Posted tagged ‘Turkey’

Politics of shame

Abril 6, 2008

The chief prosecutor of the Turkish Constitutional court is determined to ban the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which currently democratically holds both the presidency and the government of the country. It was the expected counterattack from the secularist establishment after its recent loss of grip on power to the hands of ‘mild’ Islamists: a decisive battle whose outcome will most surely shape the future of a land built on the remains of multicultural and polyglot Ottoman Empire, where several souls still cohabitate.  But both, establishment and challengers, agree on the basics: the supreme importance of the Turkish nation, ensured by a Constitution written by the Generals after a coup in 1980. So most surely their quarrel will wipe off those who do not feel (or did not feel until they were indoctrinated or offered no other alternative) represented by either of the disputers.  For instance, the Kurds: a couple of quotations from the European’s commission (always a moderate and funambulist observer, let us recall) Turkey 2006 Progress Report will suffice to prove such statement:


“Children whose mother tongue is not Turkish cannot learn their mother tongue in the Turkish public schooling system. Such education can only be made by private education institutions. As concerns Kurdish all such courses were closed down in 2004. Therefore, there are no possibilities to learn Kurdish today in the public or private schooling system. Furthermore, there are no measures taken to facilitate access to public services for those who do not speak Turkish.”[…]”As reported above, according to the Law on Political Parties, the use of languages other than Turkish is illegal in political life. The court case against the Rights and Freedoms Party (HAK-PAR) regarding a speech in Kurdish continues”.


It is important to bear in mind that, though Kurds make up about 14-15% of the  population of the Republic of Turkey, already only less than half of this share is able to speak Kurdish (5 million at most, a key fact very rarely highlighted by the international press). The rest, in statistically relevant terms, speaks only Turkish. Private institutions in Kurdish closed down in 2004 because of low attendance rates: with southeastern Turkey (where Kurds mostly concentrate) being the least developed region of the country, together with decades of enforced Turkish education (rightly perceived as mandatory to operate inside the country), restricting the teaching of Kurdish to private institutions was a mastery move of the Establishment. Just to give a glimpse of the inequalities: while in Ankara there is a doctor for every 317 persons and 487 in Istanbul, in Mus (a far eastern province with a majority of Kurdish population), there are 3629 persons for each doctor. In Agri, home of one of the fiercest Kurdish revolts in 1927, the ratio is 4196 to 1.


Also the chronology of revolts sheds light on the weakening, fading force of the Kurdish community : the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, after the Ottoman Empire’s collapse, seemed to herald an independent future for Turkish Kurdistan, but history eventually crystallized in Treaty of Lausanne which ensured Turkish rule on it. Rebellions spread: 1920, 1925, 1927, 1937-38. All were crushed. After that, a very long silence, a very long isolation. Until the initially Marxist PKK was founded in the seventies. This led to increasing military frenzy in the region: a peak of 200,000 deployed Turkish security forces was reached in 1993. We want to believe these chilling images from 2008 are not common place nowadays in Turkish Kurdistan. Rebellions continue, but assimilation has probably reached a point of no return : though Kurdish is still the indigenous language of southeastern Turkey (belonging to the Iranian branch of the Indo-European family),  more than half of the Turkish Kurds cannot speak it anymore.


 In fact, though PKK is still active in its armed struggle and getting advantage of Iraqi Kurdistan’s recently gained autonomy, vote in last general elections showed very significant support for Erdogan’s and Gul’s AKP among ordinary Kurdish population ( more than 50% ). The reason pointed out by analysts is the focus of AKP on Islam ( a true bond between Kurds and Turks): enough to draw the attention of people tired of struggling and unrest; and probably unaware of how much their culture is being eroded and watered down as years and decades go by.  It is a fact that many, many educated Kurds have it difficult when expressing abstract ideas in a language that has for 80 years been, and still is, restricted to home use. Certainly we cannot ask all Kurds to behave as Leyla Zan: the politician who in 1994 dared, after taking the oath of loyalty in Parliament in Turkish, pronouncing a couple of words in Kurdish (the last sentence you can hear in this video). Initially protected by parliamentary immunity, after her Democratic Party was dissolved, she was imprisoned and only released in 2004 after sustained pressure from the EU.


And then, in February 2008, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, the hope, together with Abdulla Gul, for a more tolerant Turkey, went on official visit to Germany, home of some 2.6 million Turks, that is, 3.2% of the population: he first met Chancellor Merkel and told her “Knowledge knows no borders”. And then “For immigrants to speak better German, they have to be able to speak their own mother tongue first”. And then the solution: Germany, he said, should have no problem in funding “Turkish high schools and universities”. And he suggested hiring teachers from Turkey to ease up the task. Afterwards he went to Cologne, historical stronghold of German Catholicism, where he gathered about 20.000 Turkish immigrants in a stadium, many, many more than any current German politician would ever manage to do with ethnic Germans. He said to them:” Assimilation is a crime against Humanity”, and then “It is your natural right to teach your children in their mother tongue.”


Mr. Erdogan is the democratically elected prime minister of a country which bears the responsibility of representing a major share of a complex, vibrant culture that stretches its roots from Siberia through deep into Asia till the Anatolian peninsula (The Turkic people). He might be a devote Muslim and an expert on Islam, but certainly missed some elementary lessons of logics at school: we do not want to believe an ordinarily intelligent man would ever use such miserable rhetoric otherwise.



The long journey towards Democracy

Novembre 4, 2007

Sulhattin Onen is or was a Kurdish citizen of the Republic of Turkey and used to own a mini-bus in the eastern province of Diyarbakır . He was sentenced to 9 months in prison in 2002 on charges of having repeatedly played a Kurdish popular song in his mini-bus in 1999, after a brief 20 minutes journey from Cinar to Amed in which his last remaining passenger turned out to be a non commissioned Turkish official. In fact, in order to make up a proper trial, the judiciary cooked up an alleged and unspecified support of Mr.Onen to the PKK, the Kurdish Party of Workers, an armed organization who has recently killed several Turkish soldiers along the inflamed border with Iraki Kurdistan, prompting the Turkish Parliament to pass a resolution to give free way to military operations across the border. This was actually also a reaction to another resolution the House of Representatives of the USA had just passed the week before branding the slaughter of more than 1 million Christian Armenians in between 1915-1923 as Genocide, which according to a UN declaration of 1948 stands for “to destroy in whole, or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”. In this ominous cataclysm of history, a non negligible chunk of the atrocities was undoubtedly carried out by soldiers of Kurdish ethnic adscription, the very same as that of our Sulhattin, who became unemployed after having to sell his bus for getting entangled with Turkish officialdom. But asking for recognition of the facts of 1915 can get you far more than unemployed: Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist, was assassinated by a ‘solitary’ ultra-nationalist in Istanbul last January for his ceaseless effort in campaigning to unveil the truth. We should not be that surprised: Article 301 of the current Constitution of the secular Republic of Turkey ( dictated by the generals after their last coup in 1980) states the following:

1.A person who publicly denigrates Turkishness, the Republic or the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, shall be punishable by imprisonment of between six months and three years.
2.A person who publicly denigrates the Government of the Republic of Turkey, the judicial institutions of the State, the military or security organizations shall be punishable by imprisonment of between six months and two years.
3.In cases where denigration of Turkishness is committed by a Turkish citizen in another country the punishment shall be increased by one third.
4.Expressions of thought intended to criticize shall not constitute a crime.

Rather staggering. There are also other men, still alive, who have dared challenging these statements: most of them in exile, like Taner Akçam, who escaped prison and fled to Germany in the seventies, where he became an acknowledged historian. In a six-hours long debate in Turkey in front of a nationwide audience-an incredible event -, a couple of years ago, he stated: “If you can’t bring yourself to describe it as a genocide, call it a massacre…”. This is not the kind of stuff one can easily hear against Turkishness on TV. The problem with history, is that we have to rely on historians, but the ‘general idea’ -precisely the one absorbed by society- is often imposed by officialdom and establishment, who decides what to remember, what to forget, and what to interpret. This is the very idea on which Robert Fisk wrote his The Great War for Civilisation: a collection of articles related to the Middle East in which he embarks on a constant condemnation of how facts are changed and easily forgot. The most moving one is undoubtedly the one devoted to the Armenians: Fisk visits in Beirut the last survivors to the holocaust, that were all less than ten years old when darkness descended. The book is outstandingly interesting precisely because Fisk knows too much and has no establishment to protect: that’s why after the reading is over one gets the impression he is against everybody and everything who has had the thinnest slice of power, regardless of their background or location. That is probably how things end up being when one knows way too much but has no power to take a single political decision.
However, should one compromise when one country is suspicious of Genocide? How far can human kind stretch its capacity of negotiating on grounds of general interest and strategic stability? Does memory really matter, or only if it does not bother any major player in the global arena? Are there really people and cultures who deserve full attention and others who can just be forgot because they do not have powerful enough lobbies around the world to promote laws in parliaments? Is the recognition of a Genocide really a matter of lobbying?
On the other hand, is it sensible to pass the law that denounces the Genocide the Turks have never admitted precisely at the very moment where Turkey is threatening with an invasion of northern Irak, fearful of the unleashing of freedom in one region of the always denied Kurdistan? How should adult and responsible countries treat those who obviously still behave like angry children in a gang, still nowadays relying on blackmailing to achieve its goals? Or is it no blackmailing to tell a country that wants to recognize what almost all serious historians have no doubts about, that if they do so then all armament contracts will go lost as it has already happened to France several times? Or that access to military bases will be denied, after profiting for decades of military help from the United States? Why does almost everybody in this world know about the Nazi concentration camps but Armenian slaughtering is still matter of debate and maybe only the consequence of massive deportation? So, even assuming this appallingly wrong misinterpretation, if you die in gas chamber , then it is worse that if you starve to death in your forced way to the deserts of Syria and Irak where you never on earth had wanted to go to? Have we not already waited way too long to start fixing this issue, now that there are no more living witnesses and therefore Turkey will have more room for the old trick of dirtying the facts on the grounds that nobody knows for sure since nobody is there anymore to tell the truth? And the most terrifying question of all, how does the writer of this article-certainly very interested in history, but by no means a proven historian at all, as it is not Mr.Fisk either-know that the Jewish Holocaust was real and also the Armenian? Or maybe was it just the first? And why not just the second? Let us remember our old friend Richelieu once again, in Testament Politique (here in English translation):”In politics, he who has the power often has the right, and he who is weak can only with difficulty keep from being wrong in the opinion of the majority of the world”

But let us try to settle down ideas, since what ultimately matters is to find a decent solution for this living shame from the last century. I believe that Europe should try its best to get Turkey in the Union provided this implies Turkey will abandon all its totally unacceptable behaviours and hypernationalism. This does not mean of course to start playing with ultimatums: such tactics very rarely work. The Economist hinted on a recent article on the matter that it should be up to the Turks themselves to come to terms with the past horror: but, as they themselves suggest, with Article 301 still applicable on Constitutional basis, it is hard to imagine that light can be shed on the Turkish educational system to gradually bring hystorical awareness to surface. It is more than clear the Turkish officialdom is looking for compromise so that popular belief regards the Genocide as inevitable tragedy due to war conditions. I firmly believe that if eventually this is the agreed solution it will be a major blow for Democracy in the European Union. It may work for a while, so that the potentially powerful neighbour does not get upset and Europe can take advantage of new prosperous markets, but in the end it will lead to new tragedy, inevitably, as it always happens when countries do not come to terms with their past wrongdoings, and therefore grow arrogant and threatening. But this does not mean Turkey has to be put to its knees: remember the Versailles agreements in 1919, which might have been fair from a moral point of view, but that actually accelerated the path towards new and vaster annihilation. I think, unlikely as it may seem, that the new political agenda in Turkey can lead to positive debate that eventually helps the country become a truly democratic place-at least as truly as in Western Europe, where we acknowledge there is still a long way forward to reach ‘real democracy’ as well. Abdula Gul, the new president, although extremely firm in his irate reaction against the House of Representatives decision, could lead a moderate, gradual process towards a less hawkish, more open-minded Turkey. Sometimes the most difficult task in politics is start to believe in those that may make the change possible, even if they currently look tremendously far from acceptable standards. I believe it is Europe’s duty , with its modernizing pressure, to make this happen. It is a bold gamble, I admit: we live through a unique period of history, especially inside European Union, in which internal conflict seem to be frozen forever, because of the still vivid memories of WWII and the massive destructive power of new weaponry, both acting as consistent deterrents. But especially for the first, nobody knows for how long its shadow is going to be felt accross the continent, once its last survivors will not be there anymore . Especially if we are dealing with a country that up to very recently has shown firm belief in military, unilateral solutions for cohabitation problems, dismissing any negotiated solution. That is why partial solutions are so dangerous: Turkey needs to open itself to the world, and stop seeing enemies everywhere, both inside and outside. This is not a task for impatients: it is again a long haul strategy, and Europe cannot afford to leave Turkey ashore.

The saddest thing of it all, however, is that a mere 4% of Armenian citizens believe that recognition of the Genocide of their people almost one century ago is among the major problems the country faces, as a recent poll showed. On the contrary, this seems to be top priority on the agenda of the Armenian diaspora, precisely the offspring of those whose families were massacred, but also people mostly not brought up under brain-washing Soviet Union. As ever, with very few exceptions, extreme poverty and despair push people to focus on immediate needs, leaving moral issues for better off times. Precisely because of this, countries which have so far managed to develop sufficient welfare as to have enough time to debate moral issues should take their share of responsibility more than ever