Governing Turkey – listening to the experts

‘Türk demek, Turkçe demektir. Ne mutlu Türk’üm diyene!’
The words are written on a banner one of our neighbours has strung from the balcony of his house. To be fair, we are not in Istanbul. We’re at our summer retreat near Bodrum; the summer season hasn’t officially opened, few people are around, and I’m hopeful our ultra-nationalist neighbour will pack his banner away before the place starts to fill up.
The modern Republic of Turkey is a complex state – that is probably the main message I aim to convey through this blog; and the words on our neighbour’s banner provide a brief glimpse into this complexity. The second sentence is generally attributed to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the republic’s founding father. Faced with the need to unite a diverse people to fight for national survival in the aftermath of disastrous defeats and in the face of foreign invasion and occupation, Mustafa Kemal Pasha (as he was then) played the one card that had any hope of success – the trump card of national identity. “How happy,’ he announced, ‘is the one who says ‘I am a Türk!’”
At the time, it must have been a risky gambit. The 600-year Ottoman Empire was on its knees, its capital, Istanbul, under foreign occupation, and its remaining territories under sentence of partition. The Sultan and Caliph, nominal ruler of the Empire and leader of the world’s Muslims, was a virtual prisoner and puppet of the occupying forces. ‘Turkishness’ itself was not a quality to be especially proud of. The ruling class were Ottomans, their language a hybrid of Turkish, Persian and Arabic, written in an Arabic script intelligible only to an educated few. The royal family had for centuries been breeding with women selected from the upper classes of non-Muslim and non-Turkish neighbours. Talented individuals from non-Turkish, non-Muslim nations within the Empire (especially Greek, Armenian and Jewish) had filled key positions in the imperial economy. Actual ‘Turks’ were more likely to be soldiers or farmers.
Those soldiers, and a good number of the farmers, had been fighting and dying for an empire whose boundaries had been shrinking for a century or more. Why would they be happy? Why would their mothers, fathers, sisters and children be happy? That Atatürk managed to inspire and unite them for one more deadly struggle against enemies bent on their destruction goes a long way towards explaining why the people of Turkey hold him in such reverence. The second sentence on our neighbour’s banner expresses an aspect of national consciousness beyond the mere lexical meaning of the words themselves.
The first sentence is a little more problematic, and I haven’t heard that they were ever spoken by Atatürk himself. The word ‘Türk’ can be rendered in English as ‘a Turk’ or ‘Turkish’ in the sense of national identity. ‘Türkçe’ means ‘the Turkish language’. The writer wants to say, I think, that the Turkish language is the soul of the Turkish nation. He or she may even be implying that native speakers of other languages can not be considered Turkish. If that is the case, it is rather unfortunate. There has been a good deal of house construction and renovation going on in Bodrum and Turkey recently. Many of the contractors and probably most of the workers are Kurdish. They are undoubtedly citizens of Turkey, but the majority of them would have, of necessity, learned the Turkish language after starting school. Until recently they were denied the right to speak their language and even to give their children Kurdish names. The fact that Turkey’s current government has relaxed these prohibitions and opened up discussion on the Kurdish issue is, ironically, one of the factors arousing anger amongst political opposition groups.
Another irony, perhaps, is the reason that those Kurdish people remained in the Republic when others left – they were Muslims. After Turkey’s War of Independence ended in 1922 with the defeat of the invading Greek army and the evacuation of occupying British troops from Istanbul, there was a major exchange of populations in which hundreds of thousands of Christians and Muslims were uprooted from their homes and sent, Muslims to Anatolia and Christians to the Greek state across the water. The result was that, however secular Atatürk’s intentions, his new Republic was overwhelmingly Muslim in demographic composition.
This religious-versus-secular contradiction is not the only paradox inherent in the new entity that was Turkey. Emerging as it did from the ashes of the discredited Ottoman Empire, the Republic of Turkey had an uneasy relationship with its immediate predecessor. On the one hand the military, architectural, artistic and culinary achievements of its illustrious golden age were matters of great pride. On the other, its slow decline had left its people with a sense of inferiority and in its final death throes there were undoubtedly shameful events. Restoring national pride was a key goal of the new administration, at the same time as there was recognition of the need to follow a modernising path already trod by Western nations.
In fact, ‘restoring’ pride is probably not the correct word to use when talking about Turkish nationalism. ‘Creating’ perhaps better addresses the problem faced by the Republic’s early leaders. In a sense it was necessary to retrospectively leapfrog the Muslim Ottomans, the Christian Byzantines and the pagan Romans and to create a heritage of pure Turkishness based on those warrior horsemen (and women) who had spread out of Central Asia in waves from time immemorial. It was necessary to idealise the pre-Islamic spirituality of shaman tribesmen (and women) and to divest the corrupted Ottoman language of its Persian and Arabic borrowings. Connections were made to ancient Anatolian civilisations such as the Hittites, and a new Latin-based alphabet facilitated widespread literacy at the same time as it separated modern Turkey from its more recent history.
Without a doubt there must have been elements in those early days that were strongly opposed to the goals and methods of Atatürk and his colleagues: the religious elite and the simply devout villager must have been alarmed at the processes of secularisation. Educated intelligentsia must have been furious that years spent studying the Ottoman language would be devalued. Well-heeled urbanites, especially in Istanbul, may have felt uncomfortable with the inclusive, at times almost socialistic rhetoric of the new leader. As years went by, some at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum may have felt aggrieved that the rhetoric was slow to produce the promised brave new world.
It would require a large book to examine all the disparate groups that make up the modern Republic of Turkey. European neighbours may fear that opening their EU door to Turkey would lead to a flood of immigration to their economic paradise. Since the foundation of the Republic, Turkey itself has been a magnet drawing refugees seeking a safe haven from strife and oppression; the most recent being almost a million impoverished Syrians. Governing this country is no easy task – and it would not be surprising if its own citizens harboured some uncertainties about the best direction for reaching a happy future.
As an example, I would like to cite the case of a high-profile, highly educated, financially comfortable, internationally recognised Turkish gentleman. Orhan Pamuk is an acclaimed novelist, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. As I remember, when that award was made, the response in Pamuk’s homeland was somewhat muted. Lately, however, his star seems to have risen and in recent months he has been the subject of some media attention. Possibly the key to this is an interviewpublished in several Turkish dailies on May 23 under a headline quoting Pamuk as saying it was “impossible for an honest person not to criticise the [Turkish] government.”  
Well, I have some history of criticising governments myself – but I find myself almost feeling sorry for Mr Tayyip Erdoğan and his team. These days the blame for pretty much everything is laid at their feet, and it seems to add weight to the criticism when it comes from someone with celebrity status. Last year it was a motley crew of actors and actresses from Hollywood and the UK. I’m not exactly sure why people assume that, because someone has achieved success in sport, pop singing, piano playing or movie acting, their opinions on national and international affairs must be worth publicising. Occasionally one or two do decide to put their credibility on the line by entering politics – footballer Hakan Şükür in Turkey and actress Glenda Jackson in England come to mind – and they would probably admit that doing is somewhat more difficult than talking.
Nevertheless, Mr Pamuk talks; in this instance, apparently, in Lyon, France while attending an international forum on “The Novel”. No doubt the French media are fond of Mr Pamuk, given that they have been trying to pin a charge of genocide on the Turkish people for years. Pamuk got himself in a spot of bother in 2005 after giving an interview where he was quoted as saying that “a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in this country and I’m the only one who dares to talk about it.” His version of the story makes much of the fact that he was charged with “public denigration of Turkish identity” and had to flee the country. He tends to play down the details that the interview was with a newspaper in Switzerland (this country?); that the prosecution was brought by an ultra-nationalist lawyer who was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment without parole in the ‘Ergenekon’military coup conspiracy trial; and that Pamuk himself received little more than a judicial slap on the wrist. One might compare the fates of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange who are still trying to escape the clutches of the US justice system for telling the truth on a number of issues with serious implications for world peace.
The latest club for belabouring the government in Turkey is the deaths of 301 miners in a coal-mining accident two weeks ago. Certainly such events are unacceptable in a country with aspirations to rank among the world’s developed nations. Certainly the tragedy highlights problems with workers’ rights, workplace safety and collective bargaining in Turkey. On the other hand, those miners were working in dreadful conditions 400 metres underground for subsistence wages to extract coal, most of which is burned to produce electricity. In my opinion, some of those critics piously blaming the government for the Soma mine tragedy would do well to examine their personal carbon footprint before casting the first stone.
I don’t wish to single out Mr Pamuk for unfair criticism, but it does seem to me that he represents a section of Turkish society that is a little out of touch with the reality of life for the majority of his countrymen and women. In February this year, The New York Timespublished an article entitled “Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul.” I don’t know where Mr Pamuk lives these days – the interview was apparently conducted mostly in the artsy Cihangir neighbourhood of Istanbul where the writer has recently opened a ’museum’ based on the fictional events in his novel “The Museum of Innocence”. I’m curious because the article neglects to mention that Pamuk is Robert Yik-Fong Tam Professor in the Humanities at New York’s Columbia University, and I’m wondering whether he commutes from Istanbul to carry out his teaching responsibilities.
Apart from gentrified Cihangir, Pamuk’s Istanbul also includes the plush old-money district of Nişantaşı, and the leafy Bosporus campus of Robert College where tuition will cost you an arm and a leg, even if your child manages to pass the entrance exam. The NY Times article asserts that Pamuk’s “work is as grounded in [Istanbul] as Dickens’ was in London”, while admitting later that (very unlike Dickens) “Most of Mr Pamuk’s characters are members of the secular elite”. To be fair, there may have been some difficult times for the Pamuk family, since young Orhan’s father apparently “frittered away much of his fortune through a series of bad investments”. However, he was still able to provide his son with a car and money for weekly visits to bookshops where he would “fill the trunk with books”. The bookshops were near the campus of Istanbul University where Pamuk was a student in the 1970s. At that time left wing protesters were being shot, imprisoned, tortured and disappeared in events leading up to and following two military coups. Pamuk, by his own admission, “while his friends were risking their lives facing down soldiers . . . spent most of his time reading at home in Nişantaşı.”
Well, you can’t blame the guy for that, even if it does imply a splash of pinkish armchair socialism. What surprised me more was reading that little Orhan’s first experience of foreign travel was a summer in Geneva with his father at the age of seven – and that he didn’t leave Istanbul again until he was 30. I feel sure the interviewer must have made an error in transcribing his notes here – but if not, I cannot comprehend how a Turkish citizen of such narrow geographical experience could claim to have any understanding of his country and its people.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, on the other hand, knew his people intimately. Another reason for his almost mythical status in Turkey is that, when the bullets and shrapnel were flying on that crucial ridge of Chunuk Bair/Conk Bayırı in 1915, he was leading his lads from the front rather than sitting at home reading.

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Alevis in Turkey – Is reconciliation possible?

The English word Turkey (with a capital ‘T’) comes from the Turkish word ‘Türkiye’ which means land of the Turks. It was not used by the Ottomans to describe their empire – but by Europeans to identify the Ottomans as ‘other’, to demonise, perhaps, and belittle a feared foe. The term really had no validity until 1923 when an indigenous army defeated an invading force from the Greek mainland, liberating the Anatolian heartland and the imperial capital Istanbul from foreign occupation.
Map of Turkey showing areas of
concentrated Alevi populations
The victorious leader, Mustafa Kemal Pasha (later Atatürk), and his team, set about creating a new nation state from the ashes of the defunct Ottoman Empire. Without repeating details covered elsewhere, it is important to understand that the dissolution of that empire had been assisted by military defeats at the hands of foreign neighbours and nationalist liberation movements from within over the previous two centuries or more.
Building a new nation state required a philosophy and identity which citizens could relate to and fight for – the result was Turkish nationalism and the Republic of Turkey, not necessarily in that order. The pillars of that national identity were the Muslim religion, the Turkish language and Turkish ethnicity, meaning a connection to the tribes that had poured out of Central Asia for centuries before the Ottomans hammered the last nail into the Byzantine Graeco-Roman coffin by conquering Constantinople in 1453.
The Muslim character of the new state was confirmed by an obligatory population exchange at the conclusion of the Independence War in 1923. Orthodox Christians, who were believed to have supported the Greek invasion, were dispatched to the Greek mainland, their places taken by Muslims sent in the opposite direction. Armenian Christians had already mostly been seen off in events I have also discussed elsewhere. Right from the very beginning, then, there was an uncomfortable disjunction inherent in the establishment of the new state: secularism was one of Atatürk’s six founding principles, yet religion was a major determinant in the composition of Turkey’s population.
Turkey is not alone in its discomfort, of course. The partition of British India after independence was won in 1947 involved a vast movement of population whereby Hindus from the newly created Pakistan were exchanged for Muslims from the new Union of India. Religion, language and ethnic origin may be powerful forces to be harnessed by ambitious political leaders seeking to foster unity and create a national identity. The melting pot of history, however, has produced a mix of humanity in which purity in any of those factors is, at best, elusive – and so it is in the Republic of Turkey, despite the best efforts of Kemalist law-makers to legislate for ‘Turkishness’.
In spite of the post-independence population exchange, modern India has almost as many followers of Islam as does Pakistan. Only one other country, Indonesia, has more Muslims. Similarly, many Eastern Orthodox and Armenian Christians continued to live in Turkey, especially Istanbul, though admittedly numbers declined as a result of international incidents, particularly involving next-door-neighbour, Greece. Members of the Jewish community have long made their homes in this part of the world, their numbers increased by refugees from the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century. The republican state continued to grant them freedom of religion, language, education, culture and economic life.
So, it is evident that the Muslim pillar of Turkishness was flexible enough to include some Jews and Christians, and this was done openly. More problematic, however, has been the inclusion of other larger groups within the population who, while coming within the broad category of Muslim, have not been able to fit comfortably into the Turkish national identity.
The most obvious group in this context is the Kurdishpeople. I don’t intend to get embroiled in a discussion of this issue here, but suffice it to say that, in spite of their Islamic faith, Kurds in Turkey speak an Indo-European language totally unrelated to Ural-Altaic Turkish, and are ethnically quite distinct. Also among the native Muslim population are small communities of Arabic, Laz, Zaza and Romani speakers, not to mention later refugee groups from the Balkan and Caucasus regions, many of whom retain their own languages and cultural traditions.
These communities undoubtedly have issues with the concept of Turkishness that presupposes ethnic and linguistic homogeneity, and those issues bind them together within their own groups. There is, however, another significant demographic, numbering, depending on whose estimate you take, somewhere between ten and twenty-five million, or fourteen to thirty-three percent of Turkey’s population. These are the people known as Alevi, and the huge disparity between the upper and the lower figure perhaps sounds a warning that something mysterious is, or has been going on.
One interesting feature of Alevismis that it is to be found in both Turkish and Kurdish communities – it cuts across ethnic and linguistic boundaries. Perhaps that is not so surprising, because Alevism is a religious faith. However, when it comes to describing the characteristics of that faith, the waters become muddy. A word often associated with Alevism is heterodox (the opposite of orthodox), meaning that its tenets, beliefs and rituals are difficult to pin down. This is probably because it has never been the established religion of any state or empire. Having no central authority to demand conformity, Alevis have a certain freedom to follow their own tastes and inclinations. On the other hand, another word that recurs in discussions of Alevism is endogamous, which means that there is social pressure to marry within the faith. In other words, you and I may have difficulty grasping the concept, but Alevis themselves are quite confident in their own identity.
OK, enough preamble. Let’s make some effort to understand what makes them special. Some sources insist that Alevism is a sub-branch of Shia Islam – a potential problem in Turkey where the majority follow the state-approved Sunni path. Other sources insist, however, that the most important influence is pre-Islamic folk religions such as the shamanism of the original Turkish tribes. It seems, in fact, that both arguments are probably true, which is why some suggest that Alevism is actually the true spirit of Turkish Islam.
If you have been following events in Syria, and making some attempt to understand what’s going on there, you have probably heard that one reason Bashar al-Assad doesn’t have widespread support is, he belongs to the minority Alawi sect. Some sources will tell you that ‘Alevi’ is the Turkish form of the Arabic ‘Alawi’ – but beware! There are apparently crucial differences, and Alevism seems to be a peculiarly Turkish phenomenon – this despite the fact that many Kurds adhere.
Confused? Let’s take a closer look at those elements outlined above. First up, most of us are aware that there are two main sub-divisions of the Islamic faith: Sunni and Shia. As with the big divisions of Christianity (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant), it is easy to see the differences now, in ritual practices and sacred architecture. It is more difficult to understand how the original divergences came about, even for members of the group – and as for explaining to outsiders . . . Try it some time! So it is with the Muslim religion.
When the Prophet, God’s messenger Muhammed, died in 632 CE, he unfortunately did not leave instructions as to who would succeed him in the leadership role. Some of his followers believed that it should stay in the family, and opted for Ali, cousin of the late departed and sufficiently esteemed by him to have married Muhammed’s daughter. Others, however, held that only a democratic election could produce the most capable leader, and they duly followed that procedure, opting for Muawiyah, a gentleman with some reputation for military prowess.
Without going into too much detail, in 680 there was an event known to history as the Battle of Karbala, when descendants of Muawiyah (led by his son Yazid) defeated and killed Ali’s son Hussein and most of his family and supporters. One result was the establishment of the Umayyad (Sunni) dynasty, who went on to build an enormous empire covering most of the Middle East, North Africa and into Spain, thereby earning the right to insist on their particular brand of orthodoxy. The Shia group, on the other hand, were effectively disempowered and dispersed, existing happily enough, perhaps, in their own small isolated endogamous communities, developing their own rituals and traditions – until the emergence of the Safavid dynasty in Iran in 1501, which controlled an empire that included all of modern Iran, Azerbaijan and Armenia, most of Iraq, Georgia, Afghanistan and the Caucasus, as well as parts of Pakistan, Tajikstan, Turkmenistan and Turkey. Safavid Iran was one of the Islamic “gunpowder empires”, along with its neighbours, the Ottoman and Mughal empires.’ The Safavids, in their wisdom, opted for Shia Islam, thereby establishing that sect’s first major power base – and inevitably coming into conflict with their neighbourly brethren in gunpowder, the Ottomans.
Well, we can assume that, as is the nature of state-sponsored religions, Safavid Shi’ism took on characteristics of dogma and orthodoxy. At the same time, as conflict grew between the Iranian Safavids and the Sunni Ottomans, it would be understandable if the Iranians looked for support amongst their Shia brethren within the Ottoman domains. Those brethren, however, as a result of centuries of heterodoxy, had evolved into Alevis. No doubt some of their number would have seen allying themselves with a powerful big brother as a way of escaping orthodox Sunni hegemony. Probably most of them would have been just as happy to get on with their lives without becoming involved in international politics. Unfortunately for the silent majority, the Ottoman Sultan Selim I, known in English as Selim the Grim, on his way to the eastern frontier with an army to fight the Safavids, had his minions draw up a list of Shia Alevis (referred to as Kizilbash) of whom 40,000 are said to have been rounded up and slaughtered.
To sum up the Islamic position, then, Alevis are Muslim but not necessarily Turkish (although they live in modern Turkey); Muslim but definitely not Sunni Muslim; of Shia origin but definitely not orthodox Shi’ites. Some characteristics of the Alevi belief system are as follows:
  • Freedom of belief and worship. Heterodoxy lies at the core of Alevism. They reject the orthodoxy of rituals and practices enforced by state-sponsored religion. In a sense, Alevis are true democrats – but their free spirits have made them, in the eyes of some, dangerous rebels.
  • Following logically from the previous point, Alevis do not accept the requirement to pray five times daily, and do not involve themselves in the culture of the mosque. Grand architecture is not required (cf. Methodism) for the communal service of worship known as cem(jem) or cemevi. Unlike orthodox Islam, services involve music, ritual dance and discussion.
  • An eclectic philosophy and system of worship which seem to include elements of folk religion, and even, perhaps, Christianity, Gnosticism and Zoroastrianism. The use of fire, for example, in some rituals, seems evocative of the ancient Persian religion.
  • The concept of a spiritual path to be followed, requiring the guidance of a dede (teacher or mentor). The path has a sequence of four ‘gates’ to be passed through, of which the lowest is religious law. In this, Alevism bears the mark of Sufism, ‘an inner, mystical dimension of Islam’ which emerged in the 9th and 10th centuries, and was extremely influential in creating the so-called Islamic Golden Age from the 13th to the 16thcenturies. In the West we know of Sufism particularly through the writings of the 13th century mystic, Mevlana Jalaladdin Rumi. Alevis tend to follow the path of a contemporary, Haji Bektash Veli. There were numerous Sufi sects in Anatolia, but these came under pressure in the later years of the Ottoman Empire, and were finally banned altogether by the Turkish Republic under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Well, I hope I have covered some of the most important aspects here. If you want a detailed explanation of Alevi beliefs and practices, you will need to look elsewhere. My reason for putting finger to keyboard on this particular subject is the appearance of a democratisation package of proposed law reform prepared by the Turkish government. The package apparently contains provisions such as: cemevis will be given the status of “beliefs and cultural center,” and in addition, the expenses of cemevis such as electricity and water bills will be covered by the state, while dedes (Alevi religious leaders) will be paid a salary by the state.’ The move is part of a wider programme initiated by Turkey’s AK Party government aimed at broadening the scope of democracy in Turkey to include groups such as Kurds and Alevis who have hitherto felt marginalized by the state’s insistence on the concept of Turkishness discussed earlier.
Undoubtedly, it is time for Turkey to move on from the rigid nationalism that characterized the formative years of the Republic. There are good signs. There is now a more natural acceptance of the place of the Ottoman Empire in Turkish history. It is now possible to utter the words Kurdishand Alevi in polite conversation without warning fingers being raised to lips and fearful glances directed around the room. The civilian government is in the process of assigning a more conventional role to the nation’s armed forces where, one hopes, they will be less likely to stage military takeovers.
Nevertheless, the burden of history and misunderstanding is great. Hardline Kemalists find it difficult to imagine a world where headscarves and other symbols of religion are seen outside the mosque, and the army does not step in when the ballot box seems not to have produced a desirable government. Alevis, even more so, have centuries of oppression to exorcise from their minds before they can truly believe that reconciliation means more than enforced assimilation. The 7thcentury Battle of Karbala still figures in their worldview, as does the 1514 massacre by Selim the Grim – which is why there was such an angry reaction to the proposed name for the new Bosporus Bridge. The recent Ergenekon and Balyoz trials have suggested that conspirators in the so-called ‘deep state’ have planned and even carried out violent attacks on prominent Alevi citizens in order to fan the flames of sectarian hatred. Whether or not that is true, there are certainly more recent events, such as the 1993 Sivas hotel fire which contribute to a siege mentality among Alevis. Adding to the mix, the AK Party government of Mr Tayyip Erdoğan is portrayed as representing conservative Sunni İslam – and they themselves undoubtedly contribute to this perception.
Clearly, there is work to be done. Nationalist and sectarian hatred are the enemies of democracy and freedom. Ignorance and fear fuel the fire and unscrupulous seekers of power and wealth fan the flames. The spiritual path of Alevism leads towards the perfect human being, ‘defined in practical terms, as one who is in full moral control of his or her hands, tongue and loins (eline diline beline sahip); treats all kinds of people equally (yetmiş iki millete aynı gözle bakar); and serves the interests of others. One who has achieved this kind of enlightenment is also called eren or munavver.’[1]
Not easy to do, but it sounds like a worthy goal.
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With thanks to Zeynep and Ender for sharing their knowledge. Any errors, however, are my responsibility.


[1]  Wikipedia – the bold words are Turkish

It’s Not a Conspiracy – We just don’t like Turkey

‘Turkish shepherd shot dead by Armenian border guards.’ It was a small headline on a 100-word item in our local English language Turkish newspaper. Apparently the shepherd, 35 year-old Mustafa Ülker, had gone looking for a ewe that had wandered across the border in search of a quiet place to give birth. Armenian authorities notified their Turkish counterparts and handed over Mustafa’s body. It took a few days for the news to get out. It’s a long way from the restaurants and bars of Taksim and Cihangir to Turkey’s eastern frontier. Still, the guy was in the wrong, no doubt about that. You can’t just stroll into a foreign country, lost sheep or no lost sheep.
Turkish shepherd shot while invading Armenia
I was interested to see if anyone else had picked up the story, so I googled it. I checked three or four pages and couldn’t find a mention in any international news media – except for the Armenpress’. In that English language site I found a lengthy piece by an Armenian ex-pat living in California, Harut Hassounian.
According to that gentleman’s account, twoTurks had crossed from the Turkish side into Armenia and mocked the Russian border guards who ordered them back. The Turks ignored two warning shots fired into the air and one of them allegedly opened fire on the soldiers, whereupon the Russians shot one of the intruders. Hassounian then launched into a tirade about how the ‘fascist’ Turkish government was seeking to exaggerate this incident in order to draw attention away from its serious and well-publicised internal and external difficulties, which he itemised in some detail.
Well, who am I to enter into a debate on the issue? Clearly there are two sides to the story, and we will probably never know the truth. However, I will make an observation or two. First, as far as I know, the Turkish government has not made a big issue of the killing, and Turkish news media have pretty much ignored it. Second, I’m interested to learn that Russian soldiers are patrolling the border between Armenia and Turkey, but I don’t think it absolves Armenia from responsibility for such incidents, merely because they have delegated the duty to a foreign power. Third, it’s hard to imagine a Turkish country bumpkin, or even a couple of them, defying armed border guards who would, we must assume, have been wearing military uniforms. Does this version ring true to you?
I couldn’t help wondering whether ‘the world’ might have taken more notice if the headline had read ‘Armenian shepherd shot dead by Turkish border guards,’ but I’m not going to speculate further on that. The sad thing is, however, that Western media all too often accept and disseminate an anti-Turkish view of events without considering that there might be an alternative position. Let’s be charitable, for the moment, and call it laziness. One of Mr Hassounian’s criticisms was The Turkish Prime Minister’s threatened lawsuit against The (London) Times for publishing a full-page paid letter, signed by dozens of prominent Western intellectuals and artists, which would more widely expose his intimidating tactics.’
Well, at least he acknowledged that the ‘intellectuals and artists’ had paid for the page, or  someone had. I can’t speak about the legal position, but it does suggest questionable editorial judgment for a reputable major newspaper to allow private citizens to buy a page for the purposes of slagging off the leader of another country, especially an important and long-standing loyal ally. Most of the famous signatories seemed to be film stars or directors, which may or may not qualify them to be recognised as ‘intellectuals and artists’ – but even if it does, it’s another jump to give serious credence to their opinions on international affairs.
Much was made, internally and abroad, of the presence of actors and other ‘artists’ among the protesters in Turkey’s recent anti-government street demonstrations. Apart from attracting media attention, I’m not convinced that their participation added anything of substance to the rallies. About as much, probably, as the fans of Istanbul’s three major football clubs who laid aside their differences during the summer break to unite in comradely çapulcu[1]action.
It is interesting, however, that just last week, after a lengthy investigation, police drug squads raided residential premises in several Turkish cities, and took in a number of well-known actors and directors for questioning. Not surprisingly, there have been accusations that the government was seeking revenge against activists, invading the privacy of citizens, and damaging the reputation of those apprehended. The implication seemed to be that the bust was a set-up by police acting on government instructions. I suspect the courts will take some convincing, given that 115 cannabis plants were discovered, as well as high amounts of ecstasy, marijuana, amphetamines, cocaine, measurement devices and cash’ in the Cihangir apartment owned by one of the actors.
Whatever the outcome, it gives some indication of the freedoms and rights some ‘intellectuals and artists’ include in their understanding of democracy, and highlights the contrast between their lives and that of the shepherd out east who would have been happy just to take his lost sheep back home without being shot to death.
What worries me is that this tiny minority of privileged people tweet and twitter their narrow picture of what is going on in Turkey, and foreign media swallow it and repeat it as though it is a fair representation of on-the-ground reality. Just this week, a Turkish court finally reached a verdict on the long-running Ergenekon case, handing down lengthy prison sentences to top military brass hats and an odd collection of academics, writers, journalists, lawyers, known gangsters and extreme left wing activists. Justice has taken its course and we can no longer speak of an alleged conspiracy. Mountains of evidence have been presented and sifted; teams of lawyers have tried every trick in their book to discredit the prosecution and the government, and stretch out proceedings with delaying tactics and unsuccessful appeals to the European Commission on Human Rights; mainstream media and the opposition CHP (Republican People’s Party) have done their best to undermine the legal proceedings and sell the line that this too was a government-sponsored attempt to get rid of rivals and exact revenge for previous grudges. Despite all that, the court deemed at last that the majority of the accused were in fact involved in ‘a clandestine and terrorist gang guilty of attempting to overthrow the government,’ and sentences reflected the gravity of the crime.
Once again I went a-googling. I was keen to see how the international press viewed an event which one might think had fairly major significance for the future of democracy in a troubled part of the world. In fact, there was surprisingly little to be found. Even the New York Times, normally a rich source of comment on affairs in Turkey, seemed unsure what to make of the trial and its aftermath. I turned up only one article on its website, relegated to minor importance behind the ‘election’ of a new president in Iran and the discovery of a 15-tonne ‘fatberg’ in the sewers of London.
Apparently it took three writers to pen this particular piece, only one of whom was actually in Turkey, and she in the city of Izmir, a hotbed of anti-government fervour a good 7-hour drive from Istanbul. Most of the article focused on the deep divisions within Turkish society between Islamists and secularists’ and quoted a defence lawyer accusing the government of ‘silencing opposition and intimidating patriotic people with secular principles’. Readers were told that ‘Nearly half of the country did not vote for Prime Minister Erdoğan’ but not what percentage of US voters did not vote for President Obama. The article concludes with a reference to ‘Turkey’s poor record on media freedom’, quoting the French organisation Reporters Without Borders, which ‘ranked Turkey 154th of 179 countries, behind Iraq and Russia, in its 2013 World Press Freedom Index’.
My own country, New Zealand, did marginally better. The TVNZ website I use to keep up with events back home also turned up only one article on the trial, but at least managed to summarise the case and report the outcome with more objectivity and without the outrageous innuendo of the NY Timespiece.
Elsewhere, I read that the European Union Commissioner Stefan Füle had expressed concerns about ‘how the trial was conducted’. In particular, he was worried about the rights of defendants, lengthy pre-trial detention, and the nature of the indictments. He seemed unsure about ‘compliance with EU standards’ and pointed out, perhaps unnecessarily, that ‘a fair independent and accountable judicial system is a key pillar of any mature and functioning democracy.’
Well, I won’t say I was shocked, because nothing much can surprise me about how Western media portray Turkey. Disappointment might be a better word to describe my feelings. One of the major sticking points, as far as I am aware, to Turkey’s acceptance into the European Union, for example, has been the country’s record of human rights abuses. Undoubtedly there is some truth in such accusations, but surely it must be obvious that most of the torture and disappearances occurred in the lead up to, or aftermath of military coups that took place on a regular basis from 1960 into the 1990s. That the AK Party government of Tayyip Erdoğan has finally managed to pull the teeth of armed forces commanders who considered themselves constitutionally above the elected politicians should surely be a cause for congratulations by true lovers of democracy everywhere.
The congratulations have been muted, to say the least. The Turkish Prime Minister and other spokesmen have been unequivocal in their condemnation of the military action that deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in July. Their lonely and principled stance has been criticised on two counts. First, we would expect them to oppose what happened in Egypt because they are scared of the same thing happening at home. What? They should hypocritically support an action in Egypt that has been the subject of criminal prosecution in their own country? And at the same time lend moral credibility to those anti-government forces in Turkey who wish to overthrow the elected government? Second, there is the realpolitik argument thrown at them by all the governments (from Saudi Arabia to the USA) that have chosen to ignore what happened in Cairo and recognise the new regime: what’s done is done. Swallow the reality and get on with business as usual.
One might have more sympathy for the realpolitikargument if the United States, for example, didn’t have a history of interfering in the affairs of sovereign states and deposing leaders considered unsympathetic to US interests. Saddam Hussein was president of Iraq but the US wanted him out. Egypt’s Mubarak was a military dictator with a 29-year record of oppressing his people, but he supported the US and Israel. Morsi, on the other hand, was an unknown factor who may have been more responsive to the will of the Egyptian electorate. Maybe we didn’t help to get rid of him, but we’re not sad to see him gone. Turkey should shut up and fall into line with the rest of us. Am I overstating the case?
As for the European Union, the contrast between words and action is perhaps more obvious in that that august body is more prone to occupying the moral high ground than their more pragmatic trans-Atlantic partner. As a Turkish correspondent observed, ‘The problem . . . emanates from the fact that the EU tries hard to position itself as a “normative power” that puts special emphasis on democracy, human rights, and freedom more than any other actor in the world. This discrepancy between principles and actions [in the case of Egypt] is a tragedy deserving of a global audience.’
Another criticism I am reading of the Ergenekoncourt case in Turkey is the harshness of the sentences handed down. Certainly it has come as a shock to most in this country to see the former supreme head of the Turkish Armed Forces sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Well, maybe there was a plot, say some, but in the end, those guys didn’t actually do anything, did they? To which there is a very clear response. They didn’t achieve their aim because they were found out before they could put it into action. If they had been successful, they would have been the new leaders of Turkey, and God help the elected politicians they had deposed. The crime is the plot, and it is only a crime if you are unsuccessful – otherwise you legitimise your own actions retrospectively, as in Egypt.
As a comparison, I am waiting to see what happens to Private Bradley Manning who was 22 years old when he is alleged to have supplied the Wikileaks website with material seriously embarrassing to the government and military command of the USA[2]. Last I heard, the charges against Manning could have him put away for 90 years – for telling the truth and making available information that many would argue the American public had a right to know. Edward Snowden and Julian Assange (who is not even a US citizen) have been forced to seek asylum in foreign states to escape the long arm of American democracy.
The NY Times article quoted above refers to Turkey’s ranking of 154 out of 179 countries for press freedom according to that Paris-based organisation Reporters Without Borders, I gather, because of the number of ‘journalists’ in custody in this country. I have to tell you I find that ranking beyond laughable, and I’ll tell you why. I read at least one Turkish newspaper every day, and I find no shortage of criticism of the government within their pages. It’s fairly clear that you have to do more than merely express disapproval or contrary opinions to get yourself locked up. At least six of those ‘journalists’ have been sentenced to terms of imprisonment for their involvement in the Ergenekon conspiracy. If the US legal system can put away a young naïve gay computer nerd like Private Manning for 90 years, I can’t imagine what they would do to a gang of 5-star generals, university professors, mafia bosses, lawyers and communists who were caught planning to depose the president by force of arms.
And take a close look at that list of countries prepared by those borderless reporters. Turkey’s ranking of 154 places them behind such paragons of democracy as Iraq, Burma, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Maldive Islands, whose courts can order women flogged for having sex outside of marriage, comes in at 103rd, while Armenia, whose Russian border guards shoot wandering Turkish shepherds on sight, ranks an impressive 74th.
I’m not saying that Turkey has surmounted its final hurdle on the path to true democracy – but if RWB had placed them a little closer to the US ranking of 32nd, it might have been a fairer reflection of comparative press freedom. It’s not easy to define occupations like ‘writer’, ‘journalist’, ‘artist’ and ‘intellectual’. Does writing a blog and possessing a good-sized home library entitle me to claim a place in any of those categories? What about Julian Assange? I would give him a tick for at least three out of four – and I can well understand why he is not keen to be extradited to the USA for questioning. As for the US media, it’s interesting to note how outlets that were originally delighted to publish material from Wikileaks seem now to have forgotten what those leaks were about, and chosen to focus instead on Assange’s alleged sexual peccadilloes. In the United Kingdom, whose media were all too ready to criticise Turkey’s police for using excessive force on demonstrators, sectarian troubles have once again broken out in Northern Ireland, we hear, and police have had recourse to water cannon and plastic bullets.
What’s my point, you may be asking? Merely this. A government’s job is to govern – and a major part of that role is to maintain order and the rule of law. Most of us would probably agree that the job is easier when the general populace is allowed a say in who will govern them. If pressed, we might also express a feeling that freedom from outside interference will also produce better results in the long term. The Republic of Turkey is a youngish democracy that has made, and continues to make, tremendous strides on the road to economic and political freedom for its people. In the interests of natural justice, foreign critics could focus more on the progress that has been made – or failing that, work on removing the beam from their own eyes.


[1] A Turkish word used by the Prime Minister to disparage the protesters, and picked up on social media to satirise the government’s position.

Censorship and Freedom of Speech – How does Turkey shape up?

I want to come right out and admit I haven’t read any of Paul Auster’s sixteen novels. Sadly, it seems he is not highly esteemed by critics in his native America. I checked out reviews in New Yorker and elsewhere, and the overall tone was dismissive. On the other hand, he is, apparently, much read in Europe, and interestingly, is currently climbing the best-seller lists in Turkey. So it seems a pity that he has refused to visit a potential market of 75 million eager readers.
Paul Auster depicted in The Guardian
What attracted my attention to Mr Auster was the eruption, in the press, of a minor war of words between him and the Turkish Prime Minister. Mr Tayyip Erdoğan is quoted as having said, more or less, “Do we care if he comes or doesn’t come?” Certainly there was no suggestion that Auster would be prevented from entering Turkey. The Leader of the Opposition has made it known that he has issued a personal invitation, and good on him, say I.
 
Still, the fact remains that Paul Auster clearly wants it on record that he is refusing to honour Turkey with a visit, and it’s a matter of principle, not merely a stunt to publicise himself and increase sales of his books (which are not banned in Turkey). The problem, it seems, is that the Turkish government has been imprisoning “journalists and writers” in numbers, depending on who is telling the story, from forty, to a hundred, to more than a thousand.
 
Well, I live in the country. I read local newspapers, I watch local television and I take an interest in local affairs. If the government is truly rounding up and imprisoning journalists and writers without due process, I want to know about it. Just across Turkey’s south-eastern border the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has resorted to shelling whole towns whose citizens have expressed discontent with the regime. The tiny island kingdom of Bahrain, on the Persian Gulf, linked to Saudi Arabia by a 25 km causeway, has recently suppressed its own popular uprisings with the help of tanks supplied by its equally tyrannical neighbour.
 
Turkey, on the other hand, has a democratically elected government. Not everyone loves the AK Party regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, however, and many of my Turkish friends, neighbours and colleagues express their dislike openly. Newspaper columnists blatantly criticise, cartoonists mock and satirise, as far as I can see, without let or hindrance. Television current affairs programmes discuss the issues of the day with seeming impunity. I have heard of no arrests or disappearances among people I know, or people known by people I know.
 
So who are these “writers” in custody, and why are they there? The first thing that strikes me is Auster’s claim that “nearly a hundred writers” are imprisoned in Turkey. Well, that’s a lot of writers by anyone’s count. Are they full-time journalists, I wonder? Novelists? Poets? Writers of academic textbooks? Or unpublished part-time scribblers like myself? One name that often crops up is Ragip Zarakolu, so I checked him out online, and clearly he is a man with the courage of his convictions. Turkey underwent three military coups between 1960 and 1980, and Mr Zarakolu apparently upset the generals with his challenging of censorship laws relating to human rights abuses, Kurdish nationalism and the Armenian question, among other sensitive issues. In the 1970s and early 80s, he seems to have been in and out of prison, and had his passport revoked by the government of the day. Since the accession of the current AK Party government in 2003, Ragip Bey has faced several prosecutions, but has so far managed to avoid imprisonment, despite, it seems, his continued efforts to publish books and articles on issues generally accepted as requiring careful handling in Turkey.
 
Two other names that are attracting some sympathy within Turkey are journalists Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener. Unlike most of the other “writers”, these two are more or less mainstream. They seem to have been caught up in the net, along with other people associated with a TV channel, Oda TV, of two major related investigations, known as Ergenekon and Balyoz, that have been going on in Turkey for four or five years. It is extremely difficult to get a handle on exactly what these affairs are all about, but, as I understand, they seem to have something to do with the following:
  • Some sectors of the population who like to consider themselves republican, secularist, Kemalist and nationalist, support the concept of a military takeover when the democratic process doesn’t seem to be producing the results they would like.
  • Groups within the Turkish military have staged three-and-a-half military coups since 1960. They suppressed left-wing dissent, while encouraging ultra-nationalist sentiment and displaying, at best, an ambivalent attitude to the Muslim religion.
  • There is minority but powerful organised opposition to the popularly elected AK Party government of Tayyıp Erdoğan, using overt and clandestine methods against it rather than working through the democratic process and the ballot box.
  • Mr Erdoğan’s government has been working to reduce the influence of the military on the internal political affairs of the nation.
  • Prior to the accession of Mr Erdoğan’s government, there had been serious concern in Turkey about a concept known as ‘Deep State’, which implied some kind of unholy alliance involving high-ranking politicians, police and military personnel, business leaders and organised crime syndicates. One manifestation of this was the so-called “Susurluk” affair, whose intricacies never seemed to be explained to public satisfaction.
  • Critics from the left and right, within Turkey and without, seem to be cooperating in using issues such as Kurdish nationalism, the Armenian issue, freedom of the press and the bogey of Islamic fundamentalism to encourage opposition to the government.
In fact, it’s way too much for most Turkish citizens to understand, never mind a foreigner with a limited grasp of the language. However, it’s hard to live in the country for any length of time without forming some kind of opinion on these matters, and I’d like to share my thoughts with you.
 
Democracy is a fragile flower that needs careful nurturing. The first genuinely democratic election in Turkey was held in 1950. As has been noted, the democratic process was usurped by three military coups between 1960 and 1980. Ostensibly, government was handed back to the Turkish people in 1983, but some are of the opinion that the newly elected government was engineered by the military leaders.  If you measure democracy by the ability of a country’s citizens to freely elect their government, it could be argued that democracy in Turkey dates from 1997, the last time the Turkish military interfered to depose an elected government.  
 
Fifteen years is not a long time. The United States Declaration of Independence, promulgated in 1776, asserted, among other things:
 
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. “
 
At that time in US history, “the People” were “men”. It would be 164 years before women were given the constitutional right “to alter or abolish” governments. African Americans were definitely not “People”, since the practice of slavery continued until the 13th Amendment abolished it in 1865. I’m not even going to mention the Native Americans’ situation, but it must be fair to say that legal and socially sanctioned racial segregation continued for much of the 20th century.
 
Clearly, democracy is a controversial term in itself. How do you measure it? Elsewhere I have noted the tendency of undemocratic regimes to make liberal use of the term. The right to vote is generally cited as an important cornerstone of the democratic process, but how much power does that really give us? Emma Goldman, once described as ‘the most dangerous woman in America’, is reputed to have said: “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal”. Cynical, you’d have to say, especially since she lived from 1869 to1940. But sometimes you wonder, don’t you? I can’t find who first came up with the pithy aphorism: “America has the best democracy money can buy”, but look at the facts. Lobbying is a multi-million dollar industry in the US. Wall St and the financial industry spend hundreds of million of dollars on lobbyists influencing lawmakers to deregulate their industry so that they could fleece investors, fill their own pockets and undermine the entire US economy. Elected representatives move out of Congress and into highly paid jobs using their ‘insider’ knowledge and contacts on behalf of wealthy clients in the lobbying industry. In short, if you can’t afford to lobby, forget democracy.
 
I don’t want to go into the matter here – anyway, I have touched on it in an earlier post – but it could be argued that, at least beyond their own shores, governments in the United States tend to prefer autocratic, dictatorial regimes. On the whole, it is easier and more straightforward to deal with governments that don’t have to take into account the fickle opinions of an enfranchised electorate.
 
But I’m getting away from Turkey here, and the issue we started with, which is freedom of speech, or more specifically freedom of the press. Ideally it’s desirable that writers should be free to express themselves, politically or artistically, without fear of harassment or imprisonment. Undoubtedly, in Turkey, that is not always the case, while the US situation has apparently improved since the “Dubya” Bush administration passed into history. However, it’s not a clear-cut issue. Obviously there are areas where other factors take precedence over freedom of speech: incitement to crime, child pornography, defamation, and national security, to name a few. Turks, for example, have fallen victim to curtailment of freedom with the French Government’s recent decision to prevent them from defending themselves against accusations of genocide against Armenians.
 
As we noted above, democratic freedoms in Turkey are not as well-established as in most Western democracies. Turkey as a nation came into being in 1923 after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. It’s founding principle, Turkish nationalism, was a new concept that had to be introduced and established in order to create a viable state. In the cauldron of war and political and economic upheaval, undoubtedly myths were invented and half-truths disseminated. Minority rights were overlooked or shelved, as in all national struggles, in the interests of unity. It is only in recent years, perhaps the last decade, that Turks have come to feel confident enough in their own identity that they can permit discussion of issues such as, for example, the Kurdish question, and the place of religion in a secular state. That these issues can now be discussed openly is a measure of an increasing maturity of Turkish society.
 
Paul Auster is, of course, entitled to his opinion about Turkey – though one might have hoped that an open-minded writer would want to visit the country and form his own opinions, rather than rely on those of others. He refers, for example, to the international organization PEN, formed in 1921 “to promote friendship and intellectual co-operation among writers everywhere”. When you check their website, you can’t escape the feeling that literary aims have taken a back seat these days to a political agenda. That’s their right, too, certainly, and their aims may be very worthy, but perhaps they should consider changing their name so that it gives a more honest indication of their raison d’etre.
 
One similar organization which does that, is Reporters Without Borders (RSF). They publish an index each year indicating how they rate countries in terms of journalistic freedom. They are unabashedly a political organization, though, again, their name is a little deceptive. Clearly it was intended to reflect a similarity of purpose to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), whose members give assistance to people in countries whose own governments, for whatever reason, are unable to do so. While the very presence of MSF doctors in a country may imply failures on the part of that country’s government, for the most part, they seem to refrain from making political judgments.
 
Still, the world of art is in a different universe, and artists are jealous of their freedom to express. Another writer who has been in trouble in Turkish courts is the novelist Orhan Pamuk. Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, though he is not well-loved, nor, as far as I can learn, much read in his own country (at least in the books that won him the big prize). I worked my way through one-and-a-half novels from his prize-winning canon, albeit in translation, and I have to confess I found them barely readable – though that may not always be a disadvantage when it comes to winning literary awards. A more positive advantage may be the expressing of political views that do not endear the writer to his own government. Pamuk was charged under Turkish Law with insulting the Turkish Republic, for suggesting that Turks were responsible for the mass killing of Kurds and Armenians. Interestingly, the charges were subsequently dropped, and the lawyer instrumental in instigating the case, has been arrested as a player in the Ergenekon investigation discussed above.
 
Well, that’s a good sign, for sure. Whatever you may think about Pamuk as a giant of literature, you can’t say he really deserves to be locked up. And if the aforesaid lawyer turns out to have been an ultra-nationalist right-wing fanatic making death threats against well-meaning novelists, then justice in Turkey may have turned the corner. On the other hand, there are those in the country who hold that Ergenekon is a fictitious creation of the AK Party government to silence opposition. Another journalist, Tuncay Özkan, arrested in the round-up, recently appealed against his arrest to the European Court of Human Rights. Perhaps surprisingly, the European Court rejected Özkan’s complaint, and defined Ergenekon as a “terrorist organization attempting to topple the government by the use of force.”
 
So, what do you make of all that? As that great comic genius Spike Milligan used to say, “It’s all rather confusing, really.” As an outsider, I am not really competent to make a definitive statement, but what I can say is this. Unlike Paul Auster, I came to Turkey. I live here, and have formed my own opinions about the country and its people. If Mr Auster comes, I can take him to easily accessible bookshops where he can purchase reading matter on all the controversial issues, from Kurdish nationalism to the Assyrian ‘genocide’. I can show him ample evidence of a healthy press sounding off against the ruling government, seemingly without fear of imprisonment and torture. He can watch (with a little assistance) current affairs programmes on several television channels discussing all the questions of the day. And no doubt he’ll be happy to see his own novels climbing the local best-seller lists.