Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A State of Injustice

The following article was written by Mizgin Yilmaz, proprietor of Rasti. Mizgin virtually always writes in a state of high dudgeon, and she is virtually always justified in doing so. Such is the case this time. Note: be sure to check out the links she has posted. They are highly instructive. Again, this is a state which expects to be part of the European Union.

[TSK is the Turkish Armed Forces. OHAL refers to the emergency martial-law regime in the Kurdish southeast of Turkey.]

Cross-posted at The Pasha and The Gypsy and Progressive Historians.


"A kingdom founded on injustice never lasts."
~ Lucius Annaeus Seneca.

Picture this: A seventeen-year-old guy picks up his seventeen-year-old girlfriend after school and takes her to his family's large home. The guy kills the girl, decapitates her with a saw and chops up her body, stuffs the body parts into a suitcase and guitar case, gets a driver to take him to a dumpster on the other side of town and disposes of the body.

The guy's father is picked up by the police on charges of abetting the crime and the mother flees the country.

Six months after the murder, the guy turns himself in to the police.

What do you think should happen to a guy like this? Would it make any difference if you knew that the murderer was a member of one of the richest families in the country?

If this story plays out in Turkey, which it did, the murderer will be charged in juvenile court--because he's only seventeen--instead of being tried as an adult.

More on the murder at Zaman and another at Bianet. Note that the first of those articles claims the father of the murdered girl is quoted as thanking the police and government for helping to capture the murderer. However, that's not at all the same guy who was on NTV on the day of the surrender, yelling to know what kind of deal had been made between the government and the very rich kid's family.

On the other hand, if you're a ten-year-old kid growing up in another part of the country, in a family that was probably forcibly displaced from their home back in the 1990s, and you're a Kurd, you're going to get very different treatment from the state:

In Adana alone, some 155 children are facing trial, 67 have been convicted and five have begun to serve their sentences, says Ethem Acikalin, head of the local branch of Turkey’s Human Rights Association. All were charged under article 220/6 of the penal code, which criminalises “acting on behalf of a terrorist organisation”. The cases are tried in adult courts.

Or then there was Cizre:

If Turkish prosecutors have their way, Yilmaz, a soft-spoken 16-year-old with a teenager’s pimply face, could spend up to seven years in jail for having joined a demonstration early last year in the town of Cizre, in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast.

Yilmaz (the name has been changed to protect his identity) has already spent 13 months in jail awaiting trial, although he was recently let out on bail. Although he joined a demonstration that took place after the funeral of a young boy who had been run over by a police armored vehicle during an earlier protest, prosecutors say the event was organized by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and are charging the boy with supporting a terrorist organization.

"In each appearance in court, we were telling the prosecutors that we are children, that they should let us go back to our lives," says Yilmaz.

Yilmaz is one of hundreds of minors, some as young as 13, who have been arrested and jailed in Turkey over the last few years under strict new anti-terrorism laws that allow for juveniles to be tried as adults. Some have even been accused of "committing crimes in the name of a terrorist organization" for participating in demonstrations that prosecutors charge have been organized the PKK.

If you're the police and you torture a Kurdish kid in broad daylight, in front of media cameras, then have no fear! Your case will be dropped.

Then there are the activities of the ironically-named "Children's Day" in Hakkari.

Or, as happened several days ago, if you're a fourteen-year-old Kurdish girl gathering feed for her sheep, you can just be blown to bits by TSK mortar fire. At least Ceylan's mother was able to pick
up the pieces of her daughter that were left so that they could be buried. The cover-up is already ongoing because no prosecutor arrived at the scene of the crime and he cites "security zone" (i.e. OHAL) as the reason for helping TSK to cover up its murder of this Kurdish child.

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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Kevin Costner and the Shallow State

(Not Kevin Costner)*

I almost called this "Dances With Wolf-men," a reference not only to a famous movie but to the Turkish nationalists' favorite wild beast. My regular readers (all six of them) would have immediately caught on, but I feared that newcomers might not get it. And so I went instead with the above title, an even more obscure reference, a play on a certain politician's first name. In any case, here's the news: Kevin Costner seems to have endorsed the Turkish government's Kurdish "move," and in doing so has ruffled the fur of the nationalists.

No one seems to know why Costner did it. I myself learned long ago (in 1966, to be exact) never, EVER, even to hint in a public place that you might know something about Turkish politics. (But that's another story.) Costner didn't know this. He and his band (don't ask me to remember their name) played a gig in Istanbul a couple of years ago, and as a result he was booked this year to do an ad campaign for Turkish Airlines. Now he was asked to say that he endorses the current government's Kurdish "move" (we still don't know what it is, really) because he knows the Turkish Government "respects human rights." The result was this:

Opposition leader blasts Hollywood actor’s support to Kurd move

CHP leader Deniz Baykal responds to American actor and director Kevin Costner’s support of the government’s Kurdish opening. ‘Why are you interfering in Turkey’s domestic affairs? Do your job as actor,’ says Baykal

The main opposition leader has blasted famous Hollywood actor Kevin Costner’s open support to the government-sponsored Kurdish initiative over the weekend, labeling it as interference in the country’s domestic politics.

“Why are you interfering in Turkey’s domestic affairs? Do your own job as an actor. Who are you, my brother? What do you know and speak?” said Deniz Baykal of the Republican People’s Party, or CHP.

Baykal criticized the government for seeking remedy from Hollywood actors.

“The prime minister is hiding the truths from the public regarding the opening. He has a project on his mind and plans to make it accepted slowly in the face of possible reactions from the nation. Is it the prime minister’s job to deceive people?” asked Baykal.

“They [government officials] have found an actor from Hollywood to make it amiable. I don’t know how they convinced him [Costner] to come out and say ‘I support the opening.’ Why are you interfering in Turkey’s domestic affairs?” said the CHP leader, referring to the actor. “If you now put a map in front of him [Costner], believe me he cannot spot where Şırnak is,” he said.

U.S. actor and director Costner, who visited Turkey in 2007, voiced support for the government’s Kurdish move. Ruling Justice and Development Party’s, or AKP, deputy chairperson Edibe Sözen said last week Costner had been invited for the party’s general congress on Oct. 3 but the actor was unable to attend.

Debate over language

The CHP leader also criticized the government’s approach toward language. He said a person could come from a different origin, tribe, race or ethnic identity but “all of us must establish a unity under a common language.”

He continued: “What is the prime minister doing today? He is initiating a conflict on the language unity. The state’s duty is to teach the official language to everyone and help it to develop and strengthen. The state is not in a position to accept another language and present it as a rival to the official language. Turkey’s official language is Turkish and it will remain so.”

‘Aim is to split nation,’ says MHP

Opposition Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, leader Devlet Bahçeli, in a message issued on Language Day over the weekend, said those who support a second language aimed at splitting up the nation. He argued that beginning to use other languages than Turkish would speed up the process of weakening the Turkish language.

“It should not be ignored that the equal use and spread of a different language besides Turkish in the public domain could lead to the formation of a new nation out of the blessed presence of the Turkish nation, spoiling the thousand-year nation truth,” the MHP leader said.

Minister defends

In the eastern province of Van, Industry and Trade Minister Nihat Ergün commented on the government’s “democratic opening” commission. He said: “When you use the name ‘Suzan’ it doesn’t split the nation. Will the name ‘Zozan’ split it?”

Explaining the government’s move to businessmen and representatives of non-governmental organizations, the minister said there was a state that understands its citizen, instead of a state that doesn’t understand its own citizen. “That’s the case and that’s the process,” he said.

“Why do you ban people from using their local names? Why can’t you use the name ‘Zozan’? We would get divided. Why did we ban the name Berivan for a girl? The birth registry clerk didn’t write it because it was banned,” said Ergün.

The minister said there were differences in Turkey and asked to “let the people exist with their own colors.”

This is not all bad. Anyone who can provoke the anger of such as Deniz Baykal and Devlet Bahceli certainly deserves some credit. These are nationalist politicians, one (Baykal) of the "social-democratic" left (though Social Democrats in Europe disown him), and the other (Bahceli) slightly to the left of Genghiz Khan. One (Baykal) has taken as a surname the name of a lake in Siberia. (Don't ask. Maybe his ancestors were mosquito-herders [sinekci?] in that region, known for the heft and meaty qualities of its insects.) The other (Bahceli) carries an even stranger name. His first name (Devlet) means "State" in Turkish. This is like someone in English calling himself Government Jones. Much has been made of the "deep state," that combination of security forces and right-wing gangs that holds such power in Turkey. Devlet Bahceli, with his shrill warnings against language Armageddon, could be called the Shallow State.

Still, Kevin, I would advise a swift retreat from the Turkish political scene. An Ataturk biopic? Forget it. It will never get made, and if made it will do zero box office. An appearance at the AKP general congress in October? Oh my God, you made the right choice. Anything--your kids' ballet, the H1N1 flu--will do as an excuse for that one.

Meanwhile a government minister, of all people, seems to making sense. Kurdish names, he says, will not split the nation. But do Kurds actually name their kids "Zozan"? Zozans are nice places, of course, summer pastures and favorite places of Kurds and (when they're called yaylas) all Anatolian people. But I didn't know it was a name. Call me ignorant. But please, don't ever call me "State."

*Bozan Tekin, PKK commander

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Alphabet Nationalism

A friend has written to me, offering this translation of a recent column by Sevan Nişanyan, in the Turkish daily Taraf ( . I am pleased to post it here, with some editing for usage. My own comments follow.

Alphabet Reform

Sevan Nişanyan - 19.09.2009

Turks are the most incomparable nation in history: okay, fine, we all know that.

But did you know this particular "incomparable" side of Turks?

Turkish is the only language in history which has used eight different alphabets. The closest language to this record is Persian, and it only used four alphabets. The languages in third place have all used only two. I don't remember one that used three.

When they first put Turkish in writing in the 8th century, they used the Köktürk alphabet. It was a home-made alphabet fitting the language. Less than a hundred years passed and Uygurs adapted the Soğd [Sogdian] alphabets and used them for Turkish. Then, when half of the Turks became Buddhist, the Brahmi alphabet imported from India became popular. In the 11th century, the Arabic alphabet was adopted for compliance with Islam and was used for 800 years. In the 20th century, half of Turkish peoples picked or had to pick the Latin alphabet [Turkey] and the other half the Cyrillic alphabet [Soviet Union].

In addition, there is quite a rich Turkish literature written with Armenian and Greek alphabets starting in 14th century.

Now, can you tell me the MEANING of this issue? In the end, an alphabet is a practical communication tool, a signaling system. But at the same time, an alphabet is the most basic, most identifying element of a culture and civilization. In a sense it's a commonality deeper than language and religion. The Greek alphabet has not changed in 2800 years and has probably been the only unchanged element of being Greek. The Hebrew alphabet hasn't changed in 2600 years and has become one with the Jewish national identity. The Latin alphabet was the foundation of Roman Empire and its continuation, Western European civilizations, for 2400 years. Likewise with Arabic alphabet, was with the Chinese, Hindu, Amharic, and Armenian alphabets as well.

So, how are we going to interpret the Turks' changing of alphabets, as if they were changing socks?

And there is more. In history, the only nation that has collectively committed to four major religions -Christianity, Judaism,* Buddhism, and Islam- is the Turks. Years ago Cemal Kafadar mentioned this during a chat, but I didn't pay much attention. Now that I think about it, it's an extremely interesting situation. (
And yes, despite the drab ending to the column, this is an "interesting situation." Actually, I think he forgot one alphabet. The Nestorian Christians from Mesopotamia and Persia (the same people who settled in the high valleys of Hakkari among the Kurds) sent missionaries to Turkestan and Mongolia over the course of many centuries in the early years of the Christian era. Many Turkish-speaking peoples became Christians, and there are grave stones from Turkestan that are written in Turkish using the Aramaic (Syriac) alphabet, the same alphabet still used by the Suryanis in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. So unless someone corrects me on this, I suppose we can make it nine alphabets.

Language is the important thing. In fact, it's been obvious for centuries that there are very few real Turks in Turkey. Kazakhs, Turkomans, Uzbeks, Uygurs: these are all distinctly Central Asian Turkic peoples with Asian features. Today's "Turks" are simply Anatolians who speak Turkish, or who have begun speaking Turkish after giving up their native tongues. (Turkish Nationalists are people who think that all non-traitorous Anatolians are Turkish-speaking Sunni Muslim "Turks.") It's the language that has endured, not the Turkic peoples themselves. Mother Anatolia, that great enveloping land, swallowed up the Turks that migrated from Central Asia and kept their language. Why? Because Turkish makes an excellent common language. Its basic structures are simple, without gender and declensions. (What a relief it must have been after the devilish complexities of Byzantine Greek!) It can easily acquire loan words from other languages, and it has, by the thousands. It has a special talent for taking foreign words and making them into verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. Asahel Grant, the 19th century American physician who is the protagonist of my book Fever & Thirst, stated the case clearly in a letter he wrote home from eastern Anatolia in 1841. Everyone in his caravan, he wrote, whether, Kurd, Armenian, or Turk,** "they all speak Turkish, and in this I converse, think, and dream." (p. 163)

Thus Turkish was, and is, the language of Anatolia. It's the language that's important, not an imposed notion of racial purity.

*The Turkic Khazars of southern Russia and the Crimea adopted Judaism.
**(When 19th century travelers referred to individuals as "Turks," they usually turned out to be Albanians, Circassians, or Bosnians.)

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