Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Suruç Massacre: the Tragic Death of 32 activists

Hatice Ezgi Sadet was a student at Turkey's Mimar
Sinan Fine Arts University-she was 20 years old
Yesterday, a massacre took place in Suruç (pronounced su-ruch), a city in Turkey’s Southeastern Kurdish region. The Federation of Socialist Youth were on their way to deliver humanitarian aid to the war stricken Kurdish Syrian border town of Kobane, when an ISIS suicide bomber blew herself to pieces, taking 32 lives, and leaving many others injured.  

Unfortunately, for me, the killing of this group, which was made up of many university students, did not come as a surprise. Over the last year, groups in Turkey supporting the Kurdish struggle in Syria have been targeted both by radical Islamic factions, some who openly identify with ISIS, and by the Turkish government, which fears that a Kurdish Syrian stronghold could tilt the balance of power in the region, giving the Kurds an independent Kurdish autonomous zone not only in Iraq, but also in Syria, causing concern due to their close ties to the outlawed PKK.  

In other words, there is no doubt that both ISIS and the Turkish government share a great amount of disdain for the Syrian Kurds (and their sympathizers), who have been fighting day and night to free Syria’s northern border from ISIS control. In fact, just last month, as the ISIS controlled Syrian city of Tel Abayd fell to the Kurdish YPG forces, pro-government newspapers close to Turkey’s president Erdogan, such as Sabah, went so far as to state that the Kurds were even "more dangerous than ISIS." Even worse, even if there have been recent crackdowns on ISIS in Turkey, just last year Turkey’s Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, avoided calling ISIS a terrorist organization, keeping in line with others members high up in the government (not to mention the claims that Ankara might have supplied arms to ISIS in January 2014).

Suleyman Aksu was a 27 year old English teacher
Since last year's breakout of fighting between Syrian Kurdish forces and ISIS, the Turkish government has shown the least bit of sympathy towards the Kurds who are fighting a long drawn out battle for their homes, and their future. As I stated last year, I never believed it was Turkey’s role to fight alongside the Kurds, however, it did not suffice in silence on the topic, but also set out to demoralize them and their supporters in Turkey. Last October, Erdogan brushed off Kurdish chances of holding on to Kobane, stating it “is about to fall.” In the meantime, in Turkey, those protesting on behalf of Kobane were regularly attacked by Turkish police, while peace activists, such as Kader Ortakaya, protesting on the border were killed by the Turkish army (see my blog: This One is for Kobane). 

Let me be clear, I am not claiming that Turkey is complicit in the attack, but it has failed not only to protect these activists, but also prepared the ground through a continued campaign of delegitimization, treating ones supporting Kobane and the Kurdish struggle as if they were traitors. Not surprisingly, last night in Istanbul, a political demonstration of multiple left parties, showing solidarity with the victims, was violently dispersed with water cannons and teargas.   

Yunus Emre Sen was a student at Ankara University
Making things worse, the current bomb attack comes just as many feared that if the AKP did not reach enough votes to rule as a single party government, Turkey could enter a stage of chaos, with a scenario of widespread violence. Just a day before the elections, a bomb went off at the mostly Kurdish leftist party, the HDP, which even induced more fears for the future. This recent attack will no doubt leave on all on edge about what the future could hold, while no coalition is in sight, with Turkey possibly seeing a new round of elections to solve this political impasse. 

For me personally, this attack hit too close to home as well. As a university professor (and a parent), seeing so many young souls taken was tragic. The truth is, any of these activists could have been my students, friends at bars with whom I would talk about politics into the wee hours of the morning, or ones I march with in demonstrations.

Activist Cebrail Gunebakan was killed; just last year his face
became famous as Turkish police held brutally held mouth
wide-open, as he was detained at pro-Kobane protest
It is perhaps for this reason that with this attack, I opted not to turn the television on, and avoided the gory photos. On my facebook I shared the photos of these three activists killed (and added one more here to the right). Let us remember them this way, and remember the good in their hearts for embarking on a humanitarian aid trip, which was bringing diapers, baby formula, and goods to needy people in Syria.   

Yes, these were not terrorists, and it is too bad that they have been portrayed this way so often in the pro-government press and by the Turkish government. Let us hope that the Turkish government will understand that it needs to work diligently to rid Turkey of ISIS. Sadly, the massacre in Suruç just shows that the Turkish authorities are a bit too late in realizing the real threat this group poses in Turkey. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

My Top Ten Photos of NYC Pride 2015

After eight years teaching in New York, I finally stayed for the month of June, rather than immediately going home to Istanbul and Tel Aviv once classes ended. 

The highlight of the month was without a doubt the New York City Pride. In the past, I have participated numerous times at the Pride parades in Istanbul, and once in Tel Aviv (see my recent blog on Istanbul Pride). However, New York is where it started, with the Stonewall Inn raid, which led to the first Pride parade in 1970.

Luckily, a friend of mine asked me to join in with their group, since in New York to participate-and not to be stuck on the sidelines as a spectator-one needs to be affiliated with a group (see below). In other words, unfortunately, it is impossible just to jump in, which seriously limits the possibility of spontaneous fun!

Much to my dismay, NY Pride is not the protest I imagined, with Corporate America taking a major role, with numerous banks and companies sporting some of the greatest floats and crowds, such as Goldman Sachs and Google. Uber seemed the most gimmicky, sending a message such as "we love gays, use us, and you might even get one of these sexy guys as your driver." Completely insincere.

Whatever the case, I had a great day, and anyone who knows me knows that I love taking photos at protests and parades. So here are 10 of my favorite ones. Enjoy!

1. It was an honor to march with the American Civil Liberties Union,  one of the US's oldest non-profit organizations fighting for civil rights! 

2. While it is easy forget the meaning of Pride, especially with the growing presence of corporate America, this couple was the best reminder how important Pride is! 

3. This group of high school students did not need a float or a car, no loud music and dancing, just lots of energy! 

4. And, then there were the ones that came all decked out! 

5. And, then there were the tattoo lovers.....

6. Don't forget that some are Made in New York!

7. What about the Trojans? (OK, I suppose condoms do count as part of Corporate America, but I give them two thumbs up!) 

8. For a second it seemed we were at the Rio Carnival.....

9. There were cheerleaders as well!

10. The finale: Stonewall! Where it all began! All who passed buty gave the legendary bar threw out a shout in solidarity!

Monday, June 29, 2015

Istanbul Pride: A Day of Teargas and Water Cannons*

*A special thanks goes out to photo-journalist Nick Ashdown for the incredible photos! 

What a disgrace. Istanbul's 13th Annual Pride March was violently dispersed by police. During the last decade, I have been to numerous Pride marches in Istanbul, and remember that almost every Pride starts with police threatening intervention, followed by negotiations, and then police pulling aside, allowing the march to take place. This held true even following the 2013 Gezi Park protests. For this Pride I had to watch from afar, however to tell you the truth I was not surprised to see in my twitter feed of the developments coming from Istanbul.

Pride Istanbul attacked with water cannons, teargas, and rubber bullets

It is unfortunate that the Istanbul governor chose to use the excuse that the march was banned because it is taking place during the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan. Perhaps he forgot that last year Pride also took place during Ramadan. So the governor thinks Pride is insensitive to religious people? Well, perhaps the governor should explain how shooting rubber bullets and teargas at citizens promotes peace and understanding.

Taking refuge on Burger King's balcony

During the last few months, there has been concerted verbal attacks on Turkey's LGBT community by its pro-government press. Just months ago, I wrote about how Zorlu Performing Arts Center cancelled the Boston Gay Men's Chorus after the pro-gov press claimed they were coming to Turkey to "spread homosexuality." Happily, the evening before the attack on Pride, the Choir took the stage as guests at the prestigious Bogazici University. However, the fact that a public institution sponsored the event outraged many pro-gov officials, with Istanbul's Medeniyet University's Rector, M. Ihsan Karaman venting numerous homophobic hate messages on twitter. 

Istanbul's Medemiyet's Rector: Our Universities are not the
place to legitimize perverted tendencies and acts. No to the Gay Chorus at Bogazici University!  

What seems to be happening is that as the LGBT continues to gain support among the Turkish public and politicians, the conservative AKP (and homophobic) government, especially prevalent among Erdogan's circle, are doing their best to turn this into just another one of its polarizing strategies. In fact, it can be argued that criticizing gays among Turkey's conservative base has remained minimal until now simply because it is such a taboo issue.  However, with the HDP and CHP opposition parties actively calling for LGBT rights, silence is no longer a possible option, with homophobic hate speech only growing. 

The Hashtag of the Day: #LoveWins. What part of this kiss do you not understand?

The attack on Istanbul's Pride only shows how desperate the government has become. Just three weeks ago, the AKP was hit with a major blow losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, after thirteen years of single party rule. For now, it still seems unclear what type of coalition might emerge, with the possibility the country could see a new round of elections. However, Erdogan should take note that his hate speech directed at gays did not help his party in the past election and most likely will not in the future. 

Police wear gas masks on as they shoot teargas towards Pride supporters demand right to march. It
was reported that one participant could lose his eye due to a direct hit by teargas canister.

In the meantime, the LGBT movement and support groups are standing on solid ground, so no one should expect the banning of Pride will make a dent in their support, rather it will only strengthen the movement. Sadly, this came at a high cost. Ironically, it was reported that a member of a pro-AKP LGBT group was among those injured yesterday, with a strong chance he might lose an eye as a result of a direct hit of teargas canister. Clearly, he too misinterpreted the government's hands-off strategy and perhaps has cost him his eyesight. Let us hope that next year's Pride will return to its peaceful days. 

These thousands of march goers will be back next year, that is for sure!