Camel greeting

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Censorship and Freedom of Speech – How does Turkey shape up?

I want to come right out and admit I haven’t read any of Paul Auster’s sixteen novels. Sadly, it seems he is not highly esteemed by critics in his native America. I checked out reviews in New Yorker and elsewhere, and the overall tone was dismissive. On the other hand, he is, apparently, much read in Europe, and interestingly, is currently climbing the best-seller lists in Turkey. So it seems a pity that he has refused to visit a potential market of 75 million eager readers.

Paul Auster depicted in The Guardian
What attracted my attention to Mr Auster was the eruption, in the press, of a minor war of words between him and the Turkish Prime Minister. Mr Tayyip Erdoğan is quoted as having said, more or less, “Do we care if he comes or doesn’t come?” Certainly there was no suggestion that Auster would be prevented from entering Turkey. The Leader of the Opposition has made it known that he has issued a personal invitation, and good on him, say I.

Still, the fact remains that Paul Auster clearly wants it on record that he is refusing to honour Turkey with a visit, and it’s a matter of principle, not merely a stunt to publicise himself and increase sales of his books (which are not banned in Turkey). The problem, it seems, is that the Turkish government has been imprisoning “journalists and writers” in numbers, depending on who is telling the story, from forty, to a hundred, to more than a thousand.

Well, I live in the country. I read local newspapers, I watch local television and I take an interest in local affairs. If the government is truly rounding up and imprisoning journalists and writers without due process, I want to know about it. Just across Turkey’s south-eastern border the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has resorted to shelling whole towns whose citizens have expressed discontent with the regime. The tiny island kingdom of Bahrain, on the Persian Gulf, linked to Saudi Arabia by a 25 km causeway, has recently suppressed its own popular uprisings with the help of tanks supplied by its equally tyrannical neighbour.

Turkey, on the other hand, has a democratically elected government. Not everyone loves the AK Party regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, however, and many of my Turkish friends, neighbours and colleagues express their dislike openly. Newspaper columnists blatantly criticise, cartoonists mock and satirise, as far as I can see, without let or hindrance. Television current affairs programmes discuss the issues of the day with seeming impunity. I have heard of no arrests or disappearances among people I know, or people known by people I know.

So who are these “writers” in custody, and why are they there? The first thing that strikes me is Auster’s claim that “nearly a hundred writers” are imprisoned in Turkey. Well, that’s a lot of writers by anyone’s count. Are they full-time journalists, I wonder? Novelists? Poets? Writers of academic textbooks? Or unpublished part-time scribblers like myself? One name that often crops up is Ragip Zarakolu, so I checked him out online, and clearly he is a man with the courage of his convictions. Turkey underwent three military coups between 1960 and 1980, and Mr Zarakolu apparently upset the generals with his challenging of censorship laws relating to human rights abuses, Kurdish nationalism and the Armenian question, among other sensitive issues. In the 1970s and early 80s, he seems to have been in and out of prison, and had his passport revoked by the government of the day. Since the accession of the current AK Party government in 2003, Ragip Bey has faced several prosecutions, but has so far managed to avoid imprisonment, despite, it seems, his continued efforts to publish books and articles on issues generally accepted as requiring careful handling in Turkey.

Two other names that are attracting some sympathy within Turkey are journalists Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener. Unlike most of the other “writers”, these two are more or less mainstream. They seem to have been caught up in the net, along with other people associated with a TV channel, Oda TV, of two major related investigations, known as Ergenekon and Balyoz, that have been going on in Turkey for four or five years. It is extremely difficult to get a handle on exactly what these affairs are all about, but, as I understand, they seem to have something to do with the following:
  • Some sectors of the population who like to consider themselves republican, secularist, Kemalist and nationalist, support the concept of a military takeover when the democratic process doesn’t seem to be producing the results they would like.
  • Groups within the Turkish military have staged three-and-a-half military coups since 1960. They suppressed left-wing dissent, while encouraging ultra-nationalist sentiment and displaying, at best, an ambivalent attitude to the Muslim religion.
  • There is minority but powerful organised opposition to the popularly elected AK Party government of Tayyıp Erdoğan, using overt and clandestine methods against it rather than working through the democratic process and the ballot box.
  • Mr Erdoğan’s government has been working to reduce the influence of the military on the internal political affairs of the nation.
  • Prior to the accession of Mr Erdoğan’s government, there had been serious concern in Turkey about a concept known as ‘Deep State’, which implied some kind of unholy alliance involving high-ranking politicians, police and military personnel, business leaders and organised crime syndicates. One manifestation of this was the so-called “Susurluk” affair, whose intricacies never seemed to be explained to public satisfaction.
  • Critics from the left and right, within Turkey and without, seem to be cooperating in using issues such as Kurdish nationalism, the Armenian issue, freedom of the press and the bogey of Islamic fundamentalism to encourage opposition to the government.

In fact, it’s way too much for most Turkish citizens to understand, never mind a foreigner with a limited grasp of the language. However, it’s hard to live in the country for any length of time without forming some kind of opinion on these matters, and I’d like to share my thoughts with you.

Democracy is a fragile flower that needs careful nurturing. The first genuinely democratic election in Turkey was held in 1950. As has been noted, the democratic process was usurped by three military coups between 1960 and 1980. Ostensibly, government was handed back to the Turkish people in 1983, but some are of the opinion that the newly elected government was engineered by the military leaders.  If you measure democracy by the ability of a country’s citizens to freely elect their government, it could be argued that democracy in Turkey dates from 1997, the last time the Turkish military interfered to depose an elected government.  

Fifteen years is not a long time. The United States Declaration of Independence, promulgated in 1776, asserted, among other things:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. “

At that time in US history, “the People” were “men”. It would be 164 years before women were given the constitutional right “to alter or abolish” governments. African Americans were definitely not “People”, since the practice of slavery continued until the 13th Amendment abolished it in 1865. I’m not even going to mention the Native Americans’ situation, but it must be fair to say that legal and socially sanctioned racial segregation continued for much of the 20th century.

Clearly, democracy is a controversial term in itself. How do you measure it? Elsewhere I have noted the tendency of undemocratic regimes to make liberal use of the term. The right to vote is generally cited as an important cornerstone of the democratic process, but how much power does that really give us? Emma Goldman, once described as ‘the most dangerous woman in America’, is reputed to have said: “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal”. Cynical, you’d have to say, especially since she lived from 1869 to1940. But sometimes you wonder, don’t you? I can’t find who first came up with the pithy aphorism: “America has the best democracy money can buy”, but look at the facts. Lobbying is a multi-million dollar industry in the US. Wall St and the financial industry spent hundreds of million of dollars on lobbyists influencing lawmakers to deregulate their industry so that they could fleece investors, fill their own pockets and undermine the entire US economy. Elected representatives move out of Congress and into highly paid jobs using their ‘insider’ knowledge and contacts on behalf of wealthy clients in the lobbying industry. In short, if you can’t afford to lobby, forget democracy.

I don’t want to go into the matter here – anyway, I have touched on it in an earlier post – but it could be argued that, at least beyond their own shores, governments in the United States tend to prefer autocratic, dictatorial regimes. On the whole, it is easier and more straightforward to deal with governments that don’t have to take into account the fickle opinions of an enfranchised electorate.

But I’m getting away from Turkey here, and the issue we started with, which is freedom of speech, or more specifically freedom of the press. Ideally it’s desirable that writers should be free to express themselves, politically or artistically, without fear of harassment or imprisonment. Undoubtedly, in Turkey, that is not always the case, while the US situation has apparently improved since the “Dubya” Bush administration passed into history. However, it’s not a clear-cut issue. Obviously there are areas where other factors take precedence over freedom of speech: incitement to crime, child pornography, defamation, and national security, to name a few. Turks, for example, have fallen victim to curtailment of freedom with the French Government’s recent decision to prevent them from defending themselves against accusations of genocide against Armenians.

As we noted above, democratic freedoms in Turkey are not as well-established as in most Western democracies. Turkey as a nation came into being in 1923 after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. It’s founding principle, Turkish nationalism, was a new concept that had to be introduced and established in order to create a viable state. In the cauldron of war and political and economic upheaval, undoubtedly myths were invented and half-truths disseminated. Minority rights were overlooked or shelved, as in all national struggles, in the interests of unity. It is only in recent years, perhaps the last decade, that Turks have come to feel confident enough in their own identity that they can permit discussion of issues such as, for example, the Kurdish question, and the place of religion in a secular state. That these issues can now be discussed openly is a measure of an increasing maturity of Turkish society.

Paul Auster is, of course, entitled to his opinion about Turkey – though one might have hoped that an open-minded writer would want to visit the country and form his own opinions, rather than rely on those of others. He refers, for example, to the international organization PEN, formed in 1921 “to promote friendship and intellectual co-operation among writers everywhere”. When you check their website, you can’t escape the feeling that literary aims have taken a back seat these days to a political agenda. That’s their right, too, certainly, and their aims may be very worthy, but perhaps they should consider changing their name so that it gives a more honest indication of their raison d’etre.

One similar organization which does that, is Reporters Without Borders (RSF). They publish an index each year indicating how they rate countries in terms of journalistic freedom. They are unabashedly a political organization, though, again, their name is a little deceptive. Clearly it was intended to reflect a similarity of purpose to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), whose members give assistance to people in countries whose own governments, for whatever reason, are unable to do so. While the very presence of MSF doctors in a country may imply failures on the part of that country’s government, for the most part, they seem to refrain from making political judgments.

Still, the world of art is in a different universe, and artists are jealous of their freedom to express. Another writer who has been in trouble in Turkish courts is the novelist Orhan Pamuk. Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, though he is not well-loved, nor, as far as I can learn, much read in his own country (at least in the books that won him the big prize). I worked my way through one-and-a-half novels from his prize-winning canon, albeit in translation, and I have to confess I found them barely readable – though that may not always be a disadvantage when it comes to winning literary awards. A more positive advantage may be the expressing of political views that do not endear the writer to his own government. Pamuk was charged under Turkish Law with insulting the Turkish Republic, for suggesting that Turks were responsible for the mass killing of Kurds and Armenians. Interestingly, the charges were subsequently dropped, and the lawyer instrumental in instigating the case, has been arrested as a player in the Ergenekon investigation discussed above.

Well, that’s a good sign, for sure. Whatever you may think about Pamuk as a giant of literature, you can’t say he really deserves to be locked up. And if the aforesaid lawyer turns out to have been an ultra-nationalist right-wing fanatic making death threats against well-meaning novelists, then justice in Turkey may have turned the corner. On the other hand, there are those in the country who hold that Ergenekon is a fictitious creation of the AK Party government to silence opposition. Another journalist, Tuncay Özkan, arrested in the round-up, recently appealed against his arrest to the European Court of Human Rights. Perhaps surprisingly, the European Court rejected Özkan’s complaint, and defined Ergenekon as a “terrorist organization attempting to topple the government by the use of force.”

So, what do you make of all that? As that great comic genius Spike Milligan used to say, “It’s all rather confusing, really.” As an outsider, I am not really competent to make a definitive statement, but what I can say is this. Unlike Paul Auster, I came to Turkey. I live here, and have formed my own opinions about the country and its people. If Mr Auster comes, I can take him to easily accessible bookshops where he can purchase reading matter on all the controversial issues, from Kurdish nationalism to the Assyrian ‘genocide’. I can show him ample evidence of a healthy press sounding off against the ruling government, seemingly without fear of imprisonment and torture. He can watch (with a little assistance) current affairs programmes on several television channels discussing all the questions of the day. And no doubt he’ll be happy to see his own novels climbing the local best-seller lists.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Turkey and New Zealand - Border Monuments

Regular readers may remember a piece I wrote a year or so ago about the Turkish dessert, ashure. My short essay won a competition on the website 'Changing Turkey in  Changing World'.  I attempted to retain my title in their second 'Big Idea' competition, but this time I could only manage runner-up.  The topic was:

Border monuments are often designed to celebrate mobility and interconnectedness. According to the architect Cecil Balmond, “A border offers identity but one that is enriched by neighbours, so that it’s not so much a line of separation as a local set of interconnected values.”
We are seeking short essays (max. 1,500 words) on any European border monument. Entries are invited on these or any other border monuments located in Europe. We are particularly interested in learning why those monuments were built in the first place and how they contribute to the connection between two separate communities.

And here's my response . . . 


The question calls for a European border monument, so I should briefly explain why I am focussing on four – two of which are far from Europe. In doing so, I have in mind questions of my own: If borders are lines drawn to keep people apart, is their real existence on a map, or in the human mind? Do values connect on the ground, or in the mind? Does the uniting of people take place in a physical location – or in the mind?


My home these days is in Istanbul, but I come from a country about as far from Turkey as it is possible to get. My hometown, Auckland, New Zealand, is 17,000 kilometres away. Carry on a little further, you’ll cross the International Dateline into yesterday, and be on your way back. When my father’s ancestors left the old country, Scotland, in June, 1842, they endured a four-month sea voyage. When I board my Airbus 340-600 on 13 January, I’ll be looking at a trip of 31 hours and 20 minutes. I will check out with Turkish Police at Atatürk Airport, and get a going-over from the NZ border people when I arrive in Auckland. In between, I will fly over half the world, mostly at an altitude of around 10,000 metres.

It is self-evident that borders these days are not as straightforward as they used to be. Turkey has an almost 10,000 kilometre-long border on land and sea – but where do customs officers do most of their business? Airports, I guess. New Zealand has 15,000 kilometres of coastline, and no border with another country – yet we are one of the world’s most peripatetic people, constantly crossing international borders, especially to destinations in Europe, where most of us have our roots.

Not many New Zealanders have roots in Turkey. However, a surprisingly large number visit the country each year – many of them on a pilgrimage that has become an annual event towards the end of April. They flock to the town of Çanakkale, attend a solemn dawn parade with politicians and neighbours from Australia, and visit the cemeteries and killing-fields of that long-ago exercise in military futility, the Gallipoli invasion.

The first time I visited that desolate landscape was with a group from the Turkish school where I had begun working as a teacher of English. The date was 18 March, a few weeks before the latter-day Anzacs would arrive, but the day on which Turks commemorate their victory. The highlight for me was ascending to the ridge overlooking the peninsula, known to Turks as Conk Bayırı, and in Anzac legend as Chunuk Bair. This narrow strip of land was the key to the campaign, and the objective of a twelve-day battle in August 1915. Reports tell us that it was the only Allied success of the entire Gallipoli invasion – sad when you consider that a small force of New Zealanders fought their way up and held the ridge for a mere 48 hours, suffering horrendous losses, before being driven off by the Ottoman counter-attack.

The positive thing, from a New Zealand point-of-view is that there, on that ridge of ghosts, stand two memorials. The larger one commemorates the hero of the Ottoman defence, Colonel Mustafa Kemal, who went on to become the founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey. Alongside is a second shrine, to the memory of the young men from New Zealand who fought and died on that lonely ridge, so far from home and family. It is this latter monument on which I will focus, and to which we will return.
Atatürk Memorial,
Wellington, NZ

Seventeen thousand kilometres away, on a hillside near Wellington, the capital city of New Zealand, a site chosen for its remarkable similarity to the terrain of Gallipoli, stands another monument, this one to the memory of that same Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk). There is no line on any map linking or separating the two countries. The distance between them is as great as possible between two places on planet Earth – yet these two monuments so far apart, represent an interconnectedness, a sharing of history and values, that transcend mere physical distance.

Young men from New Zealand and Australia, loyal citizens of the British Empire, spent a month travelling by ship to Europe, to fight for King and Country in the Great War.  Thousands of them never returned, but left their remains on foreign fields. One might expect that Turks, at least, would harbour some ill-feeling against people who travelled so far with aggressive intent – but it is not so. Inscribed on that monument near Wellington are the magnanimous words of the Turkish leader:

“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives . . . You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours . . . You, the mothers, who sent your sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

It was in recognition of this great-heartedness, that the government of New Zealand raised a memorial to Atatürk on the ridge above Tarakena Bay, and in acknowledgment of the Turkish government’s allowing the building of the NZ shrine at Chunuk Bair – commemorating the 850 Kiwi ‘Johnnies’ who ‘lie in the bosom’ of the Turkish Republic. These two monuments link the hearts and minds of two nations whose birth pangs can be traced to those bloody months on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915. The words of a Turkish poet, Necmettin Halil Onan, are inscribed in huge letters on a hillside overlooking the Dardanelle Straits, and the lines could be as true for New Zealand as for Turkey:

Traveler, pause. An era ended
Where you heedless tread. Listen
And hear, in the silence of this
Mound, a nation’s beating heart. [1]

But there is more to this connection. A few years ago I was wandering along Raglan Beach, on the West Coast of New Zealand’s North Island, when I chanced upon three carved wooden sculptures, unmistakably Maori: a traditional tattooed male figure, a bird and a dolphin, all silver-grey and weathered by the winds and salt spray sweeping in from two thousand kilometres of one of the world’s wildest seas.

Aotearoa, as the indigenous Maori people call New Zealand, is a lonely, isolated land, bordered on all sides by vast oceans, and, it goes without saying, no contiguous neighbours. Anthropologists tell us that these islands were the last habitable landmass to be populated by humans, who made their landing less than a thousand years ago. Those first arrivals, the Maori, maintained their splendid isolation for perhaps five centuries before Europeans began to arrive from the late 1700s. For the next hundred years, immigrants from Europe faced a journey of four months on a sailing ship. And there we are to this day, descendants of those intrepid pioneers, inhabiting a cluster of islands in the South Pacific Ocean, far from our roots in the British Isles, speaking a language whose closest relations are half a world away. The carved figures are not of European origin, yet they speak eloquently of our isolation, and search for identity.

I have seen a lot of Turkey, but there is a line I have yet to travel – east from the capital Ankara through the Anatolian cities of Sivas, Erzincan and Erzurum, to Kars and the Armenian border. Out there, 1174 kilometres, and a universe away from the European metropolis of Istanbul, lies the town of Manzikert (Malazgirt in Turkish) in the province of Muş. As every Turkish school child will tell you, this was the site of a battle in 1071 CE, when the forces of the Seljuk Turkish Sultan Alparslan defeated the army of the Byzantine Emperor, Romanus Diogenes. His victory opened the way for Turks to sweep into Anatolia, where they remain today – in defiance of the feelings of many Western Europeans, who wish they would return to whence they came.

My fourth monument is there, in that remote East Anatolian town – erected in 1989 to commemorate a long ago battle. It may be debatable whether this edifice is in Europe, but the Turks indisputably are, as out of place with their language and traditions as we white New Zealanders are down there in the South Pacific. It’s a strange world we live in, and sources of conflict are easy to find. The borders we draw, on the ground and in our minds, are often lines of defence. Crossing them to make connections requires imagination and breadth of vision. My four monuments can be seen as unconnected and irrelevant – or as pointers to a new world where we seek the values we share, rather than the differences that divide us.

Word count (including Preamble) = 1495

1 My translation