuclear Terrorism.
ULTIMATELY, THE success of Metal Storm has conclusively demonstrated that, despite continuing protestations of friendship on both sides, the Turkish-American relationship has declined greatly from its peak in the early years of the Cold War. Still more worrisome, the Metal Storm phenomenon does not appear to be a passing fad. With the recent cinematic release of Valley of the Wolves: Iraq, this distorted vision of the United States and its policies has now reached an even larger audience.
The film's leading character, Polat Alemdar, is the widely admired action hero of the highly popular Valley of the Wolves TV series. Betting heavily on the popularity of the show and on the prevailing anti-American sentiment in the country, the producers of the film secured a budget of $10 million, making it the most expensive film ever in Turkey. Their bet has certainly paid off.
After viewing the film in Istanbul just a few days after its opening, I was shocked and disgusted with the portrayal of Americans as pure evil (as compared to Steven Spielberg's recent Munich, which attempted to humanize the Palestinian terrorists) and with the depiction of angry Turkish ultranationalists as "the good guys."
The movie opens with a real event--the arrest of Turkish special forces personnel by U.S. troops in the Sulaymaniyah province of northern Iraq on July 4, 2003. This was the first time such an incident had ever taken place between the two NATO allies. While few in the United States noticed the event--the Bush Administration has yet to fully appreciate the damage it caused to bilateral relations--it was highly significant for Turkey.
At the time, the Ankara government explained that the mission of the Turkish soldiers was to protect their ethnic Turkmen cousins against the Kurds, who became even closer allies of the United States after the Turkish Parliament denied Washington's request for a northern invasion front in 2003. Meanwhile, U.S. sources claimed that the men were caught out of uniform engaging in "disturbing activities." The real issue, however, was that the Turks were led out of their headquarters at gunpoint, with hoods over their heads (known as the "hooding crisis" in Turkey). This deeply humiliated and angered the Turks. Indeed, as so many have noted, it is likely that that for several generations people will tell this story to their children to remind them how their collective honor and dignity was insulted.
In Valley of the Wolves, one soldier involved in the hooding crisis calls headquarters in Ankara, announcing that "this attack is against the Turkish nation", and asks for permission to attack the Americans. When this request is denied, an officer involved writes to his friend Alemdar asking him to take revenge and save "Turkey's national pride"; this officer then commits suicide due to his personal humiliation.
While it may seem odd to Americans that a whole nation would have such an emotional response to this incident--for which the United States did apologize--it must be remembered that Turks hold the military in very high regard; polls consistently reveal it to be one of the most trusted institutions in the country. Precisely what the Turkish personnel were doing there, and why the American soldiers arrested them, is clearly an open question--one I have consistently urged the United States to answer, since there is no other way for Turkey to put this issue to rest.
The movie is built on perceptions of U.S. policy in northern Iraq. Many Turks believe that Washington has allowed the creation of a de facto Kurdish state in northern Iraq and is turning a blind eye to the Kurds' ethnic cleansing of Turkmen and Arabs in the region. When Alemdar and his men are asked the purpose of their visit to Iraq by Kurdish border guards, he curtly responds, "We came to buy people; we hear they are cheap here", implying that the Americans have already "bought" the Kurds. When the guards attempt to stop them, the Turks disperse them in a hail of gunfire and move on. Later, when a Kurdish officer tries to arrest Alemdar, our Turkish hero looks into the eyes of the Kurd and declares, "I do not recognize your authority." What the Turks are unable to do in real life, their hero is able to achieve on screen. In the long run, of course, such scenes will only increase anti-Kurdish sentiment inside Turkey, sentiment that will not only impact the Turkey-Iraq bilateral relationship, but also the internal Turkish-Kurdish ethnic dynamic.
The movie portrays Americans as actively conspiring with the Kurds to label the Turkmen as terrorists. In one scene, U.S. soldiers attack a Turkmen wedding party allegedly comprised of such "terrorists." They shoot a boy in front of his father (who later becomes a suicide bomber) and shoot the groom in the head. Meanwhile, the wedding party is rounded up and forced into a tractor-trailer. After one U.S. soldier--the only American portrayed sympathetically in the entire movie--asks if there will be enough air for those inside, the other rakes the truck with gunfire, declaring, "Now they won't suffocate."
The movie is a caricature of the worst stereotypes that Turks hold of Christians and Jews. The main American character, Sam (as in Uncle Sam) William Marshall, played by Billy Zane, is an evangelical Christian who believes that he is "the son of God." He often gives brutal commands while sitting in front of a mural of the Last Supper. An American Jewish doctor, played by Gary Busey, is interested in keeping his patients alive only in order to harvest their kidneys for clients in New York, London and Israel.
In raising the specter of anti-Semitic as well as anti-Christian sentiment, the movie seems to be trying to unite Turkish nationalists and Islamists in a common anti-Western position. This is occurring at a time when the introverted nationalism of the opposition MHP party is gaining popularity in advance of elections scheduled for 2007. These sentiments have an impact: In February a teenager in Trabzon fatally shot an Italian priest. While the timing of this murder may have been triggered by the Danish cartoon incident, the underlying attitudes have existed for some time. The one issue that unites the Islamists and the nationalists is the perceived threat from the missionaries.
The portrayal of the Abu Ghraib prison incident--with dogs barking at prisoners and a man in the midst of his prayer pulled outside his cell, stripped naked and piled on top of other prisoners--creates feelings of disgust with "the American way." While these events did take place, their use in Valley of the Wolves blurs the line between fact and fiction in a highly worrisome way.
The few redeeming qualities in the movie were about Islam--though one wonders if these will result in Turks associating Islam with justice and the American way with brutality. At one point in the film, a Sufi sheikh comes upon terrorists videotaping a journalist whom they were about to behead in the now-familiar style. The sheikh, who is shown to be deeply respected by all in the region for his justice and care for the community, stops these men, berating them for copying things they see in the media. Such acts, he says, "are absolutely against Islam." He also prevents the leading heroine from becoming a suicide bomber, again telling her that this is un-Islamic. These are timely and important messages.
Overall, the movie reflects a deep and growing suspicion of U.S. intentions in Iraq and the Middle East more generally. Moreover, many Turks say, "we are taking revenge for Midnight Express", referring to a 1978 movie in which a young American drug smuggler was jailed and brutalized in Turkey. In 2005, Turks were angered when the American television series 24 portrayed a Turkish family as terrorists trying to destroying America.
The official U.S. response to Turkish complaints about 24 was "we cannot control Hollywood"; Turkish government officials have made similar statements about Valley of the Wolves. However, unlike in the United States, highly placed figures have also made other statements. The wife of the prime minister, Emine Erdogan, and the speaker of Parliament, B?lent Arin‡, were among the celebrities at the movie's opening night--and were questioned by the media immediately afterward. When Arin‡ was asked about the factual nature of the scenario, he replied "Yes, [this was] exactly as it happened." For her part, Mrs. Erdogan said that she felt "proud" after watching the movie.
Throughout the movie I was wondering what the young men sitting in the row behind me must be thinking. There were seven of them, ranging in age from 15 to 18. With their formative years shaped by the Iraq War, Metal Storm and now this film, they and other members of their generation are beginning to believe that the portrayal of the Americans on screen is reflective of American society as a whole.
For now, U.S.-Turkey relations remain positive, and the two countries' alliance has not yet broken down. But since Turkey remains a thriving democracy accountable to its population, the paranoid fears propagated by works such as Metal Storm and Valley of the Wolves might well be reflected in government policy sooner than anyone might think.