by Richard Wike

Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Turkey this week may well test the scholarly pontiff’s diplomatic skills. The visit — his first to a Muslim country since being elected pope — comes during a difficult period in Turkey’s relationship with the West. In Europe, a heated debate surrounds the granting of EU membership to Turkey. Meanwhile, the war in Iraq has created new strains for Turkish-American relations. And of course, the September controversy over Benedict’s remarks regarding Islam at Germany’s University of Regensburg has only added to these tensions.

A recent Pew Global Attitudes survey, conducted in April 2006, finds that public opinion in Turkey reflects this contentious atmosphere. For example, only 16% of Turks have a favorable view of Christians, down from 31% in 2004 — a sign of the challenges Benedict may face in trying to promote interfaith dialogue.

Turks generally have negative opinions of major Western countries, especially the United States. Only 12% of Turks have a favorable view of the U.S., down from 30% two years ago. American foreign policy is extremely unpopular — 70% say the Iraq war, which Turkey fears will further embolden its own Kurdish minority, has made the world more dangerous and 77% oppose the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

However, France does not fare much better — 61% say they have an unfavorable view of France, while only 18% hold a favorable opinion. Germany, home to a large number of Turkish immigrants, receives somewhat more positive marks, with Turks divided between those with favorable (43%) and unfavorable (41%) opinions.

Western leaders are remarkably unpopular in Turkey. Only 3% of Turks say they have a lot or some confidence in President George W. Bush to do the right thing in world affairs. While Bush is the most unpopular Western leader included on the survey, France’s Jacque Chirac (5% a lot or some confidence), Britain’s Tony Blair (7%), and Germany’s Angela Merkel (11%) are not far behind.

Turks also hold many negative views about the people of Western countries. Americans, for example are rated negatively by 69% of Turks. And when Muslims in Turkey were presented with a number of negative characteristics and asked if each one describes people in Western countries, such as the United States and Europe, solid majorities said they did associate these traits with Westerners. Roughly two-in-three Turks see Westerners as violent (70%), selfish (69%), arrogant (67%), and fanatical (67%) (for more on this, see the Pew Global Attitudes Project’s The Great Divide, June 22, 2006).

Turkey’s Secular-Religious Divide

Despite the strong tradition of secularism in modern Turkey, Islam remains central to the identity of most Turks, and indeed religious identification is on the rise. Roughly half of Turkish Muslims (51%) say they think of themselves first as Muslim rather than Turkish, while 19% identify primarily with their nationality, and 30% volunteer that they think of themselves as both. This represents a significant change from just one year ago, when only 43% identified primarily as Muslim.

Secular and religious identifiers share many of the same negative opinions about the West, but there are some important differences between these groups. For instance, secular identifiers are twice as likely as Muslim identifiers to have a favorable opinion of Christians; still, even among seculars, only one-in-four has a positive impression of Christians.

Secular and religious identifiers also differ over some of the hot button international issues affecting relations between the West and the Muslim world. When asked whom they sympathize with more in the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, Muslim identifiers are especially likely to say they side with the Palestinians. And those who think of themselves primarily as Muslim are also particularly likely to believe the victory of Hamas in the recent Palestinian elections will be good for the Palestinian people.

Muslim identifiers take a much more positive view of Iran. Roughly six-in-ten (59%) have a favorable view of the country, compared with only 41% of secular identifiers. And those who think of themselves first as Muslim are also more likely to favor Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, although even among this group only 26% support the idea of an Iran armed with nuclear capabilities.