Saturday, May 31, 2008

Amnesty International Reports a Difficult Year

Amnesty International released its 2008 report on the status of human rights in Turkey last year. The report observes the persistence of numerous human rights violations committed in the context of increased political instability and rising nationalist sentiment. Documented is a lack of fairness in judicial proceedings, cases of illegal torture and detention, police impunity, prison conditions, repressive acts committed against human rights workers, and continued restrictions on freedom of speech and expression. The report's dismal findings parallel conclusions made by Human Rights Watch when it issued its assessment in February (see Feb. 2 post).

In an interview with Today's Zaman, AI Turkey researcher Andrew Gardner called for the total abolition of Article 301 and other articles restricting free speech. In particular, the report called for abolition of Article 216 of the Turkish penal code, used to prosecute individuals for "inciting enmity or hatred among the population." AI concurred with the prevailing opinion of human rights activists that articles restricting free of expression are used in an arbitrary and often very political manner. Gardner also noted that AI is carefully monitoring the closure cases of AKP and DTP.

AI was harrassed by Turkish authorities in early 2007 when its bank accounts were frozen in January and an administrative fine imposed on its chairperson in May.

The report is quite disturbing and is posted in full below:


In the wake of increased political uncertainty and army interventions, nationalist sentiment and violence increased. Freedom of expression continued to be restricted. Allegations of torture and other ill-treatment and the use of excessive force by law enforcement officials persisted. Prosecutions for violations of human rights were ineffective and insufficient, and fair trial concerns persisted. The rights of refugees and asylum-seekers were violated. There was little progress in providing shelters for victims of domestic violence.

An atmosphere of intolerance prevailed following the shooting in January of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. From May onwards a marked escalation in armed clashes between the Turkish armed forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) led to human rights abuses. The military declared temporary security zones in three districts bordering Iraq in June and a further three districts in December.

The inability of parliament to elect a new president resulted in early parliamentary elections in July. The government was re-elected and in August parliament elected Abdullah Gül as President. In September, the government appointed a commission to draft major constitutional amendments. In November, the Constitutional Court began proceedings to ban the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP).

Bomb attacks by unknown individuals or groups on civilian targets killed and injured dozens of people. In May and October, bombs exploded in İzmir, killing two people and injuring many others. In May, a bomb in the Ulus district of Ankara killed nine people and injured more than 100. In September, an attack on a minibus in the province of Şırnak caused multiple casualties.

In December, Turkish armed forces launched military interventions in the predominantly Kurdish northern Iraq, targeting PKK bases.

Freedom of expression

The peaceful expression of opinion continued to be restricted in law and practice. Lawyers, journalists, human rights defenders and others were harassed, threatened, unjustly prosecuted and physically attacked. An increased number of cases were brought under Article 301 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes “denigration of Turkishness”, despite national and international opposition to the Article.

On 19 January, journalist and human rights defender Hrant Dink was shot dead. He had previously been prosecuted under Article 301. The suspected gunman allegedly stated that he shot Hrant Dink because he “denigrated Turkishness”. An estimated 100,000 people attended Hrant Dink’s funeral in an unprecedented display of solidarity. While a police investigation into the murder resulted in a number of suspects being brought to trial, the full culpability of the security services was not examined. In October, Hrant Dink’s son, Arat Dink, and Sarkis Seropyan, respectively assistant editor and owner of the Turkish-Armenian weekly Agos, were convicted under Article 301 and each received a one-year suspended sentence.

In April, two Turkish nationals and a German citizen who all worked for a Christian publishing house in Malatya were killed. The three reportedly had their hands and feet bound together and their throats cut. The trial of people charged in connection with the murders began in November.

Article 216 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes “inciting enmity or hatred among the population”, was applied in an arbitrary and overly restrictive manner.

In November, lawyer Eren Keskin received a one-year prison sentence for her use of the word “Kurdistan”. The sentence was later commuted to a fine of 3,300 liras (approximately US$2,800).

Prosecutions were also brought under Article 7(2) of the anti-terrorism law that criminalizes “making propaganda for a terrorist organization or for its aims”.

In November, Gülcihan Şimşek, a DTP member and mayor of the city of Van, received a one-year prison sentence for referring to PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan as “Mr”.

Human rights defenders

Human rights defenders were prosecuted for their peaceful activities.

In January, the bank accounts of Amnesty International Turkey were frozen on the demand of Istanbul Governor’s office on the grounds of alleged “illegal fundraising” and in May an administrative fine was imposed on the organization’s chairperson for the same offence. Amnesty International Turkey appealed, but both issues remained unresolved at the end of the year.

In June, three people associated with the Human Rights Association (İHD) were each sentenced to two years and eight months in prison for criticizing the “return to life” prison operation by state authorities in 2000.

Serpil Köksal, Murat Dünsen and İbrahim Kizartıcı were prosecuted for taking part in a campaign against compulsory military service. They were acquitted in December.
Istanbul Governor’s office applied to the courts for the closure of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people’s organization Lambda Istanbul on the grounds that the name and objectives of the group were against “law and morals”.


Investigations into human rights violations perpetrated by law enforcement officials remained flawed and there were insufficient prosecutions. Official human rights mechanisms remained ineffective. In June, parliament amended the Law on the Powers and Duties of the Police, giving police further powers to use lethal force by allowing them to shoot escaping suspects if they ignore a warning to stop.

In April, all four police officers tried for killing Ahmet Kaymaz and his 12-year-old son Uğur outside their home were acquitted. The officers said that the deaths were the result of an armed clash, but forensic reports showed that both victims had been shot at close range several times.

The conviction was overturned of two military police officers and an informer found guilty of the 2005 bombing of a bookshop in the south-east town of Şemdinli in which one person was killed and others were injured. The retrial was heard by a military court. At the first hearing in December, the two military police officers were released to resume their duties.

In November, 10 police officers were found not guilty of the torture of two women in Istanbul police custody in 2002. The two women, “Y” and “C”, reportedly suffered torture including beatings, being stripped naked and then sprayed with cold water from a high pressure hose, and attempted rape. The verdicts followed a new medical report requested by the defendants that did not show “definite evidence that the crime of torture had been committed”.

Unfair trials

Fair trial concerns persisted, especially for those prosecuted under anti-terrorism laws. In protracted trials, statements allegedly extracted under torture were used as evidence.

In June, Mehmet Desde was imprisoned after being convicted with seven others of supporting or membership of an “illegal organization” because of links to the Bolshevik Party (North Kurdistan/Turkey). The Bolshevik Party has not used or advocated violence and the connection between it and those convicted was not proven. The conviction of Mehmet Desde was based largely on statements allegedly extracted under torture.

Selahattin Ökten spent the whole of 2007 in pre-trial detention after his arrest on suspicion of taking part in PKK activities. The charge was based on a single witness statement that was allegedly extracted under torture and was subsequently retracted.
Killings in disputed circumstances

Fatal shootings by the security forces continued to be reported, with failure to obey a warning to stop usually given as justification. However, incidents often involved a disproportionate use of force by security forces and some killings may have been extrajudicial executions. In a number of instances, investigations were compromised when evidence was lost by law enforcement officials.

In August, Nigerian asylum-seeker Festus Okey died after being shot in police custody in Istanbul. A crucial piece of evidence, the shirt he wore on the day of the shooting, was apparently lost by the police. A police officer was charged with intentional killing.

In September, Bülent Karataş was shot dead by military police in the Hozat province of Tunceli. According to Rıza Çiçek, who was also seriously injured in the incident, military police forced the pair to remove their clothes before shots were fired. An investigation was being conducted in secret.

Torture and other ill-treatment

Allegations of torture and other ill-treatment continued, especially outside official places of detention.

In June, Mustafa Kükçe died after being detained in several different police stations in Istanbul. Relatives who identified his body said that it was apparent that he had been tortured before his death. No case was brought against police officers.

Lawyer Muammer Öz was allegedly beaten by police officers while drinking tea with family members in the Moda district of Istanbul. An official medical report failed to show that his nose had been broken in the attack. Muammer Öz told Amnesty International that police beat him with batons and their fists and told him that they would never be punished. Two police officers were prosecuted and were awaiting trial.

Members of the security forces continued to use excessive force when policing demonstrations.

In some of the Labour Day demonstrations on 1 May in various parts of the country, police used batons and tear gas against peaceful demonstrators. More than 800 people were detained in Istanbul alone, although the total number of arrests was not known.

Prison conditions

Harsh and arbitrary punishments continued to be reported in “F-type” prisons. A circular published in January granting greater rights to prisoners to associate with one another remained largely unimplemented. Some prisoners were held in solitary confinement and small-group isolation. Widespread protests called for an end to the solitary confinement of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, and for an investigation into his treatment.

In May, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) visited the prison island of Imralı where Abdullah Öcalan remained imprisoned to examine the conditions of his detention and his state of health. The CPT findings had not been made public by the end of the year.

Conscientious objectors

Conscientious objection to military service was not recognized and no civilian alternative was available.

Persistent conscientious objector Osman Murat Ülke was again summoned to serve the remainder of his prison sentence for failing to perform military service. In seeking to punish him, Turkey remained in defiance of the 2006 judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the Ülke case, which required Turkey to implement legislation to prevent the continuous prosecution of conscientious objectors.

Refugees and asylum-seekers

Refugees continued to be denied access to a fair and effective national asylum system. The Turkish authorities forcibly returned recognized refugees and asylum-seekers to countries where they were at risk of serious human rights violations, in violation of international law.

In October, Ayoub Parniyani, recognized as a refugee by UNHCR, his wife Aysha Khaeirzade and their son Komas Parniyani, all Iranian nationals, were forcibly returned to northern Iraq. The action followed the forcible return to Iraq in July of 135 Iraqis who were denied the right to seek asylum.

Violence against women

Laws and regulations to protect women victims of domestic violence were inadequately implemented. The number of shelters remained far below the amount stipulated under the 2004 Law on Municipalities, which required a shelter in all settlements with a population of more than 50,000.

A telephone hotline for victims of domestic violence ordered by the Prime Minister in July 2006 had not been set up by the end of the year.

Erbakan Pardon?

Former Islamist president and leader of the now defunct Refah Party Necmettin Erbakan might be pardoned by President Gül, although the president has announced no intention to do so. Erbakan was sentenced in April to a sentence of two years and four months under house arrest following his conviction in a corruption case. Under Article 104 of the constitution, he president has the right to pardon the elderly, the sick and the handicapped. Erbakan led Refah up until its end in the 1997 coup and his pardon would infuriate Turkey's secular elite.

Association Council Marks Tense Relations with EU

Foreign Minister Ali Babacan decided to attend the Association Council meeting in Brussels this past week after being assured that the word "accession" will not be removed from the position paper on Turkey's progress with which the meeting will conclude (see May 23 post). The Council basically rehashed what had already been discussed at the EU Troika meeting in May, but Babacan continued to dwell on earlier French attempts to remove the word "accession" and was particularly firm in his demand that EU officials assure Turkey that its membership is being taken seriously. Babacan said, "It is very essential that the goal of membership remains firmly in place. If you remove this, it will become a matter of debate in Turkey where the ongoing negotiations are leading us to. . . . Otherwise, questions like, 'Do we need a first-class democracy or is a second-class, or third-class democracy sufficient?' will begin to come up."

The Association's Council position paper urges Turkey to pass a number of key reforms in line with its negotiations with the European Commission.

There Is No Escaping DHS

From Today's Zaman:
The United States has asked Turkey to join an instant intelligence-sharing network to help fight terrorism.

US Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff discussed the FBI-initiated program yesterday with Turkish Interior Minister Beşir Atalay during a visit to Ankara, officials said. Chertoff is expected to have further discussions with justice, defense and interior ministers as well as officials from the General Staff before wrapping up his visit today.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Gay Rights Are Human Rights

Human Rights Watch released a disturbing report today concerning the systematic discrimination faced by Turkish gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people. Much of the discrimination documented is deeply institutionalized within organizations like the police, the judiciary, and the military.
Many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Turkey lead lives of fear, paralyzed by stigma. When singled out for harassment, violence, or other abuse—still an everyday occurrence for many—they also fear going to the authorities for assistance, and often for good reason: they have long experienced harassment and sadistic treatment by police and dismissive attitudes among judges and prosecutors. Despite reforms, new cases of such mistreatment continue to emerge, as this report demonstrates.

While the predicament faced by LGBT people in Turkey is similar to that faced by this community in many other countries, stringent norms for “masculinity” and “femininity” are particularly ingrained in both Turkish society and the state itself. The endurance of such norms, reflected in this report, perpetuate inequality and promote violence in many of the cases we document.

Every transgender person and many of the gay men Human Rights Watch spoke to report having been a victim of a violent crime—sometimes multiple crimes—based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Beatings in cruising areas, robberies by men or gangs who arranged to meet their victims over the internet, and attempted murder were among the documented abuses.

The lesbian or bisexual women Human Rights Watch spoke with reported pressure, often extreme, from their families. Some were constrained to undergo psychological or psychiatric “help” to “change” their sexual orientation. Many faced physical violence.
The report also includes a section devoted to homosexuality and the military. Although military service is regarded as a basic right and duty for every male citizen, Turkey does not allow homosexual men to serve in the military. According to the report,
. . . it is the only member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to do so, other than the United States, and its ban persists nine years after the European Court of Human Rights ruled against a similar ban in the UK. Specifically, the Turkish Armed Forces Health Requirement Regulation bars people with “high level psychological disorders (homosexuality, transsexuality, transvestism).”178 The commentary to the regulation reads, “It must be proved with documentary evidence that the defects in sexual behavior are obvious, and that when revealed in a military context would create problems.” What constitutes an “obvious defect” or one that would “create problems” is not spelled out.

As a result of the regulation and commentary, gay men seeking exemptions are compelled to undergo psychological and, sometimes, humiliating anal, examinations based on mythologies about homosexuality. Sometimes they are also forced to produce photographs showing them as passive partners in anal intercourse.

A discharge on the basis of “psychosocial illness” also cuts off the possibility of future state employment. Private employers who seek information about potential hires will usually only be informed that the man was “unable for military service,” but even that classification can create a suspicion of homosexuality (or “psychosocial illness”), making employment difficult.

With no right to conscientious objection, claiming to be gay is one of the few ways to escape military service. However, as the report documents, even if one is gay, oftentimes military authorities demand bizarre evidence and medical/psychological examinations that no doubt intrude on a person's right to privacy.
The Turkish ban on homosexuals serving in its armed forces – labeling homosexuality a “psychological disorder” – and the intrusive and humiliating questioning it enables are clear violations of the ECHR. Indeed, Turkey is the only European NATO member to persist with such practices, nine years after the European Court of Human Rights found the UK’s ban on homosexuals serving in the armed forces—and the questioning its armed forces carried out—to violate Article 8 (right to a private life) of the Convention.197 In a strong opinion, the Court found that the UK could not justify its ban, and indeed should adapt similar methods to combat homophobic bullying in the army as it had already done to tackle racial and gender bullying.198 The Court also found the intrusive questioning of the applicants into their private lives to breach the Convention, stating in effect that there was no justification for any questioning to continue once the persons had stated that they were homosexual.
Some Turkish military officials' perverse intrusion into individuals' private lives go much further than the intrusion of the British military into the personal lives of UK citizens.

Also of concern in the report are restrictions on the rights of gay associations to assemble. A court case brought by İstanbul governor Muammer Güler against the gay rights organization, LAMBDA İstanbul, seeks to ban the organization on such legal grounds. LAMBDA has been harassed in recent months as a result of these restrictions.
. . . on April 7, police in the largest Turkish city, Istanbul, raided the premises of LGBT organization Lambda Istanbul's Cultural Center, seizing the group's membership list and other documents. The warrant for the raid cited suspicions that Lambda "facilitates prostitution, acts as a go-between [and] provides a place for [prostitution]."

Lambda Istanbul, founded in 1993, is Turkey's oldest LGBT organization, and has organized small Gay Pride marches every year since 2003.

The organization has been under attack from Istanbul's governor, Muammer Güler, since 2007, when his office brought a legal action to close the organization, claiming that Lambda violates both the Penal Code, as an association in violation of "law and morals," and Article 41 of the Turkish Constitution, which is concerned with "the peace and welfare of the family."
Güler rose to the governor's office á la appointment by AKP party officials and his recent discrimination of LGBT persons raises serious questions about the legitimacy of AKP's claims that it aims to secure human rights for all Turkish citizens. Do these rights extend to homosexuals? Are gay rights not also human rights, too? Most interestingly, HRW affirms arguments I have made earlier that the EU accession process is critical to human rights promotion in Turkey, in particular the human rights of minority constituencies with limited political power. From the report,
The picture is not unremittingly bleak; there have been positive developments in recent years. Turkey today is full of mixed signals. The situation was illustrated most pointedly by the process leading to the adoption of a revised version of the Criminal Code in mid-2005. A year before the new code was adopted, the Justice Commission of Turkey’s Parliament voted to include new language in the provision barring discrimination in a wide range of areas of public life: it would have included “sexual orientation” as a protected status. The move almost certainly came in response to Turkey’s pending application for admission to the European Union (EU).

The move galvanized Turkey’s small lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movement, which rallied in support of including “sexual orientation” in the new law. Lambda Istanbul and the Ankara-based KAOS-GL, its two largest LGBT organizations, joined women’s groups in a 500-strong march on the Parliament on September 15, 2004—demanding the provision be kept, and that other articles used to harass minorities and restrict rights be changed.

Ultimately, the language mentioning sexual orientation was dropped and replaced with that found in Article 10 of Turkey’s Constitution—promising equality “irrespective of language, race, color, sex, political opinion, philosophical belief, religion, and sect, or any other reasons.” This defeat was perhaps predictable—since in late 2003, the prime minister’s spokesman said, “homosexuals cannot be members” of the ruling party: “They can establish their own.”1 However, activists were hopeful because Turkey had seen many positive legislative changes in preceding years, many in order to comply with the EU accession criteria.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Lines in the Sand

The Association Council is set to meet next week to discuss the current state of EU-Turkey relations and Foreign Minister Ali Babacan's attendance is still not decided. The Council meets at a ministerial level and includes the EU President. Babacan's indecision follows reported French attempts to remove the word "accession" from drafts of the position paper the EU is set to release after the meeting.

The recent French attempt to undermine Turkey's accession is not unprecedented. Before the European summit last December, President Sarkozy proposed a committee to which he referred as the "group of the wise." Ostensibly posed as a group to meet about the problems the EU might face in the future, the design was to bear influence on EU enlargement policy, thus undermining the work of the European Commission. Pro-Turkey EU politicians led by Barroso narrowed its mandate. While the group was still formed, it is not to address enlargement issues, much more the accession of specific countries. Nonetheless, memory of the event is strong and rumors are still flying among Turks and the Turkish press that the committee's decisions will negatively affect Turkish accession.

France has sent envoys to Ankara to reassure Turkey that it is not intent to block further membership talks, but Turkish suspicions run high. Another reason for Turkish skepticism is the French proposed Union for the Mediterranean, which Turkey thinks might be a veiled form of the 'second option' for Turkey that Sarkozy promised to French voters during last summer's elections. Angela Merkel made a similar proposal before her election, but later dismissed it and said that Germany's Christian Democrats were prepared to stand by past policies. The Union for the Mediterranean seems a reformulation of the Euro-Mediterranean process initiated in Barcelona in 1995, of which Turkey is a member. France insists that its invitation to Turkey and plans for the Union are unrelated, but Turkey is understandably uneasy about the offer. The French have proved a prime opponent to Turkish accession and Sarkozy's election and upcoming term as president of the European Union do not bode well for Turkey.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Battle Lines Drawn

Yesterday the Supreme Court of Appeals' Chamber Presidents Council sounded off against the AKP government. A statement released by the court accused AKP of attempting to undermine the judiciary and looking to Europe for its solutions. The report criticized the party's submission of planned judicial reform to EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn before it had consulted the Turkish judiciary and asserted that the party's government was trying to inappropriately pressure the Court. Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Çiçek struck back that the court was acting like an opposition political party and EU politicians responded similarly.

Ria Oomen-Ruijten, the European Parliament's rapporteur on Turkey, said that the closure case is not about the judiciary and that the Constitutional Court revealed its own impartiality by releasing the statement. The warning was harsh and accompanied with a statement by the rapporteur that nowhere else in Europe do prosecutors enjoy the kind of power they do in Turkey.

European Parliament Approves Turkey Progress Report, Criticizes Recent AKP Moves

The European Parliament approved two amendments to the Turkey progress report the EP's Foreign Affair Committee approved in April (see April 25 post) and voted to approve the final version of the report. Both amendments can be read as critical of recent actions taken by AKP. The first amendment was pushed by leftist parliamentarians and condemns the excessive force used by police during May Day celebrations (see May 8 post). The second amendment promulgates that much more is needed to be done to protect freedom of expression in Turkey, basically affirming what many EU politicians have already said was quite a lackluster reform that might change very little (see May 8 post and May 21 post).

As to the closure case, the report called on the Constitutional Court to respect the Venice criteria for party closure and affirmed its concern over its impact on Turkish democratization. European Parliament Rapporteur on Turkey Oomen-Ruitjen said that AKP might have avoided the case completely if it had moved ahead with the constitutional overhaul it was planning and remarked that suspension of constitutional reforms was regrettable. Oomen-Ruitjen's remarks speak to EU politicians' utter lack of faith in the judiciary of Turkey to eschew politics, and, yes, while it is sad that AKP did not push forward with the constitution instead of stopping along the way to make a deal that has cost them a great lot of political capital and put the party at risk, what can be done about it now?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A Hooting Owl and More Evidence That 301 is Not Enough

Further demonstrating that Article 301 is not the only statute that restricts freedom of speech, İbrahim Özdabak, a cartoonist for the daily Yeni Asya, is currently facing charges under Article 125 of the Penal Code that makes it illegal to partake in actions that "offend the honor and dignity" of a person. The charges come after Özdabak drafted a cartoon featuring an owl hooting the words "hukuk" (law). The owl seems to personify Supreme Court of Appeals Chief Prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalçınkaya, although Özdabak denies that this was his intention. To see the cartoon, you will have to go to the article because Today's Zaman does not allow it to be copy-and-pasted. The cartoonist is also facing charges under Article 126 that makes it a crime to insult someone in print without identifying the person. The charges provide proof that recent reform to Article 301 is likely to do little to stymie restrictions on free speech.

Apparently, law professor Vahit Bıçak has translated the Turkish Penal Code into English, so, for those interested, it is worth a definite look. Definitely a good resource to have.

AKP Suspends Plans for Amendments

On Monday night, Foreign Minister Ali Babacan told a group of reporters in Egypt that the party has suspended efforts to ush through the package of constitutional amendments expected to change the law relevant to party closures. Babacan told the reporters that AKP is prepared to accept the verdict of the Constitutional Court and that hopefully commonsense will prevail.

The news confirms a significant shift in strategy for AKP as rumors continue to fly that the party is already preparing for opening another party following its closure.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Obama and the Armenian Preoccupation

I had a chat recently with three people each of whom expressed extreme reluctance at the candidacy of Barack Obama because he has moved to declare the massacre and deportation of Armenians in 1915.

The issue is of incredible importance to many Turks who take personal offense when the events are labelled a "genocide." Many Turks refers to the events as the "so-called 'genocide.'" Indeed, a significant amount of the recent disenchantment with Europe can be attributed to Europeans' increasing tendency to label the events of 1915 as a genocide. France has even gone so far as to pass a law last year that makes it illegal to deny the Armenian genocide. Both Armenians and Turks take strong stands on the issue, conduct research into the events, and spend a great amount of time making and responding to arguments over the Internet. (A Facebook search for such groups is quite shocking.) It is nearly impossible to sort out all of the propaganda and labels hurled by opposing sides (see Jan. 14 post).

The issue is also not absent from American politics where a large and powerful number of Armenian activists have successfully pressured the U.S. Congress to pass a non-binding resolution declaring the events a genocide. The most recent attempt occurred this past October and prompted Turkey to recall its ambassador. In the United States, although the October resolution was supported mostly by Democrats, the issue is not a particularly partisan one. In 2001, the Republican-led House at the time passed a similar resolution in committee only to have President Bush ask Speaker Hastert to prevent the resolution from reaching the floor. The Turkish government spends millions of dollars on extensive lobbying efforts to counter an equally, if not more intensive effort on the part of the Armenian lobby.

This brings me back to my conversation. It amazed me that these three people have all concluded that John McCain would be a better choice for the U.S. presidency than Obama based on the fact that while Obama has "acknowledged" the events of 1915 as a "genocide," McCain has not. Despite most Turks strong discontent with the war in Iraq and suspicions of the United States' designs for an independent "Kurdistan," all issues which very much affect Turkish security, the one issue people seem to know the most about is the candidates' stances on the Armenian question. Ridiculous indeed, but food for thought this Tuesday.

Let's Be Kurdish

The Young Civilians (see April 9 post) are at it again. . .

From Today's Zaman:
A group of youth spent their May 19, Youth and Sports Day, in southeastern Turkey, highlighting the unity of the Turkish and Kurdish communities.

"We had a forum in Diyarbakır with university students on the Kurdish issue and are now on our way to Midyat," said Yasemin Demir from Mardin in a phone interview with Today's Zaman.
The group's members spent a few nights in the homes of poor families to learn about Kurdish culture and traditions, said Demir, a 25-year-old woman who works in a bank in İstanbul and is an active participant with the Young Civilians (Genç Siviller), a Turkish nongovernmental group noted for its use of sarcasm in protests.

The Young Civilians organized a series of workshops, called "Let's be Kurdish," that deal with Kurdish cuisine, language and songs and in the process memorized Kurdish songs and cooked Kurdish dinners. The group says Turks don't know as much about the Kurdish culture as they do about, for example, the Japanese culture -- even though Kurds are much closer to Turks in that respect.

"We are finishing the workshops today and having an alternate May 19," said Erkan Şen, 23, a student at İstanbul University's department of law.

Rejecting wearing the "uniforms of anyone," Young Civilians started as a group of students and held one of their earliest protests in the early 2000s. Instead of stadium shows, the traditional May 19 celebration, the group has been organizing alternative festivities in Turkey's various provinces.

"We have a desire to free the youth festivities from the way they were celebrated in stadiums -- where young people are not treated as individuals. I participated in a few of these stadium shows when I was in high school and I know the psychology of the students, ready to take commands and do what they are told," said Rasim Ozan Kütahyalı, a 27-year-old screenplay writer from İzmir.

He said Young Civilians seek to have May 19 festivities be a tool for all youth, whether Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian, observant Muslims or not, to take control of their own future. "To the contrary," he added "young people face an increasingly polarized society in Turkey."

Monday, May 19, 2008

Tread Carefully Young Skywalker . . .

Prominent American neoconservative Michael Rubin's recent tirades (see his recent article in The American) against AKP and endorsement of its closure have affirmed that the Washington ideologue does indeed live in a world disconnected from reality. Unfortunately, Rubin's ideological wonderland is not altogether his own and the space of insanity he has carved for himself does not necessarily have walls. American policy toward Iraq and Iran provide ample reason to be concerned that Rubin's land of make believe might actually leak into the thinking of Washington policy makers, and as with American policy toward Iraq and Iran, infect policy makers' capacity for reasoned judgement in light of the facts before them. One of the most terrifying quotes of the last decade appears in Ron Suskind's account of former Secretary of Treasury Paul O'Neill's short-lived career in the Bush White House. Quoting O'Neill:
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality - judiciously, as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
The "reality" created led to the disaster in Iraq and a similar construction is being applied to American policy toward Iran. With Foreign Minister Ali Babacan expected to make a trip to Washington at the end of the month, it does not seem a bad idea to keep track of people like Rubin, lest they weave others into their fanciful creations. In this regard, Şaban Kardaş' gripping column in Today's Zaman provides ample food for thought. Kardaş is responding both to Rubin's piece in the ultra-conservative publications The American (linked above) and his earlier published piece in the National Review Online (see April 18 post). For more on neoconservative antics, simply search the label "Neoconservatives" at the end of this blog post.

Rubin's world

These two stark pictures of Turkey also instruct the outside perceptions of the positions and identities of the parties in Turkish domestic politics. Of particular relevance is how to ascertain the true pro-democracy forces, hence the allies of the West in Turkey. Michael Rubin presents a very grim picture of Turkey. In an essay for National Review Online, Rubin compares Turkey to Iran prior to the Islamic revolution. Having underlined the threat posed by Islamic parties in general and the AK Party in particular, he advises the Bush administration not to "abandon its ideological compatriots for the ephemeral promises of parties that use religion to subvert democracy and seek mob rather than constitutional rule." For Rubin, "Turkey is nearing the cliff" and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice should "not push it over the edge" by expressing support for the AK Party. In his contribution to a debate hosted by The American, Rubin responds to the question whether it is the ruling AK Party itself or the lawsuit brought against the AK Party that poses the greatest threat to Turkey's secular and democratic institutions. Rubin views the legal case as an affirmation of democracy and constitutional rule. He finds Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's party in grave violation of the wall of separation between religion and politics, disregard for rule of law, suppression of dissent and a policy of placing his own followers in influential bureaucratic positions. Having noted that "both AKP supporters and Western officials unfamiliar with the AKP's record paint the Court's actions as undemocratic," Rubin assumes a self-declared mission to reveal "the dark side," hence his advice to the Bush administration to reassess its true counterparts in Turkey.

Rubin in 'Wonderland'?

This picture of Turkey, however, differs from the one most analysts and Western politicians believe, as Rubin himself admits. Rubin depicts the actors that are perceived as the pro-democracy forces and most likely allies of the West in Turkey by most international and Turkish observers as the dark side seeking to take country down a dark road. For instance, Mustafa Akyol, another participant of the same The American debate, believes that the closure case amounts to a threat to Turkish democracy. For Akyol, the tension is between the reformed Islamists representing democratic forces in favor of Turkey's cooperation with the West and increasingly inward-looking secularist groups supporting anti-Americanism. Akyol is not alone in this analysis, and many liberal and democratic voices in Turkey share similar views.

This reading of Turkey's balance of forces, diametrically opposed to that of Rubin, is shared by outsiders, too. Given that the whole EU machinery has served as the watchdog over Turkish democracy for years, who is better positioned to comment on the AK Party's democratic credentials than the European Union? EU representatives have thrown their weight behind the AK Party. Olli Rehn, European commissioner for enlargement, maintained that "Turkey's tension is between extreme secularists and Muslim democrats." Rehn elsewhere also underlined his belief that there is no smoking gun indicating any hidden agenda pursued by the AK Party. Joost Lagendijk, co-chairman of the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee, attacked Turkey's secularist social democratic opposition, the Republican People's Party (CHP), for its failure to act as a true socialist and democrat party. Similarly, in a recent Washington Post report, Claire Berlinski captures how the underlying power struggle is concealed by appeals to ideological threats to the constitutional order. Having noted how "the secularists here are if anything more hostile to the West than the AKP" she concludes, "Don't make the mistake of thinking that 'secular' here means 'liberal, democratic and friendly to the West.' That, it decidedly does not."

A world gone wild?

Is everybody but Rubin under an illusion? Are the secular "ideological compatriots" of the West true allies of the United States? Just a reality check on the "plot" and evil forces that Rubin paints makes us cautious of his assessment of the forces of the dark side. Differences of interpretation between Rubin and others aside, the factual information he cites is false at worst and unsubstantiated at best. A few examples are in order. First, whereas no sane person would believe that the AK Party sees democracy as a "one time deal," Rubin maintains that for Erdoğan democracy is "One man, one vote, once." Second, the hit man who "gunned down a justice" was not a follower of Erdoğan, as Rubin claims, but an operative of ultranationalist circles, which are, by the way, anti-American. Only recently, a photo of the perpetrator, Alparslan Aslan, with Veli Küçük, a leading figure of the neo-nationalist gang seeking to destabilize the country, was published in Turkish media. Third, nor did the AK Party undertake the kind of purge of the judiciary Rubin claims it did. Fourth, for Rubin the military's declaration of support for the Constitution in a written statement is not a coup. It might be permissible under normal conditions, but what he ignores is that if it is meant to influence a pending court case, it might very well amount to a coup.

Fifth, Rubin also criticizes Erdoğan's "harassment" of Nihat Genç, Serdar Akınan and Tuncay Özkan, leading neo-nationalist figures. Let alone substantiating his claim, he does not stop to ask if the constant accusations of those figures may fall under "hate crime." What is more worrisome, however, he completely misses the point that these figures foster a paranoid nationalism which is by all means anti-American. Indeed, one of the reasons these people are so much against the AK Party is their belief that the AK Party betrayed the country's interests by submitting to the US yoke. If one is looking for traces of anti-Americanism or "Islamofascism" in Turkey, it will be enough to read one of Akınan's columns in Akşam -- for instance Feb. 27, 2008. Interestingly such arguments escape Rubin's radar despite his self-declared mission to reveal hotbeds of anti-Americanism and Islamofascism.

Rubin misrepresents the position of Turkish actors; commits grave factual mistakes about self-declared ultranationalists and anti-Americans, and then warns the Bush administration against anti-American forces and "false information," by pretending to represent the higher ground of an expert of Turkish politics. Can all this be true?

Rubin against the 'dark side'?

There is ground to question the basic thrust of Rubin's argument. One is left wondering: Who are the evil forces, if there are any? And where is Rubin placed in this game, anyway? Let's draw some analogy from the "Star Wars" trilogies, which may help explain those strange bedfellows. In the original trilogy, Luke Skywalker trains to become a Jedi fighter and joins the struggle against the evil, totalitarian empire. The return of the Jedi and the heroic struggle of the rebels eventually bring down the empire. If this is the setting of Turkish politics, and Rubin is with the Force, we would welcome him as either the Master Yoda or the Young Skywalker who fight for freedom.

An alternative story is presented in the prequel trilogy, though: Darth Sidious, on his way to establishing the authority of the dark side of the Force and emerging as the emperor, skillfully manipulates the republic, and most importantly young Anakin Skywalker, whom he lures to become his next apprentice. Darth Sidious, presenting himself as the upholder of peace and stability, uses his secret separatist army of clones to create turmoil, which serves as the pretext for the suspension of republic. Again, if Rubin is one of the noble members of the Jedi, such as Obi-Wan Kenobi, seeking to uncover the plot and prevent the young Anakin from being lured by Sidious, his quest to save democracy is more than welcome. What if Rubin is one of the characters on the dark side, though? The question then might very well be whether he is the master or the apprentice.

Rubin: master or apprentice?

Either Rubin's remarks are reflective of ignorance and naïveté at best -- Rubin the apprentice -- or a deliberate attempt to misinform and manipulate at worst -- Rubin the master. If it is the former, he either lives in a wonderland which does not correspond to the Turkey most reasonable people know of, or he is being taken for a ride by his Turkish informers. The best one could hope is that someone informs the young Rubin about the dangerous path he is taking. If it is the latter, those neo-nationalists who contemplate rallying behind Rubin better be careful lest they are reduced to his clone army. Clones are destroyed, too, when their date of expiry arrives and a new apprentice emerges.

Science fiction aside, the point I am trying to make here is that in any case, Rubin's claim that he is the one familiar with real Turkey needs to be approached carefully. His credibility to serve as the guru for Washington is questionable. If the current, or for that matter the forthcoming administrations, see Turkey as an important ally and are committed to the survival of Turkey's democracy, they will have to choose carefully their domestic allies in Turkish politics. If American administrations are going to be consulted by self-declared experts such as these and their ideological dogmatism and distorted analyses, the best one could say is "may the Force be with them," lest they fall victim to the spiel of the dark side.

Education in the Turkish Republic

Not having grown up in the Turkish educational system, I can say little about the many claims I have heard asserting that Turkish education discourages critical thinking. The general characterizations of Turkish education are centered on its use of rote learning and rigid demands for factual regurgitation. Many Turks my age have told me that public education even at the university level largely conists of memorizing great amounts of material and being able to spit out the information you were given on highly-weighted exams. Mustafa Akyol touches on some of these claims in what is a very polemical column in today's Turkish Daily News.

One of the great benefits of Turkey’s EU adventure is that it unveils some crucial yet often unnoticed facts about this country. Thanks to the accession process, Europeans are taking a closer look at Turkish society, and realizing who is really who in this very complex and often confusing nation.

One particular discovery of Europeans has been that the secularist Turkish elite is not sharing some of their fundamental values, such as democracy and individual freedom. These European-looking Turks are also quite militarist and nationalist according to Western standards.

The curious point is that this illiberal elite of Turkey is also the relatively better educated part of the society. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) is often the political choice of such Turks, and, interestingly enough, study after study shows that the CHP gets tons of votes from university graduates and urban professionals. The incumbent AKP (Justice and Development Party), on the other hand, whose political base is relatively less “educated,” is less nationalist and more pro-EU.

Why is that? Or, why, one might ask, are educated Turks more close-minded?

Indoctrination via education:

To find the answer, you need to realize what “education” really means in the Turkish context.

It actually means indoctrination. In others words, the education system is not designed to raise individuals who believe in democracy, freedom, pluralism or critical thinking. It is rather designed to inculcate all students with the “state ideology.”

Just spend some time in a Turkish primary or high school, and you will see what I mean. Students start and end every week by swearing an oath of allegiance to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, around whom our state ideology has built a cult of personality. “O mighty Atatürk who has given us this day,” all students recite, “I swear that I will walk relentlessly on your path.” The oath ends with a collectivist promise of sacrifice: “Let my existence be a gift to Turkish existence!”

The education system, which constantly praises the “Turkish existence,” curiously says nothing about the existence of other ethnic identities in Turkey. The society is portrayed as a homogenous entity. The Kurds and other groups are never mentioned, and when you finish your education, you simply know nothing about them.

Ah, sorry, actually the term “Kurd” exists in Turkish textbooks at least only once: You are told about the Kürt Teali Cemiyeti (Society for the Advancement of Kurdistan), which, supposedly, collaborated with our enemies during the War of Liberation. So, when you graduate from high school, the only image you have in mind about Kurds is that they are a shadowy group of “traitors.”

Actually the whole education system gives you the impression that everybody except the Kemalists are traitors. The War of Liberation, which was in fact a popular national resistance against occupation, is portrayed as if it were only carried out by the ancestors of today’s CHP. Sufi orders – let alone the Kurds and “the Arabs” – are depicted as internal enemies bought by the British and other allies. This propaganda is carried out by a conventional method: Selective usage of facts. There were just a few Sufi leaders, Kurdish groups or Arab tribes who indeed collaborated with the occupiers. But the students are told only about these ones, not the others who constituted the majority.

The system is very proud of itself. The Ministry of National Education officially notes that its aim is to “raise generations who are loyal to principles and revolutions of Atatürk.” The Higher Education Board (YÖK), which runs all universities, just reiterates the same goal. But among these “principles and revolutions,” concepts such as democracy or individual freedom simply do not exist. You can’t blame Atatürk for that, because in his time, other ideas such as “statism” were popular and he naturally embraced them. Yet, times have changed, whereas the system stays untouched.

The lack of individual freedom as a value in this whole doctrine is really interesting. I actually recall that when I was a kid, I could not make a distinction between the terms “independence” (bağımsızlık) and “freedom” (hürriyet), and rather used them interchangeably. The reason was that the education system had told me that we all became free with the founding of the independent Turkish Republic in 1923. Whether that republic has granted us the citizens freedom was a question that was remarkably ignored. What really mattered was the freedom of our state from foreign powers. Our own freedom was not a value worth mentioning.

Just another brick in the wall:

Now, this is how the Turkish system “educates” its people. Citizens, as Pink Floyd once put it, are supposed to be just another brick in the wall. And many of them do become so. Or at least they carry the traces of the decades-long indoctrination. That's why quite many Turks, who are otherwise smart and reasonable people, will go irrational when you start to question the national myths of nationalism or ultra-secularism.

Of course, there are also many people who have gone outside the box. There are, first of all, the self-declared liberals who have realized that the system is authoritarian and it needs to be liberalized. They are influential, but very tiny. Moreover, other elites, the Kemalist ones, see them as either naïve or treacherous.

The much larger parts of society who have not bought into the Big Lie are those whose very identities were suppressed by it: The conservative Muslims and the Kurds. It is no accident that the political parties which represent these groups, the AKP and the DTP, are much more reformist and pro-EU than others. And, again, it is no accident that these two parties are right now on the death row of the Constitutional Court, whose mission is to protect “the regime.”

One problem with the Kurdish side here, of course, is the terrorism of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which creates yet another obstacle to democratization. The conservative side, on the other hand, is not only free from such a violent tradition, but is also growingly moderate, democratic and globalist.

Therefore, the only way out for Turkey remains what it has been since the times of Turgut Özal and the first period of the AKP: Liberal democracy promoted by the EU, articulated by the liberals, and supported by the conservatives. Even if the AKP is closed, this momentum will go on under another party. And the Kurds will be much better off if they jump onto this train instead of playing Che Guevara in the mountains of the southeast.

As the potential of the illiberal elite to accept liberal democracy, though, I am not very optimistic. As evidenced by their unbelievably reactionary stance, their minds are just too “educated” to breach.
For more on Turkish education, see Nicole Pope's recent columns in Today's Zaman:

"A Window of Opportunity" (25.3.08)

"Changing Perceptions" (28.3.08)

See also my thoughts last week on political participation (May 13 post).

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Rapporteur Suggests Constitutional Court Should Dismiss Türban Appeal

Constitutional Court rapporteur Osman Can recommended in his report released Friday that the court should dismiss an appeal brought before it by CHP claiming that the türban amendments passed in February are unconstitutional and in violation of Article 2's construction of secularism. Although his recommendations are not binding, Can said that the court can only review the case on procedural grounds and cannot come to a decision as to its substance. The significance is that the rapporteur directs the court to avoid consideration of the amendments' harmony with Article 2. Article 148 of the Constitution pertaining to its amendment stipulates that the Court can review amendments only when they directly or indirectly controvert other constitutional provisions. Can's report belies the charge that the amendments are in contradiction to Article 2. A legal analysis follows in Today's Zaman.

Erdoğan Can Run As An Independent?

From Today's Zaman:
If the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) is unsuccessful in defending itself against a closure case at the Constitutional Court, its members can still run in general elections as independent deputies, according to a report in yesterday's Star daily.

Columnist Şamil Tayyar reported the claim yesterday on the basis of a conversation he had with the head of the Supreme Election Board (YSK).
The AK Party, re-elected to power with a solid mandate of 47 percent on July 22 of last year, is facing a closure case filed by a state prosecutor who claims that the party has become a "focal point for anti-secular activity." The prosecutor is also demanding that 70 AK Party members and former AK Party member President Abdullah Gül be banned from holding political party membership for the next five years.

In his column Tayyar wrote that YSK President Muammer Aydın had told him there were no legal obstacles to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or any other party member running in the next general election as an independent candidate. Underlining that Article 69 of the Constitution, which regulates political party closures, clearly states that no actual political ban is imposed on party members whose parties are shut down, Aydın noted that a ban only forbade such individuals from holding membership in political parties.
Caught in the clutches of the closure case, AKP is most certainly moving in the direction of accepting closure, regrouping, and running for elections in a slightly modified party bearing a new name. In the likely events that Erdoğan and other members are banned from politics, which in many ways is the key objective of the party's opponents, the suggestion that these politicans can run again as independents becomes very significant. The legal technicalities of this are still unclear to me, but I am sure there will be plenty to come as AKP moves to accept closure as a foregone conclusion.

More as it happens . . .

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Listening to Human Rights Activists

The pro-government paper Today's Zaman should be applauded for running a story critical of Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Çiçek. At yesterday's meeting of the Prime Ministry's Human Rights Coordination Councik, Çiçek left the room shortly after giving his remarks rather than staying and listening to and conversing about the concerns of the human rights activists with whom he was meeting. The activists are concerned with an increase in the number of documented torture cases and were intent to urge Çiçek to move forward with the new constitution currently stalled.

Also to its critic, the paper also mentions Hüsnü Öndül, chairman of the Human Rights Association (İHD). Öndül criticized AKP for not working closer with human rights groups and recalled the now defunct Prime Ministry's Human Rights Consultation Board. The Board stopped meeting after Professor Baskın Oran and İbrahim Kaboğlu were prosecuted under Article 301 for a report they published on the rights of non-Muslim minorities in Turkey.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Türk Says DTP Is Ready to Turn Against the PKK

From Today's Zaman:
Democratic Society Party (DTP) leader Ahmet Türk has expressed the opinion that the armed struggle of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) hurts the Kurdish people.

The Web site of the Iraqi Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, reported on Wednesday that Türk had said the PKK had blocked the first step for a peaceful resolution to the Kurdish problem. “If a step is taken [toward peace], we would then, if necessary, turn against the PKK,” Türk said, marking a strict shift from the pro-Kurdish DTP’s long-held stance that it would not condemn the PKK. “I am personally saying this openly. The armed struggle of the PKK is hurting the Kurds. It is giving the military the upper hand,” he said, in comments after a meeting with the Iraqi president. Türk said as long as the Turkish government was ready to take steps toward recognizing the Kurdish identity and the Kurdish language, his party would fight to put an end to the armed clashes between the PKK and the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK).

“If the state persists in solving this problem with military measures, we cannot do anything. If they bring a political solution and project and if the PKK does not stop fighting, then we too would turn against the PKK.” He claimed that just like the DTP, the PKK also expected the state to devise a project that would end the Kurdish problem.
While Türk's recent statements are laudable and likely to be well-received in Turkey and Europe, it is unlikely that they carry much weight within the DTP. The party's relationship with the PKK—in particular with imprisoned Abdullah Öcalan, who it communicates with through Öcalan's attorneys—is very complicated, and although claims that the party is the political wing of the PKK are quite unjustified, it will be difficult for DTP to disavow support of the organization.

Despite its terrorist tactics, the PKK still enjoys wide popular support among many politicized Kurds, most of whom seek greater cultural rights, including the right to publish and broadcast in their own language, educate their children in that language, and freely hold assemblies and public meetings without worry of state intervention (see Feb. 4 post). While AKP gained 53 percent of the Kurdish vote in July, a serious blow to DTP, the party is still very popular with Kurds who are not happy with AKP's reluctance to grant greater cultural rights, and indeed, suspicious of AKP (see March 10 post). This discontent has been growing as AKP has shown itself to be less sympathetic to the cause of securing Kurdish cultural rights in the past few months, and in some instances, has directly or indirectly supported state repression. Newroz scenes from Van and Hakkari are not easily forgotten, and neither are the many cases currently pending against DTP politicians and Kurdish activists.

By all intents and purposes, there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Türk's declaration, and no matter the level of DTP support, if AKP began to grant the cultural rights it has long promised the Kurds, it would significantly weaken the position of the hardliners who are growing stronger everyday. However, this seems less and less likely since AKP is now embroiled in its own closure case and its promised revision of the constitution—much anticipated by Kurds—now hopelessly stalled.

I am due to arrive in Diyarbakır on May 26 and am much looking forward to discussing the future of Kurdish politics with people I meet so that I might get a better picture of how Kurds feel about the complicated array of political actors all claiming to represent their interests.

KanalTürk Sold to 'Islamists'

From Gareth Jenkins:

The May 12 sale of KanalTurk, the most fiercely antigovernment national television channel in Turkey, to an associate of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has consolidated a growing shift in the balance of power in the Turkish media from opponents to supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

KanalTurk was founded by Tuncay Ozkan, a maverick 41-year-old journalist with a weakness for conspiracy theories, who was regarded by many of his colleagues as having greater conviction than credibility. Nevertheless, Ozkan and KanalTurk played a key role in organizing a series of mass public protests against the AKP’s attempts to appoint Abdullah Gul to the presidency in the spring of 2007. Ozkan frequently accused Erdogan of attempting to control the flow of information in Turkey by encouraging AKP supporters to enter the media, while buying the silence of mainstream newspapers and television channels by offering their owners lucrative state contracts and privileged access to privatization deals. As a result, many of the demonstrators at the rallies that swept through Turkey in spring 2007 directed their anger not only at the AKP government but also at the lack of coverage of their protests in the mainstream press. One of the most popular slogans at the rallies was “Biz Kac Kisiyiz?” meaning “How many people are we?” This was also used as the name of the main website for the protests,

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Missteps (and Misdemeanors)

In a recent op/ed featured in Today's Zaman, Şaban Kardaş assesses AKP's political failures and evaluates its standing in Turkish politics. Under attack by its staunch secularist "archenemies," Kardaş acknowledges that the party has failed to broaden its coalition and seek the support of influential liberal cadres outside its own leadership circle. Kardaş concurs with arguments that AKP should not be understood as an Islamist party, but rather as a center-right party similar to Germany's Christian Democrats. His analysis follows this line and explains AKP's failures to be center-right failures. An excerpt of his analysis follows:
The AK Party's management of the governance problem since the beginning of the judicial interference in politics, however, increasingly shattered intellectual support for the party. The government's handling of the May Day demonstrations became the final straw and catapulted the AK Party into complete disarray. It appears that the AK Party's last refuge, its identity as a center-right party, no longer provides a safe haven. Rather, it has increasingly come back to haunt the party. Or to put better, many of the party's failings are blamed on the features of center-right politics. On the one hand, liberal reformists, such as İhsan Dağı of Zaman and Berat Özipek of Star, charge the AK Party with repeating the usual habit of center-right parties by failing to stand firm in the face of the secular establishment's threats, hence betraying the cause of democratization and liberalization. Left-wing liberals such as Nuray Mert of Radikal, on the other hand, highlight the populist and authoritarian features of the AK Party grounded in the conservative center-right tradition, and attack its rightist -- i.e., neoliberal -- economic and social policies as reflected in the government's attitude to the workers.

In any case, with its last front under attack, the AK Party is riding an increasingly bumpy road, and is alienated in its struggle for survival every passing day. The intensity of the current political crisis and the deliberate attempts of the neo-nationalist forces to make the country ungovernable are to a large extent forcing the party to commit these mistakes. However, this situation also is a result of acts of omission as well as commission on the AK Party's part, which undermine the effectiveness of its survival strategy. The alienation is an act of commission to the extent that the AK Party overreacted to any criticism of its policies and did not tolerate dissent. It also is an act of omission to the extent that it has failed to address the imbalance between its electoral support base and the identity of the AK Party's leadership and party organization. It could not make inroads into wider sectors of society and open its leadership and core cadres to political actors from outside its own closed circle. Nor could it develop an effective public relations mechanism to communicate its position on controversial issues to society. The case in point is the government's inability to explain in a timely manner the rationale behind the government's insistence on not allowing May Day demonstrations in Taksim Square.
While mostly agreeing with Kardaş, I do think the party needs to answer to the creeping conservatism with which some charge it. A new law making it more difficult to obtain permits by which to sell alcohol and other municipal officials passage of restrictions are often presented as evidence. The issue facing AKP is one of resolving what Robert Bork famously called the "Madisonian dilemma"—what spheres of life should be subject to majority rule and which should not. If AKP can come to a working understanding of this problem, than perhaps it can more effectively convince liberals to join its coalition. Further, the party must work to convince the Turkish public that its liberal, human rights rhetoric is sincere and this means condemning police beatings in Taksim Square.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Blood In Its Mouth

More CHP dramatics: CHP Deputy Chairman Onur Öymen has asked Köksal Toptan to send news to the European Parliament that CHP is calling for Joost Langendijk's resignation from his post as co-chairman of the Turkey-EU Joint Parliamentary Commission. Seriously? Apparently, yes. This makes me think that out of all the countries currently holding accession partnerships with the EU, Turkey must be by far the most entertaining.

Modes of Democratic Participation

PHOTO from Reuters

A recent poll conducted by by, a project of the Program on International Affairs Attitudes at the University of Maryland, suggests that Turkish citizens have strong democratic proclivities for representative government. However, most striking was that although the poll found that 87 percent of those Turkish citizens polled support the idea that their government should be guided by the will of the people (a principle enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), an overwhelming 53 percent of those polled thought that elections should be the only time when the government should be influenced by the will of the people.

Respondents were asked whether they thought that "elections are the only time when the views of the people should have influence, or that also between elections leaders should consider the views of the people as they make decisions." Majorities in 14 out of 17 nations asked this question say that leaders should pay attention to the views of the people between elections.

On average 74 percent endorse the view that the public should have ongoing influence and 22 percent hold the "Burkian" view that elections are the only time the public should have a say in the government's decisions.

In just one country do a majority favor the view that elections are the only time the public should have influence: 53 percent of Turks. In India a plurality favor this view and in the Palestinian Territories views are divided.
The 53 percent figure raises an interesting question about how Turkish citizens conceive of democratic participation and representation. In short, Burke wins and Mill loses. However, contra Burke, 83 percent also believe that government leaders should pay attention to public opinion polls when making an important decision to help them get a sense of the public’s views. The country-by-country results indicate that Turks are unique in this position. Significantly, the result suggests that most Turkish citizens do not adopt a purely trustee view of representation, but think that representatives should be continually responsive to the will of the people. A better conclusion can be drawn when both figures are combined: Turks feel the government should be responsive to public opinion between elections, but that input from citizens should be sought by the government and not brought to the government by the citizens themselves.

The attitude that elections are the only time in which citizens should attempt to influence the government is interesting insomuch as it suggests that a majority of Turkish citizens are not apt to influence or challenge their government outside of elections. The implication is that the dominant conception of representation in Turkey is largely based on the idea that the elected representative is a trustee of their constituents and that elections are thought by many to be the key mode of democratic participation. Election turnout in Turkey is quite high and in the July 2007 parliamentary elections was 80 percent.

The poll sampled 17,525 respondents in 17 countries between Jan. 10 and March 20 and attempted to gauge both citizens' normative conceptions of government and their level of satisfaction with their current government.

Not surprised by the survey results, I have to say that I have observed political participation on quotidian level to be quite low. Most people do not join or participate in civil society organizations and community activism is quite low. For the most part, people trust state/municipal institutions to care for their concerns and dissent is kept to a minimum. If a particular policy or procedure is frustrating, most people seem competent and proud to "work around it." This usually means finding solutions on an ad hoc basis rather than trying to attempt to reform policy or procedures so that they might work better for all in the future.

As to daily enactment of political discourse, it is quite low and the sort of lively political argument that might be expected in other countries simply does not occur in Turkey to the same degree. When people do talk about politics it is often in a seemingly distanced fashion. Two days ago I was having a discussion with three friends about their disenchantment with AKP and was struck by the passivity of their resignation. They were displeased with AKP's recent actions in regard to the quick lifting of the türban ban, the policies of AKP municipalities toward alcohol, and the parties recent attempts to save itself from closure, but two of the three thought thought AKP was still the best chance for further democratization in Turkey and hoped that the party finds direction. However, rather than writing letters or telephoning the politicians with whom they are displeased or taking a more European approach to mass politics, all three of my friends were content to simply hope that AKP "finds the right path." Finding the right path is up to politicians, not the people. Like the vast majority of people to whom I have talked, politics is very much something that happens to them; it is not something they personally affect. Indeed, politics is almost like a spectator sport.

The historical, institutional, sociological, and cultural explanations for these attitudes are manifold. Since the 1960 coup, Turkish politics have been organized around political parties. The political parties tend to monopolize politics and centralize political activity in Ankara. The parties themselves are quite hierarchical and often administered by a few top officials and interactions between parties generally occur in the upper echelons of government. Within the party, power is concentrated at the top of the party structure and decisions flow downward, not upward. Parties maintain strict control of election slates and politics within the party is rarely public. As organized political activity outside of the party structure is rare and often held suspect and as opportunities for input at the lower levels of government are minimal, political participation at the grassroots is minimal.

As to politics as sport, from the birth of high-party politics in the 1960s, politicians have become a fascination and their actions a drama. When people do talk about politics, it is more often than not of the politicians. This no doubt has a lot to do with the fact that Turkey's political history since 1960 has been a story of the same politicians entering and re-entering parliamentary politics as coalitions come and go and often with the overhanging threat of a military coup should any coalition move too far out of bounds. These imposing figures in gray suits and equipped with booming voices—some more booming than others—take on all sorts of personality traits that the discussants might or might not find favorable. Courage is always an important trait and hypocrisy the ultimate sin. Stubbornness can be good or bad, depending on the situation, but if accompanied by courage, it is always a good thing. Above all is honesty, and it is no doubt that ongoing problems with corruption put this trait often first and foremost in several Turkish minds. While the political elite retain the power to enact decisions and negotiate with their cohorts in the halls of Ankara, Turkish citizens wait patiently and eagerly watch politicians use these traits like acquired superpowers, shifting in and out of parliamentary compromises and closed door machinations. I don't blame their fascination, and must admit, share it myself. However, it is more often than not an encumbrance to democratization.

Lack of participation between elections also has a lot to do with the fact that when individuals have challenged a government in between elections, they have often been deemed agitators or radicals. The 1980s coup and the violence that ensued in the months after are still very much in peoples' historical memory and I have met at least two people here who had parents who were indefinitely detained and tortured. Following the 1980s, leftist and/or Islamist political activity were seen as serious threats to political stability and the solutions military and police officials imposed were often in heinous violations of human rights and cultivated a climate of political fear that indubitably increased the risks for political activity. Clandestine deep state groups like Ergenekon and the frequent denial of civil liberties are still significant impediments to participation.

Further, on a sociological level, political action requires individual risk-taking. While it is unfair and inaccurate to say that Turks do not take risks (crossing the street can be a serious risk!), it does seem that Turks are very careful to tend to personal relationships and place a paramount importance on family and friends. From talking with people about the role politics plays in their personal lives, it is obvious that the impact of this cultivation and careful maintenance of familial and personal relationships is that rarely do people discuss polemical topics that might cause divisions or weaken these bonds. There is a tremendous amount of sensitivity concomitant with political discourse and I, too, find myself horribly conflicted when talking about politics (esp. the Kurdish question). For this reason, I have found political discourse to be limited in that the sort of interplay of ideas that takes place in argument—especially in regard to highly-explosive issues, opinions about which are often quite categorical and polarized—is simply not a common occurence. The frequent 301 prosecutions of critics accused of "insults" evidence how sensitive political discussion can be and how reactionary some people are in responding to criticism or engaging in debate on a topic in which their view is simply not to be compromised or negotiated. One of the functions of trusting politics to "the politicians" is that personal relationships that might otherwise be jeopardized when politics are at their most divisive are protected in that politics rarely becomes personal, but rather remain a distant a drama in which people differ on their favorite characters.

Political attitudes in Turkey are not necessarily generative of the political system in Turkey, but do perpetuate it. A lack of interest and opportunities for participation between elections is of re-inforced by the risk of state repression that might when individuals and groups assume political roles outside of the state structure and/or engage in speech actions with which state officials are not comfortable. Additionally, participation is much more indirectly repressed by attitudes about personal relationships and sociocultural factors that make quotidian enactments of democratic citizenship a great risk. If I am reluctant of the state's currently policy toward Kurds in the southeast, I am not going to say anything about my views if I think that other people are going to bale me a "terrorist" or a "PKK sympathizer" before they even hear the nuance of my opinion. As risk-taking becomes more acceptable and argument less of a risk, the country will certainly become more keen to discuss politics. Most important to changing attitudes about political participation between election is that as Turkey continues to develop a stronger intermediate sphere between the state and the individual, opportunities for enactments of citizenship will increased and citizens will likely demand more input in politics between elections.

Before concluding, I want to stress that these thoughts are very much rough and developing in my mind. The sketches provided should also be recognized as generalizations and do not mean that significant periodic political dissent does not take place (as with the türban protests) or that there are not a number of activists in Turkey who challenge state institutions and the elected government (and often at great sacrifice). However, it does suggest that for the majority of Turkish citizens, politics is greatly distanced from everyday life and that quotidian modes of participation are basically non-existent.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

CHP Not to Seek Annulment of 301 Amendment

CHP will not join MHP in its intention to seek annulment of the recently passed amendments to Article 301 at the Constitutional Court. Party sources claim they would have reason to take the amendments to the Court if the changes had vested the president with the power to review 301 cases, but as it stands, the bill seems to be in accordance with court precedent. CHP stressed that the decision does not mean that the party is not opposed to the changes.

Turkish Exceptionalism and the Democratizing Periphery

The recent spat between CHP and Joost Lagendijk is embarassing indeed, but what lies behind it is even more troubling. As I have written before, what I find most interesting about Turkey are its many ironies, but chief among these is perhaps the most bitterly painful: in Turkey, it is the once westward-looking, "white Turks" who are most opposed to democratization, the very people who often seem, well, most like "us." In many ways, this paradox might be seen as having tremendous creative potential for how we view democratization, for the modernization theories of Huntington and Rostow are most surely proven false in the Turkish case. Although Turkey's bourgeois Kemalist elite has grown strong and even expanded, the true impetus for democratization is not the further strengthening and expansion of this group, but rather its being challenged. Ihsan Dagı's recent column in Today's Zaman tells the narrative most poignantly (excerpt):
In the EU integration process it is impossible to preserve the old order. The West and the continuing Westernization that comes with the EU accession process, therefore, pose an existential threat to the Jacobin bureaucratic-civilian elite, which adheres to a notion of a homogenized nation and the practices of authoritarian state.
But it was the Kemalists who used to be fans of the West and Westernization. At least we know it as such. Yet what the Kemalists understood by Westernization was merely a cultural adoption of the Western life style for a certain purpose. That is, this new lifestyle differentiated them from the masses, who were traditional and Eastern/Islamic looking. They were the vanguard, chosen to enlighten a nation that was in darkness. Theirs was a kind of "white man's burden." Cultural Westernization was an act of exclusion of the traditional by which a boundary was erected between the state elite and the masses, who were poor, culturally backward and religious. Out of this symbolic oppression, the elite's right to rule was constructed, justified and reproduced over the years.

The West and the process of Westernization, however, gained new dimensions in time, especially after 1999, when Turkey declared itself a candidate country for the EU. They were no longer a means to dictate the rule of the Kemalist-secularists and control the masses.

The result thus was a struggle between the democratic periphery who wanted to end its bondage and the authoritarian center, which was determined to defend its privileges. As the former "utilized" the EU proces s, the latter resisted it on the grounds that the EU process was a plot to divide Turkey in the name of minority rights and undo secularism in the name of democracy.

This meant, for the Kemalist-secularist elite, abandoning Westernization, a process they had initiated. It was wise for them to do so, given the fact that the process of Westernization after 1999 continued on a different path. It involved more political and economic transformation than cultural change. That is to say that Westernization in the EU context meant transfer of power from the state elite to the people. Thus, the public at large and the peripheral forces in the Turkish economy and politics moved in to take the process of Westernization to its logical end: the formation of a liberal democracy. The objectives of Westernization, for the first time in history, have begun to be pursued by social and economic forces from below.
The idea of top-down democratization has simply proved false in Turkey, a country which has long since taken off economically, but whose Kemalist elite seem no closer than they did in the 1950s to adopting fully democratic norms. Indeed, contra the traditional model of democratization, which still seems to be in vogue among neoconservatives intent to remake the world without opening too many books, Turkey has proven that elites can stifle democracy and that democratic values do not necessarily correlate with capitalist expansion of wealth. In Turkey's case, the major stumbling block is an entrenched Westernized elite that has proven itself in the past two years to be anything but democratic. The force for democratization instead is coming from a diverse coalition of factions intent to gain rights from the state and participate in a public sphere that is still very much incipient.

However, it is also an overstatement to say that this force is coming from below. While this is true insomuch as the coalition is outside of the traditional Kemalist elite who have clung to centralized power, but the leading forces in the coalition are themselves an elite that has much benefitted from economic liberalization. Many represent the new wealth that emerged from Turgut Özal's policies in the 1980s while others are committed liberal reformers and members of various groups that have traditionally been excluded from the Kemalist power center. Dagı's reference to forces at "the periphery" is perhaps most accurate in this regard, and it is this group of actors who are the most avid to pursue EU membership and procure the democratic reforms that come hand-in-hand with so doing. The old modernization theory espoused by Huntington and Rostow is necessarily complicated by this periphery and I suspect Turkey is not particularly astonishing in its offering of an alternative narrative.

For more information on the Euro-phile coalition, see my Jan. 19 post.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Internet Speech and the YouTube Frenzy

An Ankara court announced Tuesday that it has restricted access to the video-sharing website YouTube in response to videos posted on the website that defame Atatürk. Since moving here, I have come to expect YouTube to only be accessible about fifty-percent of the time. Luckily, providing proof that technology continually provides avenue to maneuver around state obstacles, a Turkish friend excitedly showed me that I can use a proxy server to get around the ban (people here are proud of navigating their way around law and bureaucracy). The YouTube bans are yet another example of restrictions on the freedom of speech and expression and raise interesting questions about the political dimensions of the Internet.

YouTube bans have been issued multiple times in the past two years in response to various videos insulting Atatürk in one way or another. I wonder if it has almost become a game for pimply-faced teenagers to create a new video, post it on YouTube, and see how long it takes for access to the entire site to be blocked as a result. Past videos have depicted Atatürk as gay and as a monkey. Once the videos are discovered, a court from somewhere in the country will issue an order to Türk Telekom, the only internet service provider here, and access to YouTube will be blocked.

Internet Technologies Association (İTD) President Mustafa Akgül criticized the practice as inane in Today's Zaman.
YouTube officials say they are ready to cooperate with Turkish courts and
authorities to ensure Turkish users’ access to the popular Web site. But Turkish
officials seem reluctant to cooperate with YouTube on the matter for whatever
reason. Turkish courts block access to this Web site without informing YouTube
management of videos considered problematic. I don’t know why they refrain from
cooperating with YouTube. The courts only evaluate complaints from Turkish users
about videos deemed insulting to some values to which the Turkish nation
attaches great importance and block access to the site.”
Akgül adds that shutting down YouTube for the publication of a single video that can easily be removed is tantamount to shutting down a library because of a single book. After a ban was removed in March, YouTube issued a statement saying they had reviewed the videos and removed them because they violated YouTube's content policy. YouTube bans videos that the website considers pornographic or obscene. Clearly benefiting from the advertising dollars the website rakes in, it is not as if YouTube would not be willing to cooperate to avoid restricting the thousands of young people who regularly access the site.

Restricting access to websites is facile because of a law that went into effect last year that gives courts the right to issue court orders restricting access to certain website. Türk Telekom is legally required to abide by the order.

YouTube is not the only website that has been restricted. In April, access was restricted to GoogleGroups, a fact I also learned by trying to access a news group of which I am part. No reason was given for the GoogleGroups ban, but it is interesting in that it is not only a restriction on freedom of speech, but also of association. GoogleGroups is used by individuals not only to post various information, but to engage in online discussions with one another. Other sites that have been restricted include the blog publishing site Kurdish websites accused of broadcasting terrorist propaganda are also frequently shut down.

Restrictions on Internet Access obviously raise serious concern about freedom of speech in Turkey and have drawn the attention of numerous critics. Similarly, increased censorship also calls for questions about how Turkish citizens view Internet speech, which has in many ways revolutionized the means by which various individuals and groups are able to convey political messages. The recent poll by, a project of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, about which I posted about yesterday (see post) shows that 60 percent of Turks surveyed think that they should have unrestricted access to the Internet while 30 percent thought that the government was justified in restricting access to some sites. Interesting is that the 60 percent number is much higher than the 45 percent of Turks surveyed who agreed that the government should not prevent the press from publishing stories it considered politically destabilizing.