What About Obama's Race? The Turkish (and Other) Perception of Obama

On June 6, 2008, Michael Rubin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal in which he referred to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as “Turkey's Putin” and a dictator. The piece, re-posted on the Middle East Forum, refers to the recent overturn of the headscarf ban in public buildings such as universities by Turkey's constitutional court, as well as to other allegations against Erdogan's actions as Prime Minister thus far. The article strongly suggests that the United States should support the removal of the Prime Minister.

Prolific blogger The Moor Next Door takes issue with Rubin's stance:

Having followed Turkey for the last two years somewhat closely (I make a conscious effort to listen to Turks in Boston and to look at Turkish newspapers and websites in my daily rotation around the web and the library), I view the series of events he describes somewhat differently, and I view the role of the AK as less inherently pernicious than he seems to. I do not care to get into the nitty gritty, partially because it would not accomplish much (and trying to dignifying such a weak comparison between Erdogan and Putin would be as silly as drawing one), but even more so because there is one bit that I think is more relevant than the rest of the article.

Quoting a portion of Rubin's article that suggests Erdogan is widening the gap between Islam and the West by encouraging anti-American and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, the blogger then says:

The first thing that comes to mind is the degree to which Erdogan’s role in the growth of Turkish anti-Americanism is exaggerated here, and especially considering that Rubin leaves any semblance of a causal factor absent. There is a myriad of reasons that Turks so especially dislike or disagree with America, chief among them being the perception that the United States has not taken Turkish national interests seriously when dealing with Iraq or Iran and particularly the Kurds. There are other seemingly minor transgressions that in the context of Turkey’s hypersensitive nationalism become much more offensive in Turkish eyes, such as the Armenian genocide business that became so popular in Washington and around the EU last year and the years before. This is to say nothing of the widely held view that the invasion of Iraq has exacerbated Turkey’s battle with Kurdish militants and that the United States is conspiring with the Kurds against Turkey.

Since 2003, Turkish opinions of the United States have rapidly declined. This has been correlated with the rise and consolidation of the AK in Turkey. But this does not mean that these sentiments are the result of the rise and consolidation of the AK. Indeed the data and anecdotal accounts seem to show that AK supporters and their opponents do not disagree in their views of Americans; anti-Americanism is strong throughout the body politic and has roots in issues that are common to most Turks.

The blogger then changes the subject to the Turkish (and Middle Eastern) perception of presidential candidate Barack Obama. Referring to a passage from The Observer, in which a reporter hears from ordinary Turks about Obama, the blogger expounds on the subject of Obama's race:

The reporter, like many, focuses on Obama’s blackness as an asset outside of the United States. It is not quite PC to ask whether or not it would be a hindrance. My view is that, when one gets to a certain level of power, his color does not matter whatsoever. He will be treated with respect by heads of state, though there may be some gaffes on the part of European or Asian leaders.

It is interesting, though, to ask, just for asking’s sake, whether or not Turks, Syrians, Egyptians, or other peoples in the Muslim world would elect someone like Barack Obama. My guess is that they would not. (The status of blacks in Middle Eastern countries, in everyday life and even folk traditions lead me to this conclusion.) This also makes me skeptical as to the extent to which Obama’s “face” could dissuade people in the region from becoming or remaining anti-American. There is an exceptional amount of severe contempt that many Levantines hold for black people (and other dark skinned people), that many Westerners, especially Americans, entirely miss. I do not know for sure where it comes from on the whole. Part of it is surely the identification of blackness with social and racial inferiority, the result of the fact that blacks and most dark-skinned Arabs have slave ancestry (Arabs have very little sympathy for the descendants of slaves, especially from what African-Americans who have been to the Gulf have told me, and my own understanding of the way that most Arabs view black people). Being black is not as much an asset in the Muslim world as it is in American white liberal circles. What is an asset for Obama in these places is more that he is a winner and that he is black. Arabs like rags to riches stories and the idea of overcoming societal hindrances. It is a fairly common theme in classical Arab-Islamic literature.

In response to this last section, alle comments:

Interesting point, and you’re right that no one has asked the obvious, if Obama’s background could be a hindrance as much as help.

(Arabs have very little sympathy for the descendants of slaves, especially from what African-Americans who have been to the Gulf have told me, and my own understanding of the way that most Arabs view black people)

I don’t disagree with you about racial prejudice in the Arab world, but it needs to be differentiated between regions. The Gulf is probably at an extreme end, given that slavery persisted until the 1970s there, and was very white-on-black. In the Saharan countries, you also had slavery until very recently (in some areas still), but there it was less skin color than bloodline, even if they generally coincide. And it’s not just a side effect of slavery: consider the Janissaries, of Greek or Albanian descent, whose descendants may enjoy very high status (and also be “whiter” than most Arabs where they live).


  • Oben Özaydın

    Recep Tayyip Erdogan is an elected king and AKP is a Zionist party. The only party that Israil gives support.

  • IMSmall writing as Rudderless Quipling


    In extended observation of the ways and works of man
    From the Four-mile radius roughly to the Plains of Pakistan,
    I have drunk with mixed assemblies seen the racial ruction rise
    And the men of half Creation damning half Creation´s eyes.

    I have seen the worst of Whites berate the aptitude of Blacks,
    Obama is a nincompoop or ape so on they wax,
    Such eloquence as only White Trash competence can muster,
    As idiots declaim in single syllables unjuster–

    Than even such a joke about the raping a white gal
    (How do you stop a gang of Blacks? Throw them a basketball!)
    And on and on the slanders pile, vituperative their hate
    These cognoscenti than Obama less articulate!

    It is a bit too late to blame your own ineptitude
    Upon the Blacks–Obama, neither crass nor coarse nor crude
    Is not so much an orator as knows to parse a sentence
    Grammatically with logic offering no glib repentance.

    Of all the meanest, dumbest numbskulls in the world at large
    Would seem Americans the worst so cravenly who charge
    To slander and invade while boasting theirs the only right–
    But would God bless my country less if people grew polite?

    America, America, O gaze into the mirror:
    Has self-deception led to estimation growing clearer?
    Don´t pin pejoratives upon the Black. Obama can
    (If God´s with him) out-think, out-wrestle all y´all to a man.


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