Monday, April 19, 2010

‘Living together with tolerance, in peace’

Being in Turkey means changing moods in every breath. Because of the slow but persistent pace towards a democratic order, it has almost become a cliché to talk about a geography of sharp swings between pessimism and optimism.

The path selected in the past decade has left no doubt as to the complexity of this society as it was more and more exposed to the intensity of the demands that accumulated due to decades of suppression of diverse identities.
It is, therefore, the stiff resistance of the shocked elite to the emerging Turkey that is the source of the sharp mood swings and puzzlement of “foreigners,” who tend to expect an “easier” scheme as a formula for transition.

Not in this case. The more civil society takes shape and seeks dominance, the faster it will happen. That point has not yet been reached.

But, there are stronger signs, seemingly synched with and encouraged by the government’s efforts at reform.

When you see who was present at the breakfast meeting the prime minister had with writers on Saturday or, if you were present, like I was, at the two unrelated, but subsequent events in the evening of the same day in İstanbul, you would be impressed by the optimism about a promising future.

Some 40 poets and novelists gathering at the prime minister’s office at Dolmabahçe Palace was unique in a sense. Never had a prime minister invited such a diverse crowd from the literary establishment, both in terms of political and ethnic background. Jews, Kurds, Turks and Armenians were all represented, as well as leftists, liberals and conservatives.

The content of the speech could easily have been written by the chairman of an organization like Amnesty International. Not sparing his words, Erdoğan mentioned in one breath names such as Eşber Yağmurdereli (a blind leftist who was harassed for years by the police and the judiciary), Şanar Yurdatapan (a leftist human rights activist), Mehmet Uzun (a Kurdish novelist who lived in exile), Abdi İpekçi (Milliyet’s editor who was murdered by Mehmet Ali Ağca), Musa Anter (a Kurdish intellectual and front figure killed by “dirty warriors”), Nazım Hikmet and Orhan Pamuk as targets of systematic oppression.

Even if one could label it as political outreach, it nevertheless means an unusual, “shockingly new” attitude by a Turkish authority figure.

If this was an official event, there was something more powerful in the meaning of the evening’s events.

The first was the “Living Together Awards” by the 15-year-old Journalists and Writers’ Foundation (with links to the Gülen movement), an event re-launched after a hiatus of some 10 years. Many wondered what kind of “statement” the awards would make. The result, to outsiders, was impressive: Award winners were liberal think tank Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), Rakel Dink (the wife of the late Hrant Dink), the movie (about the Kurdish problem) “Güneşi Gördüm” (I Saw the Sun) and its Kurdish director, Mahzun Kırmızıgül. Another Kurd (of Dersim), a hardworking music collector and owner of the Kalan Music label, Hasan Saltık, was also given a prize.

And three awards were given to the media: the Taraf daily, the independent Açık Radyo radio station and veteran columnist Hasan Cemal. The message to the audience (one of the guests was Parliament Speaker Mehmet Ali Şahin) was also clear: This society wants and deserves to live together in peace and tolerance.

I left the ceremony in an optimistic mood and found myself, some hundred yards away, in another powerful manifestation: the awards ceremony of the internationally renowned İstanbul Film Festival. Attended by the local, traditional elite, it represented yet another face of the society. Yet, its stage was also full of surprises: the house band was the famous Kardeş Türküler, which is known for its repertoire of Turkish, Alevi, Kurdish, Assyrian and Armenian songs from Anatolia. They sang them as they were broadcast live and as part of the audience shouted slogans for the protection of a cultural landmark, the Emek movie theater, threatened by demolition.

And the best director award went to Miraz Bezar, whose Kurdish movie “Min Dit” (about the slaughter of Kurds and the notorious Diyarbakır Prison) was one of the highlights of the festival. It also won the best actress award. The striking part was how everyone seemed happy, everything seemed, in a sense, “normal.”

It was a remarkable day. In such moments, a journalist, any journalist, might feel utterly lucky to be in the midst of the pregnant turmoil in this country, whose great diversity is lit by rays of hope and threatened by forces of evil.

Friday, April 16, 2010

If 'Turkey belongs to Turks', the fist is a ‘hammer of justice’

“Let us ask, then: If shooting to kill the children of this country is regarded as ‘democratic rights,’ why should attacking a party leader be labeled ‘racism’? If the land mines are ‘democracy,’ why should a fist be ‘fascism’?”
“The person who ‘landed’ one on the nose of Ahmet Türk, using his fist as the ‘hammer of justice,’ has become a facilitator of sentiments of many people in this country because the nonsense called the ‘democratic initiative’ has turned the bandits not only on one side but also on the other side to be ‘heroes’.”
The excerpts above are not from a speech by an ultranationalist cheerleader. They were published in a column in a major newspaper here, Hürriyet, on Tuesday, as a comment on the attack against a former party leader, a highly respected Kurdish politician with a lengthy affiliation with the country’s Parliament.

One may not be surprised by the column’s content if one has already noticed the age-old motto occupying a space aside the Hürriyet logo: “Turkey belongs to the Turks.” As a confirmation of the staunch devotion to the principle mentioned, the former editor of the paper -- which claims to be “mainstream” -- praised yesterday the columnist (whom he had recruited), Yılmaz Özdil, for his “incredible intelligence and superior style and spirit.”

Meanwhile, lawyers from the Diyarbakır Bar Association had something else in mind. They filed a joint declaration comprising a complaint against Yılmaz Özdil on two points, namely “inciting hatred” (Article 216 of the Turkish Penal Code [TCK]) and “praising an act of crime” (Article 215).

In the jungle of hate speech which has crept into this society, this has become another ugly example, and since it displays a venomous commitment on this writer’s side (he was also responsible for a much loathed headline when he was the editor of Star, years ago, praising the murders of two English football fans in Taksim Square by Turkish hooligans), also a spectacular one.

Every colleague with a decent insight into the Turkish press knows that the so-called “code of ethics” of the Doğan Media Group (of which Hürriyet is the flagship), once upon a time announced with pomp and circumstance, is breached by that very paper almost on a daily basis, thus turning it into neat window dressing. It certainly comes across as very comical when the very group claims to be the bearer of the independent and free press. Obviously, the understanding of press freedom seems to be understood there as freedom to disseminate hatred.

Hate speech is one of the most problematic areas in Turkey, as this case once again reminded us. I spent last weekend with many colleagues in a conference titled “Hate Crimes and Hate Speech.” It was arranged by the Hrant Dink Foundation at İstanbul’s Bilgi University and marked the urgency of addressing these issues.

It is an area thinly monitored by civilian society, weakly covered by the law (Article 216 is insufficient, experts say) and mainly ignored by prosecutors. Given the persistence of examples, immediate action is needed. The Kurdish lawyers’ reaction heads in the right direction, but in İstanbul, where the leaders of the Jewish community file many such cases with prosecutors, complaints are turned down systematically on the grounds that “direct harm” has not occurred.

A ray of hope is to be noted with the Hrant Dink Foundation, which set up a Web site for monitoring and highlighting the cases -- (which contains a section in English as well).

The declaration of the Hrant Dink Foundation points out the strains on the social debate. Let me share the following excerpts:

“We frequently observe that the media in Turkey uses biased, prejudiced and discriminatory language. This trend becomes more visible around issues like minority rights, armed conflict and the EU membership process. The provocative, racist and discriminatory language used in the news, and in particular in headlines and spots, becomes a tool used in fueling the enmity and polarization in society, while also affirming the stereotypes.”

“Turkey has witnessed increasing polarization among different sectors of society over the last 10 years, intolerance to the ‘other’ and the ‘different’ … these include the huge increases in the use of hostile language and negative attitudes towards the people who belong or are deemed to belong to different groups.”

“For many years, the media in Turkey has been one of the major and effective sources of nationalist and discriminatory discourse, which has contributed to the widening polarization in society. By examining the hate crimes that have occurred during the last three to four years, the ‘contribution’ of the media in this role will become clearer.”

I am afraid that as long as the so-called “mainstream media” avoid a proper “house cleaning,” the individuals of this society will continue to live on the edge, living in fear of illegal acts normalized as “hammers of justice.”

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Oriental belly dancing

Politics proceed under the increasing threat of provocations and havoc. An attack in Samsun on Monday targeting Ahmet Türk, the former leader of the banned Democratic Society Party (DTP), not only showed how vulnerable and exposed Kurdish figures are in certain parts of Anatolia, but also how easily the hidden tensions of the Kurds might escalate, as yesterday’s events in Hakkari remind us.
As Selahattin Demirtaş, the leader of the DTP’s successor, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), pointed out in an interview with the Milliyet daily: “At the end of 10 months [since the announcement of the ‘Kurdish initiative’], Kurds felt more deeply like ‘the other,’ and Turks felt more deeply ‘in danger.’ Kurds lost some more hope, while Turks became a little more nationalistic.”
It is only natural that when expectations are raised about solutions to bleeding, age-old issues, they will cause frustration when one does not display a determination on how to proceed. The slower the process, the more confused the minds, the more fragile the society, making it an easy target of provocations. It is a good sign that Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli is trying to calm the tension. But much more will be needed on this specific issue. It is now up to both the government and the BDP to keep things under control on both ends.

Remarkably, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) leadership has been very “low key” in joining efforts to cool down nerves. This may be explained in various ways, but one reason might be sought in the party’s last minute attempts to be proactive in the process of taking the reform package to Parliament. In a sharp twist, CHP leader Deniz Baykal chose to come to the fore with a proposal that later changed shape. At first glance, Baykal’s idea looked sound and reasonable: He told the press that some 27 articles of the package are eventually to be supported by his party, that he was ready to “cooperate” if the Justice and Development Party (AKP) separated three articles (on party closures and the structural changes to the Constitutional Court as well as the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors [HSYK]) as an item to be voted on separately in Parliament’s General Assembly.

But before even a proper debate took place, Baykal suddenly changed gears, asking the government to suspend talks on the three articles until after the next national elections. He neither elaborated on whether the CHP would guarantee passage of those 27 articles in the General Assembly nor excluded the possibility that, if the three articles were also passed, the CHP would take the package to the Constitutional Court for annulment. But, he said he was ready to talk with Erdoğan, if necessary.

What made this statement remarkable was that its timing coincided with a threat by HSYK Deputy Chairman Kadir Özbek, who implied that a “collective resignation” can become reality (if the AKP insists on amendments regarding the high judiciary). The perception is that the CHP has fully shouldered the cause of the status-quo for the Third Estate.

It may very well be. But there is more to be analyzed about the manners of the main opposition. Why has it waited so long to inject this proposal? Why did Baykal then insist obstinately that he would never even talk reform with a party “which had been declared a focal point of anti-secular activity” by the top court?

First, the CHP has realized that the likelihood of an overall “yes” to the package in a referendum is much higher than a “no.” Polls show around 20 percent of CHP voters will cast a “yes” vote. The risk of embarrassment, simply because of stiff opposition to reform, is rather high.

Second, the CHP has also realized that it will be unable to collect 110 signatures from the deputies to take the package for scrutiny at the top court. Its hopes are now tied to the notion that, if a referendum option is limited to three debated and divisive articles, it may be able to attract the signatures needed -- from the MHP or others.

Third, the CHP also calculates that some AKP deputies might even refrain from supporting the “three articles,” or join the voices that say, “Let us postpone it until after the elections.” In other words, “divide the adversary.”

Fourth, Baykal also has his upcoming party congress in May in mind. Had he stood rigidly in the defensive, he may have reasoned, this would lead to some “threatful” movements at the meeting for his position. So, he replaced stiffness with shrewdness.

But, one major motive remains unchanged: the CHP under Baykal will do its utmost to bombard, threaten and destroy the reforms regarding its traditional ally and voter segment -- the high judiciary. It has now declared a possible tactical satisfaction if it is delayed, even a little, because the CHP knows that if the next elections lead to a coalition, there will be no meaningful reform there anyhow.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Sarksyan and Erdoğan: What to do now?

After some “ifs and buts” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu will be present in Washington, D.C., for the nuclear security summit and will use the occasion to intensely discuss where to go in the paralyzed “normalization process” with Armenia.

Developments in the global scene should have taught Turkish leaders that the historic dimensions of what happened to Ottoman Armenians in 1915 need proper closure, before the centenary of the Great Armenian Tragedy in 2015. The pursuit of truth by independent scholars will have to go on, and the media will commemorate this event -- among other tragedies in the horrendous 20th century -- with old and new material.
One such example was a detailed documentary aired by German ARD TV. Called “Aghet” (Catastrophe), the 90-minute program contained some new material, also highlighting the passive involvement of German officers (Ottoman allies in World War I) and the open knowledge of Berlin of what took place in Anatolia, as documented in a letter by then-Chancellor of the German Reich Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg on the German ambassador’s proposal to publicly rebuke Germany’s Ottoman allies for the crime. “Our only goal was to keep Turkey on our side until the end of the war, regardless of whether or not Armenians perished.” It is only fair that we know more and more about this dark episode.
But what will be done today is at least as important as knowing more about the past. All the sides involved now act with a knowledge that time is the enemy of the process, particularly in regard to the political “high pressure” in Turkey and a growing concern that political forces in Armenia against “normalization” might replace Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan in the next elections. In the US, Congress has become irritated by what it saw as “Ankara dragging its feet, just to leave the issue to posterity.”
In today’s Turkey, passing the protocols in Parliament is almost impossible, given the difficult circumstances and an overloaded agenda. On the other hand, Yerevan knows that the patience expected of it might strengthen the mindset in Armenia that “Turks are never to be trusted.”
What to do? The recent visits to Yerevan and Baku by Feridun Sinirlioğlu, undersecretary at the Turkish Foreign Ministry, seem to have eased the tension a bit. Yet the real deal will be in Washington, D.C., on what to say and do and how to involve the two leaders in some concrete steps, which seem necessary. The priority might be given to those steps that do not necessitate an approval of the protocols in the parliaments.
A fine set of short-term proposals are to be found in a fresh paper written by Thomas de Waal -- a prominent expert on the Caucasus -- for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He outlines the following points: a) an opening of the Armenia-Turkey border for noncommercial travelers; b) a limited opening of a zone next to the Armenia-Turkey border that contains the medieval Armenian city of Ani, now just inside Turkish territory; c) a Turkish government initiative to invite diaspora Armenians to visit the ancient Armenian heritage sites of Anatolia; and d) the opening of a regular Turkish Airlines route between İstanbul and Yerevan.
De Waal also suggests that the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan is a “potential ‘win-win’ area” in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, noting, “All sides would win if Armenia were to agree to open up communications and rebuild shared infrastructure with Nakhichevan in tandem with the opening of the Armenia-Turkey border.”
I would add that Ankara may encourage respected Turkish universities to invite prominent scholars of the diaspora for a series of regular(ized) conferences in Turkey with independent (not “state sponsored”) Turkish academics to openly discuss (not bargain over) the history.
These conferences may prepare the stage for what de Waal correctly recommends as part of the “long-term strategy” for 2015. He concludes with a call to US President Barack Obama: “The president could deliver a message on April 24, 2010, in which he notes that the centenary commemorations are now five years away and pledges that, if still in office, he will join in those events (perhaps even in Yerevan), but in which he also promises the Turks a little peace until then by affirming his faith in the internal debate in Turkey. Obama could say, ‘We hope to mark this tragic date with our Turkish friends, and not without them’.”
I can only agree. The ARD documentary, revealing “passive German involvement,” and, to a degree, a “shared responsibility,” is also helpful in a sense that Turkey can and must be assisted by its friends to develop a “joint link” to its past.