Understanding Politics in Turkey (2)

Three years or so ago I wrote a post I called ‘Understanding Turkish Politics’. In the interim, I have become a little more politically aware – hence today’s title. On the other hand, I’m not sure I’m much the wiser about what’s really going on. Rather, I am confirmed in the opinion I expressed at the time: there’s a lot going on behind the scenes, and secret agenda are not the sole prerogative of the government.
Last week anti-government street demonstrations got under way again in various cities around Turkey. It was kind of expected. There had been talk of a resumption of protest activity in the autumn. Whether that was because many of the demonstrators were away on summer vacation I can’t say for sure. Whatever the case, the two-month layoff seemed to have thinned the numbers to a hard-core of barricade-builders, stone and Molotov cocktail-hurlers. The football season has resumed too, meaning that fans who swelled the ranks of June protests now have more pressing matters on their minds.
In Istanbul, Thursday was a particularly eventful night with police and protesters in Kadıköy carrying on the now familiar running battles. There seem to have been two reasons for that timing. One was the death of a young man in the southeastern city of Hatay. Some anti-government groups were claiming that 22 year-old Ahmet Atakan died from injuries received at the hands of police during a political demonstration. An autopsy, however, determined that his death was the result of a fall from a great height, and this seemed to be confirmed by a video captured by a reporter on the spot showing the young man falling several stories from a building to the street below.
Well, of course, we can’t be sure that police didn’t push him off that building – though given the current climate in Turkey, it’s hard to understand why they would – and investigations are apparently continuing. What has emerged, however, is that Ahmet and two others who died in the so-called Gezi Park protests were members of the Arab Alawite community in Hatay. Now I’m not denying anyone’s right to protest, having done a bit of it myself in my younger days. It is becoming increasingly clear, though, that green spaces and other issues of urban planning played only a small part in those explosive events back in June.
September 1980. From where to where?
Arabic is one of several native languages spoken in that southeastern corner of Turkey. I don’t know the history of the Alawite community (material for a future post?) but it would seem they are co-religionists of embattled Syrian President Assad. Evidently local tensions have been building up over the past two years as a result of the flow of refugees into Turkey fleeing the violence of the ongoing civil war. The count now exceeds 450,000, four times the number that brought UN Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie on a fact-finding mission two years ago. Not sure what she did with the facts she found, but that’s another issue, I guess. Certainly I’m not going to attempt to analyse all that, but clearly there is more to the business than tree-hugging in an Istanbul park.
Returning to the more recent action in Kadıköy, the other thing that brought protesters together, I gather, was that Thursday 12 September was the anniversary of the military coup that ousted the coalition government of Süleyman Demirel back in 1980. Well, it was a traumatic event in Turkish history, for sure. According to Wikipedia:
  • 650,000 people were placed under arrest.
  • 1,683,000 people were blacklisted.
  • 230,000 people were judged in 210,000 lawsuits.
  • 7,000 people faced the death penalty.
  • 517 persons were sentenced to death.
  • 50 of those given the death penalty were executed (26 political prisoners, 23 criminal offenders and 1 ASALA militant).
  • The files of 259 people, charged with capital offences, were sent to the National Assembly.
  • 71,000 people were judged on account of the articles 141, 142 and 163 in Turkish Penal Code.
  • 98,404 people were judged on charges of being members of a leftist, a rightist, a nationalist, a conservative, etc. organization.
  • 388,000 people were refused a passport.
  • 30,000 people were dismissed from their firms because they were suspects and therefore deemed unemployable.
  • 14,000 people had their citizenship cancelled.
  • 30,000 people went abroad as political refugees.
  • 300 people died in a suspicious manner.
  • 171 people are documented as having died by reason of torture.
  • 937 films were banned because they were found objectionable.
  • 23,677 associations had their activities stopped.
  • 3,854 teachers, 120 lecturers and 47 judges were dismissed.
  • 400 journalists were charged with crimes carrying 4000 years’ imprisonment.
  • Journalists were sentenced to a total of 3315 years and 6 months’ imprisonment.
  • 31 journalists went to jail.
  • 300 journalists were attacked.
  • 3 journalists were shot dead.
  • Newspapers were not published for 300 days.
  • 303 cases were brought against 13 major newspapers.
  • 39 tonnes of newspapers and magazines were destroyed.
  • 299 people lost their lives in prison.
  • 144 people died in a suspicious manner.
  • 14 people died in a hunger strike.
  • While fleeing, 16 people were shot.
  • 95 people were killed in combat.
  • A report of “Natural death” was given for 73 persons.
  • The cause of death of 43 people was announced as “suicide”.


The military junta ruled Turkey for three years, writing a new constitution (which is still mostly in effect) and eventually organizing an election contested by ‘approved’ parties. The army kept its grip on the nation’s throat, however, appointing General Kenan Evren as President for a seven-year term. It wasn’t until 1992 that the Republican People’s Party (the current CHP opposition) was permitted to resume political activity.
What I’m not sure about is whether the Thursday night demonstrators were holding Turkey’s current government responsible for those dreadful events of the early 80s, or whether they shared the frustration of some who, unable to achieve their aims through the ballot-box, would have liked to see Prime Minister Erdoğan’s government overthrown by another ‘Night of the Generals’.
The reason for my uncertainty here is that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, against formidable (non-parliamentary) opposition, has been little by little rewriting that 1982 constitution, pulling the teeth of Turkey’s paternalistic military, and making it possible for perpetrators of the above-listed crimes to be brought before the courts to answer for their actions. In my humble opinion as a foreigner, people in this country should be grateful for what the current government has achieved – truth be told, the majority probably are. Certainly, blaming Tayyip Erdoğan and his team for the actions of over-zealous generals back in the 80s seems a tad unfair.
A less political achievement, but nonetheless significant, was the opening, last weekend, of a system of underpasses aimed at turning Taksim Square into a pedestrian-friendly hub for the city. Once the buses and other traffic are redirected, the pedestrian area will cover close to ten hectares. One motorist interviewed said that he hadn’t expected the project to be completed so soon, considering that the Gezi Park protests had slowed down construction. I’m not an architect or a town-planner, but from a purely lay point-of-view, I have to say that Taksim Square has, up till now, been singularly unattractive and pedestrian-unfriendly, so I, for one, will not lament any improvements.
Still, despite the complaints you will hear from Istanbullites, traffic jams are not the sole cause of unhappiness among citizens of Turkey. Here’s a list of grievances I compiled from news media over the weekend:
  • Armenian writer Hrant Dink was shot and killed in January 2007 and some folks are complaining that justice has not been done. The European Court of Human Rights apparently agreed with them, adding fuel to that particular fire.
  • An organisation known as the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK) has called on families to boycott schools as the new year begins to insist on the right to education in their native tongue.
  • Two of the top Istanbul football teams, Beşiktaş and Fenerbahçe, have been banned from participation in UEFA competitions in the current season because of match-fixing. The Turkish Football Association has lost its appeals against the decision but is so far refraining from punitive action of its own.
  • Students at Middle East Technical University have been protesting about the construction of a road through the campus, and have now turned their attention to female students wearing headscarves and claimed to be associated with the Hizmetmovement of Fethullah Gülen.


Well, as I remarked above, citizens should have the right to protest when they feel their rights are under threat. On the other hand, as the Governor of Istanbul pointed out, that right may not extend to all-night protests involving Molotov cocktails, ripping up roads to use the paving stones as ammunition, and other wilful destruction of property. It is also perhaps a trifle unfair to expect the accumulated ills of 90 years of republican history (not to mention 500 years of Ottoman rule) to be cured overnight.
The young kid who actually shot Hrant Dink and the guy who put him up to it have both been sentenced to lengthy terms of imprisonment. It may be true that so-called ‘deep state’ Gladio-type operators were behind the killing, but the courts were unable to make a definite connection. It is also true, however, that the courts have been doing their best to bring members of that organisation to justice – and European Union authorities have been expressing their doubts about that case too.
The government of Turkey has opened discussions and proposed ‘democratisation’ packages aimed at addressing the grievances of minority groups, especially Kurds. The Prime Minister has apologised, on behalf of the state, for a massacre of Alevi Kurds that took place after an uprising in 1937, and is proposing to reinstate the name (Dersim) of their province, changed to Tunceli as a corrective measure after those events. None of these measures could have been imagined in the Turkey I came to in the 1990s. As for the ‘right’ to education in one’s mother tongue, it is unlikely that the overstretched education system in Turkey could cope with such a demand, and not at all clear that the majority of Kurds in Turkey want it. There seems to be some question anyway as to whether the KCK has authority to speak on their behalf, especially since its members have suggested the use of force to persuade families to support the boycott.
Of course, no one likes to see trees cut, and university students the world over are known for their political awareness and activism. However, the ODTÜ campus is very extensive, and a good deal of it is covered with forest. I’m a bicycle man myself, but Turkey is a developing country, and cycling as a post-modern lifestyle choice hasn’t really caught on yet. Most people see owning a car, the bigger the better, as a sign that they have made it. So the country needs roads. On the headscarf issue, I have difficulty understanding why some Turkish citizens have such a problem accepting the right of others to dress, within reasonable limits, as they see fit. Besides, it’s a well-known fact that most religious beliefs thrive on persecution. ‘Leave them alone and they’ll get tired of it’ seems to have worked well with Christianity. As for Fethullah Gülen, as far as I am aware, the jury is still out. Despite criticism bordering on hysteria, nobody seems able to explain exactly what the guy has done wrong. Schools opened in his name seem to focus on academic achievement, have no overt religious instruction, and long queues of hopeful customers wait outside the front gate. Most private schools in Turkey would kill for that level of popularity. Maybe that’s part of the problem.
And then there’s football. I read a quote from one club official along the lines of, ‘Well, there was match-fixing in that game, but it didn’t affect the outcome.’ It’s a bit like the argument that says the coup-plotters shouldn’t be punished because they didn’t actually carry out a coup. FIFA has banned those two clubs from Europe for a year, but I think they are also looking to the local association to take some kind of exemplary punitive action. Some hope. A well-known Turkish saying sums up the attitude: ‘Hem suçlu, hem güçlü’, which means, essentially, ‘Even if you’re caught red-handed, brazen it out’.
I know I have been harping on the theme of democracy lately, and I know Turkey is not perfect – but it’s a relative thing. Most of us, Americans, Brits, New Zealanders, Australians, will admit that our own systems do not always produce the greatest good for the greatest number. Despite the presence of droves of artists among the Gezi Park protesters, I can say the art scene in Turkey has improved out of sight since I first came to the country. One measure of this is the cinema industry, where mainstream films are now free to deal with previously forbidden topics such as the 1980 military coup, and Turkish military action against Kurdish insurgents in the east.
Well, this time I’m going to leave the last word to someone else. The following is an article that appeared the other day in the English language newspaper ‘Today’s Zaman’ under the headline ‘A Memory about September 12’:
“The belief that it is a crime to overthrow a democratically elected government by force has been accepted by large segments of society. Turkey’s secular-Kemalist elites have lost their power. They have no faith in elections, as they lose consistently. These days they are trying to discredit the government and render it dysfunctional by creating an atmosphere of widespread violence through street skirmishes. Will they be successful? It is unlikely, but that has been their aim since the Gezi Park protests.
“The constitution drafted in the wake of the Sept. 12 coup is still in force. Parliament has failed to come to an agreement about drafting a new Constitution.
“I was jailed in Diyarbakır at the time and released in 1988. Now, I am a person in middle age. It saddens me to see that Turkey is still being governed by the constitution of the Sept. 12 coup. On every anniversary of the Sept. 12 coup, that sadness returns to haunt me.
“Before the coup, I was a literature teacher at a high school in Diyarbakır. From the books we read, we knew or thought we knew what would happen if fascism arose in this country.
“But the reality depicted in books and the events of real life are never the same. At the time of the military takeover, I had the chance to flee abroad. I was living in a city that was close to the border, and it was a piece of cake for me to cross the border and make for Europe. But I believed that I was innocent. My actions, apart from some participation in civil and democratic work, weren’t reprehensible.
“One day, the school where I was working was raided, and they removed me from class right in front of my students. I was tortured for three months in the interrogation center. Then, I was arrested and jailed in Diyarbakır prison, where I learned that fascism couldn’t be learned from books.” Read more:


Dersim and the Politics of Inclusion

I first came to Turkey just after Mel Gibson and his team won five Oscars for their 1995 cinematic hit, ‘Braveheart’. For some reason that romanticised tale of kilted Scots fighting manfully but futilely against their powerful southern neighbour struck a chord or two with Turkish audiences. The film ran for three years in Istanbul cinemas without a break. ‘Titanic’ didn’t come close in this part of the world!

Mel Gibson strikes a blow
for Scottish nationalism
I’m sure you remember the final stomach-churning scenes of the film, where the defeated but unrepentant William Wallace is hanged, drawn and quartered by his English conquerors as an example to others who might seek to emulate his troublesome ways. Wallace’s tormentor gives him the option of a quick death on condition of swearing allegiance to His Majesty, the King of England. However, the Scots hero draws strength to undergo the agony ahead from a small boy in the crowd, who will clearly carry on the fight if Gibson (sorry, Wallace) shows the necessary fortitude.

Scotland was an independent nation in those days – we’re talking about the early 14th century – so it was perhaps a bit rough to treat Wallace as a traitor. Nevertheless, that gruesome punishment remained in force in the United Kingdom for the crime of high treason into comparatively modern times. The Crowns and Parliaments of Scotland had been well united by the time Prince Charlie led his ill-fated rebellion against King George II in 1745. It was only 60 years since his grandfather, James II, had allowed Judge Jeffreys to butcher survivors of the Monmouth Rebellion, so the Bonny Prince knew what to expect if he was caught. He wasn’t, luckily for him (speeding off to the Isle of Skye on his bonny boat, as the old song has it, and thence to a life of exile in France), but the Scots Highlanders who had supported him were not so fortunate. The Battle of Culloden lasted just over an hour, say the records. However, the aftermath of the English victory was not only a massacre of the wounded, but a prolonged killing or displacement of the clansmen, their women, children and the elderly. It was a systematic programme, more or less successful, to civilise the highlands, bring them under the rule of law, and to suppress the Gaelic language and tribal culture.

Hanging drawing and quartering was apparently not considered a seemly punishment for women, for whom burning was the favoured punishment in those times. The last burning in England took place in 1789 – the year of the French Revolution (‘Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood’, you remember!). The more anatomically specific alternative for males remained in force rather longer. The last man in England to suffer the fate of William Wallace was hanged and beheaded in 1817. Several more fortunate rebels actually faced the penalty in 1839 – but their sentence was commuted to transportation, and butchering as a punishment was finally removed from British law in 1870.

Well, that’s all very interesting, I hear you say, but what relevance does it have for the post-modern world. Even Turkey, with its reputation for human rights abuses, could not possibly condone such treatment of political prisoners or even terrorists. And you’d be right. Capital punishment itself was abolished completely in Turkey in 2004.

Nevertheless, an event in 20th century Turkish history has recently seen the light of day, and warrants a little examination. Dersim, now known as Tunceli, is an area in eastern central Anatolia, traditionally home to Alevi, Zaza and Kurdish people. According to one source I came across[1], this was the last area within the Turkish Republic to be brought under government control. It is not easy to come to a clear understanding of who these people are. Kurds are an ancient race, of Iranian origin, speaking a language with Indo-European roots. Many of them espouse the Alevi branch of Islam, held to spring from the Shi’a sect (not of much consequence in Sunni majority Turkey), but with connections to earlier religions and much older folk traditions. Zazas, it seems, generally incline to Alevism, but there is scholarly debate about whether their language is related to Kurdish, or distinct from it.

Be that as it may, it seems that the inhabitants of Dersim/Tunceli had been resisting all attempts to bring them into the fold of civilisation for some time before the watershed events of 1937-38. According to van Bruinessen 1,

the only law they recognized was traditional tribal law. Tribal chieftains and religious leaders wielded great authority over the commoners, whom they often exploited economically. They were not opposed to government as such, as long as it did not interfere too much in their affairs . . . There was a tradition of refusing to pay taxes — but then there was little that could be taxed, as the district was desperately poor. Young men evaded military service when they could . . .’

Undoubtedly there was a certain amount of brigandage and banditry, and government attempts to impose the rule of law may have met with actual physical discouragement. We may think that the situation was similar to that of the Scottish Highland clans prior to the final solution discussed above, with one major difference: we are talking about the 20th century here, rather than the 18th. The Turkish Republic was a mere fourteen years old, and in a pretty parlous state. Republican reformers, led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, were attempting to forge a nation from the ashes of the defeated, divided and defunct Ottoman Empire. They were trying to create an identity based on the hitherto unpopular concept of Turkish nationalism; to establish a modern, secular democracy in a land whose tradition was Islamic, monarchic and borderline medieval. Their eyes were fixed on European models of civilisation, most of whose representatives had long since suppressed and/or civilized their last remnants of nomadic or pastoral tribalism.

Furthermore, we are talking about the 1930s, not a period much renowned for the tolerant treatment of troublesome and undesirable minorities. So what happened in Dersim? It seems the government of the day made attempts to assimilate the Alevi Zazas into their brave new secular civilized Turkish Republic – and the local tribes objected, to the point of open rebellion. The government, needless to say, had recourse to military coercion. Many died, villages were destroyed, local people were displaced, martial law was established, there was a general ban on the Kurdish language, dress, folklore and names, and, as one would expect, a good deal of anger and enmity continued to seethe underground. Well, you can’t make a civilisation omelet without breaking a few eggs, it seems.

So what’s the solution? The present day government of New Zealand is not about to hand Aotearoa back to its indigenous Maori inhabitants; just as the British government continues to resist attempts by Scottish nationalists to cede from the Union and go it alone. No Turkish government will ever accept the handing over of its eastern provinces to an independent Kurdistan, even if the majority of ‘Kurds’ wanted it – something which is by no means certain. However, the Turkish Prime Minister, Mr Erdoğan, recently apologized publically [2] for the events known collectively as the ‘Dersim Massacre’.

It’s a step in the right direction, isn’t it! You can’t ever right the wrongs of history. History itself is a progression of successive societies, chieftains, monarchs, invaders and whatnot, asserting their pre-eminence, and imposing their will on others by the right of might – irrespective of whether the ‘others’ may have had a prior and better claim to the territory in question. Nevertheless, smart leaders of the victorious party tend to apply the principle of enlightened self-interest. The new nation you seek to establish, the new civilisation whose superiority you assert, will have a better chance of long-term success if you give the conquered people a share of its fruits.

Nelson Mandela understood this when he became the first democratically elected President of the Republic of South Africa in 1994. Mandela had spent 27 years of his life in prison, a victim of the apartheid political system that allowed white people, making up 10% of the population, to rule and oppress the non-white 90%. It would have been understandable if he had taken the opportunity to exact revenge from his persecutors, now that he was in power – but he didn’t. He encouraged his people to work on a process of reconciliation, to heal the wounds of the past and take the reborn nation forward.

The Ottoman Empire, for all its failings, survived for more than six centuries, and one reason for its longevity may have been the millet system, whereby it granted freedom of religion, use of language and practising of traditions to the disparate groups within its borders: Orthodox Greeks, Armenians and Jews, as well as Muslims of all shades. The British Empire may have been geographically the largest the world has known, but even the most generous historian would not grant it a span of much more than 300 years. More realistically, the 19th century and twenty or thirty years either side of it would encompass its actual period of dominant power. Interestingly, the British one was probably the only Empire that never had an Emperor. Its subjects owed fealty to the King (or Queen) of England – a rather remote concept for most of them, and the requirement to accept a homogeneity of language and culture may have hastened the empire’s demise.

But I’m not here to criticize the Brits. My purpose is to congratulate Mr Tayyip Erdoğan for his efforts in reaching out to the unhappy Kurds and Zazas among the citizens of Turkey. Admittedly, his motives have been called into question by some. He has been accused of taking advantage of a sensitive issue to score points against his main political rival, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, whose family apparently has Kurdish/Alevi origins in the Tunceli/Dersim area. Well, it’s an unusual politician who does not avail himself of an opportunity to make political capital, and I’m not going into that matter either. Mr Erdoğan’s words will be measured against his actions in the future. Any apology for past wrongs will be hollow without governmental measures to extend financial support to Turkey’s impoverished and disadvantaged citizens in the east, many of whom are Kurdish. Schools and hospitals are needed, and industrial development to provide employment opportunities. Poverty and deprivation are the soil in which rebellion and terrorism flourish. Alleviating these conditions will not make all the malcontents disappear overnight – but it will at least deprive them of a receptive audience.

In February 2008, the former Prime Minister of Australia, Mr Kevin Rudd, made a formal apology to the aboriginal people for more than a century of cruelty, oppression and marginalization inflicted on them by successive governments. It’s too early to say whether Mr Rudd’s words will result in action to reduce the dreadful rates of infant mortality, educational failure and unemployment, alcoholism and drug abuse, petty crime and imprisonment, among Australia’s indigenous people – but certainly, without recognition and apology, nothing can change.

I want to make two points here. The first is that, unfortunately, no civilized society can tolerate outlaws, despite their traditional romantic appeal. Pretty much every modern civilized society you care to examine has, somewhere in its history, an event or two where it felt obliged to use force to suppress a group whose continued existence was perceived as a serious threat to its own integrity and stability. We’ve mentioned the United Kingdom and Turkey, Australia and New Zealand. We could go on to look at the United States’ treatment of Native Americans, or its catastrophic Civil War, fought to prevent a division into Union and Confederacy – but you get the gist. My second point is that such use of force can, however, only be justified in the long-term if the result is a stable civilized inclusive state, the benefits of which extend to the vast majority of its citizens.

The Republic of Turkey has, since its inception, looked to the West as a model of cultural and economic development, of democracy and civilisation. The West, for its part, has often chosen to judge and belittle Turkey for its perceived backwardness and barbarity. It is important, then, for Western nations, if they are to maintain the moral high ground, that their civilized democratic institutions demonstrate a capacity for inclusion. Unfortunately, recent events seem to suggest that they do not. ‘Occupy Wall St’ protests have spread to major cities all over the developed world, suggesting a ‘Capitalist Spring’ (or ‘Autumn’) that has elicited outbursts of government force to suppress it. One of the rallying cries has been ‘We are the 99%’ – the supposed proportion of society held in economic servitude to the 1% elite.

I don’t have the numbers at my fingertips, but I have to say that I feel a 99:1 split may be exaggerating the situation a little. However, one statistic I did come across in the last week gave cause for alarm. A General Election was held in New Zealand the weekend before last, and reports are saying that voter turnout was, at 65%, the lowest in more than a century. Certainly, the implication that 35% of the voting-age population are so disaffected that they do not bother to exercise their democratic right is disturbing. General Elections in the UK in recent years have produced a similar ominous trend. Figures in the USA are even more striking. Statistics show that the proportion of eligible voters turning out to choose a new President hovers around 50 to 55%. If you look at mid-term Congressional elections the percentage drops below 40!

Well, it would require more exhaustive research than I have time for, to demonstrate a clear correlation between these voting patterns and the August riots in UK cities, the Wall St protestors, the general increase in terrorist activity around the globe, and the huge popularity of movies with anti-establishment heroes like William Wallace. All I can say for certain is that I applaud Tayyip Erdoğan for extending a hand of apology and reconciliation to the victims of the Dersim rebellion  – and I fervently hope that his words translate into actions which will achieve a more equitable distribution of wealth in his rapidly developing nation.

1The Suppression of the Dersim Rebellion in Turkey (1937-38)’, Martin van Bruinessen
2  23 November 2011