Obama well placed to win hearts in Turkey

4th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

Turks hope the popular leader will bring a renewed era of Turkish-American relations.

Istanbul -- US President Barack Obama, due in Turkey next week, is poised not only to boost bilateral ties but also to make gains on the front of public diplomacy in this mainly Muslim country, where his predecessor left the US image in tatters.

Obama, who will be visiting Turkey on Monday and Tuesday, has already made headway in winning over Turkish hearts since his election in January.

In 2005, only 9.3 percent of Turks said they trusted George W. Bush -- compared with 4.6 percent who trusted Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden -- whereas in February 39.2 percent said they had confidence in Obama, making him "the most trusted leader" in Turkish eyes, according to a poll by the Infakto Research Workshop company.

While a Turkish businessman sought to make a fortune by claiming he was the manufacturer of the shoes thrown at Bush last year, a leading Turkish bank is now seeking to capitalise on Obama's reassuring image, using a look-alike in a TV advertisement promoting "anti-crisis" loans.

"The Garanti Bank said it wanted to revitalise the economy and we thought that Obama is seen as the sole person who can stop the economic downturn," said Bediz Eker, a manager at the company that shot the advertisement.

Bush's invasion of neighbouring Iraq in 2003, in which Ankara denied US troops permission to use its territory, led to an outpouring of solidarity with the Iraqis and fuelled fears here that the United States wants to fundamentally reshape the Middle East.

"The Turks hated Bush ... Bush linked everything to terrorism and Islam and he was very wrong. He crusaded in a way," Orhan Tekelioglu, an academic specialising in popular culture, told AFP.

"The Turks have a very positive feeling about Obama because he is not creating a world where he is going to act as the only leader ... He says he wants to cooperate. Bush was not saying so," he added.

Tekelioglu noted that Obama's ethnic origin was also appealing to the Turks.

"The Turks like black people ... They have a certain inclination towards people who have been oppressed," he said, linking that feeling to the fact that modern Turkey was founded in 1923 after a war against European powers which sliced up and dismantled the Ottoman Empire.

Another small detail nourishing Turkish sympathy towards the US president is his name: even though Obama is a practising Christian, his middle name, Hussein, is widespread in the Muslim world and makes him a namesake with the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.

In comments on Obama's visit during a television interview last week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan jokingly corrected the interviewer when she omitted "Hussein" from the president's name.

Brooks Emerson, an Istanbul resident for seven years and founder of a group of American expatriates supporting the Democrats, downplayed the Obama-mania, saying that the damage done by the Bush administration would be hard to repair.

"Turks by nature are sceptical ... They think America is trying to control everything. They are positive about Obama ... but they do not believe 100 percent in what they see because America had such a bad reputation for the last 10 years or so," he said.

Nicolas Cheviron/AFP/Expatica

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