Why we were #Paris but not #Ankara

Why we were #Paris but not #Ankara

After the devastating terror attacks in Ankara last week, many asserted profound disappointment with the fact that citizens of countries abroad expressed almost no interest. Especially the lack of any signs of solidarity from citizens of the European Union and the U.S. – our longtime allies – was rather seen as disheartening. All over social media, people were asking why everyone across the globe rallied behind the French after the attacks in Paris and showed their profound solidarity but did practically nothing in the aftermath of the Ankara attacks. 

The heartbreaking fact of why “no one was Ankara” while “everyone was Paris” should be seen as a reality check. The truth is that from a Western perspective, Turkey is seen as “the other” and our side of the Aegean Sea is seen as “the other side.” Therefore, the message we received from our allies was clear: Turkey is no Europe, Turkey is no West, and we do not identify with you enough to sympathize.

Some would claim that Turkey was never seen as belonging to the Western club anyway, but this is not true. In the last 10 years of my life I lived across “the West” and have been able to observe from an overall perspective how Europeans and Americans perceive Turkish society. Living in different cities in Texas and in California, then moving to the U.K. and now living in Belgium, I can say with confidence that the perception of Turkey from the (broad definition) of the West have shifted greatly over the years from interested to apathetic. 

I have encountered hundreds of different people from various segments of the Western societies, including students, professors, doctors, taxi drivers, lawyers, factory workers, and I have asked them the same question on what they think of Turkey. Roughly 10 years ago, I the first sentence I would hear was something about the NATO alliance and how Turkish, American, British and other European soldiers were once fighting together in Korea. Then usually a comment on Ataturk would follow, mostly ending with the “stability” of Turkey in an unstable corner of the world, and the “exemplary” role it played amongst newly emerging democracies. Americans aside, citizens of the EU I knew would mostly consider us “another Balkan state,” would shake their heads, and unwillingly talk about the “distant cousin” they had in the grand family of Europe, even if they didn’t particularly feel close; a distant cousin who would appear in the far right if we took a picture of Europe, who has always been part of European history. Almost all of them would know Ataturk and the policies of the modern Turkish history, talking on how Turkey was aligned with Europe since the days of the Marshall Plan. 

As such, the view on Turkey was mostly one of a distant cousin tagging along. Yet, this perception slowly turned into resentment and anger over the years. Increasing tensions within Turkey among its diverse population, the growing authoritarian tendencies of the Turkish government, and the anti-Western rhetoric slowly led people to become angry. From the people I had a chance to observe I have heard so many times a phrase akin to “they cannot do that!” or “how is that even possible!” with exasperation, meaning that they were angry because they actually cared. If you feel disappointed or sad about something, it means you had expectations. This seemed to be the case. However, slowly, the perception of Turkey has shifted towards a mix of sadness and nonexistence. People I talk everyday seem to be unaware and uninterested in Turkey, and appear to feel disconnected at a fundamental level. From the sadness that was brought after the Gezi Park protests, fueled by the fact that nothing was changed afterwards, I could observe the apathy growing in the European populace. More and more, the events happening in Turkey are seen as disinteresting – or not seen at all. This is perhaps the clearest message we received again last week when “they” did not care about “us.” 

Now the question is why do “we” care about what “they” think?

Aydın Bariş Yıldırım is a PhD researcher at the Antwerp Centre for Institutions and Multilevel Politics Department of Political Science.