5 Mart 2009
Word has it that Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan did not like the Turkey chapter of the annual Human Rights Report recently launched by the U.S. State Department. The report in fact praises Turkey’s advances on several fronts, but also criticizes the government for several issues, including restrictions on "media freedom." "Senior government officials, including Prime Minister Erdoğan," the report notes, "made statements during the year strongly criticizing the press and media business figures, particularly following the publishing of reports on alleged corruption in entities in Germany connected to the ruling party." When Erdoğan read this, a column was reporting in daily Radikal the other day, he not only found it objectionable but also accused the Turkish media in question for "misleading the Westerners." Well, it rather looks like that the Westerners only reported what was all too obvious: the never-ending conflict between the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and especially the prime minister himself, and certain media groups, including the Doğan Media Group, which owns several papers, including this one. That took a new level recently when the Turkish Treasury imposed a half-billion-dollar levy against the Doğan Media Group. I am no expert in tax matters, and I have no idea about the technicalities of the fine, but I just know that it looks all too suggestive when such a fine comes right after a heated war of words between the media group in question and the government. In the face of all that, there are two questions that need to be asked: Why is Erdoğan so much at odds with certain segments of the media? And what does he need to do?
A piece that sheds light on the former question came from one of his former advisers, Akif Beki, who has just started writing columns in daily Radikal. Beki, who has been the "right hand" of Erdoğan in media matters until very recently, explained that the prime minister’s feelings toward the secular Istanbul journalists go back to his earlier days in politics. During the whole 90s, when Erdoğan was a rising star, this "journalist class" looked down upon him and routinely used derogatory words about him to make this all-obvious. For example, they habitually referred to him as "Tayyip" in their news and commentaries, not as "Erdoğan." (In Turkish, if you use somebody’s first name, and if that person is not your close friend, then you give a strong message of disrespect.)
Moreover, when Erdoğan was faced with the threat of military coups, judiciary coups, and all other salvos of the bureaucratic establishment, the same "journalist class" cheered for his enemies and awaited his fall. They made it clear that they saw him as a countryside bumpkin who doesn’t know how to wine and dine, and who does not deserve to be the leader of "modern Turkey."
Hence, Akif Beki, argues, Erdoğan started to see these folks as adversaries, not objective journalists. When joined with his usual temper, and strong language, this comes out as a war of words against the media. And, as the recent tax fine implies, maybe even a war of deeds. This should help us understand the root causes of the prime minister’s attitude, but it doesn’t justify it. He might have reasons to be enraged and resentful, but these are not the qualities that will make him a good leader. It doesn’t make Turkey a better country either. Quite the contrary, the constant clash between the popularly elected government and the secular elite leads the country into permanent turmoil.
That’s why I believe the prime minister needs a moment of reflection and self-criticism. He needs to soften his rhetoric and rationalize his focus. He should see that by trying to knock his enemies down, he only infringes his own democratic credentials, increases social tension, and makes life difficult for all of us.
Islamic or Turkish?
We, on the other hand, should avoid buying into the line of propaganda that the ideological enemies of the AKP are selling these days. "We have been telling you that these guys are Islamists in sheep’s clothing," they are saying, "and now look at Erdoğan and see how illiberal he is." Well, the problem with Erdoğan is not that he is too Islamic. The problem, rather, is that he is too Turkish. The things we criticize in his behavior are the typical problems we find in almost all homegrown Turkish politicians. No wonder neither Deniz Baykal, nor Devlet Bahçeli, nor any other leader around, is too different. The political culture of the country simply is based on leader domination, confrontational rhetoric and lack of pragmatism.
And this has something to do with the subsequent military and judiciary coups, which destroyed the chance for institutionalization. Unlike the United States or the United Kingdom, where you can identify with political parties that have existed for many generations, in Turkey you can only identify with a political leader, whose parties will probably be closed down several times during his career.
In such a political setting, the leader becomes the main actor and all the flaws in his character become highly definitive. And the rules of politics growingly become Social Darwinian. That is the core of our problem.
28 Şubat 2009
We Turks hotly debate the role of religion in public life all the time. But our frame of reference hardly goes beyond a few clichs that have been planted in our minds by the official ideology, education system, and other national narratives. That’s why it would be a good idea to raise our heads a bit and look at other sources which bring different perspectives to the same question. One person whose wisdom is worth consulting at this point is Adam Smith. Most of us are familiar with this 18th century Scottish thinker as the pioneer of the liberal theory of economics. Yet Smith was also a "moral philosopher" who contemplated the ethical foundations of a just society, in which he attributed an important role to religion.
Religion and capitalism
One of Smith’s crucial insights was that religion could help the painful transformation from pre-modernity to modern capitalism. As he observed the social change in 18th century Britain, he realized how religious organizations helped the immigrants from villages to big cities cope with the new and challenging environment they find themselves in. In his enlightening book, "God and Gold: Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World," Walter Russell Mead summarizes Smith’s interpretation as follows:
"The common people need the support of a strong religious community, especially when they join the great capitalist migration from the countryside to the city. In the country, the poor workman has a reputation to uphold: he is known by all and the community judges him according to his actsÉ In the new condition of the city, however, the workman has less certainty about his role, and he needs more than ever to maintain personal discipline and to resist the temptations that from Smith’s time to present day can be found in cities."
"The small religious congregation (the sect)," therefore "replaces the social discipline of the home community." This means, according to Mead, "Religion no longer opposes the modernization process. It provided the psychological strength and support that eventually allowed tens of millions of bewildered, hopeful, frightened peasants to find a place in the teeming cities and crowded industries of the new capitalist world."
In such a social setting, religion and capitalism even become mutually supportive dynamics. "The rise of capitalism, while destructive of religious ideas firmly based in village realities, does not subvert religion in general, but can lead to a new era of religious revival."
Now, these interpretations that Adam Smith made about the 18th century Britain makes a lot of sense vis-?-vis contemporary Turkey. Big waves of migration from the traditional countryside to modern cities is what Turkey has been experiencing since the 1950’s. The newcomers, just like in the British case, needed the support of religious communities and hence formed many of them. This process brought in elements of quasi-rural and overtly conservative lifestyles to the cities, and that’s why the conventional city elite perceived it as a threat to their modern way of life. But, quite the contrary, this was modernization itself, because the newcomers were being integrated into, and even bolstering the scope of, capitalism. That’s should explain to you why the political party they typically prefer, the incumbent Justice and Development Party, or AKP, is also the most pro-capitalist party in the country.
Here is one possible catch, though, and Adam Smith saw that as well. "An acceleration of capitalist growth," he noted, "could lead to a dangerous increase in the power of religious fanaticism." And he suggested policies to the government to overcome this problem, such as providing high levels of education and even promoting "public amusements as an antidote to the gloomy fantasies of religious enthusiasts."
To avoid fanatical religion
Yet the more important emphasis of Smith on the ways to avoid the dominance of fanatical religion was pluralism. "The danger of religious dictatorship is much less where a multitude of religious groups already exist," he noted. "[And] the real danger of theocracy exists when a large and established church, supported by the government, can impose conformity on dissenters."
On that regard, Turkey seems to be on the safe zone. Although the secularists perceive the whole Islamic camp as one single Sunni block, it is actually quite diverse. There are all sorts of Islamic communities, including the Fethulah Gülen followers, more classical "Nurcu"s, "Süleymanci"s, various sorts of conservative Sufi orders such as the Naksibendis, theologians with modernist views, pundits with their own sympathizers, and millions of non-sectarian, mainstream observant Muslims.
They might all agree on some political issues, such as the freedom to wear the headscarf, but if they try to define religion as they see it, they will never be able to agree with each other.Thus, if Adam Smith’s ideas are a guide to the interaction between religion and modernization, Turkey should be doing fine. The trouble is that very few secularists in Turkey are open-minded enough to consider seeing the matter from new perspectives such as the one presented by this wise philosopher.
26 Şubat 2009
The leader of the Democratic Society Party, or DTP, Ahmet Türk, shocked the country the other day, by speaking Kurdish in the Turkish Parliament. At a session with his parliamentary group, he reminded that Feb. 21 is celebrated as "International Mother Tongue Day," and then uttered words in his own mother tongue. Right away, with no surprise, hell broke loose. The media reported the "incident" as breaking news. TRT 3, the official TV channel that airs Parliament meetings, stopped its live broadcast. Parliament Speaker Köksal Toptan noted that it was against the Constitution to use any language other than Turkish at Parliament. And opposition leaders bashed not just Ahmet Türk, but also the government, which they saw as a collaborator of the pro-Kurdish cause.
In the media, yesterday’s commentaries were quite divided on this issue. Liberals such as Cengiz Çandar or Oral Çalışlar were arguing that Ahmet Türk did a good job by breaking yet another taboo. Other columnists, who are typically concerned about the "foundations of the regime," sounded much more critical. According to Fikret Bila of daily Milliyet, Ahmet Türk’s speech clearly proved that he and his party were dedicated to creating "two peoples" in Turkey Ñ one Turkish, one Kurdish. This was a lethal threat to the country, Bila added, which could not be tolerated.
I tend to be closer to the former, i.e., the liberal view. Parliamentarians are representatives of the people, not the officials of "the regime." It is natural for them to represent the identities of the people which have voted for them. And every identity in Turkey should have the right to be represented at Parliament.
But this idea is not that welcome in Turkey. That’s why undesirable identities have been purged from the Parliament at times. Besides the military coups, during which this was done collectively, there have been two dramatic cases in the 90s. In the first one, in 1994, a group of Kurdish MPs (which included the famous and controversial Leyla Zana) who tried to take their oaths in Kurdish were deprived of their seats and then put in prison. In 1999, this time the newly elected Merve Kavakçı dared to walk into the Parliament with her headscarf. Hundreds of secularist MPs yelled at her, protested her presence, and finally she was pushed away from the Parliament not just literally but also legally. Soon she even lost her citizenship.
Here is the lesson: There are two symbols that our anxious republic can’t stand seeing in the "public square" Ñ the Kurdish language and the Islamic headscarf. And if elected politicians dare to bring them into the parliament, they will face strong reactions. As time goes by, and as Turkey gets a little less illiberal, the dose of these reactions comes down. That’s why Ahmet Türk won’t be crucified for speaking Kurdish in Parliament, whereas that would have been the case 10 years ago. But the reactionist forces are still out there, and no one can guarantee that they are not planning a total strike back.
Since I am not the greatest fan of those reactionist forces, and their authoritarian republic, I tend to be lenient on Ahmet Türk’s symbolic move. But this doesn’t mean that Kurdish nationalism is not a dangerous tendency which can indeed tear Turkey apart. And while supporting the Kurds’ right to uphold their language and culture, we have the right be concerned by the fierce chauvinism that resonates among some of them.
A crucial question
Here is the crucial question for Turkey’s Kurds: Are they only hoping to become happy citizens of a democratic Turkey which respects their civil liberties? Or are they convinced that they are a totally separate "people" from the Turks, who need to have a separate homeland? If the latter is true, and if manifestations of Kurdish identity are designed to cultivate this "national consciousness," then we are in trouble. Then Turkey might be destined to a tragic ethnic conflict, whose horrific results can be foreseen by looking at the collapse of Yugoslavia or the partition of India and Pakistan.
The trouble with Ahmet Türk’s party, the DTP, is that it doesn’t convince the rest of us that its long-term goal is not the creation of an independent Kurdish nation. Once that fear is in the air, even the reforms that will give them the civil liberties that they deserve are stalled. Some part of that fear might be stemming from the usual paranoia of our nationalist/republican establishment, but that is not the whole problem. If he wants to help solve the problem, Mr. Türk needs to take other steps as well. Perhaps the next time he speaks in Kurdish, he can touch upon the evils of ethnic nationalism and the art of co-existence. That would be a speech that I would cheerfully applaud.
21 Şubat 2009
The Abant Platform, which holds frequent conferences at which Turkish intellectuals convene to discuss timely issues, was in northern Iraq last week. I was among the nearly one hundred names that were supposed to fly from Istanbul to Arbil for this significant meeting, but a last minute change of plans destined me rather to Washington. Yet I have been carefully reading what Abant participants have been writing about their experience in Iraqi Kurdistan Ñ a country whose very name is a big bone of contention in Turkey. Perhaps I should first note what the Abant Platform is. It is a discussion forum launched in 1998 in order to "allow Turkish intellectuals from all walks of life to come together and talk freely." The idea and the organization belong to none other than the strongest religious community in Turkey: The Fethullah Gülen movement. In a step that some considered a public relations campaign, and others have suspected as an effort to "buy in" the intellectuals, the Gülen movement promised to create a sustainable ground for "dialogue" in a country dominated by hostile monologues. And, like it or not, they have been successful in establishing in the national scale something similar to the Bilderberg Meetings in the global scale. (But unlike Bilderberg, Abant is open to the public.)
The country that isn’t there
Last week’s Abant meeting was probably the most ambitious one, for it took place at a capital which is despised by most nationalist circles in Turkey. For the latter, the mere existence of a Kurdish political entity in Iraq is the beginning of the much-feared end: The establishment of an Independent Unified Kurdistan, which will include southeastern Turkey.
The fear is not totally groundless. World War I, which shaped the map of the current Middle East, left the Kurds as a people without a country. They were divided into four states, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. At first they were not terribly upset by this setting, because the tides of modern nationalism, which hit other peoples of the region, had not reached them yet. Yet as time went by, national consciousness arose among the Kurds, too, which led them to launch a series of uprisings and guerilla wars against their host states.
In return, these host states decided to crush Kurdish nationalism by force, and often ended up in inflaming it. That was the case especially in Turkey. From the 1920s on, Ankara decided to deny the very existence of Kurds, and imposed on them a strict policy of assimilation. The response of the Kurds was to launch more than 20 revolts, the last one being an almost civil war carried out by the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.
After seven decades of forced assimilation, Turkey realized its mistake. Thus, since the 1990s on, the ban on Kurdish language and culture was gradually lifted. Today, besides marginal Turkish nationalists, most people in Turkey do not fear the word "Kurd," as they used to do it in the past. But another term is still anathema and almost un-utterable: Kurdistan, i.e., the land of the Kurds.
In the Abant Platform, this term has apparently created a controversy. Most visitors from Turkey preferred to call the country that they had stepped in as "Northern Iraq," whereas the hosts insisted that its name was "Kurdistan."
The gap of terminology might have been bridged there Ğ most of the Abant participants are Turkish liberals, after all, not nationalists Ğ but this incident shows how big the gap is between the minds of the two countries, and how hard is it to stand in the middle. No wonder Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the Nationalist Action Party, or MHP, lambasted Abant organizers as those "who lost their identities."
In order to build reconciliation, both sides would need to take steps. Iraqi Kurds need to convince Turkey that their homegrown "Kurdistan" is not a step for the greater goal of building the Independent Unified Kurdistan. The political fate of Iraqi Kurds (whether it be based an autonomy or independence) cannot be mimicked in Turkey, whose biggest Kurdish city is not Diyarbakır or Batman, but Istanbul. For Turkey’s Kurds, the solution is the affirmation of full civil liberties in the current borders, not the creation of new borders.
Remember the Ottomans
The steps Turkey needs to take are, first, to realize that Iraqi Kurdistan is a reality that cannot be denied. Disallowing its name and official status doesn’t help us Turks in any way. We have spent seven decades asserting, "Kurds don’t exist." Now we should not lose more time by asserting, "Kurdistan doesn’t exist."
The second step to take is simply to remember our Ottoman past. In the Ottoman Empire, the region was commonly called "Kurdistan," and nobody had a problem with that. In fact, the empire established an official province of Kurdistan between the years 1847 and 1864, whose capital was transferred several times, first from Ahlat to Van, then to Muş and finally to Diyarbekir. (The name of the latter city was changed into "Diyarbakır" during the republican times.) The term "Kurdistan" continued to be used freely by the Ottomans, who were, unlike their modern Turkish successors, not fearful about the ethnic and religious diversity of their country.
In fact this whole Kurdish question hints to us Turks that the ultra-nationalist (and ultra-secularist, for that matter) excesses of our much-praised Republican Revolution needs to be left aside. Whether we will be able to face that is the national million-dollar question.
19 Şubat 2009
I really don’t want to get personal in my columns, but my column neighbor Burak Bekdil sometimes gives me no choice. So, please pardon me for the he-said-I-said part of this article. The latter part, I hope, will give you some perspective of the deeper problem. First part first. Mr. Bekdil’s latest piece that appeared in these pages yesterday was the product of a vicious cycle I have seen before several times: He first makes sweeping accusations against the Islamic/conservative camp in this country. Then I write something which attempts to show that the reality is much more nuanced. In response, he writes an ad hominem attack against me, and accuses me of being the instrument of an Islamic conspiracy that he believes that exists.
Enter the conspiracy
This is exactly what happened in the past seven days: Mr. Bekdil first wrote that while Turkey’s secularists are "programmed to think that anti-Semitism is a bad thing," all the people from the conservative/Islamic camp are fanatic anti-Semites who "won't even try to find a dividing line between ’good and bad Jews’." I argued that this is not true, by noting that anti-Semitic trends exist on both sides. In return, he likened me to a "naughty kid" who lies to his teacher. He also told an alarming story about the huge Islamic "spider" that is slowly weaving its web on Turkey, and, for reasons that are hard to understand, linked me to that imaginary axis of evil.
Since I am accused, I need to reiterate something that I have been fed up of doing so: I am not a member of any Islamic community. I rather define myself a "freelance Muslim." Thus I am not among the "army of Fethullahists" that Mr. Bekdil was speaking about in his column in pretty alarmist words. On a second note, I am not a member of the AKP, the incumbent Justice and Development Party, too. Neither the AKP pays me. Nor, for the record, do the CIA, MI6, or George Soros. (I have been accused for being "fed" by those foreign sources by the ultra-nationalist side of the Turkish media.)
However I do look at the AKP and the Fethullah Gülen community, Turkey’s strongest Islamic movement, from a much different perspective than Turkey’s secularists. They see these forces as "Islamic spiders," to use Mr. Bekdil’s depiction, which are slowly turning Turkey into an Islamic theocracy. I rather see them as the potential agents of an ideal that I strongly believe in: A synthesis of Islamic religiosity and liberal democracy. These are imperfect agents, to be sure, but they are the best ones we have at hand, and I don’t want them to be dismissed by the world because of the blood feud that Turkey’s ultra-secularists have with them.
That is the reason why I am sometimes drawn to defend these forces when they are unjustly attacked by Turkey’s zealous secularists. This doesn’t mean I endorse everything they and say and do, and any careful reader of my work (especially my pieces in Turkish) would see that I have been critical about them, too.
The more important question here, I believe, is why Mr. Bekdil and most other ultra-secularists in Turkey believe that people like me must be a member of an "army" that serves a heinous conspiracy to subvert the secular republic. The answer I find takes me to the deeper problem that I promised to explore at the beginning: Here in Turkey, most people simply don’t believe that you can be an individual with unconventional views. If you have such views, they assume, then you must be the mouthpiece of an enemy that propagates those views with wicked intentions. That’s why when faced with unconventional individuals, Turks often ask, "who is behind him?" The assumption is that you can’t be just by yourself: someone or some group must be "behind" you, so that you can feel bold enough to challenge the conventional wisdom.
Who is behind who
I am facing this attitude so frequently that I sometimes cannot help but react strongly. Recently, on a political TV discussion that I appear on every week on TRT II, Turkey’s official TV channel, one fellow accused me for being an "Americanist." The reason was that I argued that Turkey’s constitution should not define all citizens as "Turks," -- a clause which alienates the Kurds -- and rather keep silent on the identity of the people. Then I referred to the Constitution of the United States as a good example, which was written in order to define and limit the state, not the citizens. But for the gentleman that I was debating with, this was enough to be an "Americanist," someone who serves American interests.
In such an intellectual setting, it is not just frustrating to try to but also impossible to succeed in having discussions that will broaden views. What rather you have is a constant war of words about which side is really evil and which conspiracy is true. I am really fed up with this, and that’s why I sincerely hope that this will be the last column in which I will be forced to answer an ad hominem attack.
14 Şubat 2009
During the final decades of the Ottoman Empire, three different solutions were devised by statesmen and intellectuals in order to save the sinking boat: Ottomanism, Islamism, and Turkism.
The first one was also the earliest, which started with the Reform Edict of 1839. It was a reaction to the winds of modern nationalism that started to influence the Christian nations of the empire such as the Greeks, Serbs, or Bulgarians. "If we emphasize the equality and civil rights of all our citizens," the Ottoman elite thought, "then we can keep them from revolting against us." But when Ottomanism proved not to be that attractive to the Christian peoples of the Empire, Islamism became more popular. Here the idea was to emphasize brotherhood between the Muslim elements such as Turks, Arabs, Kurds, Albanians, Circassians, etc. Its champion was Sultan Abdülhamid II, who ruled from 1876 to 1909.
The rise of TurkismAnd Turkism came to stage at the turn of the century, as an ideology promoted by a group of secularized Young Turks. They had lost faith in all non-Turkish elements of the Empire, so they put "Turkishness" to the center of their political agenda. As you can guess, this third line, Turkism, triumphed at the end and became the official ideology of the Turkish Republic, which was created from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923.
In fact, the populace that remained in the borders of Turkey was not fully Turkish, so the Turkish Republic decided to engage in a long-term social engineering to fix this "problem." There were two tandem strategies: All non-Turkish Muslims, such as Kurds, would be "Turkified." All-non Muslims, such as Greeks, Armenians and Jews, would be defined as "minorities," who were perceived as "foreigners" that have the potential to be fifth columns for "foreign powers."
That’s why the very foundational idea of the Turkish Republic included the potential to breed anti-Semitism. That potential turned into malicious action in the 30’s and early 40’s, when both the ideology and the "efficiency" of Nazi Germany found sympathizers among Kemalists such as Recep Peker, the "third man" of the "single party" regime.
12 Şubat 2009
My column neighbor Burak Bekdil was writing about anti-Semitism in Turkey yesterday. And he was presenting not just a stance against this wicked trend, but also a blame he carefully put on one specific camp in Turkey. He, as you would have expected if you read him regularly, was accusing the "Islamists." He wrote: "But is the anti-Israeli/Jewish/Semitic mood exclusive to conservative/devout Turks? Certainly not. Only the nature is different. Secular Turks try -- probably unsuccessfully -- to distinguish between good and bad Jews and are programmed to think that anti-Semitism is a bad thing 'even at times like this.' They can be accused of sin of omission, but that’s it. For the Islamist/mildly Islamist/conservative Turk this is a case of 'guilt by association.' They won’t even try to find a dividing line between 'good and bad Jews.’"
Propaganda versus truth
In other words, according to Mr. Bekdil, secular Turks don't despise the Jews categorically, while all Islamic Turks, including even the "mild" ones, are full of hatred against them.
No, not at all. I can show dozens of columns that appeared in the Islamic/conservative side of the Turkish media in the past few weeks, which, while denouncing Israel's militancy in Gaza, emphasized the need to distinguish between the State of Israel and the Jewish people. One prominent Islamic pundit, Ali Bulaç, reminded that while the Koran blames the Jews for some sins, it reminds, "They are not all the same." Then he went on to argue that Muslims should respect "non-Zionist Jews, who can be religious, atheist or agnostic."
Personally speaking, I am not even anti-Zionist as Mr. Bulaç sounds to be. I am rather against the militant and expansionist form of Zionism, the one which denies the rights of the Palestinians and suppresses them with brute force.
To be fair, it is true that a categorical hatred against Jews exist in the Islamist camp in Turkey, but that can be observed only in the very marginal publications, such as daily Vakit. If you come to much more mainstream and popular Islamic/conservative papers such as Zaman, you can find only condemnations against anti-Semitism. They, of course, have reacted strongly to what Israel has done in Gaza, but that is a legitimate reaction.
"It is unreasonable and unfair to assume that opposition to Zionism or criticism of Israeli policies and actions," reminds Bernard Lewis, "is an expression of anti-Semitic prejudice." (Lewis, Semites & Anti-Semites, 1997, p. 20.)
But what about the wonderful, open-minded "secular Turks" that Mr. Bekdil was presenting to us as people who are always "programmed to think that anti-Semitism is a bad thing"?
That is again a line of propaganda, not truth. The secular camp in Turkey includes secular nationalists (known as "ulusalcılar" in Turkish) who are the proponents of all sorts of racism and xenophobia. They hate Kurds, Armenians, Greeks, Europeans, Americans, and, of course, Jews.
One of the craziest figures in that camp, retired Col. Fikri Karadağ, formed a secret brotherhood in Mersin in 2005 whose members took oaths swearing, "there is no Jewish blood in meÉ I am ready to kill and to be killed for Turkishness."
Another ulusalcı, Ergün Poyraz, wrote anti-Semitic bestsellers that portrayed Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gül as secret Jews collaborating with the "Elders of Zion" to undermine Atatürk’s Republic. Both of these eccentric figures are now on trial in the Ergenekon case, which is about a network that allegedly has tried to provoke a military coup by armed propaganda.
There are more "mainstream" proponents of secular anti-Semitism, too, such as popular conspiracy theorist Soner Yalçın, whose books and articles are full of paranoia about "covert Jews" in Turkey and how they have supposedly infiltrated everywhere.
Back to the Ottomans
The history of anti-Semitism in this country will also give us a much more different picture that Mr. Bekdil would have you believe. As starters, there is one thing which is certain: The Ottoman Empire was not anti-Semitic at all. In fact, that last Islamic superpower of the world acted as a benign protectorate for the Jews, since it welcomed them after their expulsion from Spain in 1492.
When the first blood libel in the Middle East erupted in Damascus in 1840, by the hand of the fanatically anti-Jewish French consul at the city, Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid issued an edict which denounced the madness. "For the love we bear to our subjects," said the Sultan, "we cannot permit the Jewish nation, whose innocence for the crime alleged against them is evident, to be worried and tormented."
The love affair between the Ottomans and Jews continued until the very end. Unlike the Christian peoples of the empire, who launched national uprisings one by one, the Jews, who had no territorial claims, remained loyal to the Sultanate. While the Ottoman army was resisting against the Russian advance in the Balkans, prayers were held in Istanbul synagogues for the victory of the former.
Things would change, though, after the foundation of the Turkish Republic, whose nationalist ideology would bring in distrust against all minorities. And the Jews would find themselves much less secure in this secular republic than they did in the Islamic empire. That irony will be the focus of my next column.
7 Şubat 2009
In 1982, a very bizarre punishment was given to a Turkish politician Şerafettin Elçi by "Turkish justice." He was sentenced to serve four years and seven months in prison for a single sentence that he uttered. His crime was not to insult Turkishness, the Turkish military, or even Atatürk. His only crime was to say, "there are Kurds in Turkey and I am a Kurd." It sounds insane, right? Well, it did not sound so to the Turkish Republic since its founding in 1923. It was created from the ashes of the multireligious, multiethnic Ottoman Empire, which had fallen victim to national uprisings. Thus, the Republic’s founders thought, ethnic identities other than those of the dominant Turks had to be suppressed and even erased. "Our job is to Turkify the Kurds," said İsmet İnönü, Atatürk’s second man, "right away, with no delay." Soon, gendarme would appear in the bazaars of Diyarbakır and other predominantly Kurdish cities in order to force the locals to speak Turkish. And almost every eye-catching spot in eastern cities were covered with Atatürk’s famous motto: "How happy is the one who says, I am a Turk."
Assimilation and resistance
Yet most Kurds never felt happy by saying so. If you visit Diyarbakır, you can see a telltale scene of their rejection on the big wall of the big military garrison that rises in the middle of the city. The wall presents that same motto -- "how happy is the one who says, I am a Turk" Ñ but it is covered and protected with a high barbed-wire wall which was apparently built to protect the garrison from stones and bombs. It is an ironic sign of the policy of forced assimilation that Turkey carried out on its Kurdish citizens, only to receive a violent backlash.
But, alas, things have been changing recently -- and changing very fast. As early as 1990s political leaders such as the then prime minister Süleyman Demirel conceded "the Kurdish reality." Thanks to a more liberal prime minister and president, Turgut Özal, the ban on Kurdish music was lifted. In the 2000s, due to the European Union-related reforms, the ongoing democratization and the new elites in power, bans and restrictions started to vanish one by one. Kurdish language courses were allowed in 2005 and restrictions on broadcasting in Kurdish were minimized. Soon, the government promises, institutes of "Kurdology" will be opened in Turkish universities.
The most symbolic and game-changing of these steps, though, was the opening of a 24-hour language channel by the TRT, Turkish’s official TV and radio institution. The new "TRT-6" (TRT-Şeş in Kurdish) was launched on Jan. 1, and since then I have been following the reactions it receives. Most Kurds on the street seem to be happy with this first official approval of their language by the state which suppressed it for decades. A friend of mine, Mehmet Ulaş, 20, who lives in Istanbul but originally a native of a village near Diyarbakır, explained this to me in a letter in which he wrote:
"After the opening of the channel, I called my mother and grandmother in Diyarbakır, who both cannot speak Turkish. ’This has been very good, son,’ they said. Apparently the channel impressed them more than us. I recall that when I was a teenager, I would watch Turkish TV thanks to my education in school. I would laugh or feel sad according to the content. Then my mother and grandmother would ask, ’what is happening son, what is on TV?’ We had to translate the words on television into Kurdish. ’I don’t need your translation son anymore,’ said my mother to me on the phone. ’Now I understand.’ It was really a nice thing to hear."
What is crucial here is that by TRT-6, the Turkish state gives its Kurdish citizens not just a channel of news and entertainment. It also gives them a sense of recognition and respect. These are the very principles that it should have followed since its beginning, but it took eight decades to see that.
Nationalists on both sides
No wonder those who keep on thinking in the old paradigm have opposed TRT-6. Interestingly they come from the nationalists of both sides -- Turkish and Kurdish. On the former side, the two main opposition parties, the People’s Republican Party, or CHP, and the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, spoke out against the official Kurdish channel. The leader of CHP, Deniz Baykal, whose illiberal nationalism does not surprise us anymore, announced, "the state should not support any ethnic efforts." He obviously does not realize that the state indeed needs to take affirmative action to show respect to the Kurdish culture, which it thoughtlessly suppressed for decades.
The other nationalists were on the Kurdish side. Spokesmen for the outlawed PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, went as far as denouncing the channel as "guard TV," a reference to the "village guards," the anti-PKK Kurds who were armed by the Turkish state as a counter-insurgency force. Speakers for the Democratic Society Party, or DTP, which looks like the political wing of the terrorist PKK, were again not supportive toward the channel. The truth is that both Turkish and Kurdish nationalists are not happy with the idea of a multicultural, multiethnic Turkey, which undermines their opposing but actually very similar ideologies. That’s why they didn’t like TRT-6, and that’s why it was a very right step to be taken.