Sometimes it is quite a pleasure to enjoy disagreeing with an author. This is how I felt when I read Suzy Hansen’s Notes on a Foreign Country, which I recently reviewed for e-international relations and can be found here. In my review, I took exception with much of the book. But I would like to briefly dwell on one aspect which I didn’t really get to into my review, the early engagement of the US in Turkey and the Middle East.
It would surprise many that the US was not always disliked in the Middle East (nor is it universally hated today as some might think). Before World War II, many in the region looked towards the US as a friend and a nation that was very different to other western countries, most especially the colonial powers of Britain and France. And this was for good reason. Before World War II, when arguably the US had already become an imperial power, America had no colonial designs in the Middle East. Even the deal between Standard Oil and Saudi Arabia during the 1930s was much more favourable to the Saudi Kingdom that anything which competing British companies were offering in terms of profits and royalties. By working the US, Saudi did better than its neighbours who were obliged to work with British companies.
Better business transaction was one thing, but there was also American benevolence. Across Turkey and other parts of the Middle East there are still today living monuments of American altruism. Perhaps the most notable are the institutions of education, namely Bogazici University in Istanbul, the American University of Cairo and the American University of Beirut and high schools such as Robert College and Uskudar American Academy in Turkey. These educational establishments were founded by the joint efforts of American philanthropists and missionaries mainly during the late nineteenth century. Unable to convert the local population to Christianity, American missionaries decided against packing up and leaving. Instead, they established these institutions open to all regardless of religion, sect or denomination (although Robert College, for example, did not see its first Muslim Turk graduate until the 1900s).
One can of course make the claim that this was an example of cultural imperialism. Perhaps, but not quite. These educational endeavours, together with the foundation of hospitals and clinics, were established with expressed permission the of the Ottoman government which was itself aiming to open western educational institutions. Also, the US founded schools and universities were by no means compulsory, no one was forced to attend. Sure, they spread American ideals, but they were not factories to indoctrinate impressionable young people about liberalism and capitalism, but offered an education that allowed for critical engagement in the liberal arts and sciences. Moreover, these institutions educated generation after generation of Middle Eastern elites. Were it not for such schools and universities, the Middle east would be an intellectually poorer place. Indeed, some of the Middle East’s finest minds, including those critical of US policies, were educated at such institutions.
Fast forward to today and while the US now has considerable imperial baggage, these institutions remain independent and still continue to educate the young and treat the elderly and sick. This should not be overlooked, denigrated or forgotten.
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