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" 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Beyond Ferguson: Hands Up Don't Shoot!

The recent non-indictments of police officers accused of using excessive force leading to the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and the case of Eric Garner in New York City, have caused a national outcry with thousands taking to the streets demanding justice. Indeed, I too marched with the masses in solidarity upon hearing the news that policeman who killed Michael Brown would not be indicted. 

Hands Up Don't Shoot! New York City, November 25 2014

If the Michael Brown case was not enough, then we quickly were dealt the Eric Garner case, which confirmed many of our suspicions that had the two victims been white, they most likely they would have been alive today. Adding salt to the wounds, we learned also that a 12-year old African-American, Tamir Rice, was shot by a policeman in Cleveland. He was playing with a toy gun.

As a professor teaching in a public institution in New York City, I have come across students who know very well that they were targeted by the NYPD's "Stop and Frisk" policy simply due to their skin color. I too have witnessed innocent black people harassed (and humiliated) on the subways late at night, when the NYPD started randomly questioning black people for their IDs, leaving the white people free to move on.  

While we should not ignore the injustices done by the nation's police departments, we also need to place the recent events into the greater context 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 civil rights movement or the election of President Obama. 

In other words, the discussion should not be simply about police violence disproportionately affecting people of color (with the understanding that police violence on its own deserves a discussion), rather about how the United States can move forward doing away with its institutionalized racism in its prison system, and closing the huge gaps in equity between America's white population and persons of color.

Here are just a few statistics to show the rampant injustice and why police violence is only one small part of a much greater problem:
The High Incarceration rate is even more shocking when we learn that the
African-American population makes up is only about 13%

For more statistics see following link

Friday, November 21, 2014

This one is for Kobane: Kader will not return home, will the refugees be able to?

I wonder what is here (in Kobane)? Petrol? Gold? Diamonds? 
(Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, October 31, 2014)

Earlier this week, I took part in audience at City College in New York to hear Salih Muslim Muhammad (often referred only by the first two names) , the c0-chairman of the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party), based in Northern Syria. Beaming live via Skype, he shared with the audience that victory was near in Kobane (Arabic-Ayn al-Arab). For the last 68 days, the PYD's main fighting force the YPG (People's Protection Units) has been holding ground to the forces of the Islamic State (ISIS).

Muslim provided the audience with an upbeat assessment, cautiously predicting that the city would be freed from the last snipers in a matter of days; however, he stressed that this was only the beginning and there was still much work to be done in clearing ISIS in the surround villages. He also clarified that US strikes played a crucial role, and remarked that it was disappointing that some regional powers were still making operations difficult, even when it came to assisting humanitarian aid. It seemed quite obvious he was referring to Turkey.

The news that Kobane's Kurdish forces have gained major ground is good news indeed, and will be welcomed by a coalition of regional and international voices. However, for Turkey, it marks a major miscalculation by its policy makers who even if trying to portray the country as leading a non-interventionist policy, could not cover up the fact that it appeared to most as a concerted demoralization campaign against the Kurds. Even with Turkey's legitimate concerns on how this would play out among their own Kurdish community, it was a short sighted strategy that left Turkey portrayed in world opinion as if it was hoping for an ISIS controlled Kobane. 

In fact, Erdogan numerous times stated that he was not at all sure why so many were supporting Kobane, when so many other cities in Syria did not receive half as much attention, as if this was some conspiracy against Turkey, to strengthen the Kurds vis-a-vis Turkey. Perhaps, Turkey should have placed it in the following terms: once Kobane is back in the hands of the PYD, it is highly likely that the recent 300,000+ Syrian Kurdish refugees will be able to return to their homes. With refugees placing a huge weight on Turkey, what could be better than this. 

Recent picture of Kader Ortakaya 
It was in fact the sheer simplicity of understanding that the people of Kobane were fighting for their homes, that caused so many Turkish citizens to cross the border to fight. Sadly, the fate of many of them was that they will not return, killed in street battles with ISIS. However, the tragic killing of Kader Ortakaya, which took place on November 6, was much different. She was not killed by ISIS, but as the result of a clash with the Turkish army that opened fire on protesters who were creating a human chain at the border. 

A declared revolutionary, and a graduate student at Marmara University, who was overtaken by the call to act, the 28-yr old Kader remained weeks at the border, with the a group called the Initiative of Free Art. Just days before her death in fact she was interviewed by Norwegian television, where she seemed full of hope (which was posted on her facebook). In her last letter home, she explained her convictions to her family, of why she had made her way down to Kobane, with her last sentence making sure her scholarship money went to buying medicine for her sick mother.  

The funeral of Kader Ortakaya
While Kader never made her way back home, let us hope that the refugees from Kobane will be able to in the near future. Even if Kobane does not have gold, the oil of Iraqi Kurdistan, or even diamonds, for hundreds of thousands of people it is their home. What more could one ask for than to be able to return home, rather than being subjected to the humiliating and poor lives as refugees. It seems that it is this part, the simple human side of the story, so many Turkish politicians clearly overlooked, without even taking into consideration the massacre that would have happened in Kobane had ISIS succeeded in taking the city.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

No Laughing Matter: Turkey's International Prestige Hits New Low

During last week's blog, I shared with my readers the ongoing saga of Turkish president Erdogan's palace and the bad rap it was receiving in the world press. And, with its costs possibly soaring to over a billion dollars, rightly so. If this was not enough, this past week Turkey once again made world headlines with a protest (attack) on US sailors, and with Erdogan providing the world with a revisionist history of the Americas.  

Last Wednesday, three American sailors (in civilian clothing) were attacked by a group of protesters, belonging to an extreme nationalist group. Although the perpetrators were eventually arrested, they were released shortly after. The sheer ugliness of the event is hard to describe in words. Even if I am not at all sympathetic to the US military, they were guests of Turkey and the humiliation the sailors endured was unjust. We can only praise the sailors for the restraint they showed since this could have ended much worse.

Clearly, even if this was a fringe group, the anti-imperialist Turkish Youth Union (TGB), imagine if this had happened to Turkish military personnel in the United States or Europe. This would have captured the headlines in Turkey, caused protests, most certainly including burning the flag of the country where it occurred, and most likely have ended with Erdogan scorning the country on live television, and his pro-government media smearing it the next day. 

It needs to be stressed that the fact that Erdogan did not stand up in a strong voice and condemn the attack was a missed opportunity, especially in light of tense relations between the US and Turkey concerning the Kobani crisis. Furthermore, his honorary first in charge, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu,  also remained silent, with condemnation of the incident being issued by the Foreign Department.

No doubt that Turkey was caught off guard by the incident, while Americans sat at home watching it play out on their television screens. True, some US media outlets, seem to have got the story totally wrong, speculating the worst-that the group attacking the Americans were connected ISIS-something that could not be farther from the truth. Regardless, the damage had been done, and no Turkish spokesman was in sight.

Just days later, Turkey was back in the news following Erdogan's claiming at a conference of Latin American Muslims that in fact it was Muslims who had discovered the Americas in 1178, and not Christopher Columbus in 1492. In in no time at all the international media was all over Erdogan's preposterous claim that Cuba had served as a home to Muslims even before Columbus, making his proposal to rebuild the mosque that never was, even stranger (on that note, a Turkish proposal to build a mosque in Cuba was also recently rejected by its government). 

Once again, similar to last week's Palace incident, the "Muslims discovering Americas," quickly became the laughingstock of the world press. This coupled with the widespread negative coverage of the attack on American soldiers, not only surely strengthened the already negative perception of policy makers towards Turkey, but also gushed over to the general European and American public. 

As Turkey deals daily with its scorned relations it has with its Middle Eastern neighbors, these past weeks have shown that if it does not work hard to restore its international standing that it is in danger of hitting even newer lows in how its perceived in Europe and the United States, not to mention causing much damage in its relations with them. 

Yes, for the international press much of the recent news from Turkey has turned into a laughing matter, or in the case of the attack on the sailors, sheer disbelief; however, for the country's citizens and those who wish to see Turkey retain its international prestige, this is far from a laughing matter, but rather a tragicomedy playing out before our eyes.   

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The World Tour: The Top-Ten International Media Coverage of Erdogan's New Palace

Ever since the Gezi park protests, Turkey has taken numerous blows in its international prestige. This was exacerbated following the unfolding of last December's massive corruption scandal, a story more fitting of a Turkish telenovela, with the script including a pop-star, private jets, cash hidden in shoe boxes, and the rumors of billions of dollars being thrown around like small change.

Few in the world seem as if they bought former Prime Minister and newly elected President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan's claim that these were all orchestrated attempts at overthrowing his government. While in Turkey, Erdogan and his close confidantes have clamped down on the domestic media, he has had to fight attempts by international media outlets to pose tough questions, often leading to him, or his pro-government press, to accuse international journalists of impartiality, or even being agents.

Apparently, however, Erdogan miscalculated the potential backfire his official opening of the presidential palace, coined the "Ak Saray," the White Palace, would cause. The international media seized this story, and rightly so. The $615,000,000 thousand-room palace, which once finished could reach one billion dollars, shows to what extent Erdogan's has fallen out of touch with reality (as if his new jumbo-jet was not proof enough).    

If not bad enough, this over-extravagant kitschy building was built on protected forests despite a court-order to halt the construction. Yes, what he did not succeed to do in Gezi Park, he succeeded to do in Ankara's Ataturk forest. Erdogan brushed off the opposition's criticism concerning the palace, simply stating "if you have the power and courage, then come and demolish the building." Further, just yesterday, Erdogan stated also that he was not sure what all the hype was about, explaining that one needs to take into consideration the fact that for the last 12 years as Prime Minister he has had to pay rent

What is clear is that this has turned into an international public relations fiasco; and, what makes this different than other past scandals is that in this case, he cannot blame this on an internal enemy or protesters in a park. This was his making, and his making alone. It is perhaps for this reason that the numerous international media are openly ridiculing Erdogan and his new palace. 

Below is a "top-ten" list I have compiled of international sites, which have subtly, or openly, mocked Erdogan and his new palace; with some going "below the belt," and others opting just to report the facts. It seems safe to say that Turkey's diplomatic corp has their work cut out for them. I myself cannot remember such a low-point of Turkey's portrayal in the international arena.   

1. BBC One minute video-new palace facts splashed across the screen; the background music says it all. And, they don't forget his new jet either (watch towards the end).

2. The New York Times was one of the first among the international press to break the story. We all know there has been tension between Turkey's President and the NYT. However, as others did below, the NYT allowed Erdogan's introductory film of the palace to do the talking. In short, it seems they understood that the video, with Turkish anthem redone to a new tune, explains it all:

3. Quickly becoming a major news source for Middle East issues, Al-Monitor's veteran Turkish journalist, Kadri Gursel, gets placed high on the list for bringing the palace to the English reader's attention already in mid-September, in an article entitled: Erdogan's $350M Palace (not a bad estimate even if it was $300M off). In fact, he too thought it was best to let Erdogan explain this new situation: 

4. Bloomberg cut right down to the core, featuring Erdogan's photo at the new palace, with its headline and starting the article with short sentences: A palace four-times the size of Versailles. A custom built airbus jet. Dozens of servants. 

 5. Egypt's Al-Ahram Weekly took a direct jab at Erdogan (and thus the saga of strained relations between the two countries continue) accusing him of trying to revive the wealth of the Ottomans, with him as Sultan, just as Turkey was faced with another mining disaster:

6. Al-Arabiyah news took a different route, taking ques from the Turkish opposition who compared Erdogan's new home to that of Ceausescu, but took it two more steps further, comparing it to palaces of a number of historical dictators, such as Saddam Hussein. Pictures were included: 

7. USA Today gets sixth place simply due to the fact that it was so desperate for a headline that they had to throw Ebola into the picture. Admittedly, this was a bit far-fetched to say the least! 

8. Financial Times opted to headline with another one of Erdogan's odd reasoning behind the palace's construction; solving traffic problems:  

9. Huffington Post gets on the top-10 for its inflation of adjectives to describe the "insanely opulent" Turkish palace: 

   10. And, last but not least, is the Times of Israel's article, which gets the good citizen's awards. Perhaps, in order to not create yet another diplomatic crisis, they stuck to reporting about the palace, leaving out analysis, and presenting both the opposition and government's take on the issue:

Postscript Flash: 

Not 24 hours has passed, when John Oliver also took head on Erdogan's Palace. Now this takes the cake! Click on this link to have a watch! (was not able to embed the video). In his words, "this palace is insane!" And laughs that after the 500th room, it must have been difficult what to do with the other 500 rooms."


Saturday, October 25, 2014

'Enemies within’: Journalists on the frontline in Erdogan's 'New’ Turkey* (Haaretz September, 23 2014)

Not even a month has passed since Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was inaugurated as Turkey’s first elected president. During his campaign, he repeated the mantra that with his victory, a dawn of a ‘new’ Turkey would emerge. Unfortunately, for journalists who are critical of Turkish government policy, it is the same country it was exactly a month ago; a place where they are seen as the enemy from within, and are subject to threats, curses, and public shaming.

Just last week, a New York Times reporter, Ceylan Yeginsu, issued an in-depth investigative report on an Islamic State recruitment center in Turkey’s capital Ankara. The article was a fascinating read, which was based on Yenginsu’s entering “Hacibayram, a ramshackle neighborhood in the heart of Ankara’s tourist district,” which has “morphed into an ISIS recruitment hub over the past year.” In short, the article was a well-balanced look at how one-time drug addicts are attracted to join the ranks of Islamic State fighters in Syria.
My first thought after reading the article was that this was a brave piece of journalism. However, I also thought to myself that the author was just as brave for publishing the article, as clearly she was placing herself at risk of sparking an onslaught of hate and contempt among Turkey’s pro-Erdogan factions. Especially since just days before, Erdogan had complained to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, for what he described as a campaign against Turkey by the American media, in reference to a previous New York Times article about the illegal export to Turkey of oil coming from Islamic State-controlled territories.
It took no time at all after Yeginsu’s article was published that President Erdogan expressed his anger, especially outraged that the report had featured a photo taken of him and his newly appointed Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, leaving a mosque, which was in the same neighborhood, as if it was incriminating him personally with the content of the story. Importantly, as a reader, I never made that connection. Nevertheless, Erdogan described the article as “despicable, shameless, and vile,” which in turn led the New York Times admitting error andremoving the photo, and the journalist Yeginsu rightly stating in a tweet, “to all those that have targeted me personally, neither the photo nor the caption was my responsibility.”
Despite the New York Times' correction, Yeginsu was bombarded by threats, and had her photo splashed across the front page of staunchly pro-government newspaper, Takvim, which highlighted that the author of the article was a “Turkish girl.” In other words, this was not an act of a foreigner being unfair to Turkey, but an act of betrayal committed by a Turk, one whom – no less – has been raised abroad and belonged to a distinguished family. In no time at all, the executive editor of the New York Times, Dean Banquet, published a statement condemning the campaign against Yeginsu, calling on Turkey to protect their staff in light of the high number of threats.
Unfortunately, the campaign against the NYT’s Yeginsu is not a lone incident. Following last year’s Gezi Park protests, Erdogan regularly blames the international media as leading an unjust campaign against Turkey, with journalists often targeted in public forums and on social media, which could be described as a well-oiled smear machine. If it is not Erdogan who is accusing them on stage, then it is his allies, often within the high echelons of the AKP, who set into motion this machine, beginning on Twitter, where many Turkish political debates are played out. Once out in the Twittersphere, AKP trolls seize opportune moments to attack anyone they deem as anti-government. This is often followed by the pro-government press jumping in, publishing names, personal details, and photographs, on their front pages and Internet sites.
A disproportionate number of Turkish women journalists working for foreign news agencies have been aggressively trolled in this way, not only those working for the NYT. During the Gezi protests, Melih Gocek, the mayor of Ankara and an Erdogan loyalist, started a twitter campaign against Selin Girit, a reporter for the BBC, whom he accused of being an “English agent.”
Last May, Erdogan targeted Rengin Arslan, who works for the same news agency, claiming that she had paid actors to portray themselves as mourning family members who expressed their opposition to the government. It seems Erdogan had been fed this false story by the pro-government media, who initiated the smear campaign against her.
And last August, a campaign was lodged against Amberin Zaman, a correspondent for the Economist and writer at Turkey’s Taraf, an opposition newspaper. In response to a remark she made in an interview, Erdogan referred to her as a “shameless militant disguised under the name of a journalist,” who should “know her place.” However, the intimidation is not reserved only for women working for the foreign press. Ceyda Karan, a critical voice within Turkey, also was taught a lesson about knowing her place, suffering a campaign against her during the past summer as well.
While the misogynistic undertones of attacking female journalists are clear, some male foreign correspondents have also been verbally attacked. The Turkish government’s targeting of journalists is becoming dangerously commonplace. Ivan Watson, a CNN correspondent was publically shamed by Erdogan, following his brief detainment by Turkish police while covering a story in Taksim Square, on the first anniversary of the Gezi Park protests. Der Spiegel removed their correspondent from Turkey, Hasnain Kazim, after receiving “hundreds of death threats” following his critical report of the above mentioned Soma Mine disaster.
Needless to say, the attack on journalists by President Erdogan and his close allies is just another sign of Turkey straying away from its democratic values towards a more authoritarian system. It adds to the already serious state of journalism in the country, where between 2011-2013, Turkey held the dismal world record for the most jailed journalists.
Furthermore, with much of the pro-government press, and the state’s Anadolu News Agency, serving as a mouthpiece of the government, it seems that Turkey will continue to work at taming the foreign press, regardless of the danger it might cause journalists or what it does to the reputation of the country. This is even more worrying since Turkey has a history of violence against journalists. In fact, over seven years ago, the Armenian Turkish journalist, Hrant Dink was assassinated; while the gunman was caught, the case still hasn’t established a verdict of who was behind it.
It is for this reason that like the recent case with Yeginsu, the threats against journalists must be taken seriously. For once and for all, Erdogan needs to put an end to the campaign and refuse both personally and through media outlets he influences to take part in such orchestrated attacks.
There is a fine line between promoting hate speech for political gains and that moment that someone decides to take matters in their own hands. If this is the “New Turkey,” I for one find it hard to find signs of hope for the future. For now, let us hope that with the daily news agenda changing, with the 49 Turkish hostages released by the Islamic State, Yeginsu will be able to get back to her own crucial work without the extra pressures of the Turkish government that sees her and other critical voices as enemies of the state.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Follow Up: More on Turkey's State-Sanctioned Antisemitism

In a recent article in Haaretz, I outlined a growing trend of state-sanctioned antisemitism in Turkey. Not only is hate against Jews (and other groups) spread in pro-government media, but also members of the AKP government are on record of making blatant antisemitic remarks.

Following writing the article, in addition to the positive comments, I also received some hate messages directed at me on twitter. One of these came from a university professor in Turkey, Ali Ihsan Goker, who serves as the chair of the Physics department at Bilecik Seyh Edibali University, and has a PhD from Rice University. Mr. Goker attacked me with antisemitic hate speech, stating: "Treblinka will be ready soon-Constructing the railway tracks at the moment." Even worse, it was reported on the online Turkish newspaper, Diken, that he also tweeted that if he was in Erdogan's place he would gather up all the local Jews and send them to concentration camps.

First, I would like to thank all the people who supported me in the face of attacks I received for writing the article. Also, my special thanks goes out to a Turkish internet newspaper, Diken, who has followed up on the case, and are still awaiting word from Goker's university rector concerning any possible sanctions that might be taken against the Turkish state employ for his blatant hate speech and threats.Well-I guess we should not hold our breath since last week Goker was awarded a prestigious Tubitak government research grant. Yes. Rather than being punished, he has been rewarded by the government.   

Is Turkey exporting Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial?

Reading antisemitic Akit on a recent flight from Rome to Istanbul
While the Turkish government does not seem worried about rampant antisemitism in some of the the pro-government press, this might not hold true with other governments in Europe, where they have laws against Holocaust denial and racist incitement. As an avid flyer of Turkish Air, I am always shocked at the fact that antisemitic papers, such as Yeni Akit (and others) are distributed on board Turkish Air. Not only are they offered from a wide-selection of papers passengers can chose from before boarding in Turkey (some papers that are highly critical of government are not offered, such as Zaman), but they are also distributed at airports worldwide just before boarding (in other words, on foreign soil). 

For example, material appearing in Yeni Akit, such as the Hitler crossword puzzle (see below), or the recent article claiming Jews as collaborating with the Nazis  in the genocide of Europe's Jews (the whole article is blatantly antisemitic), could violate German law. Legally speaking, it does not seem that a passenger, who disembarks the plane with the illegal material is in violation of the law. However, the case becomes much more complicated when Turkish Air distributes the antisemitic (and other forms of hate speech) material in the German airports just before passengers board the plane. Here, it seems that this could be in direct violation of German law, and other countries such as France, who have laws against genocide denial or incitement of hate.

Was this crossword puzzle praising Hitler
passed out in German airports, perhaps violating
German Law?

Rather than testing the waters of European law, perhaps it might be wise for the Turkish government to ensure that its national airlines offer a hate-free zone for both their Turkish and international passengers. On a personal note, it would certainly make my experience on Turkish Air even better than it already is.