What is behind Erdoğan’s Palace Fetish?

Definitely, Erdoğan has an obsession with palaces. Journalist Murat Bardakçı recently reported that Yıldız Palace, a 19th century Ottoman palace most famously used by Sultan Abdülhamit II, was now allocated for use of the Turkish presidency. In her last state visit to Turkey, Erdoğan hosted Chancellor Merkel there. Only in İstanbul, presently there appears to be three presidential residences: Huber Villa (Tarabya campus), Çengelköy Villa that is lately renewed and Yıldız Palace. Now I say “villa” and “residence” but you should know that they are actually compounds comprising of many buildings.

Mabeyn Pavillion at Yıldız Palace Compound.

The Great Mabeyn Pavillion at Yıldız Palace.

Çengelköy Villa is also known as Vahdettin Villa, named after the last Ottoman sultan who is regarded as a disgraced figure by many. Mostly because he ordered Atatürk’s death as he opposed İstanbul’s rule in his bid to start war of independence. The sultan eventually left İstanbul by a British vessel. Yet, unsurprisingly, in the “alternative” history writing of the Islamists, he is a revered ruler who actually sent Atatürk off to Anatolia to start the war of independence. But then the sneaky Atatürk betrayed him and abolished the sultanate, Islamists believe. Erdoğan’s choice to utilize Vahdettin Villa says a lot. The same thing goes also for the Yıldız Palace that is associated with Sultan Abdülhamit II who is another a poster boy for conservatives. A very smart leader, Abdülhamit II sought to unite whatever remains of the Ottoman Empire through Islamic identity as the Empire had lost most of its provinces in Europe and held generally Muslim-populated lands. Some Islamists go as far as seeing him as a saint and his rule as an anti-thesis for secular system. In addition to being a figure of greatness, he is also a victim as he was deposed by the progressive Young Turks that restored the Ottoman Constitution of 1876. Of course, Islamists do not know and/or go great lengths to overlook the fact that Abdülhamit was pretty much a European monarch: he loved opera, theater, Sherlock Holmes novels and, according to one of his grandsons Ertuğrul Osmanoğlu, drinking rom.

Changes in Ankara are pretty much in line with those in İstanbul. In an unprecedented move, Çankaya which was built in Atatürk’s time and had been the residence of the Turkish presidents since, was given to the Prime Ministry. In historic Çankaya’s stead, a new palace with 1150 rooms that could be rivalled by only Ceausescu’s palace in size and tastelessness, was built in 2014. The official cost was $615 million but Turkey’s Housing Development Administration (TOKİ) rejected to state the real cost of the presidential complex because it could “hurt the economy”. With a bigger palace came also a much bigger budget: from 55 million Turkish lira in 2008, the Presidency’s budget increased to 397 million ($137.7 million) in 2015. The money wasted was not the only cost, however. The complex was built on Atatürk Forest Farm. The construction destroyed much of the one of Atatürk’s most important legacies, hundreds of trees were cut down. Though from the Gezi Park protests, you may already know that Erdoğan is no big fan of green spaces. Nor is he a fan of the law. So the construction went on despite the court decision to halt it.

Much as I dislike the reasons behind choosing these specific historic structures for use of presidency, I support restoring and renewing them as well as occasionally using them for various state events. That would be a perfectly reasonable way to keep them alive. But does the office of presidency need this many palaces? Or is it one man’s ego that needs them so much? Erdoğan’s supporters seem to believe that the recent presidential extravagance displays “greatness” of Turkey. For them, it is a display of power both in international stage and in the domestic arena, a restoration of the former glory of the Ottoman Empire. Though I think the Ottomans fancied by them so much would have strongly disagreed with them. In the peak of its power, the vast Ottoman Empire was being ruled from Topkapı Palace that was indeed very modest compared to palaces in Europe and Russia. The greatest Turkish architect Sinan, the head architect of Suleiman the Magnificent, never really built a single mighty palace but many mosques, bridges and baths… Until the protocol of 19th century made it necessary, Ottoman emperors did not think to build and live in lavish palaces. Of course, the Empire was weak in the 19th century and perhaps, through the palaces matching those of Europe, it needed to show that it was still in the game. In the 15th and 16th centuries, might of the Empire could be observed in its mosques, military structures, fountains not in its original, practical but extremely modest palaces… So, a look at the history shows that there exists a negative correlation between power of the Turkish state and the level of fancy for palaces.

Topkapı Palace

Topkapı Palace

Restoring residences of Sultan Vahdettin and Sultan Abdülhamit II as presidential offices, destroying much of Atatürk Forest Farm, abandoning Çankaya as presidential residence and holding state events in İstanbul so frequently as if it were the capital of the country are intensely ideological choices. In the process, laws are ignored, as is economic rationality. The whole thing that is costing too much and gaining nothing for the people, is being presented as a necessary step to increase the country’s international recognition. The people who are still obsessively envisioning an Ottoman comeback are more than willing to swallow this.

Hence, behind every shining object in these palaces, there is a something very rotten.

The Birth and Rebirth of Gezi Protests

A protestor looks on during clashes with Turkish police near Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan office, between Taksim and Besiktas, early morning on June 4, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

June 4, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) Source.

A year ago, the Turks poured into the streets to voice their demands of freedom, justice, and their right to live in a non-concrete environment. Young and educated people had been fed up being constantly alienated, insulted and discriminated by the ‘pious’ rulers of the country. And they defied. In a great sense of solidarity, people of very different ethnicities, political thoughts and socio-economic backgrounds got together and stood against police brutality, oppression of basic rights. Gezi Park protests inspired songs, various artworks, documentaries, other protests in even faraway countries… It was elegant, it was colorful, creative and magnificently humorous. I daresay, even too post-modern for a country like Turkey. Gezi changed lives of many.

It was Gezi protests that prompted me to start to write this blog. I had always been a political person but the last summer was the first time that I felt compelled to write. Not in Turkish, as the Turks already knew what was happening. But in English, as I thought the world had to know about our perspective of the events, too.

I am not talking about a memory. Even as you read this, protesters are trying to get over the roads that are blocked by the police and access to Taksim Square. We are marking only the beginning of Gezi. It did not end and nor will it, any time soon. Because firstly, when you create something that beautiful and powerful, it will not die out easily.

And secondly, the problems that sparked the protests off remain unresolved. Actually, they got even worse. The PM who was accused of lacking sense of empathy in 2013, now goes to a disaster-hit town where 301 people died and physically attacks a mourner, turning what was supposed to be a solemn national mourning into a farce. He can interrupt a ceremonial speech, shout at the speaker and storm out. He can ignore court decisions and refuse to answer for strongly-substantiated corruption allegations. Now in this a country social media can easily be banned. There’s now a bigger deficit of empathy, understanding and tolerance. Compared to the Turkey 2013, we now face more authoritarianism, less justice, rule of law and individual freedoms…

We shouldn’t think Gezi didn’t achieve a great deal, though. It did. Things may get much worse before getting better. But we don’t have the luxury to fall into despair. To eventually prevail, right should at least be as persistent as wrong.

İstanbul’s Third Bridge: Why So Grim?

The 2nd Bosphorus Bridge, named after Mehmet the Conqueror.

The 2nd Bosphorus Bridge, named after Mehmet the Conqueror.

In 1995, then the Mayor of İstanbul Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said:

A third bridge is a murder for İstanbul. It is nothing but massacring the remaining green areas in the city’s north by zoning the area for construction. I hope the government will change without this murder being committed.

The government of the time changed and so did Erdoğan’s position, dramatically. Now he is taking the credit for building that third bridge that he once fiercely opposed. As can be seen from Erdoğan’s past remark, topic of a new bridge on Boshphorus has always sparked controversies. But distinctively, the current debate focuses more on the bridge’s name than on concerns about urban development. Without any open criteria, surveys or consultations with NGOs, the government announced it had named the bridge after 9th emperor of the Ottoman Empire Yavuz Sultan Selim (Yavuz being his nickname, usually translated as “the Grim” or more correctly “the Stern”) who is, to put it mildly, a highly unpopular figure among Turkey’s large Alevi community that practices a uniquely heterodox way of Islam.

Alevis openly expressed their opposition, due to the fact that many Anatolian Alevis were persecuted and killed during Selim’s campaigns against Safavid Iran at the beginning of the 16th century. Ali Balkız, head of Alevi-Bektaşi Federation, said “We, Alevis, will not pass through that bridge.” Columnist Yavuz Semerci stated he would continue calling it “The Third Bridge” instead of “Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge”. Prof. İzzettin Doğan, honorary president of an umbrella association of many Alevi NGOs, said “A mistake was made at a time when sectarian wars are being provoked in the region. Selim is believed to be responsible of massacre of countless Alevis…” Renowned historian Prof. İlber Ortaylı suggested that the name Mimar Sinan who was the chief architect of three Ottoman sultans, would be more appropriate. Even Fethullah Gülen, a cleric who is controversially close the ruling party AKP, spoke up: After talking of cultural and emotional “bridges” between Sunnis and Alevis in Turkey, he said “Because of one bridge, let’s not destroy many others”. Other intellectuals also voiced similar concerns and suggestions.

Of all the thirty-six sultans the Ottoman Empire had, choosing Selim the Stern sends a message, people believe. This issue is clearly a part of a wider “war of symbols” that is now occurring within an extremely polarized Turkish society. But to understand this domestic squabble that has historical roots, we should separate it from the bigger picture and take a look at Selim’s legacy and what it means for both conservatives represented by the ruling AKP and also Alevis.

As can be understood from his nickname, Selim was ferocious: he killed his brothers Prince Korkut and Prince Ahmet along with their sons and dethroned his peaceful father Bayezit II in a coup. (This kind of makes Erdoğan’s praise of Selim ironic, considering how he dramatically portrayed himself and Mohamed Mursi as victims because of “coup attempts” in Turkey and Egypt’s actual coup.) He was always very war-like. Even when he was Sancakbeyi (a title close to governor) of Trabzon and a prince, he attacked Georgians, took Kuban and made bold moves against the Safavids — actions greatly exceeding his authority. He had a very angry character. He never tolerated the officers who failed and lied to him, was famous for having his Grand Viziers executed. There’s no doubt that he was a military genius: He won every battle he fought decisively, used the latest technology of his time to bring his enemies to their knees. İlber Ortaylı points out that he passed through Sinai desert with fewer casualties than Cemal Paşa did during World War I.

Selim’s reign was not long -only 8 years- but in his short era the Empire’s lands more than doubled. He visited İstanbul only once, in his childhood and during his rule, he spent almost all his time on military campaigns. So, he barely lived in İstanbul, which according to some, makes his name less relevant for the bridge which will become one of the symbols of the city.

At the beginning of 16th century, Shah İsmail I of Safavid Empire made Shia the official sect of Iran, had it embraced as also a kind of ideology and was trying to export it to Anatolia. The Shah sent his militants to Anatolia to spread the Safavid doctrine of Shi’ism. Even as a young prince Selim was aware of the threat and angry at his father for not taking action against the Safavids. So after taking his father’s throne by force and eliminating the possible candidates for emperorship, he started his Iranian campaign in 1514. After following Shah’s army for months, Ottoman army met Safavid forces on a plain called Chaldiran. There, the Safavids suffered a disastrous defeat that forced the wounded Shah flee from the battlefield. The Ottomans advanced even further and took Tabriz which was then the capital of Iran. During the war, many Alevis were killed and the incidents left a mark in the memory of their community. It’s said that 40.000 Alevis were killed, although some experts question this figure as 16th century’s census documents (a.k.a. tahrir defterleri, special documents that include many statistics for taxation) do not indicate such a loss of population.

There was also a cultural side to the war. The Safavid dynasty and its army were Turkish, as well, which made it easy for some Turkmen Beys in Anatolia to pledge their allegiance to the Shah. The Ottoman Empire was more cosmopolitan, urban, and orthodoxly Islamic. The Safavids, however, were representing a more rural and Anatolian culture, more tolerant of Turkmen Alevis’ nomadic roots and heterodox ways, therefore, I daresay they were “more Turkish” in some respect. For instance, today an average Turk in Turkey would understand poems of İsmail I much better than he would understand Selim’s poems, for Selim used a Turkish that is mixed with Persian and Arabic (in some poems he used only Persian), whereas İsmail’s Turkish was pure, clear and closer to modern Turkish.

The conflict was ultimately more strategic than sectarian. Selim was relentless towards Anatolian Alevis not because he believed their faith was twisted but because he saw them as collaborators of the Shah. He didn’t give Alevis the kind of autonomy that he granted the Kurdish tribes who were located to today’s South-East Turkey to encounter Iranian influence.

His Mamluk campaign is another factor that enhances Selim image in minds of today’s conservatives. Between 1516 and 1517, with three battles, Selim annihilated Mamluk Sultanate, ruled by a Turkish-Circassian dynasty, conquering much of the Middle East including the sacred cities of Islam. For that he took the title “Servant of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina”. Most of the sacred objects exhibited today at Topkapı Palace in İstanbul were brought in his time. More importantly, he was the first Ottoman emperor to officially take the title “Caliph of Islam”.

Tomb of Selim the Stern (Photo taken by Sinan Doğan)

Tomb of Selim the Stern (Photo taken by Sinan Doğan)

Hence, for most of those represented by AKP, Selim is a hero, whereas, for Alevis, he is an oppressive and atrocious figure. A well-known law professor Hüseyin Hatemi, went as far as saying “For Alevis, Selim is what Hitler means for Jews.” Undoubtedly, the bridge bearing his name will be a reminder of past sufferings and bloodshed for the country’s large Alevi community. And instead of pride, they will take offense from that grandeur structure. Among all Ottoman emperors, Selim is perhaps the most divisive figure. That’s why many other names that are more relevant and less controversial were recommended to the PM. But his “my way or the high way” attitude still continues.

For long, Alevis have been at odds with the AKP government over a number of matters. They have been expecting reforms regarding the status of their temples, structure of Directorate of Religious Affairs, contents of compulsory religion lessons at schools and so forth. Yet the PM’s recently unveiled democratization package addressed none of these issues, causing disappointment and anger. For that, they now feel even more excluded.

Plus, choosing Selim the Stern seems to be a promotion of an identity that is more Muslim and “Ottoman” less Turkish, more “imperial” less national. That’s why he has a special place in conservative minds. That’s why 122 schools in Turkey bear his name. That’s why the bridge’s foundation ceremony was conducted with prayers and lots of references to Ottoman glory. Yet, a part of the society, the part that is socio-economically more developed, the part that joined massive Gezi Park protests, does not intend to wear this identity whatsoever. This is not because they hate “Ottoman” and “Selim” images particularly, but because they hate the fact that the government tries to make them to be like its own voters who are more pious and obedient.

A bridge is supposed to connect, but considering the motives of the government, it seems that this one is doomed to divide.

Gülen Schools, Their Goals and How They Are Perceived in Turkey

A scene from a new Turkish school in Sendai, Japan.

A scene from a new Turkish school in Sendai, Japan.

Gülen schools is a strange subject, so much information is actually available on it but not the information you search for. For instance, we don’t even really know how many Gülen schools there are. Because there isn’t an organizational structure that ties the schools directly to Fethullah Gülen. (To get to know him, you should definitely read this piece by Claire Berlinski.) He’s more like an honorary leader who inspired them. The schools are generally founded by members of Gülen Movement (a.k.a. Cemaat in Turkey, meaning “the Communion”) that is neither an NGO nor a group that requires any kind of registration. But in 2011, Helen Rose Ebaugh of University of Houston, said on CNNTürk “the best estimate is that there are around 2000 schools, half of them are abroad.” These schools include universities, language schools, high schools, elementary schools and dersanes – that are privately owned schools that prepare Turkish students for university entrance exam (YGS), public personnel selection exam (KPSS) and so forth…

Gülen schools abroad definitely have more sympathy and respect in Turkey than those at home do. They enjoy quite a lot of intellectual support, not only from notoriously pro-government and pro-Gülen Movement (GM) authors, but also from truly respected names of various sides of the political spectrum.

“Bridges of Peace: The Turkish Schools That Opened to the World”, first published in 2005, contains articles and interviews of twenty seven academicians and writers on Gülen schools abroad, sheds some light on possible goals of the schools. A big proportion of the contributors are well-known supporters of AKP and the GM yet to see some names there might really surprise Turkish readers or informed non-Turkish readers. The first surprising name is the late Bülent Ecevit, former Prime Minister of Turkey, who was leading a left-wing party and was very fond of secularism. The first thing impressed Ecevit who was also a poet, was the importance given to teaching of Turkish language at the schools. For him, Ottoman Empire didn’t bother much teaching Turkish in its lands and these schools are now fixing that very mistake. It can be inferred from his statements on the interview that Ecevit saw Turkish way of Islam as the best alternative to Saudi Arabian and Iranian kinds, which, according to him, do not fit to our age and therefore Gülen schools representing Turkish Islam should be favored. In a trip to Albania he received teachers of a Gülen school there and he said “I know I will be criticized by some, but I appreciate the works done here.” And as he anticipated, he was criticized vigorously. Another name worth mentioning is the late Gündüz Aktan who served as Turkey’s ambassador to Kenya, Switzerland, Greece and Japan respectively, and was an MP from MHP (Nationalist Movement Party). Aktan argues that while judging merits of these schools, internal squabbles should be put aside. He tells how he was amazed by success of the language schools opened in Japan: “First they opened a language school. It was to teach Turkish, then they decided to add courses of other Turkic languages and Russian, imported teachers. When I was leaving Japan in middle of 1998, there were -if I am not wrong- three language schools in three different cities. And I saw reports in the Japanese press that Turkish was ranked as the 4th foreign language that the Japanese were most interested in.” He says that the teachers who made Turkish language popular there in just two years, had a missionary spirit and they were working for very low salaries. “I sometimes even wondered whether they were hungry”, he adds.

Prof. İlber Ortaylı.

Prof. İlber Ortaylı.

İlber Ortaylı, a professor of history who has a huge following in Turkey, also implies that Gülen schools could actually be called missionary schools: “A society that felt disturbed much by the missionary activities in 19th century… now spreads similar schools.” He argues that such schools abroad are a matter of political influence and should be supported, emphasizing “Secular France is behind its Catholic schools. Britain is behind its Protestant schools.” But he also notes that conversion is hardly observed, just like happened at missionary schools within the Ottoman Empire. For Ortaylı, perhaps the biggest perk of the schools is that they would create Turcophile communities in other countries, especially among the elites: “We have seen no Russian who became Muslim. But the kids learn Turkish and grow very fond of Turkey… In future, this will, of course, create a well-educated Turcophile class. Because those are smart kids, selected by exams and are being trained meticulously at low-size classrooms… They embrace Turkish traditions and lifestyle, like showing respect to the elders, being clean and not drinking alcohol… That’s why parents in St. Petersburg and Moscow -including the elites of the cities’ bureaucracy- fancy these schools much.” He also points out that the schools also help Turkish entrepreneurs who do or want to do business in foreign countries and in return, they are glad to make contributions to the schools. There other interesting names in the book: Strictly Kemalist academician Prof. Toktamış Ateş (one of the editors of the book); worldwide famous Kyrgyz author Cengiz Aytmatov and Prof. Büşra Ersanlı who is a socialist and a supporter of pro-Kurdish BDP…

Surely not everyone thinks these schools are such houses of endless goodwill. For instance; some Kemalists and socialists believe that Gülen schools, especially those in Central Asia, are actually tools of American imperialism and they were established to bring the people there a new ideology and identities that are pro-American. But the real dissidence surfaces when it comes to activities of GM within Turkey, which, of course, include its educational works.

To get the view, we need to mention ışık evleri (can be translated as “houses of light”) that are houses where the GM trains university students. These rented houses are supervised by older students called ağabeyler (elder brothers) and ablalar (elder sisters). The GM, in general, selects especially poor, smart and hardworking students when they are preparing for university entrance exam (or much earlier) and when the students get in a university, they transfer them to an ışık house. In these houses, they have to obey their supervisors which often means they have to read certain newspapers like Zaman, journals like Sızıntı; watch TV channels like STV and some religious channels, join religious conversation meetings, study and practice their religion, avoid wearing open clothes and having a girlfriend or a boyfriend… Although they do not bluntly force the students -anyone is free to stay on or leave-, they constantly suggest to pray and be religious. A study titled “Being Different in Turkey: Religion, Conservatism and Otherization” done by Boğaziçi University in 2008, presents some interesting stories from students who stayed in ışık houses and the GM dormitories. A teacher from Aydın complains about one of his/her 6th grade student’s decrease in performance and constant sleepy look. After investigating, the teacher finds out that the student’s dormitory makes him wake up very early for the morning prayer and read books of Said-i Nursi, a deceased cleric that the GM hugely respects. Another teacher from Batman, who found out that one of his students suffers from the same problem, says “The kid wakes up 4:00 am in the morning to perform morning prayer, then studies Arabic. He hardly has any time left for the school’s lessons.” The teacher also points out that the GM “catches” bright students from rural areas when they are at 6th or 7th grade. There are also complaints that some kids estranged and turned hostile to their families after staying at GM’s houses.

And there’s the matter of dersanes. Since public schools ridiculously fail to train their students for university entrance exam (YGS), there are private schools focuses specifically on preparing students for such exams and they’re called dersanes. The GM is known to have many of those. According to a report by daily Cumhuriyet, there are 4.000 licensed dersanes in the country and 60% of them are the GM’s. 80% of dersane publications are also theirs.

In 2005 and 2006, I also attended to a dersane that is said to be tied to Gülen Movement. I chose that school not because I had a great sympathy for the movement but because it wanted the lowest tuition. So my choice was entirely economical which was perhaps a sign of that I would end up being an economist. As I observed, teachers were very warm, friendly and doing their jobs pretty well. I never witnessed any direct indoctrination based on religion or the GM but I have seen some out-of-the-ordinary things, too. For example; there were some religious references even in math problems (like choosing names from Islamic sagas) and in the biology book, along with the evolution theory, there was mention of creation which the teacher preferred to skip… There was a praying room in the dersane, something cannot be had at public schools. Some of the female teachers wore headscarves but not at the class. There were also headscarved students -again something cannot happen at public schools- who were once sent off to their homes when inspectors of the Ministry of Education came to pay a visit. And when we were watching the movie Troy at the dersane’s conference room, a teacher incompetently attempted to censor sex scene of Orlando Bloom and Diane Kruger, which actually made us see the scene twice instead of once. Thus, based on my own observation, I can say that the GM’s dersanes are not such conversion centers. I had two close friends there, one from high school and another I have met there, and all three of us were very very distanced to AKP and the GM. And in 2013, our thoughts on the two remain unchanged for the better.

Of course, there have been more serious developments than the funny little things I have personally seen. For instance; in 2010, head of ÖSYM (Student Selection and Placement Center) Ünal Yarımağan resigned due to allegations of cheating in KPSS (Public Personnel Selection Exam). The allegation was that the questions were stolen and given to GM’s dersanes. After Yarımağan who publicly complained about the changes imposed on ÖSYM by the government was replaced by Ali Demir, about a dozen of scandals occurred including shady exams allegedly tied to the GM and its dersanes and a plagiarism accusation to Prof. Demir. (The British academic who made the accusation accepted a written apology published in a magazine, aborted the investigation on Demir.) A report also revealed that majority of ÖSYM personnel are first and second degree relatives of each other. The scandals stained reputation of ÖSYM that supervises all the exams that select and place personnel for state institutions, and increased existing suspicions about the GM. It’s widely believed these current corruption cases including the ones in the police organization (some of them were revealed and documented in a book by Hanefi Avcı, a former chief of police) are related to the GM. We have a disastrous educational system and many corrupted state officials but in past we at least knew that exams and selection processes were fair. Now hardly anybody thinks so. A poll published in 2011, suggests that 72% of people do not trust ÖSYM and only 18% think that Ali Demir should not resign.

A scene from 10th Turkish Language Olympiads, 2012.

A scene from 10th Turkish Language Olympiads, 2012.

Having said all this, I also see a structure that takes young students early, injects them a certain lifestyle (or in most cases ensures that students retain conservative lifestyle of their parents); helps them get in good universities through providing studying opportunities and shelter either for free or at very low costs; and expects support (financial support or various favors) of the students when they reach good positions in the civil service and private sector.

In conclusion, whether Fethullah Gülen is a benevolent man or not, whether his schools are exporting an ideology based on religion or not, whether they have an ultimate plan of turning Turkey into an Islamic state or not; existence of an entity this big and influential and has its arms and legs in business, police organization and elsewhere in the state; is doomed to alienate others. That is why, while at annual Turkish Language Olympics GM shows off its muscles by shipping its students from 140 different countries and all pro-government media -including the state television TRT- covers the event, a very good proportion of the Turkish society really creeps out. (Though 2013’s event was overshadowed by Gezi Park protests.) Not because they don’t like foreigners learning Turkish; not because, as some would like to assert, they dislike and look down on rural people and Islam and therefore AKP and the GM; but because they feel besieged. And they have very good reasons to feel so.

After the Protests, Turkey’s LGBT Community Gains Sympathy

The advanced world’s LGBT communities are making quite a lot of gains lately: US Supreme Court made two rulings in favor of gay rights, France passed its gay marriage law and Britain’s same-sex marriage bill will be presented to the Queen after its third reading in July… LGBT Turks gained something, too: It may not extend to same-sex marriage or to even sort of a recognition of their relationships, but it’s not unimportant. Their achievement was conquering a great deal of hearts in the middle and upper-middle class of the society. Turkish LGBT community was very active at Gezi Park and Taksim, it was possible to see rainbow flags at every corner during the protests. They resisted beside the other groups for individual rights and freedoms, stood up against police brutality with them and got horribly tear gassed with them. Apparently what they did was not forgotten. We clearly saw that four days ago when the 11th of Turkey’s annual gay parade kicked off in İstanbul. Tens of thousands participated and the event was recorded as the biggest pride parade Turkey has ever seen. Many protestors joined the parade in support and social media was and still is full of statements of support. I saw even some of my friends whose homophobic remarks I have heard in past, sharing pictures of the parade, expressing their sympathy along with anti-government slogans. Turkey’s middle class, or at least a good proportion of them, embraced LGBT community and their struggle for a more humane Turkey for gays.

One of the brightest sides of Turkey’s anti-government protests is that they have taught many people to stand up not only for their own individual freedoms and rights but also for each other’s. Surely, the LGBT community wasn’t the only group that benefited from the sense of solidarity that the protests created. After getting excessively gassed, subjected to state violence in middle of the country’s major cities and getting presented as villains by some media, now more people empathize with the Kurdish movement. And Sivas massacre of mostly Alevi intellectuals was condemned much more strongly this year, in its anniversary that is July 2…

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While all the winds of empathy, sympathy and activism were blowing, The Mayor Ankara Melih Gökçek reminded everyone with a tweet that Turkey was no paradise, especially no gay paradise. He asked one of the three opposition MPs who joined the pride parade: “Hüseyin Aygün, are you gay? Don’t get us wrong, just wondering…” Then he tweeted again: “Citizens wonder and ask Hüseyin Aygün…”, “Let them parade. Everyone makes their own choices, I don’t have anything to say to that…” By “choice” he probably was referring sexual orientation. His tweets angered gay fashion-designer Cemil İpekçi who tweeted “…the Mayor should give up bothering gays.” Not surprisingly, this wasn’t the Mayor’s first gaffe and display of ignorance about homosexuality. Once on a show at a news channel, TV personality Okan Bayülgen, after speaking of a couple of successful gay mayors in Europe, naively asked Gökçek when Turkey will have such gay mayors. Gökçek’s answer was the summary of most of Turkey’s conservatives’ thought on the matter, he said “Every society has moral values of its own. It is not possible for us, as the Turkish society, to be with gay culture of Europe and approve of it. The way we were brought up, our style of morality and our mentality are a little different. I hope there won’t be gays in Turkey, there should not be.”

If you think their display of homophobic resentment can’t get any stronger than this, you’re dead wrong. In 2010, Selma Aliye Kavaf, the Minister of State of Turkey responsible for Women and Family Affairs of the time, said in an interview to Daily Hürriyet “I believe homosexuality is a biological disorder, a disease. I think it needs to be treated.” Later, on TV, she was asked by a journalist whether she regretted making that statement. She smiled and said nothing in response. Her remarks sparked controversy and were protested but reaction of her party (that supposed to have a “liberal wing”) was weak, verging on none. She kept her seat until the general election in 2011. In 2011, she wasn’t re-nominated not because of her anti-gay remarks but because she had a quarrel with party organization of her constituency Denizli and wanted to be nominated from Ankara, which the PM didn’t accept.

Selma Aliye Kavaf, former Minister of State of Turkey responsible for Women and Family Affairs.

Selma Aliye Kavaf, former Minister of State of Turkey responsible for Women and Family Affairs.

Three months ago, AKP’s homophobia was carried beyond the country’s borders to the Netherlands and there, it was displayed by the PM himself. The fact that some European Turks’ kids were given to “Christian guardian families” (that’s the way how the PM’s deputy Bekir Bozdağ wanted to put it) by social services of various countries in Europe was bothering the government for some time. And pro-government media, in its sensationalist way, had made the case of a 9 years old Turkish boy of named Yunus from the Netherlands who was given to a lesbian couple, popular. The boy was actually taken from his biological family two years ago, but strangely his case caught attention of the government and their media just before the PM’s Dutch trip. As he always likes to do, the PM made a lecture-like speech in the press conference with his counterpart. He said “In adoptive family system, the fittest thing to do is to give the kids to the families that have similar culture and moral values to the kids’, like a Muslim kid to a Muslim family…” Then he must have thought that his statements might be misunderstood and misinterpreted as homophobic and he clarified: “This might cause misunderstandings in my country, as well. I mean, the matter of sexual preference is important. Because, I am saying in an approach of a Muslim-majority or an Islamic cultured country, giving a kid to a homosexual family is against moral values and beliefs of (or our) society.” Weirdly, what he said caused a big reaction neither in Europe nor in Turkey. And the Dutch PM was very kind yet sufficiently backboned to decline Erdoğan’s offer to make a further discussion involving the ministries and he said that this was Holland’s matter.

In the Parliament, too, a clash about gays occurred. In February, the main opposition party CHP requested to a parliamentary commission of inquiry to be set up to on LGBT rights. And for that the opposition’s signatories were called “immoral” by AKP’s MPs. After Prof. Binnaz Toprak, an MP of İstanbul from CHP, introduced the proposal along with basic explanations about homosexuality and the rights they should have, Prof. Türkan Dağoğlu, an MP from AKP, spoke against the proposal. Dağoğlu said: “As a medical doctor, I think you would want to know what this (homosexuality) is: Is it a biological disorder, a sociological phenomenon or a psychological condition? In USA, in 1974 and in Europe in 1992, psychiatric associations made researches on the matter and (their) outcome was that the condition defined as LGBT was an abnormal behavior…” Then Prof. Toprak said in response: “I got my BA and MSc in the US. In 1974, I was there. 1974’s USA had scientists that argued blacks were more stupid than whites. Thus, such studies made in 1974 can’t be presented to us as science in 2013. So sorry, Miss Türkan but I think you are wrong.” Expectedly, the proposal was denied by the ruling party’s votes.

Binnaz Toprak (left) and Türkan Dağoğlu.

Binnaz Toprak (left) and Türkan Dağoğlu.

Military service that is mandatory in Turkey, is another source of discomfort for gays. Openly gay males cannot serve in the military. Also, they have to prove their sexual orientation to the Army’s medical services, by the humiliating and degrading methods they are forced to use, like providing a picture showing the person having gay sex or kissing another man, or having their rectal zones examined… After “proving” their sexual identity, they’re given a document called “The Pink Certificate”. The document exempts them from military service for having a “psychosexual disorder” – a classification for homosexuality that is said to be taken from publications of American Psychiatric Association dating back to 1968.

Many more discriminatory practices exist. Many more hate speeches were made and many more are yet to be made… But there is also a bright side.

To be fair, among Muslim-majority countries, Turkey is the most liberal and tolerant country to live, for LGBT individuals. Turkey has been a safe haven for homosexuals from Arab countries and Iran where gay men are hanged and stoned to death for who they are. Apart from the benefits of “Gezi spirit” I mentioned, there are other good developments that are impossible to see in other Muslim-majority countries. Firstly, Turkey is the first and still the only Muslim-majority country allowing and holding pride parades. Of course, having some gays marching on the streets isn’t a big thing itself but it’s is accepted by gay organizations as important as a sign and symbol of tolerance. This year, apart from İstanbul and Ankara, for the first time, two other major cities İzmir and Antalya held their own pride parades. And actors and actresses of Turkey’s most popular sit-com Yalan Dünya (False World) expressed their support in a video calling for more participation to the parade, this was another first this year. Secondly, NGOs focused on homophobia and LGBT rights are more visible and active today. Kaos GL and Lambdaİstanbul were old NGOs focused on LGBT individuals, founded in 90s, were joined by more groups: Pembe Hayat (Meaning “Pink Life”, an LGBT solidarity NGO specially focuses on Transexuals’ rights), Listag (a support and solidarity group for families, named “LGBT families İstanbul Group”) and SPoD (an NGO advocates “full equality for LGBT individuals in Turkey with a special emphasis on social and economic rights…”), founded in 2006, 2008 and 2011, respectively. Thirdly, the main opposition party CHP and pro-Kurdish party BDP demand full rights (including same-sex marriage) for gays in the new constitution to be written. Considering these two parties got nearly 39% of the votes combined, in 2011 general election; it’s hard to ignore the importance of their demand.

First gay parade of İzmir.

The first gay parade of İzmir.

Good and bad, encouraging and enraging developments have been happening all together in Turkey. Even though, the government’s attitude towards gays did not develop for the better, the LGBT community did. Now their voice is heard more and their cause is supported more. Thus, they should have more hope.

The Protests and the Snotty Side of Turkish Politics

Left to Right: Deputy PM Arınç, Former Interior Minister Abdülkadir Aksu, an MP from the ruling party and the PM Erdoğan.

Left to Right: Deputy PM Arınç, Former Interior Minister Abdülkadir Aksu, an MP from the ruling party and PM Erdoğan.

The Mayor of Turkey’s capital Ankara, Melih Gökçek, has always been the crazy man of the town. His tweets full gaffes and misspellings amused many and inspired lots of internet contents mocking him. A few days ago, during an interview at state television TRT, his reaction to Gezi Park protests throughout Turkey went extreme. He got very emotional and cried, after he talked about foreign conspiracies, which he claimed, were behind Turkey’s massive protests against the government. While his tears were dropping, he said god was the greatest game changer, god was protecting them, they feared no one except god… Out of curiosity, I counted. In less than two minutes, he said “god” exactly ten times. This kind of Islamic sensationalism with tears is neither the first nor will it be the last. Much more important names than Gökçek in Turkish politics, did similar things.

The Mayor while at an interview on TRT and a digital art mocking him.

The Mayor on TRT and a digital art mocking him.

Just before the constitutional referendum in 2010, PM Erdoğan, too, made a speech in which he supported his arguments with tears. At that time, especially because of alleged coup attempts, he was presenting himself as a victim (of a coup that never happened). He cried and immediately got resounding applause while reading a letter of a young man who was executed by the military administration that came to power in September 12, 1980. Coincidentally (?), September 12 was decided as the date of constitutional referendum in 2010. The speech was not found sincere by many, but surely it helped the PM win the referendum. There were many other occasions where he cried: Once after seeing a video of the deceased Kurdish singer Ahmet Kaya, a few times while reading poems, and more… His Deputy Bülent Arınç, some of the cabinet ministers, MPs and the PM’s wife Emine Erdoğan, as well, all cried on different occasions while listening to Tayyip Erdoğan.

Perhaps, crying while the leader speaks is a show of loyalty and faith in Middle East. I remember well that Murat Bardakçı who is a journalist stayed a long time in Iran, said on his TV program, that Hashemi Rafsanjani used to cry to even Khomeini’s speeches about oil prices and that it was sort of a tradition there to do so while the Imam speaks. Maybe, it’s not even a necessity to understand the speech to cry for it, in such societies where religion is the determining component of one’s identity. The great Turkish author Falih Rıfkı Atay, tells a story in Zeytindağı (Meaning “Mount of Olives”, it’s his excellent book on Middle Eastern theatre of World War One): An Ottoman Albanian man in a mosque gets very moved and cries as the Imam (preacher) speaks. Someone asks him why he cries like this and he responds: “Look, how deeply he speaks!” The trouble is the Imam speaks in Arabic that the Albanian man doesn’t really understand and he actually explains how to slaughter sheep for sacrifice. The story gives some hints on the mood of today’s “emotional” Turkish politicians and their audience.

When you look at the “crying patterns” of the Turkish politicians, especially of this current administration, you see that they’re all somehow tied to religion. Indeed, it makes sense that emotionalism in politics is more common in societies where people are (totally or as in Turkey’s case partially) bonded through religion. Because religion is something one accepts and retains emotionally, not rationally.

The FM Ahmet Davutoğlu is worth mentioning particularly. In November 2012, he visited a hospital in Gaza, and there cried heavily along with the wounded whose stories he heard. The pro-government media presented his trip with such Islamic romanticism. Some months later, Reyhanlı which is a town of Hatay province on the border with Syria, was attacked by twin car bombs that killed more than 50. The incident was recorded as the bloodiest terrorist attack ever happened within borders of Republic of Turkey. The day the town was hit, Davutoğlu made a press conference, talked a lot but said really nothing, and he showed no such sadness as he did with the wounded Gazans. Just two days after the horrible attack, the Minister didn’t see any necessity to cancel his visit to Germany where pictures of him smiling with the kids were taken and released on the Ministry’s Facebook account. His asymmetric reactions to the wounded Gazans and dead Turks, enraged many. In disgust, people kept circulating his smiling pictures taken just after Reyhanlı attacks and the pictures where he cries in Gaza, in social media for days.

Fist picture: FM Davutoğlu visiting a hospital in Gaza.  Second one: Visiting Germany two days after Reyhanlı attacks.

Fist picture: FM Davutoğlu visiting a hospital in Gaza.
Second one: Visiting Germany two days after Reyhanlı attacks.

And what turns so many stomachs is that the tears that politicians of Turkey shed, as I tried to show by the examples I mentioned above, usually seem to be full of political motives. To find dead people, injustice, brutality and violence to cry for, they don’t have to look beyond our decade, to 33 years ago when there was military rule in Turkey. They don’t have to look beyond Turkey’s borders, to Gaza or to Arakan in Myanmar or elsewhere, either… During Gezi Park protests, 4 people died, many lost their eyes and got beaten by their own police, here in Turkey, right in middle of İstanbul and Ankara! In Hatay, more than 50 citizens lost their lives, because of the monumental failure of the government’s security and Syria policies. It’s time to cry for them. It’s time to take responsibility and feel remorse for what happened to them. It’s time, for the PM and his government, to atone. Tears aren’t necessary, but sincerity is.