In the second section of Covering Islam, Edward Said looks in detail at the crisis that erupted after Iranian students occupied the U.S. embassy in Tehran during the Iranian Revolution. Towards the end of the section this is how he sums up the situation:
So poorly and with such antagonism did the press report Islam and Iran during 1979 that it can be suspected that a number of opportunities for resolving the hostage crisis were lost, and perhaps this is why the Iranian government suggested early in 1980 that fewer reporters in Iran might quiet the tension and produce a peaceful resolution. What is most serious about the media’s failure, and what does not augur well for the future, is that so far as urgent international issues during a period of acute crisis are concerned, the media do not securely and easily see themselves as performing an independent, truly informational task. There seems to be little awareness that the new era we are entering in the 1980s cannot with impunity be represented in confrontational dichotomies — “us” versus “them,” the United States versus the Soviet Union, the West versus Islam, the media always siding with the “good” side…. (1)
My argument is that the same is taking place before our eyes right now and in regard to Turkey. Turkey is in the process of establishing a more fundamentally democratic political system; this includes renewing, rearranging, and imposing transparency on state institutions. The vast majority of Turkey’s citizens want to live in a system where the people’s democratically-elected representatives are the only political decision-makers, and are truly accountable for the consequences. The generals, the mafias, the paramilitaries, the leftist militants, the cult leaders, and other unaccountable actors would thereby lose their ability to siphon off state resources and to provoke violence.
Instead of objectively reporting the context for the AKP’s attempts to carry through this process, the Western press has engaged in an increasingly shrill and hysterical campaign against the AKP. Instead of providing reasoned, constructive criticism when and where needed, an all-out, nearly unanimous campaign to demonize Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP has been initiated. Instead of taking the time to convey in-depth information to their readers concerning Turkey’s culture, history, and society on the way to more profound reporting on the country’s current events and transformations, the reporting has been focused on extremely specific conjunctures, usually crises, and has been slanted so as to inspire concern and dread, not understanding. Edward Said, in the early 1980s, could point to the French press, and specifically Eric Rouleau’s Le Monde reports on Iran, as an alternative source of information. (2) But in the current situation, even Le Monde’s reporting on Turkey, as described in detail by Akın Özçer (3), has stooped to the same superficial, uninformed fear-mongering. In other words, Said’s premonitions have largely been confirmed, at least in the Turkish case.
After dealing specifically with the U.S media’s coverage of the crisis in Iran, Said turns, in the book’s final section, to the sources of power that enabled such shallow and one-sided coverage to emerge in the first place. That section is titled “Knowledge and Power.” In turn, its first subsection is called “The Politics of Interpreting Islam: Orthodox and Antithetical Knowledge.” Here Said begins by noting the general Orientalist optimism concerning how profoundly and empirically the Islamic world could be understood; this optimism was standing in direct contrast to the highly skeptical currents in the Western intellectual tradition that were questioning whether pure or absolute knowledge of any subject could ever be obtained. Said supplies a reference to Ernest Renan and a long, disturbing quote from a 1979 journal article titled “The State of Middle East Studies” (4), authored by Bernard Lewis, to illustrate Orientalists’ untroubled approach to studying Islamic societies. Said summarizes the problematic attitude displayed by both scholars by commenting that “… European interest in alien cultures was based on actual encounters with those cultures usually as a result of trade, conquest, or accident,” not on some innate and unique curiosity that Europeans supposedly possess. (5)
Similarly, the American scholars who began to examine various aspects of Turkish society immediately after WWII were highly optimistic about two main points: First, that U.S. social scientists could scientifically analyze Turkish culture and society in order to increase understanding, and then use that knowledge to inform policy; second, that the same knowledge could be utilized, in parallel, to aid Turkey’s democratization and modernization. For more than two decades this sanguine outlook has colored the texts produced by U.S. social scientists working on Turkish issues.
The best-known U.S. study on Turkish society written immediately after WWII was Max Weston Thornburg’s Turkey: An Economic Appraisal (6). Thornburg’s study was supported by the Twentieth Century Fund, a progressive think tank associated with several figures from the Franklin Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman administrations (7). Even at that early date, the aims that would mark American efforts to understand Turkey over the next twenty-five years are clearly evident in the Foreword to Thornburg’s study:
The Fund chose Turkey for the subject of this study even before the announcement of the “Truman Doctrine” in 1947 – with the strategic significance of that country very much in mind, not to mention the inevitability of both needs and demands for American assistance abroad. Geographically, of course, Turkey is a key bastion in any defense that may be required against further Communist encroachment. Yet its economic and political organization, and the intellectual temper of its people, are very different from what we are accustomed to here in the United States. All of which makes a clear understanding of Turkey and the Turks by the American people an absolute must for effective American aid.
Mr. Thornburg and his associates agreed with the Fund at the outset of their quest on what was meant by “American aid.” It was clearly understood in advance that the only kind of aid to be considered in this study would be that which would raise the standard of living and increase the independence of the Turkish people. All agreed that not only Turkey’s interests but America’s, and the interests of the world as well, are best served by a Turkey that is both prosperous and free. (8)
Two clear aims are outlined. The first is the political aim of supporting U.S. interests, and the second is to promote the economic and political development of Turkey. From the outset, U.S. academic attention to Turkey, too, shared similar goals. The consequence is that the study of Turkey, especially by U.S. scholars since WWII, has always had at least implicit political dimensions. As Said suggested in broader terms for Orientalism, it was the “actual encounter” (9) with Turkey during WWII that brought Turkey to the attention of U.S. policy makers and, consequently, of U.S. scholars.
(1) Said, Edward. Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (New York: Pantheon Books, 1981), p. 123.
(2) Ibid. pp. 116-123.
(3) See Özçer’s articles for Serbestiyet: “Le Monde sticks with PKK Propaganda,” 17 August 2015; “Le Monde: Cizre is Going to be Just Like Kobane,” 17 August 2015; “Türkiye Karşıtlığının Entelektüel Yüzü Le Monde,” 11 September 2015; “Teröre Dolaylı Destek Örneklerinden Biri,” 15 September 2015; “Demokratik ülkeler medyası manipülasyon mu yapıyor?,” 2 October 2015.
(4) Lewis, Bernard. “The State of Middle East Studies”; The American Scholar. Vol. 48, No. 3, Summer 1979, pp. 365-381.
(5) Said, op. cit., pp. 127-131; quote p. 131.
(6) Thornburg, Max, Graham Spry, and George Soule. Turkey: An Economic Appraisal. Baltimore, Maryland: Lord Baltimore Press, 1949. Thornburg was an engineer who was highly successful in the petroleum sector, becoming an advisor to the U.S. State Department on oil issues during WWII. As an expression of gratitude for Thornburg’s help in developing Bahreyn’s oil industry, Bahreyn’s rulers gave Thornburg an island off of Bahreyn, Umm a’Sabaan. Thornburg wrote the Author’s Preface for Turkey: An Economic Appraisal on Umm a’Sabaan. Biographical information on Thornburg can be found in the Introduction to Thornburg’s People and Policy in the Middle East (People and Policy in the Middle East: A Study of Social and Political Change as a Basis for United States Policy. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., Inc., 1964), which was published posthumously.
(7) The Twentieth Century Fund changed its title to the Century Foundation in 1999. At the time that Thornburg’s study was carried out, several people associated with the Twentieth Century Fund were prominent New Dealers, i.e. figures closely associated with the formulation or implementation of President Roosevelt’s New Deal economic stimulus program in the 1930s.
(8) Thornburg, op. cit., v.
(9) Said, op. cit., p. 131.