Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Turkish State against Frederike Geerdink*

Türkçe versiyonu için linke tıklayın

As Turkey continues to clamp down on journalists, the Turkish state has now targeted a foreign journalist on what appears to be trumped up terror charges. This week, an indictment was issued against Frederike Geerdink, a Dutch journalist, who has been based in Turkey since 2006, on charges of spreading propaganda via some of her writings, on behalf of the outlawed Kurdish Worker’s Party, the PKK, with her facing up to five years in prison. 

The indictment comes at a time of increased conflict in Turkey’s Southeastern Kurdish region, and the proliferation of state violence, which has steadily increased during the last six months. Therefore, the charges against Geerdink should be placed within the context of silencing journalists who write about Turkey’s decades-old Kurdish conflict, and not within the context of the recent attempts by the Turkish government to stomp out criticism of its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In fact, Geerdink’s thoughts appearing in both international and local news sources, such as the Independent and al-Monitor, or her popular blog, Kurdish Matters, in addition to her work appearing in the online Turkish newspaper Diken, must have sparked the government to take action, in order to put an end to her constant challenging it. However, it must be stressed that due to her status as a foreigner it made the headlines, while many stories go unnoticed, and a long list of Kurdish journalists jailed in the past. For example, just last week 12 students were sentenced to 20 years in prison on terror charges for singing Kurdish political songs on a university campus, while selling a pro-Kurdish paper.

All of this of course is occurring while the Turkish government is locked in a peace process together with the jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, in attempt to end the thirty years of violence that has led to approximately 40,000 dead. However, following the ISIS siege on the Kurdish-controlled Syrian city Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) last September (liberated just over a week ago), when Erdogan clarified that for him Kurdish YPG fighters, who have close ties with the PKK, were no better than the ISIS terrorists, tensions flared. For the Kurds, the comparison between the two groups made it clear that even if Turkey was not aiding ISIS, it was certainly set out on a campaign of demoralization against them.

Further, Turkey’s Kurds became increasingly frustrated at the double standard where in the recent past, jihadists set on joining ISIS have been documented numerous times crossing the Turkish-Syrian border unhindered, all the while teargas filled the lungs of those attending protests on the Kobani border, with the Turkish army blocking those trying to cross the border to join the battle against ISIS. In one of these protests, live ammunition was used, leading to the death of a young woman, Kader Ortakaya.   

The tension exploded however on October 6-7, when the protests turned violent with the supporters of the Islamist pro-government Kurdish Huda-Par clashing with the supporters of the mostly Kurdish HDP, who called protests in support of Kobani. While both sides blamed the other for the almost fifty people killed in street violence and targeted killings, including children, no state investigation has taken place, with it unclear what exactly the was the state’s role (including its void) in the unfolding of these events.     

If this was not enough, clashes continued in Turkey’s Southeastern city of Cizre between Turkish security forces and pro-PKK Kurds, which led to more deaths, proving to be a major test for the strained peace process; just last month, two minors were shot with live ammunition by the state security forces, killing 14-yr old Umit Kurt, and 12-yr old Nihat Kazanhan. In relation to the latter, Turkey’s Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, vehemently denied state involvement in the killing. However, a video emerged, which made its round on the Turkish nightly news, exhibiting otherwise.

It is this reality that Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink is working and living in, as she is the only western journalist who resides in the Kurdish regions. And, while she is set on telling the harsh truth, writing in one of her blogs that “no, I am not scared. The state cannot shut me up, not even if they prosecute me, throw me in jail or throw me out of the country,” it seems the government has made a calculation that it is much more risky having her report, than the possible diplomatic fallout this will create.

Therefore, while there is no shortage of people ranging to beauty queens and high school students being placed on trial for their harsh criticism of Erdogan, the current case against Geerdink seems to be tied to the greater tradition of the Turkish state attempts at silencing the violent actions it is using against its own citizens in order to maintain hegemonic control of its Southeastern Kurdish regions.  

It seems safe to say that in this battle, Erdogan, and his AKP loyalists, could find new friends among even their greatest opponents, who see the Kurdish agenda as a tangible threat to the Turkish state. In other words, Geerdink’s sharp reporting and dedication at reporting what she sees and how she understands it, along with her Turkish counterparts, have a double hard time at doing their work, which is seen as both a threat to the ruling government and likewise to those among the opposition who believe that her reporting is nothing more than PKK propaganda. With the stakes so high, there is no doubt that Frederike Geerdink’s case could serve as a test for future international journalists in Turkey.  

 *This article appeared in Turkish, in the online newspaper Diken on February 6, 2015 (with possible revisions due to translation).  

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Gezi and Ferguson: A Reply to Ceren Kenar

Ever since Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Turkish pro-government press has been quick to highlight injustices carried out by that city's police department and lack of due process in the case. Sounds well intentioned, right? Unfortunately, not like much of the international press covering the events, the Turkish pro-government press, such as its state mouthpiece, Anadolu Agency, and the English daily Sabah, have seem set on one aim: to highlight injustices in the United States in order to downplay those carried out against last year's Gezi protesters. 

Following the non-indictment of the officer who killed Michael Brown, a new round of protests broke out, which once again was seized by the Turkey's pro-government press. One Turkish writer, Ceren Kenar, who writes for the staunchly pro-government paper, Türkiye, published an article entitled "Ferguson and Gezi..."(December 2, 2014). This caught my attention days later, especially since Kenar, despite her often apologetic stance to the Turkish government, does try to maintain a safe distance from the usual propaganda machine.

(A protester kicks a tear gas canister back towards police after protests in reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown turned violent near Ferguson, Missouri August 17, 2014. Reuters)

It is important to state that Kenar's article was published a day before New York state's non-indictment of Eric Garner, who was filmed suffocating in the hands of the NYPD, left to die on the street. However, it seems that this non-indicment would only strengthen her main argument: that Turkey, and Erdogan, are being held to a higher standard than the United States and Obama. She reaches this conclusion after a long detailed description of the Ferguson events from its first days until the non-indicment, which is strikingly similar (in order and detail) to the Wikipedia entry, entitled "2014 Ferguson Events." 

Gezi Park protests; (no credit mentioned in link, please contact me if this is your property)

I will let the the reader decide whether or not Kenar essentially plagiarized most of her article from Wikipedia (if this had been a student paper, I would have pursued a plagiarism case); but if she did plagiarize, she did so selectively, omitting parts that would debunk her main argument. For example, while she highlights voices critical of the United States, such as the French Justice Minister and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, she omits the numerous references to President Obama's rather conciliatory stance towards Ferguson. This is misleading since Erdogan was the sole source of the Gezi Park uprising and greatly shaped the reactions and perceptions. For examples she rhetorically states that:

"As all this (the Ferguson events) was happening the American intellectuals did not declare the Obama government illegitimate" and the "American president was not called a murderer."

Well Ms. Kenar, did you forget that it was Erdogan who boldly stated that it was he who gave the police the order to shoot the protesters? Did you forget that it is was Erdogan who cursed the mother of 15-year-old Berkin Elvan on the day of his funeral after he laid months in a coma from a head injury sustained by a teargas canister that struck him as he went to buy bread in the morning? 

Ah, Could this be the reason that some in Turkey declared Erdogan's government illegitimate and called him a murderer? And, don't you imagine if Obama had taken such a harsh stance that the reactions would have been similar?

I have to admit, Ms. Kenar, I was surprised also to find that you felt a strong urge to attack Turkish academics who supported their students in the Gezi protests, by stating that "Harvard professors did not give A+s to students who missed the finals due to their participation in protests." 

True, during the Gezi protests, many professors did facilitate special times for their protesting students to complete their exams, just as many American professors would have done. And, rightly so! What more can a professor want than students taking their future in their own hands!  But to insinuate that all professors sympathetic to the Gezi protests gave A+s to their students is a gross exaggeration. Perhaps, ask your friend, Professor Halil Berktay, if he had the same policy. I highly doubt it. 

Well, towards the end of the article, Kenar comes to her main argument, which was the reason she dedicated almost 80 percent of her article to injustices at Ferguson without naming one fact (good or bad) about Gezi, but making clear that Erdogan and Turkey, as a whole, were wrongly judged by both Turkish citizens and the world: 

Kenar states, "I am not writing this to legitimate the [Turkish] government's wrong strategy, which was dealt a bad hand during Gezi,"...or, "to claim that the US is a actually an authoritarian regime,"rather, I am writing this to stress that the Gezi events transformed from a democratic protest and turned into a strategy to overthrow the government, which was democratically elected, all the while intellectuals were giving it credit."

She continues "such events like Gezi and Ferguson, can happen in many of the world's democracies. Police violence can be applied, some even might support this violence. No doubt that these are unwanted, reprehensible, and sad events...and "peacefully protesting such events in order to increase awareness is both legitimate and even praiseworthy." And, "....just as you can still rightly consider the US a democracy even in light of these events (Ferguson), Gezi needs to be assessed in a level-headed way, removed from exaggerations and prejudices." 

So, Ms. Kenar, if you get the chance, perhaps you might want to consider the following questions? 

1. Did you attend the Gezi protests? I was there from the first day and no one was calling to overthrow the government, rather hundreds of thousands of them were shouting in unison, Resign Erdogan! And, it was peaceful protesters attacked, not vice versa. Also, do you support police violence if it is perceived by the government as a coup attempt. If so, Egyptian President Sisi will appreciate your analysis! 

2. You support peacefully protesting to increase awareness. Well, why then were the protesters at Berkin Elvan's funeral attacked. Here is a link to see how violent the police force was. Could such police violence be tolerated in any democracy? Of course, this alone cannot deny a state of being a democracy, but it certainly should cause immense worry! 

3. Do people injured and killed in the Gezi protests have the right to sue the government for damages? The first day of the Gezi protest, innocent and peaceful protester Lobna Allami was shot at close range by a teargas canister, placed in a coma, and is still undergoing rehabilitation. Does she have legal recourse?

4. What about cases such as the killing of Kader Ortakaya, who was recently shot and killed while peacefully protesting on the Turkish-Syrian border. Where does her killing fit into your rigid understanding of protests? Is it normal in a democracy to have 46 people killed (October 6-7 2014) without a state sponsored independent inquiry to investigate the events? As far as I know, this deaths are as good as gone.

5. Should a journalist really be writing about a situation that s/he knows nothing more (or contributes nothing more) than what is available in a Wikipedia article? 

In conclusion, let it be clear that there is no doubt that both Gezi and Ferugson deserve great attention, especially in relation to their blatant human rights violations. However, comparing the two events is like comparing apples and oranges. America is a federal system, with great autonomy allotted to local and state police forces. On the other hand, with the case of Gezi, the governor of Istanbul is appointed by Erdogan, who undoubtedly takes orders from above. 

In any case, it seems that this article was written for one purpose and one purpose only: for Kenar to give her blanket support for the government and to provide a more sophisticated analysis to the government's claim (without no proof whatsoever) that the Gezi protesters aimed to overthrow a democratically elected government; i.e., that Gezi was a coup attempt. 

The Ferguson events have serious implications for the United States, as I stated in a recent blog, and need to be placed within the greater context of "of overall racism in the United States. From slavery to the Jim Crow laws, the history of racism against the African-American population runs deep and did not end with the civil rights movement or the election of President Obama."

Certainly, the events in the United States should not be manipulated to suit one's political agenda in a completely unrelated arena. In short, it is unfortunate that this seems to be the case here. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Oh Citizen, Learn Ottoman! Ey Vatandaş Osmanlıca Ögren! !اي وطنداش عثمانليجة اوكرن

It never fails. When Erdogan wants something he seems to get it, often with little to be done. True, this is not always the case. Back in May 2013, he tried to force the rebuilding of Ottoman barracks, which was to house a shopping mall, on Gezi Park in Istanbul despite mass opposition. People reacted with mass protest, which led to dead and injured (and has recently been put back on the planning board by Istanbul's AKP led-municipality). 

Yes, as we saw with Gezi, the Ottoman past is dear to Erdogan; and, in places where he cannot revive the Ottoman past, he is busy trying to build new symbols, aiming to replace the legacy of the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. A grand example of this is Erdogan's newly built 1150 room presidential palace, which costs are rumored to exceed one billion dollars, replacing the former residence that also served home to Ataturk during his presidency. No surprise then that Erdogan has recently compared his new home to the palaces of former Ottoman Sultans. 

If that was not enough, in the background music of the introductory video of the palace, Erdogan had the original Republican-era melody of the state's national anthem replaced with a new one which opted for an Ottoman style of music. Sure, even if the anthem's melody has not been officially changed, in this case it seems Erdogan was either testing the waters to check the reactions, or simply trying to provoke his pro-Republican opponents.  

It was not at all surprising that last week when Turkey's education council announced that it would put forth a plan to implement Ottoman language classes into the country's high school curriculum, it sent chills down the spines of many of the pro-Republican opposition. Just to remind you, the Ottoman script (an alphabet based on Persian-Arabic script) was banned in 1929, by Ataturk who introduced a Latin script. However, the reforms did not end with transforming the script, but also replaced many "archaic" words with modern Turkish ones. In fact, as someone who works with Ottoman documents, I can attest to the fact that it is not at all an easy script/language to learn and that one needs an intense amount of proper training to tackle a level of comprehension

As the controversy brewed, it did not take no time at all for Erdogan to become the center of the debate, stating that "whether they want it or not, Ottoman [language] will be learned and taught in this country." What should be clear however is that his harsh stance stifled any real debate of the need to provide students with the tools to open up the doors of the past. In other words, Erdogan's stance seems set on challenging the legacy of Ataturk, and not motivated by its pedagogical and historical value (stay tuned for a future piece on how "history" is being manipulated to suit current agendas in Turkey).  

In fact, I think few would disagree that providing tools to a new generation to read the past is not only needed in Turkey (along with a debate focusing on the reforms of Ataturk), but in numerous nations states that discarded scripts and languages on behalf of political elites, who were set on enforcing a strict uniformity of their societies. However, placing policy aside, I highly doubt that the Turkish education system is equipped to teach Ottoman, just as we see its with its failure in teaching English. Luckily, many Turkish universities have strong Ottoman language programs, which have produced an abundance of scholars working on Ottoman history, literature, arts, and sociology, to name a few.

Lastly, lets face it, Ottoman does not seem to be a pressing issue for most Turkish students. And, if one wanted to argue the importance of learning a language, Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of the mostly Kurdish HDP party, stated that, "What is the use of imposing [Ottoman]? You ban people from teaching their mother tongue. You say ‘Mother tongue education is banned..," in reference to the Kurdish demand to study in their mother tongue. 
The fact that most are focusing on the debate over the Ottoman script should not hide the reality that this move is part of a new package to introduce religious studies in the Turkish school system. According to Selin Girit, a BBC journalistthe Education Council that is proposing the Ottoman language classes, also has suggested the Ministry of Education adopt a plan to extent religions education to children as young as six-years old, increasing the already religious education among older students, and even allowing male boys to take a two-year break after the fourth grade to memorize the Quran. 

In fact, even Erdogan sees the attack on Ottoman as inherently an attack on the religion, stating: "There are those who do not want this to be taught. This is a great danger. Whether they like it or not, the Ottoman language will be learned and taught in this country. This religion has a guardian. And this guardian will protect this religion till the end of time," he said.   

Once placed in this context, it seems that perhaps Turkey's second-in-command, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, could be correct in assessing that the debate over Ottoman language instruction is nothing but a "storm in a tea-cup," and calmed fear, explaining that what was on the agenda was not a mandatory class but rather it would be offered as an elective. In other words, it seems the opposition should heed Davutoglu's words and fight a battle not over symbols, but over what really matters, such as the fact that what is stake here is not Arabic letters, but the continued integration of religion within the public sphere. Indeed, in a country that continues to apply Sunni based religious studies to secular students and students of Alevi background, this should be the struggle.

As for Erdogan, I am quite curious if we put him up to reading an Ottoman text if he himself could actually read it. I suppose we will never learn that fact. However, for me his drive to have Ottoman taught reminds of the Turkish language campaign introduced in the early years of the Republic basically forcing non-Muslims (Greeks, Armenians, and Jews) to speak Turkish, with signs stating "Oh Citizen, Speak Turkish!/Ey Vatandaş Türkçe Konuş!" 

It certainly is an irony that almost a century later we have Erdogan now preaching to Turkish Muslims:

 "Oh Citizen, Learn Ottoman!/ Ey Vatandaş Osmanlıca Ögren!/!اي وطنداش عثمانليجة اوكرن"