Friday, December 25, 2015

The Fairy Tale of Rights in Turkey

I will be teaching a course on law and society next semester. I have taught this type of a course back in the US, but this will be my first experience in Turkey. My advisor Michael McCann at UW used to teach this course by starting with Stuart Scheingold's 1974 book, The Politics of Rights. My thinking about law and the US is still very heavily influenced by this book. Scheingold initially focuses on the ideological appeal of the law: 'the myth of rights'. On page 17, he says: 'The myth of rights rests on a faith in the political efficacy and ethical sufficiency of law as a principle of government.' This widely shared myth then forms the basis of his analysis in explaining how it can provide opportunities for legal and political mobilization. I find all of this quite fascinating but what I am really interested in at the moment is the argument's Durkheimian undercurrent: The notion that this 'myth of rights' is widely shared by Americans. In Durkheim's language, the myth of rights would be a strong component of the collective consciousness that holds the American society intact. Let's put the empirical question - whether this is still (or was ever) an accurate assessment - aside. Now, to come back to my course next semester, and as a die-hard comparativist, I have always wondered how this particular argument would hold in Turkey: 1) The Scheingold question: Is there any basis for a myth of rights type of argument in Turkey? In other words, does the rights-bearing subject play at least a partial role in how individuals are imagined within the collectives consciousness(es) in Turkey? 2) The Durkheim question: Regardless of the question of law and rights, what is it that holds the society in Turkey intact? What has it been? What is it now? Is there such a common story anymore?

I am planning to think and write on this more. However, here is my brief take on these questions.

1) This is the type of question that my research is likely to pursue in the future, so no easy answers yet. However, from a comparative perspective, I can easily claim that the myth is more like a fairy tale in Turkey. Compared to a daily American context, you almost never hear the invocation of a rights-bearing subject here. Of course there is wide-spread formal and informal legal mobilization, but I daresay it is rather an example of mobilizing official tools that are external. These external tools may offer good opportunities for reaching our goals but they do not really shape our imaginations.

2) If not rights or law, then what shapes our consciousness? Well since this is their garden, I will let the cats offer some speculations. The Ottoman Empire consisted of different religious communities. I am not an Ottoman historian, but the fact that these communities co-existed side by side for centuries, implies an operational shared common set of understandings, norms and practices, (which were inevitably enforced by official violence).That legacy had been annihilated by the WWI and the establishment of the Republic. The non-Muslims had come to be perceived as the agents of European capitalists and enemies. They were purged and/or killed. Most of the remaining non-Muslims were eventually sent away through population exchanges. The state offered and imposed a non-apologetic tranformation that focused on westernization and Turkishness. This took place while the properties of the non-Muslims were being expropriated and redistributed. I am basically arguing that the new Republican collective consciousness was about forcefully becoming western and Turkish, all the while suppressing the historical guilt of killing and purging the non-Muslims. When that meta-story was finally challenged with AKP's cooptation of the Kemalist state in early 2000s, I am afraid we are now even bereft of that dirty story that somewhat connected us to each other in our guilt and ignorance. We have now become Durkheim's nightmare: A society still in the process of capitalist transformation with no common and accumulated story to connect us in these dire circumstances. Actually, the stories we have accumulated are pitting us against each other. We pretty much hate each other here now...

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Path to Civil War

Please do not read this if you do not want to see graphic pictures of violence.

It is Christmas time, but it is not merry here. We are on our path to a civil war. The Suruç massacre on July 20, and the Ankara massacre on October 10, propelled the PKK (or some groups tied to the PKK) to respond with attacks on security personnel in eastern Turkey. Moreover, in the past few months, a new type of resistance emerged: Ditches in urban centers. The goal, as it appears, is to block the access of state security forces in urban areas. This is supposedly in congruence with PKK's calls for 'democratic autonomy.' The official response has been declaring curfews enforced with snipers (yes, snipers); surrounding these towns and neighborhoods with armored vehicles and heavy artillery; and marching these units to demolish ditches and barricades. As you might imagine, many civilians were killed by explosions or by sniper fire. Let me underline this fact: Turkish citizens have been killed by the Turkish military's sniper fire. Thankfully, our state declared that it regrets such casualties...

First, let me state that I do not claim to see the complete picture yet. Are these ditches built by the guerillas (or terrorists, in official discourse), or are they built by the civilians? Or, maybe, is there an organic cooperation? I hesitate to reach conclusions at this point. But let me say this: If this is the implementation of a decision taken by the PKK command, I have no sympathy for it and I believe they are as responsible of these civilian deaths as the state.

Here are some pictures:

A 13 year old girl was shot dead and could not be buried because of the curfew at Cizre. Her family kept her in the deep freezer until the curfew was lifted.

The body of a dead PKK guerilla was mutilated and was pulled behind a police vehicle at Şırnak.

A 70 year old man was killed by sniper fire in Cizre. His body stayed out in the streets for three days until the curfew was lifted.

And these pictures are a few months old. New ones are coming in, as the conflict over the ditches spread into a number of urban centers. However, I want to talk about a different picture that I saw at earlier today:

This picture is from a house at Nusaybin and reflects my feelings on these recent events rather well. The photographer went into the yard and took the picture of the girl (who went outside) from inside. She is smiling at us, from the direction that the bullets came in. I just hope it was safe then, and has been so since. The fact that she is smiling is giving me hope that noone she loves was hurt. The fact that she is smiling is giving me hope that smiling is still possible there.

I appreciate that the photographer went inside and took these pictures, as I believe this is what we lack. We know what the state tells us: 'They are fighting the terrorists,' and 'they are in a legitimate fight to establish control in urban centers.' But, at what cost? Our own citizens are suffering under inhumane curfews and assaults. We need such journalism that goes 'inside,' and tells the story from there. And, of course, we need outlets that would carry those stories. Tough luck on that!

The only way to avoid a civil war in the (maybe not so) long run is to let the smiling face of this little girl pierce through our barriers, as those bullets did so to her house. And for that, we need to understand how war, funded by our money and votes, hurts fellow citizens inside those doors with bullet holes.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Attacks on HDP offices in Turkey: The Unholy Alliance of AKP and PKK

In the past few months, many HDP (Peoples' Democratic Party) offices had been (and is still daily being) assaulted by mobs. This poses a stark contrast to the election results (June 7) that catapulted HDP above the national election barrier by 13%. HDP's electoral success was a colossal achievement. In previous parliamentary elections, the Kurdish candidates had run as independents and could not reach beyond 6% of the seats overall. However, HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş's success in the presidential elections in 2014, led to the HDP decision to run as a party in June 7 parliamentary elections. Many people, including myself, criticized HDP for taking such a huge risk, because failing to pass the 10% national barrier would mean no HDP representatives in the parliament, and consequently, an AKP (Justice and Development Party) super majority that would benefit the most by the missing HDP seats (as AKP has been the second most popular party in the Kurdish regions). However, HDP successfully forged a left and humanitarian coalition that received many Turkish votes, in addition to the bulk of the Kurdish votes. HDP's almost unbelievable achievement is a huge development for Turkish democracy, and not only because it helped bringing and end to the AKP majority rule. HDP's success is extremely valuable for bridging the gap between the Kurd and the Turk with a democratic and peaceful agenda. I will most likely blog another post just on that topic. In this post, I would like to talk about the increasing hostilities HDP has been facing since before the elections.

Above is the video of a mob attack to the local office of HDP at Balıkesir, my hometown, on September 7. On that day, several HDP offices in other cities were also attacked. Here are some more pictures from that assault on September 7:

HDP headquarters in Ankara were also attacked in the evening on September 8. Some nationalist (!) protesters were recorded chanting: "We do not want [military] operations. We want massacres..." Merging PKK with HDP, these nationalist (!) mobs were indeed calling for mass killing of Kurds... Others were also targeted by the angry mobs. In a bizarre and ugly incident, a Kurdish man was forced to kiss an Atatürk statue... I am personally dumbstruck in finding out how so many people around me adopted a hostile, almost fascist, discourse almost overnight. This cartoon below represents my situation pretty well:

 One morning when you wake up: Columnist Yılmaz, Facebook friend Suat, Ayça from Twitter, Cab driver Gökhan, Cousin Serkan, etc.

So why did things go down for HDP after such an incredible electoral success on June 7?

The answer is clear: AKP and PKK are in an unholy alliance, using violence and terror, to undermine HDP, which emerged as a significant threat to them on June 7. Using violence to undermine a democratically elected political party is not a new phenomenon in Turkey. What we are observing is yet another incident of violent repression of a group which is eager to participate in a political system that is unwilling to accept it within. It appears, undermining HDP is beneficial both for AKP and PKK at the moment.

There had been various attacks to HDP personnel, offices and meetings during the election campaigns before June 7. The deadliest one was a bomb explosion during the HDP election meeting at Diyarbakır on June 5, only two days before the election. It was a miracle that only a few people died. It was also significant that the HDP leaders called for calm and peace in the wake of the explosion despite several deaths and many injuries. The worse attack took place at Suruç, a small town at the Syrian border, after the election on July 20. Most of the thirty two people who died were there as a part of a socialist youth federation (a HDP component) that was organizing a relief effort for the Syrian refugees at the border camps. This explosion was clearly the turning point. ISIS was blamed for both of the bombings, however many people, including myself, identified "deep state" forces as the culprit. Apparently, the PKK did so too. Since this event, PKK started to attack Turkish security personnel in south-east Turkey, delving straight back into the nightmares of 1990s. Two days after the Suruç massacre, on July 22, two police officers were found dead at their home at Urfa. PKK claimed responsibility for the attack. PKK, in an ambiguous statement, a week after the incident, claimed that the killing of the police officers was an independent action of local guerillas, not based on a command from PKK headquarters (link in Turkish). The conflict escalated nevertheless. In the past month, hundreds of people died. Turkish security forces attacked PKK targets not only inside Turkey, but also in Iraq and Syria. We do not know the exact number of guerilla casualties but the numbers seem to be in hundreds. Currently the southern town of Cizre is under permanent curfew and there are reports of civilian casualties under sniper fire. PKK reciprocated. Many security personnel were gunned down or bombed over the past month and a half. Most tragically, 16 soldiers were killed in a bomb blast at Dağlıca on September 7. On the next day, 13 police officers were killed in another explosion at Iğdır. Some people argue that this recent steep escalation indicates the entry of more experienced PKK forces, who had most likely been busy fighting against ISIS in Syria, into the scene.

I am not a security analyst and I will not try to speculate on why Turkey and PKK would go back into a dire military struggle against each other while they are both busy fighting a much more dangerous threat to the south: ISIS. That is just beyond me. However, I believe there is a very good domestic reason for both of them to attack each other: Undermining the burgeoning HDP.

The escalation of violence is undoubtedly the antidote to HDP's success in bridging the gaps between Turkish voters and the Kurds. HDP, with its unwavering call for equality and human rights, had managed to reach many people. HDP co-leader Demirtaş's easy innate charisma had captured many people's interest, and when they listened, they surprisingly found a humane and friendly discourse. Violence is in the process of undoing this unbelievable achievement. When people are dying left and right, calls for ceasefire and peace appear naive. They fall on deaf ears. People once sympathetic fall back on discourses of animosity. The memorized and internalized enmities resurface with stronger resilience. However, AKP and PKK meet in this unholy alliance because they are both threatened by HDP's success.

During the election campaign, HDP co-leader Demirtaş had a one-sentence parliamentary group speech on March 15, 2015.: "Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: We will not let you become the president!" The nationalists and Kemalists had been arguing that AKP and HDP were conspiring to exchange Kurdish rights for Erdoğan's presidency under a new presidential regime (with increased powers). To dispel such worries, HDP's response was: "We will not let you become the president!" (To avoid confusion: Yes, Erdoğan is the president of Turkey since 2014. The full title of the office in Turkey's parliamentary system is Cumhurbaşkanı, i.e. "President of the People." Başkan, i.e. "President", is used for presidential regimes.) This was arguably the most effective HDP slogan throughout the entire campaign. One of Erdoğan's close aids even called this slogan a provocation!

In essence, HDP's entry into the parliament by beating the 10% national barrier was sufficient to bring down AKP majority rule. The math is clear. It is very hard to achieve a parliamentary majority with four major parties. HDP had delivered. By blocking an AKP majority, they had crushed any hopes of a constitutional change that would deliver extra powers to the president. In the aftermath of the elections, the ultra-nationalist MHP (Nationalist Action Party) rejected a coalition with HDP in it, and this destroyed any chances of a coalition with no AKP participation. On the other hand, HDP rejected any coalition with AKP in it, especially after the June 5 Diyarbakır explosion and the Suruç massacre. This left few possibilities for a coalition and it became clear that AKP preferred a new election to hopefully force a majority in the parliament. How? By undoing HDP in elections where  violence and terror is rampant. The AKP government has shelved the peace process and escalated violence to force HDP down the 10% barrier, by disenchanting Turkish voters of HDP and/or by physically making it impossible to vote in various Kurdish towns for security reasons. In other words, AKP is playing with fire in escalating violence. The goal is to close down south-east Turkey and steal any sympathy for HDP in the rest of the country by forcing a mental equation of HDP with PKK. With more and more security personnel being killed by PKK attacks, PKK is further demonized. However, with each death, pressure on HDP increases. HDP calls for the state to cease military operations and calls for the PKK to cease attacks and drop arms. However, these calls fall on deaf ears. Declarations that equate HDP with PKK appear on paper and TV everyday. Especially the social media reeks with racist and fascist calls. It is in this bleak atmosphere that mob attacks against HDP offices increased. When coffins of soldiers and police officers are arriving daily, HDP offices are presented as the most suitable targets for the protesters' self-righteous fury.

If AKP is ready to drop the peace process and risk nation-wide ethnic violence to force HDP down, why does PKK cooperate with it? I will offer two speculations on this: A cynical one and a political one. The cynical speculation is short and simple: PKK had struck a deal with AKP over presidency in exchange for the recognition of certain Kurdish rights within a new constitution. In this scenario, HDP would fail to beat the 10% barrier, which would result in an AKP super majority to unilaterally change the constitution. HDP foiled this deal by its successful election campaign which was very hostile to AKP. Inevitably, both AKP and PKK are eager to punish HDP now. I have serious doubts about such a scenario. I really doubt such a strong understanding and agreement could have developed between PKK and the AKP government. Moreover, I really doubt HDP could afford to defy PKK in such a blatant manner. PKK, after all, wields the gun...

The second scenario is based on my reading of the politics of the Kurdish movement in Turkey. We have to acknowledge that the Kurdish movement had achieved its recognition by the Turkish state, thanks to the PKK and its armed resistance, despite the capture of its leader by Turkish security forces in 1999. The most significant actor in the Kurdish movement in Turkey is undoubtedly the PKK. HDP is strongly connected to the PKK. It is important that PKK holds the gun, but PKK also represents generations of resistance and sacrifice for the Kurdish population. Öcalan himself, despite capture and incarceration, is still a powerful leader. However, I believe HDP's recent electoral success and Demirtaş's personal charisma has challenged these dynamics. HDP now offers a democratic solution to the Kurdish problems. In other words, HDP had achieved what PKK could never imagine to: Reaching to the Turkish electorate. So the question arises: What would happen to the PKK if HDP takes over the leadership through increased public support and legitimacy across the entire country? I believe that some PKK leaders are not very happy about such increased popularity of HDP and Demirtaş. The violent responses to the state operations that killed dozens of state security personnel achieves several things: i) Undermining HDP's position; ii) Consolidating PKK components; iii) Demonstrating to the Kurdish population, once again, who wields the weapon and who is there to defend them. I am obviously not an expert on such organizations, and I do not believe all PKK leaders share this mindset, however I believe leaders are not always so eager to give up hard-won power and respect.

In summary, AKP and PKK both have their reasons to undermine HDP through violence and terror. Moreover, this unholy alliance which is based on attacking each other is a struggle over the control of a group of people (mostly Kurdish but also some Turkish) who deliberately chose to support a discourse of democracy, peace, and human rights. However, neither AKP nor PKK are ready to recognize this democratic choice. Instead, they have decided to suppress it with increased violence and terror directed at each other. It falls on us to recognize this deceit and offer a hand to HDP. It falls on us to defy calls that equate HDP with PKK. It falls on us to defy the ultra-nationalist discourse that aims to forge fascists out of regular people through manipulation of their fears.