Saturday, May 9, 2015

Major Istanbul Performing Arts center cancels event in Homophobic Move

 "Major scandal! [They] are coming to Turkey during Ramadan to spread Homosexuality!"

Earlier this week, on the twitter waves, a homophobic news story hit the headlines. According to the Ihlas News Agency, an American gay chorus was set to come to Turkey to perform on stage, as well as to participate in Istanbul’s annual Gay Pride march. According to the press report, the real aim of the group was to “spread homosexuality.” Even worse, this was set to happen during the Holy Month of Ramadan. 

The story's source was the official press release of an conservative Islamic women's group, BILKA, that released an official statement concerning the event (which was featured in its entirety in the IHA story). The press release is filled with homophobic hate speech that warns of the imminent damage their visit could cause, and that they are expecting "serious steps to be taken to save Turkey from such sin." It did not take no time at all for the pro-government press to pick up on this. and to spread even more hateful headlines:

           "The Perverted Chorus is Coming to Turkey"

Pro-gov Yeni Akit's Headline

It seems that the women's group most likely learned of the event from earlier press reports. In an article on March 24, one of Turkey's major newspaper, Hurriyet, ran an upbeat story about the upcoming Boston Gay Men's Chorus' planned trip. In the story, it quotes Reuben Reynolds, the music director, as saying, "this is our first trip to Turkey and the first time to perform in a Muslim country." When asked by the reporter if he was worried about the reactions, since "in this geographical region homosexuality is not the most accepted thing," Reynolds replied that, "our only goal is to promote our music and to entertain people, not to promote gay life."

Well, news has just come in today that the concert has been cancelled. According to the liberal-left news site Diken, Zorlu Performing Arts removed the event form their site, and also has refused to comment on the cancellation. However, according to the pro-government press it was cancelled by Zorlu Holding's CEO, Ahmet Nafiz Zorlu, who was unaware of the event. It is also reported that the losses will be covered by Zorlu as well. Clearly, Zorlu had caved into the hates speech of the conservative and pro-government media campaign. This is unfortunate since the Zorlu Performing Arts Center has recently prided itself as the top venue for international events.

In the mean time, I have contacted the PR representative of the Boston Gay Men's Chorus and will update this story if she answers my email. Here is a link to the Chorus' original press release related to their upcoming Istanbul trip, which they were going to visit following concerts to be held in Israel. 

The Chorus has issued a press statement in English and Turkish, pressing forward that they will be performing at the Zorlu Center. According to the statement: "On Wednesday, May 13, our representatives from ACFEA Tour Consultants will be meeting with Zorlu Organization and Performance Center to clear up any miscommunication.

With Istanbul's Gay Pride growing every year with protesters from among the local LGBT groups and ones showing solidarity, it seems that the cancellation of the event will only strengthen them to raise their voices against homophobia in Turkey (and beyond). On a cynical note, from the picture below, I think it is clear that the fear that the Boston Gay Men's Chorus will spread homosexuality is a bit exaggerated. Let us hope that in the near future arrangements will be made for the event to take place at an alternative place.

Here is a link to last year's Istanbul's Gay Pride, for those interested in learning more..... 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Long Live May Day! How the Turkish State Keeps the Spark Alive

*for Turkish version, which appeared in Diken, 2 May 2015, here is the link

A common argument among pro-AKP pundits and supporters, such as the Genc Siviller, is that even if Turkey’s road to a democracy has not been smooth, clearly the situation today is better than it was in the pre-AKP period. True, there are the facts that they can pull out of their hat, such as allowing Kurdish to be spoken in the public sphere, and the steps at bringing a peaceful resolution to the Kurdish conflict. However, the “before and after” argument seems nothing more than a farce with the AKP ruling as a sole party for over 12 years now.  

May 1, 2015. Besiktas. (picture from Internet, if this is your please contact me for recognition).

This year once again we were witness to the fact that the AKP will do its utmost to stomp out voices at all costs. Istanbul was placed under its annual May Day lockdown, with a ring of security forces blocking protesters from reaching Taksim square with teargas, batons, water-cannons, and even documented cases of people in civilian clothes taking to the streets to beat up potential protesters. If this is “progressive democracy,” it scares me to imagine what the alternative is, or what the future holds.

The irony is that the draconian measures put in place to block May Day protests, actually have kept the Workers’ Holiday alive to a great extent. Once a day of massive protest, throughout the world May Day celebrations have dwindled; while in other counties, leftists have worked to re-invent the meaning of the workers’ day in the post-Soviet era. However, in Turkey, May Day reserves a special meaning, due to the fact that the wounds the 1977 May Day Taksim massacre have never had the chance to heal, with continued government bans on meeting in Taksim.

New York Times, May 2 1977

When elected in 2002, the AKP was the party that promised to reverse those injustices, to heal the wounds of not only 1977, but the deep ones the 1980 coup d’état ushered in. The party’s sole leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, even recognized this in 2011 when Taksim was officially opened to May Day events-then no struggle no battles were on the nightly news. Rather, what was on the news, were pictures of workers and protesters coming together for a day of song and speeches. Indeed, it was a beautiful day, promising hope for the future.

Peaceful Protests in 2011

If the AKP had allowed Taksim to be open the next year, and the one after that, it is likely today Turkey would have looked much different. What is clear is that the more the protesters have insisted on fighting for May Day, the harder the government hits back. In fact, one could argue that without the major lockdown on May Day 2013, there is a good chance that the country would have not seen the breakout of the June 2013 Gezi protests, as tension had been building.

In fact, following the 2013 May Day lockdown, I wrote that banning it “breathed life into a day that in most countries has become quite marginal. And while the majority of İstanbul's residents might remain indifferent to May Day, they were certainly angered by the closing of the city, the loss of wages and the clouds of tear gas that filled the air. Indeed, tear gas is often fired on protesters in public venues, causing general havoc.” This certainly holds true for yesterday as well.

Now pundits and analysts can argue over why the AKP changed their policy, why has Erdogan opted for polarization rather than reconciliation, and why the government has chosen brutal force to ban May Day over allowing protesters to meet in Taksim. However, it is clear that since 2012 there has been a continuing wave of oppression hitting the streets of Turkey, not to mention the security laws that have brought domestic and international condemnation. Indeed, the future looks bleak. 

In the meantime, and as long as the government continues to unjustly attack protesters, May Day will remain more relevant than ever in Turkey. Yesterday, from the other side of the Atlantic, as I watched the attack on protesters unfold in Turkey, a glimmer of hope struck inside of me. Despite the dangers, people did their best to fulfill their civic right of marching. 

Just hours after Turkish citizens marched, I found myself marching for justice in New York. Despite their differences, at that moment, Baltimore, Taksim, and Palestine, seemed closer than ever before, as the chant Long Live May Day rang out in my mind and heart (stay tuned for pictures of May 1 in New York. Coming soon!)

Friday, April 10, 2015

Racism and Hate in the Times of Israel: A Case of Stolen Identity

Earlier today, a blog posted in the online newspaper, Times of Israel (TOI) quickly began to spread like a wild fire. It was a racist rant, entitled “Understanding the Idea of Israeli Land Under Talmudic Law.” In fact, after reading a few paragraphs I was more irked that the so-called author was calling for religious law to be implemented in Israel that I frustratingly stopped reading it after the first paragraph. However, with all on twitter discussing the level of  hate and racism expressed in the article, I decided to go give one more try. On second look (and even third) it was clear that this text was downright genocidal; in fact, it was so vile that I will opt out on sharing the whole article, and will suffice with sharing the below (it even gets worse than this!):

By the end of the author's long rant it seemed almost certainly that this was the job of a hacker, or as suggested, satire gone really bad. Apparently, the TOI took the piece down almost immediately, but it was shared on an archive backup site in order to create as much damage as possible. Furthermore, due the time difference, with it still in the wee hours of the morning in the land Down Under, it would take some time for this incident to unravel, with the author completely unaware of this malicious hacking attack.

However, by early evening New York time, I received a tweet from the person who had supposedly authored the piece, a successful Australian lawyer, Mr. Josh Bornstein, who categorically denied writing it! What? Yes, you heard right, this case was much more complicated than it had seemed to all! 

So what happened? 

Well, if it was simply a case of someone hacking Josh Bornstein’s blogger account, this might have just ended as another major embarrassment for the TOI, which just last summer was caught up in a scandal when one of its bloggers actually did call for the genocide of Palestinians!

This case ended with the blog post being removed, an apology from the author, and most importantly, the TOI issuing a statement that the author "blatantly breached" the blog guidelines. It also reiterated that it would not countenance posts that incite violence or criminal acts, while clarifying the newspaper's policy towards its open blog platform.  In short, this was a case of a blogger's abuse of trust, where bloggers are allowed to post upon their own discretion. In other words, no editorial team goes over the posts before going online.  

What occurred in the current case is obviously much more damning. It was not that a blogger "abused the trust," or breached the guidelines; nor, was it a case of a blogger with good intentions who was maliciously hacked. It was that Josh Bornstein not only did not write this article, but had never written for the Times of Israel. Rather it was an impostor posing as Mr. Bornstein, a case of stolen identity, in which the impostor duped the Times of Israel’s editorial team, convincing them that he was indeed the well-known attorney. About 12 hours after the news hit the twitter headlines, an official statement was released by TOI: 

The statement ended with the following words:

A Breach of Trust

This incident marks a low point for the paper that went online three years ago and is a clear breach of trust between the newspaper and its readers. It is incumbent upon the founder and editor of the newspaper, Mr. David Horovitz, to provide a account of how this scandalous incident occurred, and to explain what steps can be implemented to ensure that this will not happen again.

For now, I will not ponder on why someone chose to steal the identity of this upstanding lawyer, who seems to be a true mensch. The real questions need to be directed to the Times of Israel itself. Clearly it has failed a major test of credibility.

In fact, this was not the only article that was submitted by the impostor. Almost 10 articles were submitted over the last 15 days, some apparently lifted from Mr. Bornstein's own writings found on the internet (why TOI's editorial team thought he would chose their paper to write about Australian labor laws and taxes beats me). 

I contacted Mr. Borstein, and he informed me that he first learned about the incident after receiving bizarre emails and tweets," adding that "some were threatening." TOI also contacted him early on, and disclosed that the impostor had "made a very convincing application to blog on their site."

Due to the severity of the issue, and possible motives of the impostor(s), Mr. Borstein kindly did not elaborate further (which makes perfect sense because of the obvious legal issues and possible criminal activity related to the case). 

If you would like to read some of Mr. Borstein's work, have a look at his blog and a list of writings (some of which have appeared in the Guardian). You will be happy to see a very different person than what many of us thought just 12 hours ago!

For now we can sigh a deep breath of relief at the fact that this has ended peacefully and that Josh Bornstein is safe since this malicious act could have ended really ugly; not to mention the amount of anguish he and his loved ones have suffered.

For now, we will need to wait and see if the Times of Israel is prepared to answer the real hard questions that remain, in a case that seems far from over.