“Love will save this world”

In my current employment I work weekends, so Thursday and Friday are my days off. In fact I like it this way. Population and vehicle density are so bad in Istanbul these days, you may as well stay home on Saturday and Sunday, unless you want to spend hours snarled up in traffic jams.

dscf0510So I’m happy having my weekend when almost everyone else is working or at school. Today it was really starting to feel like spring. I turned off the heating, opened a couple of windows, then went out for a longish walk.

There’s a pretty park not far from our place, laid out in 1973 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Republic of Turkey. Council workers have been busy planting pansies and tulip bulbs. The tulips won’t bloom for a couple of weeks or so, but, with the sun shining, the rows of yellow,  purple and whie pansies looked great. There were also leaf and blossom buds appearing on some trees, so probably the worst of winter is behind us.

I made a circuit down towards the railway line where progress is continuing on track and stations for the new High Speed Train. Much of the city is under reconstruction these days, it seems – adding to the traffic chaos as truck and trailer units carry away demolition rubble, and concrete mixers and hydraulic pumps shuttle around the building sites.

As I approached the pedestrian overpass crossing the horrendous racetrack linking the coast road with the two main motorways, my eye was caught by a sentence of graffiti crudely painted on one of the steel pillars:

dscf0513“Bu dünyayı sevgi kurtaracak,” it read. And once again I felt happy to be in Turkey. Western graffiti of the artistic or obscene variety has been increasingly in evidence around Istanbul in recent years. Especially during the few months when the so-called “Gezi Park” protests were going on, there was some pretty unpleasant stuff being daubed on walls around town.

This one, however, gave me hope that all is not lost. The anonymous scribe was assuring us that: “Love will save this world.”

Nice to think there are people around who still believe that.

Some Thoughts on Football – and links to chariot-racing in Constantinople

Football is a game that comes in many guises – and a word that arouses strong emotions. In much of the world it is played with a round ball, propelled, as the name suggests, with the foot; and rules that seek (at least) to prevent players engaging in bodily contact and injuring each other. In American football by contrast, the primary aim seems to be exactly that – launching yourself deliberately and with maximum force at an opponent so that players only survive by suiting themselves in helmets and body armour – and activity involving the egg-shaped ball seems largely incidental. In between these extremes are varieties of rugby football, union and league, preferred in outposts of the British Empire such as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, former industrial regions of Wales and Northern England, and the playing fields of public school purveyors of education to English aristocracy and sons of Arabian sheikhs. Here pretty much any part of the body can be employed for pretty much any purpose, but rules of fair play demand that you don’t deliberately set out to maim someone who doesn’t actually have the ball in hand. Then there is Gaelic Football; and that peculiar mix of basketball, football and pro wrestling played almost exclusively in the Australian State of Victoria.

Was he fouled or did he dive?

Was he fouled or did he dive?

In my school days in New Zealand, ‘footie’ was very definitely rugby, and the round ball game was for ‘girls’ – by which was meant, not the female of the species, but males whose actual manhood was open to question. A common feature of the ‘girls’ game seemed to be players throwing themselves to the ground for no apparent reason and carrying on as though some medieval Spanish inquisitor was applying hot coals to the soles of their feet. In rugby, on the other hand, it is considered bad form to show any emotion whatsoever even when suffering the effects of the most heinous foul by an opponent. Correct protocol requires that you store the memory and exact on-field vengeance when opportunity arises – thereafter repairing to the nearest pub and forging lifetime bonds of brotherhood over oceanic quantities of ale.

Well, boys will be boys, and violence in one form or another seems to be an integral part of our biological makeup. Perhaps one of the advantages of the semi-licensed in-match carnage of rugby is that it lessens the need for off-field acts of aggression. Soccer football has always seemed more prone to post-match riots, mass tramplings of spectators and street hooliganism – for the very reason, perhaps, that the game itself offers so little opportunity for that kind of masculine self-expression.

I recall being mildly shocked at my first experience of a football match in Istanbul. It was a derby between two of the city’s big three clubs, and squads of police were ensuring that supporters of the two sides were ushered to viewing areas separated by high walls and razor wire. When all were seated and the match began, police in riot gear armed with automatic rifles ringed the pitch with eyes focused on the crowd. I was impressed, truth to tell, by the fact that, far as I could see, not one turned at any stage to see what was happening on-field. After the final whistle, joyous fans of the victorious local lads were obliged to remain in their area while visitors were escorted safely off the premises and sent mourning and rampaging on their way.

 Just a few football fans meeting in the marketplace

Just a few football fans meeting in the marketplace?

More recently, in the street demonstrations that continued for a month or two after the Gezi Park incident of May/June 2013, many of the participants identified themselves as followers of one or other of the Big Three Istanbul football clubs, perhaps the most prominent being the Beşiktaş group calling themselves Çarşı. It’s an innocuous enough name, meaning ‘market’ in Turkish, referring, I guess to the retail shopping precinct near the Bosporus waterfront where supporters congregate en masse on match days in club colours, knocking back cans of Efes Pilsen and psyching themselves up for the big event. The apparent innocuousness of the name Çarşı belies the intent of its members: the stylised version seen on banners having the ‘A’ of Anarchy as its second letter, accompanied by the slogan, ‘Çarşı, her şeye karşı’ (‘We’re against everything’). Over the summer holiday period, of course, players get a break from their weekly grind of night clubs, fast cars, beautiful women and football – leaving hordes of loyal supporters at a loose end.

The Gezi Park business, it might be said, erupted at a fortuitous time, providing off-season training opportunities for sports fans who joined forces with battle-hardened left-wingers, middle-class youth and head-scarved aunties, united by a common hatred of Prime Minister (now President) Tayyip Erdoğan. There was much talk in news media, at home and abroad, of peaceful tree-huggers confronted, gassed and beaten by faceless hordes of government enforcers. Undoubtedly there were a few genuine nature-lovers amongst the protesters – but political demonstrations in Turkey are rarely peaceful, and it’s not easy in the heat of the moment to distinguish a peacenik from a Molotov cocktail-hurling anarchist. I have just received another of the regular mailings sent out by my compatriots in the NZ Embassy in Ankara reminding me: New Zealanders in Turkey are advised to avoid all political gatherings, protests and demonstrations as even those intended to be peaceful have the potential to turn violent. Police may use tear gas and/or water cannons to disperse demonstrations.’

And you’d better believe it. I’ve been living in this country for a few years now, and I can tell you, those ‘Gezi Park’ protests were no new phenomenon. I remember George W Bush visiting Istanbul for a NATO summit in 2004. The whole city came to a standstill; public transport including Bosporus ferries was put on hold, and the waterfront at Kadıköy turned into a battlefield. The first ever ‘May Day’ rally held in Taksim Square in 1977 became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ after around 40 demonstrators were killed and up to 200 injured by security forces.

Violent public demonstrations against the government have a long pedigree in Istanbul. In fact, the tradition can be traced back to ancient times when the city then known as Constantinople was capital of the Roman Empire. Interestingly, the connection between sports fans and political protest was a factor in those days too.

Re-creation of Constantinople with its hippodrome

A major feature of ancient Roman cities

Visitors to Istanbul these days inevitably gravitate to the Sultanahmet area within the walls of the ancient city where many of the most famous tourist attractions are to be found: the cathedral/museum of Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace, the Basilica Cistern and several of the important museums. Just in front of the main gate of Sultan Ahmet’s mosque can be seen three intriguing columns that once stood in the centre of the hippodrome – an immense stadium where up to 30,000 singing, chanting, screaming supporters urged on their favourite teams in the chariot races that were one of the main forms of entertainment. Where the Blue Mosque now stands was the Great Imperial Palace with a connecting passage to the kathisma or viewing box where the emperor and his retinue sat to observe proceedings.

Emperor Theodosius watching the sports from his royal box

Emperor Theodosius watching the sports from his royal box

In Rome itself there had been four teams competing in the races, identified by their colours, the Blues, Greens, Reds and Whites – but when Constantinople became the centre of empire, just two remained. The Blue and Green charioteers divided the city into two mutually antagonistic bands of fanatical supporters drawn from all walks of life, extending their influence far beyond the confines of the hippodrome into activities normally associated with street gangs and political parties. Betting was, of course, an important feature of the competitions. Drivers, though their lives might be short, could also make good money, and the most successful were enviably wealthy.

Members of the aristocracy generally took an interest in one or other of the teams, and were not above manipulating supporters to exert pressure on an unpopular emperor by street demonstrations and riots. Such activities seem to have been fairly common, but by far the most famous is the event known as the Nika Riots of January 532 CE.

Chariot racing in the hippodrome

Chariot racing in the hippodrome

Emperor at the time (from 527 to 565 CE) was Justinian I, who seems to have been a somewhat controversial figure. Most of our knowledge of this period comes from the writings of a scholar known as Procopius of Caesarea. His official works on the wars and the buildings of Justinian depict an emperor deserving the epithet ‘Great’, despite his humble peasant origins. Justinian, with his general Belisarius, recovered some of the western territories lost to ‘barbarians’ in the previous century. His ambitious building projects included reconstruction of the Hagia Sophia cathedral which still stands today. He is renowned for his complete revision of Roman Law and for being the last Latin-speaking Roman Emperor; is venerated as a saint by the Eastern Orthodox Church; and Procopius was fulsome in praising the beauty of his wife, the Empress Theodora.

In addition to his official histories, however, Procopius also produced a work known as the Secret History, discovered centuries later in the Vatican Library. Here, the historian tells a different story. Justinian and Belisarius were hen-pecked and incompetent, manipulated by ruthless and ambitious wives. The Emperor himself is described as cruel and amoral, fleecing his citizens rich and poor alike, and killing without hesitation any who opposed him. His wife Theodora may have been beautiful, but in her previous life she had been one of the city’s more spectacular harlots, engaging in public displays of obscene exhibitionism, and entertaining a significant sampling of the male population. Which may go some way towards explaining why Justinian missed out on beatification by the Roman Church.

Emperor Justinian I and his wife Theodora

Emperor Justinian I and his wife Theodora

But back to the Nika Riots. In an attempt to curtail the political activities of the Blues and Greens, the Emperor had arrested several of the ringleaders and had them sentenced to death, much to the chagrin of supporters who demanded their release and Justinian’s resignation. Rioting broke out in the hippodrome and spilled out on to the streets, with rioters holding the Imperial Palace in a state of siege for five days. Fires were lit and much of the city was burned to the ground, including the previous church of Hagia Sophia. Members of the Senate joined in the anarchic activities and declared a replacement for Justinian, Hypatius, nephew of a former emperor.

Justinian, apparently, had pretty much given up hope of hanging on to his throne, and was getting ready to abandon ship. His good lady Theodora, however, was not ready to give up the life of power and luxury she had worked so hard to attain, saying she would prefer to die. Shamed into action, her husband, by a cunning mixture of double-dealing and brute force, turned the tables on the would-be usurpers. His generals, Belisarius and Mundus led a company or two of regular soldiers into the hippodrome and the resulting punitive slaughter left some 30,000 rioters dead.

Justinian ruled for a further 33 years, rebuilt the city and secured his reputation – at least in the eyes of the Eastern Church. But as far as we know he never played football.

Reporters Without Perspective – Upcoming elections in Turkey

YASTAYIZ!  screamed the front page headline in 5cm font in this morning’s newspaper – ‘We are in mourning!’ 14 year-old Berkin Elvan was admitted to hospital on 15 June last year after being struck in the head by a tear gas canister fired by police trying to disperse demonstrators. Yesterday, a month past his 15th birthday,  he passed away after spending 267 days in a coma. According to the family, young Berkin had been on his way to the bakery to buy bread when he became an innocent victim of excessive police violence sanctioned by Turkey’s AK Party government to silence protest against their undemocratic regime. ‘It is not God who has taken my son away. It is [Prime Minister Recep] Tayyip Erdoğan,’ said the mother, Gülsüm Elvan.
‘Turkey is weeping,’ said Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of Turkey’s main parliamentary opposition party, CHP. ‘Will the Prime Minister call the family to offer his condolences? You can be sure he will not.’ In fact, Mr Kılıçdaroğlu did not use the Turkish word for ‘Prime Minister’ (Başbakan). In a play on words, he used instead the word ‘Başçalan’, which we might translate as ‘Thief-in-Chief’, in a clear reference to corruption accusations being levelled at PM Erdoğan.
Page 5 featured a lengthy piece by a popular female columnist, from which I quote (the translation is mine):
‘What if your child was shot in the head while going to buy bread? What if a gas canister went in behind his ear and he had to pull it out by himself? And he lost a huge amount of blood? He began to vomit? If his last words were “Don’t tell my father – he’ll be so sad!” Moreover if that day was Fathers’ Day? What would you do?
‘Yesterday we woke to very sad news. Berkin had left us after we had been praying for 267 days that he would awake from his coma. And police were spraying pepper gas and firing gas cylinders at the young people who had gathered outside the hospital to farewell their friend. For God’s sake, is this possible? What are you trying to do? To put more children into a coma? How many more children will you put in a coma? Enough is enough!’
Lawyers representing the family issued a statement saying, ‘[Berkin’s] young body resisted for 267 days against the damage caused by the gas canister fired by the police, the same way our people resisted against fascism.’ The newspaper also published 19 tweets by celebrities from Turkey’s sports and entertainment world expressing their profound sorrow at Berkin’s death.
Bakery in Turkey
Political demonstration in Turkey
Well, I am sad too. It’s a tragic thing when a young life is cut short – more so when that death occurs in sudden and violent circumstances. Most of us cannot imagine the trauma experienced by a mother and father as they watch their young teenage son waste away in a coma for nine months before dying in front of their eyes. It may well be true that Berkin was, as they say, on his way to the bakery – and it is unfortunate that his way lay through the middle of a political demonstration the like of which had been ongoing in the country for more than a fortnight.
What saddens me as much as the Elvan family’s tragedy however, is the way the young lad’s death is being used to score political points in the lead-up to local body elections on 30 March. Street demonstrations in Turkey are rarely peaceful. The people in our New Zealand Embassy in Ankara send out memos from time to time to ex-pat Kiwis living here. Among their warnings they include advice to avoid such gatherings, or even places where police may be congregating such as police stations and checkpoints. The reason is not merely the risk of suffering from police violence. Turkish police have, in the recent past, been targeted by terrorist groups including suicide bombers. It is by no means unusual for Turkish men (and women for all I know) to carry concealed weapons – guns and knives. Don’t mess with an American cop, an Australian cop or a Turkish cop. They tend to be a lot more pro-active than your old-time London bobby or friendly New Zealand constable, and for good reasons. Mob violence can escalate rapidly. If you’re in the crowd and all you get is a squirt from a water cannon, you may think yourself lucky.
The columnist knows this. She also must be aware that Turkey is a very diverse society where some live in communities not far removed from tribalism; where ancient codes of honour still have a stronger hold than the law of the land; honour killings, and revenge killings are not uncommon – and blood feuds may pass down through generations. When she employed those emotive sentences quoted above, and posed the rhetorical question ‘What would you do?’ was she so naïve as to be unaware of the actions her words might provoke? When she says, ‘What are you trying to do? To put more children into a coma? How many more children will you put in a coma?’ Who is the ‘you’ she is addressing? Does anyone doubt that she is more or less directly accusing the Prime Minister of responsibility for the death of young Berkin?
The lady is, of course, entitled to her political opinions, and even if I disapprove of what she says, I will defend to the death her right to say it. Well, maybe not to the death, but you get my drift. What I find especially interesting, and what is, in fact, my main purpose in putting finger to keyboard today, is that all the above words are quoted, not from some fringe anarchist broadsheet handed out by young intellectuals on a city street at the risk of imprisonment and torture, but directly from a mainstream Turkish daily newspaper. You may find it interesting too, even surprising, given that you have perhaps seen reports in news media recently referring to an analysis by ‘Reporters Without Borders’which ranked Turkey 154th out of 179 countries according to its ‘World Press Freedom Index’. Turkey, say the borderless reporters, ‘is currently the world’s biggest prison for journalists, especially those who express views critical of the authorities on the Kurdish issue’.
No doubt these people are well-meaning souls who believe they have a role to play in building a better world. And I feel a certain patriotic pride when I see my own country New Zealand in 8th position, 24 places higher than the United States and 29 ahead of France. On the other hand, when I see the Maldives, Fiji and Kyrgyzstan ranked 50 places higher than Turkey I have some questions in my mind. Continuing down the list and finding that Turkey ranks below Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, Brunei and Burma, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, even Thailand and Iraq, I have to say I find the RWB’s list beyond ridiculous. At least they place Turkey marginally ahead of Saudi Arabia (163), Iran (174), Syria (176) and North Korea (178) – small consolation.
That same newspaper is free to publish a large advertisement for the CHP opposition party in which their leader says, ‘This mentality which has been working to polarize the country for 11 years can no longer govern Turkey.’I cannot exercise a vote in elections in this country, and I have certainly no involvement in party politics – but in the interests of fair play, I have to tell you that it is the present government which has opened up discussion on ways to solves the Kurdish problem in Turkey; which has allowed Kurdish people to use their language freely, give their children Kurdish names and broadcast programmes in Kurdish on their own television channels.
Dilek and I are currently moving ourselves into rental accommodation while our apartment building is demolished and rebuilt as part of the ongoing urban renewal taking place in Istanbul. Last week we had an electrician install light fittings, and got chatting while he and his apprentice worked. It turned out that the guys were from Mardin, a city down in the south east of Turkey close to the Syrian border and not so far from Iraq. They happily admitted to being Arab, and that their native language was Arabic – they had learned Turkish after starting school. It crossed my mind that, not too long ago, such non-Turkish national pride would have been frowned upon in this country, perhaps even punishable.

If Turkey was not obviously polarised when I first arrived in the 1990s, it was because deviation from the principle of ‘Turkishness’ was actively discouraged. Take the lid off a boiling pot and steam will erupt – but it will soon settle down. Keep a sealed lid in place and you risk an explosion. Despite what some sources may tell you, there seem to me to be healthy debates taking place in at least some media in Turkey these days. Even traditional opposition parties have moderated their stance on women wearing headscarves and other formerly taboo subjects. If they would only spend more time explaining what steps they would actually take to improve people’s lives in Turkey, the majority of voters would be a good deal happier going into that election on the 30th.

Light a Torch for Match-fixing – There’s a conspiracy under your bed

We live near a street in Istanbul called Baghdad Avenue. Probably if you headed down it in a southeasterly direction, and didn’t take a wrong turning along the way, you might actually end up in that legendary city on the Tigris River. In our part of the world, however, it is a boulevard of brand-name stores, up-market bars, restaurants and cafes – a hangout for well-heeled matrons, reincarnated middle-aged bikies on Harley Davidson hogs and YUMTUMs (young upwardly mobile Turkish urban middle classes). Despite its location on the Asian side of the city, you would be hard pressed to find a more European-looking district in this megalopolitan bridge between East and West.
Kicking a football
for justice and democracy
Our stretch of Baghdad Avenue is situated in the administrative precinct of Kadıköy, home also to the Fenerbahçe Football Club, one of Turkey’s Big Three Istanbul clubs. Support for “Fener” is strong around here, and I would be wary of making known my preference for Beşiktaş, a second member of that sporting triumvirate. Locals are also proud to have it understood that their mayor belongs to the CHP (Republican People’s Party), staunch upholders of Kemalist secularism and bitter foes of the AK Party that has governed Turkey for the past twelve years.
Last weekend there was a gathering in Baghdad Avenue. Residents were called upon to show their support for justice, democracy and the FenerbahçeFootball Club. Banners were waved, the club’s yellow and blue and the nation’s red and white; placards brandished emblazoned with the catchy but untranslatable pun: “Adalete Fener Yak”(“Light a torch for justice” – with a play on the double meaning of Fener, named after a lighthouse formerly located on the coast nearby). Our neighbours expressed in one breath undying loyalty to their beloved football team and deep-seated hatred of the Prime Minister and his government.
I received notification the other day of a workshop to be held at Brookes University, Oxford, UK. The theme apparently is “Bridging Divides: Rethinking Ideology in the Age of Protests.” Organisers observed that anti-government protests in Turkey last year seemed to unite an eclectic community of agitators: attractive (and educated) young women in red dresses, anarchist youth, respectable aunties wielding slingshots, Kurdish and Turkish nationalists, secular Kemalists, headscarved anti-capitalist Muslims and chanting football fanatics. This evidently encouraged them to ask “(1) whether similar trends have been observed in other countries and (2) to what extent political ideologies have become obsolete in today’s politics and society. In brief, we are interested in learning how and to what extent ideological divides have been transcended during the recent anti-government demonstrations in different parts of the world such as Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Brazil, Europe, and the USA.
Turkey’s next prime minister? President?
Well, I wish those people at “Changing Turkey” good luck in seeking a common factor in such a disparate group of countries. Greece, Spain, Ireland and the other PIIGS nations, yes – reacting against demands by Germany and the IMF that the common people tighten their belts so that bankers and financiers of the world can continue to live beyond our means. The UK and the USA, sure – where 99% of the population are getting increasingly cynical about the 1%’s excuses for refusing to spread their wealth around. Egypt’s probably out on its own in that group – they had a brief fling with democracy before their military (with who knows what outside support?) stepped in and reinstated the US/Israel-friendly status quo. Turkey and Brazil probably do have quite a lot in common – maybe we’ll take a look at that another day.
I just hope the artisans at that Oxford workshop manage to direct a little cynicism of their own towards the anti-government demonstrations in Turkey. Every year, two or three Turkish football teams take part in competitions organised by UEFA (the Union of European Football Associations) for the top clubs from all nations on the continent – but this year, both Fenerbahçe and Beşiktaş are absent, having been banned by the international Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), who had determined that the clubs were guilty of match-fixing in the 2010-11 season. Fenerbahçe also missed the 2011-12 UEFA Champions’ League tournament as a result of being withdrawn by the Turkish Football Federation for the same reason. Both clubs unsuccessfully appealed the CAS decision and the ban stood.
The chairman of the Fenerbahçe club, Aziz Yıldırım, was tried in a Turkish civil court on charges of fixing six matches and sentenced to six years imprisonment. He is currently at liberty while his lawyers appeal against the conviction. Interestingly the Turkish Football Federation has taken no action of its own against the banned clubs on the grounds that they could find no evidence that the match-fixing activities had actually affected any results! Wow! Mr Yıldırım, on vacation recently in Cannes, was quoted as saying that the court’s decision to jail him was part of a political conspiracy currently said to be playing out in Turkey.
Well, who can know? There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in political studies workshops. Certainly the Beşiktaş and Fenerbahçe clubs have done a great job of motivating supporters to turn out in the streets chanting confusing double entendre slogans mixing anti-government sentiment with football enthusiasm. I heard recently that the Fenerbahçeclub is planning to diversify its interests and open a private university in Istanbul in the next academic year. Maybe they’ll start a political party too in time for the next general election.
______________________________________________


PS – As I was about to publish this post an article appeared in our Sunday newspaper under the headline: “Yeni Muhalefet Fenerbahçe Mi?” (Is Fenerbahçe the new political opposition?) Among other remarkable claims, the writers draw a parallel between the years when Turkey’s economy was strong and the years Fenerbahçe won the Turkish Premier League Championship! Apparently the correlation is high. Perhaps my last sentence was more prescient than I thought on writing it.

Global Renewal – Back to the Sixties

I am slowly adjusting to the digital world. It’s not easy for older folks used to thinking of ‘hard copy’ and ‘soft copy’ as referring to the binding of a book. Some of us can remember a time when steam engines still powered railway locomotives and harbour ferries; when music was played back on large, fragile Frisbee-like discs rotating at 78 rpm; when a/m radios were large tasteful pieces of furniture lit up with vacuum tubes, and provided family entertainment before the advent of television!
It seems that Dilek and I may have to move house as our current dwelling is in line for urban renewal (read ‘demolition’). I have been looking glumly at shelves of books, CDs and DVDs that will soon require packing into boxes, and perhaps will not find accommodation in our urbanisationally renewed, and undoubtedly smaller, replacement residence.
US rock band Steppenwolf, 1971
So I decided to be proactive and start with the CD collection. In fact a lot of our music has already been uploaded to the computer, and we have been discovering the convenience of hooking up the iPad to the stereo system. Now I have begun examining those CDs with a more critical eye – the technology is 30 years old! – deciding which ones never get played and which ones may have tracks I didn’t like much anyway.
Well, amongst the sounds of my youth that I had, in later years, upgraded to compact disc format, I came across the ‘Greatest Hits of Steppenwolf’. That band is, apparently, still performing, though with only one of the original members who, according to Wikipedia, will celebrate his 70th birthday next April. The band’s heyday was 1968-1972, and their achievements include 25 million record sales, eight gold albums and twelve Billboard Hot 100 singles.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that evergreen musician John Kay was born Joachim Fritz Krauledat in what was then East Prussia – an outpost of German language and culture now part of Russia. As the Soviet military machine advanced in the final months of World War II, it became evident that Comrade Stalin was planning to swallow East Prussia and Russify it – which he did, with the result that tens of thousands of Germans were killed and more than two million obliged to seek sanctuary in the West.  Young Fritz’s mother was one who fled from her homeland with her baby son, eventually settling in Canada where the lad changed his name to something more acceptably Anglo-Saxon before ending up in California in the hippy-hopeful days of the mid-60s.
We may imagine that North America, especially Canada in those days, was like the Promised Land to people like the Krauledats, the still relatively untarnished Statue of Liberty holding aloft its torch of enlightenment to welcome, in the words of Emma Lazarus, ‘the tired, poor, huddled masses of Europe, yearning to breathe free’.[1]
By the time John Kay arrived in California in 1965, however, the anti-Communist excesses of the Cold War, the struggles of the Human Rights Movement and the ultimately indefensible war in Viet Nam had brought cynicism oozing through cracks in the glossy veneer of the American Dream.
Why am I telling you all this ancient history, you may be asking. The reason is that I had to make a decision about which Steppenwolf songs to load on to my computer, and which to leave on the CD that would go out with the trash. Some songs were as familiar as an old pair of shoes, but one I needed to revisit was ‘Monster’, title track of an album released in 1969. I want to share some of the lyrics with you:
And though the [United States’] past has its share of injustice
Kind was the spirit in many a way
But its protectors and friends have been sleeping
Now it’s a monster and will not obey
The spirit was freedom and justice
And its keepers seemed generous and kind
Its leaders were supposed to serve the country
But now they won’t pay it no mind
Cause the people grew fat and got lazy
Now their vote is a meaningless joke
They babble about law and order
But it’s all just an echo of what they’ve been told
The cities have turned into jungles
And corruption is stranglin’ the land
The police force is watching the people
And the people just can’t understand
We don’t know how to mind our own business
‘Cause the whole world’s got to be just like us
Now we are fighting a war over there
No matter who’s the winner we can’t pay the cost
America, where are you now
Don’t you care about your sons and daughters
Don’t you know we need you now
We can’t fight alone against the monster
Eerie, huh! That was written and sung forty-five years ago. And I read in the latest edition of Time Magazine that the US carried out raids against terrorist targets in Somalia and Libya ten days ago. The article went on to elaborate that ‘the FBI and CIA, with the support of U.S. military forces, captured a long-sought al Qaeda leader, Anas al-Liby, in Tripoli. . . He had a $5 million reward on his head.’ I wonder who got that. Maybe the US Navy SEALs who apparently carried out the operation in Somalia.  ‘U.S. officials have not,’ we read, ‘identified the target of the operation, but one said it “was aimed at capturing a high-value al-Shabab terrorist leader.” The official also said no U.S. personnel were injured or killed. Reports of the results of the raid in Somalia have been mixed, with the U.S. official only saying that the SEALs inflicted some al-Shabab casualties.’. Possibly al Qaeda was starting to lose its shock appeal, so we needed a new mysterious Arabian terrorist group to scare us.
Anyway, it’s heartening to learn that there were no US casualties, and I suppose we must also appreciate that this time at least, real US soldiers actually fronted up to do their nation’s dirty work, rather than taking the guys out with rockets guided by a pilotless drone somewhere up in the stratosphere. Still, you’d have to wonder how the Somalians and the Libyans feel about their police work being outsourced to the FBI, the CIA and US SEALs. I well remember the indignation of my fellow New Zealanders when the French Government took it upon themselves to blow up a Greenpeace ship and assassinate a crew member in Auckland Harbour back in 1985.
But that was New Zealand, and we are one of the international good guys, at least in the eyes of the small fraction of the world’s population who know where we are. Luckily, those are the ones who count, so we enjoy a pretty easy ride in terms of criticism on the world stage. Not so Turkey. The self-appointed custodians of world morality at Amnesty International have issued another report condemning the government of Turkey for ‘gross human rights violations’during the so-called ‘Gezi Park protests’ in June and July. The report places a good deal of emphasis on the peacefulness of the protests, and the Turkish government’s denial of the right to protest peacefully. It also mentions the alleged violent acts committed by protesters’ and dismisses reference to these by Turkish authorities. Another criticism is ‘impunity for police abuse’. The report asserts that ‘although the abusive use of force by police has been widely documented, the likelihood of those responsible being brought to justice remains remote’.
I don’t wish to get embroiled in a discussion of these protests yet again. The government has admitted that police handling of the demonstrations was unduly heavy-handed. Contrary to the AI claim, however, action has already been taken against some police officers, and hearings are continuing into others. In my view there is no question of ‘alleged’ violent acts by protesters. I saw and photographed burnt out buses, police vehicles and private cars, obscene graffiti and paving stones torn up to use as ammunition against police officers trying to maintain order.
Political demonstrations in Turkey are rarely peaceful. Ever since I came to the country I have seen violent running battles between anarchist youths and police officers a regular occurrence in Istanbul and elsewhere. The difference with the Gezi protests was that there were well-heeled members of the ‘respectable’ Istanbul middle classes taking part, and they were caught up in events totally new to them.
At my first football match in Turkey I was somewhat surprised to see the pitch surrounded by police armed with automatic weapons. They showed remarkable discipline, I thought, in watching the crowd the whole time, resisting what must have been a strong inclination to sneak a peek at the on-field action. Two weekends ago, a match between two big Istanbul clubs turned into a major riot and was called off as Beşiktaş supporters invaded the pitch, throwing chairs and anything else they could lay their hands on at police and security personnel.
Many of these football ‘fans’ had been involved in the Gezi Park protests (which took place during the summer off-season). One of the slogans of the fanatic Beşiktaşsupporters club known as Çarşı is ‘Çarşı herşeye karşı’ – meaning ‘We are against everything!’ Well, go ahead, say I – but don’t cry if you get a faceful of tear gas or pepper spray. Interestingly, after that football riot, police carried out raids and took a number of people into custody, one of whom was the head honcho of the Çarşı group, Alen Markaryan.  At the risk of sounding prejudiced, that looks very much like an Armenian name to me. I hope he doesn’t have a secret agenda. From time to time solicitous emails arrive from my countrymen in the NZ Embassy in Ankara warning me about the dangers of being in Turkey. One of their pieces of advice is always to give political demonstrations a wide berth – and I do.
One thing that seemed to be missing from Amnesty International’s worthy attack on gross human rights abuses was any mention of what’s been going on recently in Qatar. As you probably know, Qatar is a tiny Arab emirate on the Persian Gulf set to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022. Its citizens showed little inclination to get involved in Arab Spring protests, despite being ruled by an authoritarian hereditary regime, possibly because they have the highest per capita GDP in the world, as a by-product of the country’s vast oil and natural gas reserves. Sadly, the capitato which the oil riches are distributed make up only 15% of Qatar’s two million population.  The rest are foreign nationals, the majority of whom are migrant workers making up 94% of the workforce.
A recent article in the Guardian reported that labourers working on construction projects in Qatar, many of them related to the football World Cup, are housed in sub-human conditions, have their passports confiscated, and are treated pretty much like slaves. The largest single group are Nepalese who have been dying at the rate of one a day from heart attacks and workplace accidents. The heart attacks, it seems, are caused by having to work in the ferocious heat of the Qatari desert where the average daytime temperature high exceeds 50°C (120°F).
Needless to say there is some concern among football-playing nations with more congenial climates that their players may also be candidates for cardiac arrest if the tournament goes ahead in Qatar. So how did a miniscule Arab emirate with a native population of around 250,000 manage to land the largest sporting event in the world, when Turkey, with a well-balanced, dynamic economy, 75 million fanatical football supporters most of whom are gainfully employed in their own country, much of the infrastructure already in place, and a delightfully hospitable climate, has been bidding in vain to host the Olympic games for the past twenty years?
Well, one possibility is bribery. Serious allegations have been made against members of the FIFA Executive Committee, and an investigation is ongoing. It is still possible that a re-vote will be taken and the football World Cup held somewhere else. Another possibility is high-level political interference, given that ‘Qatar has built intimate military ties with the United States, and is now the location of U.S. Central Command’s Forward Headquarters and the Combined Air Operations Center.’[2]The US is also ‘the major equipment supplier for Qatar’s oil and gas industry’, and European and Japanese firms are heavily involved in industrial joint ventures in the country.
Another thing that Turkey is criticised for these days is its foreign policy which, so we are told, is confused and in need of serious reassessment. Undoubtedly the ‘zero problems with neighbours’ strategy suffered in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Does that mean they shouldn’t try? Who could have foreseen the three-year civil war in Syria, or that a military-led counterrevolution in Egypt would be tolerated by an unholy alliance of Islamic neighbours and Western democracies? Turkey has to live with these neighbours just across the fence and cannot ignore the results of the violence convulsing them. There are now at least half a million refugees from the Syrian conflict in Turkey – and no longer only in camps near the border. Tens of thousands have, in their desperation, made their way to Ankara and Istanbul where they are huddled in city parks fearfully awaiting the onset of winter. The cost to the Turkish taxpayer was recently assessed at $2 billion.
As for Egypt, who actually believes the mealy-mouthed apologists asserting that the military coup was in response to the wishes of the people? The oppressive 29-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, supported, financed and armed by the United States, was overthrown by a popular revolt with participants risking life and limb for their human rights. Of course a democratically elected alternative would be Islamic to some extent – just as Americans, God bless them, tend to elect Presidents with Christian sympathies. What is ironic is the support given by Muslim extremist, terrorist-supporting Saudi Arabia to Egypt’s anti-Islamic military; and their being on the same side as Israel! What’s the common factor here I wonder?
A musical contemporary of Steppenwolf with a more poetical bent, Don McLean, had a song entitled ‘Vincent’, ostensibly about the painter Van Gogh, but with perhaps a more universal message:
And now I think I know what you tried to say to me
How you suffered for your sanity
How you tried to set them free.
They would not listen
They’re not listening still
Perhaps they never will.

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:

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.