Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Second Anniversary of Disgust

Note to readers: This piece was originally published a year ago at Today is not only Martin Luther King Day, and the day before Barack Obama's inauguration. It is also the second anniversary of another murder. Read on.

As I write this, the good and decent people of Istanbul (NOT the people in the photo) are marking the first anniversary of Disgust. This is not the ordinary disgust felt when people perceive the thousand injustices of daily life; it was the emotion they felt when, on 19 January 2007, the Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink was gunned down in front of his newspaper's office in central Istanbul. This was no ordinary crime. It was predictable and preventable. The killer was easily found. The police, who could have forestalled it, did not. Instead, some of them gathered around the crime's teen-aged perpetrator after his capture and congratulated him. (Two of the officers got in trouble for this--not for having congratulated the murderer, but for having leaked the images to the media.) The Istanbul police were warned of the killer's departure from Trabzon, his hometown on the Black Sea, and they were told of his mission. Yet they did nothing. Several officers have been charged, but serious consequences seem unlikely. In the aftermath, banner-waving football fans in central Turkey expressed solidarity with Hrant Dink's killer, and a nationalist singer wrote a song commemorating the deed.

It's all in a day's work for Turkey's nationalist thugs, its police, and the good people who are forced to live with them. Anyone looking at today's Turkey has to think wistfully of Al Gore and the Nobel Prize. Certainly I respect the man and his global warming campaign. But the more I look at the Turkish political scene, and the more I dig into websites and read news items, the more it seems to me that I could find a hundred better candidates for the Nobel just by flying to Turkey and taking a week to meet people. I've said before that in Turkey "the average liberal has more courage than a thousand Americans," and if anything this seems an understatement. Real courage has to be measured against the degree of danger it faces, and nowhere is that danger more extreme than in the Republic of Turkey.

People of the American "left" (for so it must be punctuated--there is no real Left in this country) are fond of pinning the "fascist" label on people like George Bush and his crowd, while the right (not in quotes) has come up with Islamofascists as their catch-word. In fact, neither side has a clue. If you want to meet real fascists, go East, young man. There, in any Turkish town you care to name, you can find the genuine article in half an hour.

Turkish nationalism must be experienced to be believed. Americans, always in search of a new catch phrase, may talk about someone's "take no prisoners" attitude, but they never stop to think what the phrase really means. It's a military order: it says, "Attack and kill. Even if someone tries to surrender, kill him anyway." In Turkey the soldiers of the Right, whether they call themselves Grey Wolves, Idealists, or Commandos, truly take no prisoners. Trained in camps, closely allied with the police and the army, they confront a hostile world with guns at the ready, their minds alert to the slightest hint of disrespect, their eyes always on the lookout for liberal traitors. Hrant Dink was only the latest in their string of hits.

To the Turkish ultra-nationalist, enemies lurk everywhere. He knows this because he learns it in school. Were there Kurdish revolts? No, there were only religious outbreaks fomented by the British. That's what it says in Turkish history books. Do the Greeks plan to re-invade Turkey? Of course. Everyone wants to attack Turkey: they're just waiting for the chance. The Turkish writer Mustafa Akyol recounts the plays he and his schoolmates performed. Rather than Outlaws or Indians, their bad guys were always the English, the French, or the Greeks. I remember one fanatic, a shop-owner whom I met in Amasya, an historic town in Anatolia. When he perceived that I was a foreigner, I replied that, yes, I was an American. "There are lots of Armenians in America," he muttered. "Not that many," I replied, looking around for the exit. On the shop walls were posters of mounted, mustachioed warriors wading exultantly into battle. He thought about my reply for a moment. "In America you have Jews," he said with contempt. "In Turkey, we have Armenians." With a shiver I scurried out.

Intellectuals as well can be trained to participate in the national paranoia. One incident in particular comes to mind. One summer in the 1960s I and some 200 other college graduates found ourselves at an Ivy League college, training to become Peace Corps English teachers in Turkey. Visiting lecturers instructed us in language, history, and culture. One of the topics, inevitably, was the Cyprus problem. One professor, whose last name was obviously Greek, briefed us on the history of the controversy. The next night we got the "Turkish" side.

The man chosen to deliver this address (I'll call him Turan) was one of the kindest and most delightful of men. A scholar perfectly bilingual in Turkish and English, as well as a polished translator into both languages, Turan moved with aplomb in the worlds of academe, business, and literature. The PCVs, myself included, came to know him well, for he had assisted in our training from the beginning. I was, quite simply, in awe of the man.

On the night appointed for Turan's address I took my place in the lecture hall and waited with great interest, my pencil and notebook at the ready. Turan was introduced. Then, smiling, he strode to the lectern and proceeded to deliver the most appalling speech I have ever heard outside the documentaries of Leni Riefenstahl. When he began, Turan pitched his voice slightly below a scream. There, for the next thirty minutes, it remained. Occasionally it dipped somewhat in pitch; more often it rose into a keening wail. Never did it present the slightest coherent argument for a "Turkish position" on the Cyprus problem. Turkish babies were starving; this was clear. Turkish houses were destroyed. Turkish women were being violated. Turkish men were slaughtered. And, yes, Turkish babies were still starving. As a speech, it was quite effective at one thing: it kept the question-and-answer period to a minimum. No one had the least interest in asking questions of someone who had spent the last half hour shrieking at us. (Imagine a press conference in Nuremberg: "Excuse me, Mr. Hitler: could you explain a bit more your position on the Jews?") Afterward, as we stood in line for coffee and cookies, I spied Turan with several embarrassed-looking Volunteers. He smiled at me and nodded, seemingly eager to talk. Somehow I managed a smile, but I knew that talking was out of the question. With my empty notebook in hand, I found a convenient exit.

Turan, of course, was a gentleman. A tone-deaf and rather obtuse gentleman, perhaps, but there was little chance that he would use a knife in the ribs as a political argument. Turkish fascists aren't like that. Codes of behavior don't count when the very survival of the State is in question. [Note: the leader of their party, the Nationalist Action Party, even has "state" as a first name: Devlet Bahceli.] There is, of course, the murder of Hrant Dink to serve as an example, but this past year has seen a rash of nationalist attacks against Kurds, liberals, and Christians. In Turkey not a day goes by that the State security and judicial apparatus don't make a mockery of common sense. To this is now added the incident of the Blood Flag.

In Kirsehir, which I remember as a rather nondescript town in central Anatolia, twenty-one high school students, boys and girls, met after school in the autumn of 2007. There, using blood from their pricked fingers, they dyed a Turkish flag and sent it as a gift to the commander of the Turkish Armed Forces, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit. In an accompanying letter they declared their willingness to shed their blood, all of it, in the service of the nation. The General was delighted and moved. "Truly," he declared, "we are a great nation."

Others weren't so sure. Mustafa Akyol, writing in the Turkish Daily News, compared this banner to the Blutfahne, or "blood flag", of the Nazis, a relic of the Munich Beer Hall Putsch which was carefully preserved and presented at Nazi Party rallies. And the physicians and public health authorities, always spoilsports in this sort of thing, weighed in with horror at the notion of so much blood being mingled in such unsanitary conditions. All in all, it was the kind of incident that is all too common in a country where police power and nationalism reign supreme.

In my last post, I opined that Turkey, given its present balance of political power, has no chance whatever of joining the EU. Indeed, they can only succeed if the European Union gives in and does away with all its requirements for the respect of human rights, and the necessity for elected officials to exert control over the police and armed forces. If they do that, no problem: the Turks will get in whenever they want. And who knows? It may happen, and I for one hope it will.

It takes an Iraqi Kurd, however--in fact, an Iraqi Kurd transplanted to the United States and anointed with a Ph.D. in English--to expose the full absurdity of this quest. Sabah Salih, a Professor of English at Bloomsburg (State) University in Pennsylvania, delivers the goods in the December 25, 2007 edition of the Kurdistan Observer. He calls it "The World's New-Year Message to Turkey," and those who enjoy invective, served piping hot, are in his debt.

"Your nationalism," he begins, "or what’s more grandly referred to in Turkey as state or national ideology, continues to behave as though the world begins and ends with Ankara." He continues:

The problem with this chest-puffing nationalism is not just that it is outdated and autocratic and stuck in the same kind of mindset that gave us two world wars; it is rapidly turning the word Turk into an ugly word.

The high horse of jingoistic self-righteousness that you’ve been riding for all these years is good only at self-deception, but self-deception cannot be a substitute for reality.

To this there is nothing to add. But of course Dr. Salih will also talk about his people, the Kurds:

You’ve got to understand that the Kurd is a Kurd for exactly the same reasons that a Turk is a Turk; Kurds are neither mountain Turks, nor Turks of any kind--they never have been, they never will be. And did I hear you use the term “people of Kurdish origin”? This is definitely not as nasty as the other term, but, as we all know, this term too is designed to misrepresent the Kurdish situation. How could it be otherwise? Your nationalist DNA is all over it. It is yet one more reminder that you still cannot bring yourself to treat the Kurds the way you yourself expect to be treated.

We can draw two conclusions from your treatment of the Kurds: one is that you have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to democracy; and two, it is obvious to us that your nationalism has been the incubator of your Kurdish problem. You have given the Kurds no choice but to fight back--and, unless you start treating them decently, fighting back they will.

Of course, none of this is helped when George Bush, fool that he is, praises Turkey for its "vigorous democracy" and does everything he can to perpetuate the Kurdish war.

Going on a bombing spree against Kurdish villages may satisfy your appetite for bloodletting; unleashing hate on Kurdistan may even make you feel better. But this will only confirm what the Kurds have been saying all along about you: that the solution to the Kurdish problem lies not really with the Kurds but with you; continue with your racist mindset and the problem will become bigger and bigger. It has already engulfed one generation of Kurds and Turks alike. Do you really want another generation of your people to be consumed by this conflict, day in and day out asking what W. H. Auden aptly asked decades ago: “What do you think about . . . this country of ours where nobody is well?”

And at last he strikes at the heart of the matter:

And another thing: You want to join Europe? Beyond the obvious, have you asked yourself what Europe means? Europe is first and foremost a state of mind: the product of two hundred years of fighting against and rejecting and ridiculing the very nationalism that still defines your way of thinking. You ask the Kurds who have taken up arms against you to “repent” and surrender. But isn’t repentance, with its roots in religious orthodoxy and bigotry, the very opposite of what the European consciousness has been all about? For to repent is not just a matter of admitting guilt; it is also committing oneself to a type of thinking that belongs in dictatorships and theocracies, not democracies.

To which I can only say: Happy New Year.

P.S. Mizgin at Rastibini has more, including photographs of the victim, the killers, the survivors.

P.P.S. 1/19/2009. The inquiry into Hrant Dink's murder continues. No one has been tried, no one convicted. Several police officers have been implicated. Hrant Dink's widow, and his many friends, all wait for justice.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was too much fun, a straight no-chaser introduction to the "Modern Secular democracy" that is Turkey.
I am keeping a hard-copy of this for myself to read from time to time whenever I forget the easy to overlook inherent hilarity of fascist nationalism.
Plus the writing on this post is sublime,
Oswald Veblen

January 23, 2009 at 4:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just discovered your blog. I am a Turk currently living in US. I am brought up by a decent, upper middle class, well educated family in a "secular-elite" community in Turkey and was lucky enough to gradually discover by myself what really was happening in the rest of the country. I can say I agree with most of your observations. I should also add that after spending many years in Europe and in US, I came to believe that when it comes to struggle against injustice and oppression no country/community is immune. The human story is a rough and bloddy battle and it will not reach to an end with guns but with information. That is why your blog is a great instrument in the right direction.

April 10, 2009 at 1:54 PM  
Blogger Gordon Taylor said...


Well said. Every nation, every people has its own special version of human madness. When I'm not blogging (which is 99.9% of the time), I drive a transit bus in a large Western city. I know about American madness.



April 10, 2009 at 11:27 PM  

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