Thursday, April 10, 2008

Who Are These Young Civilians?

A campaign poster for Aliye Öztürk's presidential bid, an imaginary candidate the Young Civilians created to comment about the secular guard's opposition to Gül. Öztürk is the military's worst nightmare: a devoutly religious female university professor who is Kurdish, Armenian, and Allewite, and whose türban fashion spells "political troublemaker." The imaginary candidate's bid for the presidency is just one of the sassy campaigns the group has devised.

I have been lamenting as of late that there seem to be so very few Turkish young people involved in progressive politics. However, an interview I read in Today's Zaman led me to research a civil society group composed of diverse characters—students, devout Muslims, agnostics, Kurds, young professionals, Alevis, etc.—united by a common belief in the virtues of pluralist democracy. Indeed, I think I am in a better mood than I have been for a week.

So, who are these young people whose very presence so excites me? They call themselves the Young Civilians (Genç Siviller), a name the group gave themselves after they staged a protest against Turkey's annual Youth and Sports Day, an event in which schoolchildren in sports uniforms march diligently in school stadiums across the country. The group objected to what it considered to be the festivities' dreary Stalin-like order. The neo-nationalist daily Cumhuriyet reacted to the protest with a headline that read, "Young Officers Express Concern." The group retorted with online with an aptly titled statement, "The Young Civilians Are Uncomfortable."

Another American told me a month ago that Turks don't understand sarcasm. The Young Civilians prove this a total fallacy. Since the first protest, the Young Civilians have staged a number of creative and bitterly sarcastic protests that exude the dark comedy one might find in a Wes Anderson film. Truly innovative in their approach to politics, the group does not stake out a rigid ideological position for itself, but instead celebrates the promises of pluralism.

In an article from last year by the New York Times' Sabrina Tavernise, Young Civilian İlhan Doğus is quoted as saying,“People are trying to rethink their identity. . . .The one the state gave us is being deconstructed.” I do not know how true this is for the majority of Turks, but it certainly seems to be true for Doğus and his cohorts. State education and ideas ingratiated from birth as to what a Türk should be often promote a de-humanizing singularity, what the group considers a state-given identity that is inconsistent with the reality of the country's diversity, anathema to human dignity and personal development, and an impediment to pluralist politics.

Some of the young people with whom I have talked complain about the rigidity of the public education system and the lack of excitement for genuine learning or critical thinking. From their descriptions of school (which includes university), Turkish education is about passing tests, not learning. I imagine there is also a good bit of state indoctrination involved. One person confided in me that he thought education paralleled Turkey's larger political culture and the "beliefs given to children in the first day of school." I cannot comment as to how common is his experience, but such dogmas most certainly bleed into politics and are worth exploring.

Below is the interview from Today's Zaman as well as other links related to the group.
Turkey Moving From Oligarchy to Absolute Monarchy, Says Oğur

Turgay Oğur, a representative from the Young Civilians -- a Turkish NGO noted for its use of sarcasm in protests -- says recent developments, including the ongoing closure case against the ruling party and last year's "367 criterion," introduced to the presidential election process with the result that the ballot in Parliament was made unusually difficult, show that Turkey currently has an oligarchic power structure.

"The Constitutional Court, as we have found out, has turned out to be a supervisory body over the Parliament," Oğur says in an interview for Monday Talk. "If the court overturns the legislation on the freedom to wear the headscarf at universities and if it decides to close down the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), it will be proven that this is an absolute monarchy," he says.

The Young Civilians, a group of "private citizens" from diverse backgrounds, states that it was established to demand change for more democracy. Rejecting the wearing of the "uniforms of anyone," they started as a group of students and began holding protests in the early years of the new century.

For Monday Talk, Oğur explains how the Young Civilians got their name and why they are “uncomfortable” with the way things are in Turkey.

Your organization came into the limelight with its criticism of the May 19 Youth and Sports Day celebrations. How did this happen?

We had a gathering at Parliament on May 19 in 2003. We have long desired to free the youth festivities from the way they are celebrated in stadiums where young people have not been treated as individuals, but as part of a planned organization. They have been seen as objects, not subjects. As we have been trying to give this message, newspapers wrote several stories about us. We did not even have a name at the time.

Then came a story in the Cumhuriyet daily about ‘young officers,’ right?

Yes, the newspaper wrote that the young officers were uncomfortable with a few things in the country, including our May 19 campaign. Later, in 2006, we wrote an unprecedented text about the Kurdish issue. We titled it “The Young Civilians are Uncomfortable” and it was highly debated, so whenever we were referred to later on, we were described as the group that wrote the text of “The Young Civilians are Uncomfortable.”

And you have a pair of sneakers in the logo, as opposed to the military boots of the young officers…

Yes, we found this symbol on an ad hoc basis. In the Cumhuriyet article I mentioned, they had military boots displayed next to the story. We thought of an object contrary to the military boots and close to the hearts of young civilians and found a pair of sneakers most appropriate as a symbol.

Your messages have been perceived as very political, yet also quite democratic. How do you get rid of your prejudice?

We listen to our consciences. Each of us has a background that shapes us to a degree, but we also have our consciences, which guide us. That brings us together.

Do you receive any negative reactions at the university -- or outside -- because of what you do and how you do it?
We have people coming from different backgrounds and we have a mixed profile. We have ordinary-looking people doing extraordinary or somewhat unexpected things. This is unusual for many people and they have difficulty labeling us.

For example?

When it comes to the headscarf issue, our most fervent supporter of headscarf freedom is a woman who describes herself as an agnostic. She surprised all of her instructors and students at the Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ). So, because of this fact, people have a delayed reaction and we have many times proven that preliminary opinions were wrong.

Why would an agnostic defend headscarf freedom?

Actually, there is no need to do this, but it is a requirement of taking a democratic stand in Turkey. The headscarf is an issue of basic freedoms. I cannot say, “You’re going to be against me if I don’t look like you tomorrow, so I should oppose your headscarf today.” I should not say that because, if you do such a thing tomorrow, I can deal with it then. I cannot side with those who want to restrict the freedom to wear a headscarf because I think it would not be ethical. This would be like a father who beats up his daughter “pre-emptively” so that she will not do anything “wrong” or anything he doesn’t approve of. This is a pathological approach.

You are a relatively small group, but your activities make it to the media easily. How do you manage to get organized so easily and project your messages?

We mainly communicate through e-mail. We use lots of humor. We follow daily developments in the country. When the talk in the country was about higher education entrance exams (the Student Selection Exam, ÖSS) one week, there was no use in going to the seaside to protest pollution. At the time, we prepared ironic test questions to help the distressed students get through trying to pass the exam.

Do you have ambitions to become a bigger organization or do you plan to be involved in politics in a party format in the future?

We don’t think spreading out with lots of branches is a good use of our time. We focus on production and on our activism. We have events organized by different members of the group. We have an anarchist makeup. One of our members has organized a visit to İstanbul by Italian Prosecutor Felice Casson [who discovered the existence of Operation Gladio, a NATO stay-behind paramilitary force left over from the Cold War] and another member organized a workshop about Kurdish culture called “Let’s be Kurdish.”

When is Felice Casson coming?

He will be speaking at [İstanbul] Bilgi University on April 26.

And could you be Kurdish?

We have realized that we don’t know as much about Kurdish culture as we know about, say, Japanese culture, even though Kurds have been quite Turkish in that sense. We wanted to learn about their cooking, their language and their songs. We memorized Kurdish songs and we cooked Kurdish dinners. Basically, we wanted to end our ignorance about Kurdish ways. At the end of the workshop, we will go to Diyarbakır on May 3 and try to address people in the Kurdish language. Unfortunately, lots of bridges have been burnt between Kurds and Turks in Turkey. Ours is an effort to walk on a small wooden passage. But, small or big, much needs to be done in that regard.

How have you reacted to the closure case against the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP)?

Very strongly. We applied for permission to read our message to the DTP group in Parliament, but at the time visitors were not being accepted to Parliament.

A recent event at Akdeniz University has been making headlines. Do you think the man who was allegedly involved in a shooting spree at the campus was an agent provocateur?

These types of provocations have been tried several times before. Universities are appropriate for these activities because young people can get energized and get organized pretty quickly. In the past such incidents grew out of proportion and led to polarization, big clashes and, eventually, military coups. But we don’t want to watch the same film over and over again. Look at the actor they used. He is like a comic figure. He is like a Swiss Army knife. There is something for everybody in him. He has an Islamic beard; he has a symbol on his forehead that Alevis use; he is linked to ultra-nationalists; he is also like a bodyguard. This is all related to how authoritarian the higher education institutions are in Turkey and how the country’s youth has been perceived.

You see universities as lumber manufacturing plants, if I’m not mistaken?

Universities are lumber factories. This is the role the regime finds appropriate for them. You put different sizes of logs onto the chopping table and cut the standard sizes needed according to the demands of the country. This type of uniform production creates a human model that follows orders -- it does not matter whether it’s coming from right or left or center -- without thinking, and this human is ready to fight when called to duty. There is no creativity, no pluralism and no freedom of thought at universities. The pictures we have seen at Akdeniz University campus are not absurd under these circumstances. And it happens in Antalya, which has a governor who allegedly has relations with deep-state figures.

So it is not by accident that student clashes happen in Antalya…

Yes, plus the president of the university [Mustafa Akaydın] has been elected to head the Inter-university Board [ÜAK], which is a body that supports the status quo. He has been known for his fervent opposition to headscarf-wearing students at universities. Akdeniz University has a modern campus and lots of security. How armed students could enter the campus is quite questionable. Apparently, somebody turned his head and looked the other way.

A few days after Chief Prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalçınkaya of the Supreme Court of Appeals asked Turkey’s highest court to shut down the AK Party over its alleged anti-secularism, your group filed a complaint against him with the Supreme Court of Appeals. Do you expect to obtain results from this complaint?

In the Şemdinli case, because there was a mention of the top general’s name in the indictment, the prosecutor was disbarred. The reason shown for his punishment was a supposed technical error he had made in the indictment. According to the Constitution, the president cannot be accused of any crime except treason. Yalçınkaya in his indictment went against the Constitution and wanted the president banned from politics [along with some senior party members and the prime minister]. Ours was a symbolic appeal against this. I don’t think we will get any results out of it because we cannot speak of the rule of law in Turkey.

How do you think law is practiced in Turkey?

In Turkey, law has been seen as a safety valve to protect the status quo. But law relates to the rights of individuals. The powerful side is the state, so it is the individual who needs protection for his rights. In the Turkish system the focus is on the protection of the state. We saw [coup general and former President] Kenan Evren confessing this.

Do you refer to his words in promoting the 1982 constitution?

When he was promoting the ‘82 constitution, he said the 1961 constitution made individuals powerful, so it was time to make the state powerful again. This is laughable. How can an individual be more powerful than the state? All powers, including the military and the judiciary, are in the domain of the state.

Turgay Oğur
As a response to my request for a brief biography, he described himself as follows: I am an average citizen of the Turkish Republic who was born at a hospital in this country; who went to schools in this country; who loves this country neither more nor less than anyone else; who does not wear anybody’s uniform; who has no connection with violence; who hates clichés; and who would like to have a long and healthy life. I studied political science at the Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ). I have worked at Parliament, the Prime Ministry and Sabancı University.I am involved in politics not to save the world, but because what happens around me bothers me and my lifestyle. You see, being involved with Young Civilians is an existential need for me. Aside being involved in nongovernmental activities, I write regularly for a few publications assuming fictional identities. I cook well.

Young Civilians' Website / Interview from TDZ 18-6-07 / Comment on CHP in TDZ 1-4-08 / Comment on the Constitution-BIA-Net 12-9-07 / Aliye Öztürk YouTube Campaign Video

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