Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

Willfully Stupid on Turkey

| January 23, 2012

RICK PERRY, the former Republican presidential candidate, is not stupid. True, he may be bad at debates. But he is not stupid. So in his last stand at a debate in South Carolina, his remark that Turkey was run by "Islamic terrorists," should be kicked out of NATO, and is akin to Iran and Syria was more than bad research. The scarier explanation is that Perry knew exactly what he was doing.

As the Republicans narrow down their field, Perry's scorched-earth farewell was a purposeful play to the worst elements of fear and intolerance. It's worse than stupid; it's utterly calculating. With all this talk of Mormonism, Christianity, and redemption in the presidential election, Islam is still good bait.

Perry lived in Turkey in the 1970s as an Air Force pilot; he is no novice. When asked later to explain his erroneous comments about Turkey, he did not back down. He reiterated the terror line, saying "I stand by my statement."

Turkey is an essential ally to the United States in the Middle East and a moderate Islamic state. It is a democracy, but closer to authoritarian when it comes to its human-rights record and treatment of its Kurdish minority. It has an active secular opposition movement. It is a very complicated country. But it is not, for the record, run by terrorists, Islamic or otherwise.

It is also at the center of attempts to organize the Syrian opposition and a powerful economic force in the region. It has been a member of NATO since 1952. And it is likely, according to several diplomatic sources, the go-between in communications for the United States and Iran as tensions rise over Iranian nuclear programs and sanctions.

Perry surely knows some of this and would have corrected his statements if he had wanted to. And not a single candidate seems terribly willing to defend Turkey. Perry's assertions were left to linger, a broad-brush stroke of stereotypes and Islam-bashing that filled the air with inaccuracies.

And if it is stupidity, it's contagious.

Not too long ago, former candidate Herman Cain affirmed several times that he would never put a Muslim in his cabinet. When pressed, he explained that he obviously meant only the "bad Muslims" when he said "Muslims" and everyone would surely know that because that's what everyone means when they say "Muslims." Stupid Cain?

Anti-Sharia laws are popping up over 20 states as if Islamic laws over divorce or inheritance are taking hold when nobody is noticing. The ban, its supporters contend, is a "pre-emptive strike" against Islamic terrorists. "I believe Sharia is a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and in the world as we know it," remarked Newt Gingrich. Stupid Newt?

Mitt Romney, who grew up in Michigan, which has the largest Arab population in America, has been quite supportive of the contributions of Muslim-Americans when he campaigns in that electoral-vote heavy state. But he is facing serious complaints from mainstream Muslim and Arab organizations for appointing Walid Phares as a foreign policy advisor. Phares, a Christian Lebanese, is a conservative pundit who warns of the rise of Sharia and the takeover of America.

It is slightly possible, despite the extensive research on anyone who is named a candidate's policy adviser, that Romney was surprised to learn his new Middle East adviser is hostile to Islam. Stupid Mitt?

If there is ever to be a sustainable vision of democracy and Islam, the imperfect Turkey will surely be the model. And it is manifestly in the American interest that democracy and Islam coexist peacefully. But that's a vision not worthy of imagining for those Republicans seeking the Oval Office. Islam is an easy target and one that still unites conservatives.

Turkey, of course, responded to Perry's comments with outrage and rightful condemnation. And the State Department, surely with more important things to occupy its time, threw Perry under the diplomatic bus as it managed the fallout.

It's all so stupid, if only it weren't.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kayyem, Juliette.“Willfully Stupid on Turkey.” The Boston Globe, January 23, 2012.

The Author

Juliette Kayyem