American diplomats need to use more accurate language when they talk about Turkey. For example, Turkish leaders expressed outrage over Secretary of State Colin Powell’s characterization of Turkey as a “Muslim democracy.” They asked how Americans would like it if their country was called a Christian democracy. From the Turkish point of view, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk moved religion out of the public sphere in 1923 and Turkey has been a secular state ever since. Even current AKP party leaders who may tout Islam domestically stress Turkey’s secularism in their foreign policy because they feel strongly that secularism is the bedrock of Turkey’s government and they understand that many in the West associate Islam with terrorism. In response to another frequently mentioned malapropism, many Turkish academics point out that Turkey is not a model for other countries as the U.S. so often claims. “We may serve as a beacon to our neighbors in the region” one university president said, “but the Turkish population mix is unique so we cannot be a model for any other country.”
American leaders would do well to frame their decisions in local vernacular whenever possible. For example, instead of saying “the U.S. has decided” one might frame the announcement in terms of what would be beneficial to local people.