Sunday, June 1, 2008

Everyone Is Born a Soldier

PHOTO FROM Today's Zaman

Turkish Daily News columnist Mustafa Akyol touched upon another inescapable polemic in Turkish politics when he sympathetically recounted the story of Bülent Ersoy, a trans-gendered singer on the Turkish pop music scene. (Yes, this country never ceases to amaze me.) Ersoy's recent remarks questioning the use of the term "şehid", or martyr, when referring to Turkish soldiers killed in the state's conflict with the PKK have prompted a prosecutor to file charges against her using one of the many laws restricting freedom of expression in Turkey—discouraging membership in the Turkish Armed Services. Ersoy also claimed, “If I had a child, I would not send him to the grave for the war of other people.” Can you imagine what would happen to Cindy Sheehan if she lived in Turkey?

Service is mandatory for all male Turkish citizens for a term that can range from six months (for those with university degrees) to fifteen months. Partly because conscription affects almost everyone in Turkish society and partly because service has become increasingly dangerous due to clashes with the PKK, military service is an extremely sensitive issue of which to speak. Before beginning, I want to say that I have friends serving their terms at the moment or who will be serving come August and share this sensitivity. I also know from the United States' beleaguered experience in Iraq as to how difficult it can be for some people to separate criticism of military policy and actions in which the military participates from support of those serving. Just as it is challenging at times to make a "support the troops, not the war"-type argument in the United States, it is even more difficult in Turkey. However, just as making such a distinction is important in the United States, it is crucial that Turkish citizens stop associating criticism of military actions with a lack of public support for military personnel. Such associations have hindered free, frank, and open public discourse about some of the issues that matter most to Turkey and have been a serious impediment to critical and informed decision making. This unfortunate phenomenon is perhaps most apparent in citizens' discussion of Turkish policies toward the Kurds. Partially as a result of conscription and the military caskets Turks see far too often on television, Kurdish issues are immediately wrapped up with the PKK—often, the Kurds and the PKK are confused as one entity—and discussion becomes intensely personal, difficult, and risky.

Turkey's policy of conscription pervades public life and one need only look to the rituals which accompany it to realize the great emotional intensity involved. Before a group of young men are sent to service, it is typical for a huge celebration to ensue at the bus station from which they are departing. The festivities are complete with young boys banging on drums, Turkish folk music blaring from boomboxes, and plenty of yelling and screaming. Death in military service is for obvious reasons particularly serious. When Turkish soldiers are killed in PKK fighting, they are revered as martyrs and absent is the sentiment behind Wilfred Owen's painfully bitter words, "Dulce et decorum est." For many people, to question why these fallen soldiers died would be tantamount to questioning their honor. If placed in the middle of Anatolia, "Camp Casey" would make little sense to the majority of Turkish citizens.

Conscription has also raised criticism from human rights groups and some European parliamentarians. For an example, AI again criticized Turkey for its failure to exempt some young men for service as "conscientious objectors." However, if there was such an allowance, I am almost sure few would make use of it and those who did would be subject to serious ridicule. When young men think about military service, they consider it a natural part of their human lives and something that must be done before they can acquire a solid job and get married. Completion of military service is prerequisite to entering adult life. Although increasing numbers of young men are starting to return from military service quite critical of the state, the military in particular, criticism of conscription is virtually non-existent. Whereas in the United States conscription is a hotly-debated issue and was the chief reason for the mounting protests that eroded public support for American action in Viet Nam, in Turkey there is little such movement even when PKK violence against Turkish conscripts is on the rise. However, unlike in other countries, military service is an expectation the justification for which is deeply embedded in many Turkish minds. In school, children are taught about the threats Turkey faces from external and internal enemies, and although these enemies are not much talked about, for many they are omnipresent, their existence lurking somewhere in the background. Why do Turks serve in military service? As school curriculum states, "everyone is born a soldier." I suspect this logic probably parallels the similar defensive mentality characteristic of many Israelis.

The obvious things aside about military service being a wonderful efficient way to inculcate people with state ideology and garner support for government policy (in this case, most importantly viz. the Kurds), military service is incredibly important to every Turkish man's existence and the basic affirmation that, yes, he is indeed a Turk.

Thus enters Akyol's column:

Are you familiar with Ms. Bülent Ersoy, the famous Turkish singer? Actually, once upon a time she was Mr. Ersoy, but she had a trans-gender operation in the early ‘80s and said goodbye to masculinity. Since then, she has gradually become one of the most popular divas of Turkey. I personally think that her music is hardly bearable, but millions of fellow Turks, apparently, disagree.

Anyway, recently Ms. Ersoy added to her fame by some controversial remarks about the ongoing war between the Turkish Armed Forces and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). That war has claimed more than 35,000 lives since 1984, and has boosted the nationalist feelings in Turkish society. More than 5,000 Turkish soldiers lost their lives, and their funerals have turned into demonstrations of hatred against the PKK and devotion to the state. Most families who lost their beloved sons during this bloody conflict used to say the traditional Turkish maxim, “Long live the homeland.” This implies that the survival of our homeland and our state is enough of a remedy to the tragedy of the individuals we lose.

Natural Born Soldiers?

And that was precisely what Ms. Ersoy objected to. In a TV program aired last February, at a time when the Turkish military was carrying out an operation against PKK terrorists in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, she rejected the popular rhetoric about “martyrdom.” “Of course, the homeland is indivisible, but why are we sending these youths to death,” she asked, adding, “If I had a child, I would not send him to the grave for the war of other people.”

Those remarks had created not just a huge controversy at the time, but also led a prosecutor to file a case against the anti-war celebrity. And last week, Prosecutor Ali Çakır submitted his indictment against Ms. Ersoy to the Istanbul court. She is accused of “making the public feel cold about military service,” which is a crime in Turkey that will put you in jail for three years.

Does that law surprise you? Well, it is a fact of life for us, Turks. If we think that compulsory military service is a bad idea, or that if we reject to join the military for that we are pacifists, then we are in trouble. We are not supposed to either reject military service or to say anything negative about it.

The indictment of Prosecutor Çakır is a must-read to understand the mindset which enacts and executes these laws. He blames Ms. Ersoy for demoralizing the Turkish military “at a time when our soldiers were in a difficult situation, and the sensitivity of the Turkish nation was at its height.” He then moves on to explain what military service means for the Turkish volkgeist:

“Thanks to the importance and value that the Turkish nation has given to the military, in the public conscious it has been seen as equal with ‘the Hearth of the Prophet.’ The exuberance seen in the ceremonies that people hold before joining the military also shows how the society has embraced soldierhood… The sacredness given to the concepts of ‘veteranship’ and ‘martyrdom’ also reflect the same truth.”

Then, the prosecutor quotes an oft-repeated traditional maxim: “Every Turk is born a soldier.” And Ms. Ersoy’s “crime” is to suggest otherwise. Now the Turkish courts, who are famous for upholding “the state ideology” above anything else, will decide whether she really needs to be punished for her “unpatriotic” remarks.

The bizarreness of all this, I think, is most obvious. The Turkish Republic defines militarism as a principle that all citizens should agree with. It, furthermore, criminalizes pacifism. If you believe that violence of all sorts is evil, and that you should reject joining let alone praising the military, you might go to jail. The state has decided that all Turks are natural born soldiers – and they should better behave as such.

Everything for The State

Another curious point in this state-imposed militarism is that it freely uses religious notions. The terms “veteran” (gazi) and “martyr” (şehid) that Prosecutor Çakır refers to in his indictment, and the Turkish Armed Forces proudly uses all the time, are religious concepts originating from the Koran. But isn’t our republic a very secular one which allows simply no trace of religion in the public square? And isn’t the Turkish Armed Forces the staunchest defender of that ardent form of laïcité? Then how they can justify themselves by referring to the “Hearth of the Prophet”?

These questions take us to the mother of all facts about the Turkish Republic: The highest principle it has is that everything, including religion, should serve itself. In the 1920s, it was Benito Mussolini who promoted the same principle though a popular slogan, "Everything for the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State." That idea, unbelievably, still lives on in Ankara. That’s why our “secular” state can be a great patron of religion if it helps its purposes. It, for example, sponsors the Directorate of Religious Affairs, which has absolute control on all mosques in the country. But if you take a different religious or secular view that contradicts with the official ideology, you are in trouble. Alas, had Turkey had a community of Mennonites, an American Protestant denomination that believe in absolute pacifism, all of them would be counted as criminals!

I don’t know whether Ms. Ersoy will really be sentenced for her thought crime. But the very fact that such a court case can be opened in the Turkey of 2008 is a tell-tale warning. This country desperately needs to de-militarize and democratize itself. The age of Mussolini is long gone, but we, unfortunately, are among the few nations who fail to realize that.

For more on Ersoy's legal case, see the article in Thursday's Today's Zaman.

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