Can Turkey justify its horrendous catalogue of human rights’ abuses in
the name of modernity?
I had thought that after years working in Human Rights, I had become
desensitised to horrors inflicted and suffering unlimited.
Torture should have been just another research topic. Talking to
Ipek Firat, the wife of a political prisoner, I was proved wrong.
Turkish prison officers use similar methods of torture as the Algerian
and Iraqi security services. Electric shocks to genitalia, buggery
with broken bottles, ‘water treatment’ (dousing a naked prisoner in cold
water, and opening the cell windows during winter) were examples Nazat
Ashik, a housewife in her fifties recounted. Her son, Mustafa, is
serving a 17 year prison sentence for writing against the government. He
bled from his genitalia for two months before admitting the charge.
Nazat has set up an organisation to help families and prisoners in a similar
situation. How many there are is unknown – no organisation can agree,
even begin to fathom the numbers involved in a country where even criticising
its founding dictator is treason.
In many cases prisoners remain interred long after their terms have
expired. For example, Nazat recently discovered four Egyptians imprisoned
twenty years ago in Bilecik, for protesting against Camp David. They
should have been released two years ago. Knowledge of their existence
Our trip to Istanbul was a paradox: a snapshot of radical Europhilia
and consumerism; of a country mired in the murders of 10,000 political
opponents in ten years. We trudged around the standard sights. Orthodox
monuments and retreats, the Basilica cistern, sign-posted in Latin and
Slavic tongues catered for the tourist. No such considerations for
our unofficial guide Rabia, a Turkish woman, one of thousands of women
banned from university at the beginning of the academic year.
Rabia is articulate, intelligent and determined - a veritable heroine
of a human rights epic that sweeps the nation. She is suspended from
University because she is a practising Muslim. Her sporting of a
headscarf has cost her dear. Her beliefs are part of an ideology dressed
up in the Western psyche as fundamentalist, backward, repressive.
Turkey’s oppression is however thoroughly modern.
This headscarf ban is the most strictly enforced since the coups of
the 1980’s. Treason covers many ‘crimes’ and few Deans are brave enough
to allow their students a choice. A daily battle of wills between
students and academics, more fearful for their liberty than any ‘Islamic’
threat, has ensued. Everyday groups of students arrive at class.
Everyday the police remove them. Everyday the students show their
defiance by holding their own classes on the pavements outside.
I met Ipek Firat at the offices of Mazlumder, a human rights organisation
with 22 branches nation-wide. We stumbled upon a writer facing jail,
for his book on Kurdish orphans bereaved by security forces. The fine of
4 billion TL ($1,200) – beyond his means – was a relief. The separatist
/ terrorist PKK, Marx and Kurds are still an inimical part of the ruling
ethic, but now bigger enemies and bigger victims loom.
Since the1997 ruling by the National Security Council (an amalgam of
politicians and generals) that Muslims were the “number one enemy of the
principles of modern Turkey,” Mazlumder’s offices have been repeatedly
raided. Three were recently closed down, and the organisation’s accounts
frozen. Ipek was detained on a prison visit to her husband Mehmet,
an alleged associate of an Islamist group. Mehmet and Ipek’s cellmate,
journalist Gul Aslan were consistently tortured. Ipek was released
without charge. Her husband ‘confessed’ and is now serving a fifteen
and a twenty two year term consecutively. Aslan’s case hasn’t been
heard after 2 and a half years. I met her in Bandirma Prison.
Gul Aslan in Bandirma Prison
Behind two sets of bars and reinforced perspex, she looked far older
than her 24 years. Her spirit is remarkable. Leaning aside
and disappearing through four sheets of bore holed metal, she scolded me.
“Don’t worry about me,” she smiled, almost smug in her passive resistance.
“The fact that I’m here means they… generals, are scared…it’s only a matter
of time before their rule will end.” How long will that be?
In her lifetime? Conscious that her lifetime could be considerably
shorter than most, she answered, “Maybe, God willing.”
This scares those in whom power resides. The Republic’s founder,
known in Britain as ‘the benign dictator,’ Mustafa Kemal Pasha took on
the title Ataturk – Father of the Turks. Women like Aslan, have had enough
of patriarchy a la Pasha. General friendly and compliant, the mainstream
media neglects to report arrests and protests unless there’s a violent
photo-opportunity. The countrywide demonstrations in support of veiled
students, in October 1998, saw 4 million protestors male, female, veiled
and mini-skirted, hold hands. However, only a skirmish between police
and protestors in Ankara, made news. Inevitably such incidents are
attributed to ‘foreign’ agitation. These are never “Ataturk’s children.”
4 million protest in support of hijab(veil)
The bastardisation of women like Rabia, Ipek and Gul is backfiring.
They have become the new advocates for emancipation. Akit, a well-respected,
secular periodical asked: why not be like Iran? It pointed amongst
others matters to UN statistics: Turkey is significantly behind in the
numbers of women attending and lecturing at university; in the medical
profession and the media. The Ayatollah has outstripped Ataturk.
Turkey’s Islamophobia is one of its more ridiculous emulations of the Europe
its Generals so desperately want to be part of. Istanbul’s elected
mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was prosecuted for statements purporting to
cause division in society (treason once more) – he read out Ottoman poetry
in public. He was sentenced last September to one year of imprisonment
and a lifetime ban from all political activities, to run from the 75th
anniversary of the Republic in October.
Our visit coincided with the anniversary holiday. Ataturk’s image
festooned street lights in celebration. In popular imagination, he
is either devil incarnate or prophet of modernity. These are not
necessarily mutually exclusive. Nietzche’s last man – amoral, apolitical
and above all modern, looked down from Istanbul’s lamp-posts, on his subjects.
Turkey was celebrating his acceptance of civilised, European, universal
ideals. And all were celebrating – government employees ensured dismissal
if they did not attend the commemorative rallies. The End of History would
indeed be nigh, if the West’s perception of Turkey as modernising and an
(almost) democratised state had any meaning.
A crude checklist reveals the delusive success of the Enlightenment
project in the (a)historic land of infidels. Turkish George Michaels
and Madonnas regale on terrestrial and satellite tv. Ads for carpet
shampoo and exotic nightlife purport the existence of values that conceptualise
semi-naked women on billboards selling cars, and a culture of imported
(female) and indigenous (tourist-oriented male) prostitution, as freedom.
Ataturk’s sons and daughters can buy (into) it all. Still they resist.
Westernisation, according to author Emine Senlikoglu, means everything
goes except for political opposition. She currently awaits the outcome
of two cases against her for mooting an independent judiciary on
air. Her first prison term was for a book on freedom of speech. Her
second, was the result of answering from a conference platform, why she
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights granted freedom of expression.
Some rights however are less universal than others. After the Refah
Party was deposed by what incoming ministers called the army’s soft-coup
in 1997, Newsnight was horrified at castigation of the generals, ‘because
all they tried to do was protect Turkey’s secular constitution.’
The price of that protection? A fascism that enforces the liberal
ethos of Western society, without contradiction. We cannot accept
the horror, unless we admit that pro-Islamists, neo-Marxists and others
might just be right: the liberal ethos is as violent and oppressive
as the ‘demons’ it eschews.
Aslan’s husband Tamar still suffers torture. She too was arrested
on a prison-visit. Their three year old daughter sees them every
two weeks. Had she been a criminal, her child could have stayed with
her. Instead Tamar’s parents keep her. “What is your daughter’s
name?” I asked, as the girl ran around the visitors’ hall.
“Azad,” she replied, “FREEDOM.”
Arzu Merali is a freelance journalist and campaigner for human rights.
© Arzu Merali, 1999