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Crossing the red line

Interview with Asli Edoğan, a prize-winning Turkish writer and human rights activist detained on August 17th 2016 for allegedly making terror propaganda on behalf of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The interview took place at the end of September 2015 in Kraków.  Interviewers: Iwona Reichardt and Bartosz Marcinkowski.

August 19, 2016 - Iwona Reichardt and Bartosz Marcinkowski - Interviews

Asli Erdogan small

IWONA REICHARDT & BARTOSZ MARCINKOWSKI: We are meeting here in Kraków, where you are staying as a resident writer of the International Cities of Refugees Network (ICORN). Today in Poland and, more broadly, in Europe, we are witnessing an ongoing debate on how to resolve the so-called migration crisis. Unfortunately, this debate is limited to statistics and phobias and much less about who these new migrants are or how the issue of migration really is not new to the European continent. What is your take on this debate?

ASLI ERDOĞAN: A month or two ago, I took part in a panel discussion here in Poland. I was quite surprised that there is so much talk about this “refugee problem” in Central Europe as, in fact, there are not that many refugees in these countries. In Turkey, where we have more than two million refugees from Syria, I have not heard anything like what I hear in Central Europe. I was appalled that Poland is only going to take several thousand refugees and even that number is considered too high.

I also think that the migration problem has, in fact, been built up in the minds of Europeans. If you keep repeating a phrase like “refugee problem” and keep thinking about it in those sorts of rhetorical terms, then it becomes a problem. Just like it was in the 1930s. Today, we know that the Jews were neither a problem, nor a question. However, if you start calling a certain group of people “a problem”, then sooner or later, they become a problem. Maybe this is how we should change the debate. Abandon formulations like “refugee problem”, “refugee crisis” or the “refugee question” and instead start talking about the influx of people who may enrich our culture.

The same is happening in Turkey with the Kurds. I wrote about it not too long ago in one of my articles. We also use the term “the Kurdish problem”.  What this rhetoric indicates is that a Kurd is no longer the subject of the discourse; he is always put together with the word “problem”. I would rather say that there is a Turkish problem with the Kurds or a European problem with refugees.

What does the public debate on refugees look like in Turkey?

The debate in Turkey now focuses on hiding the fact that the country was totally unprepared for the refugees. They were left alone. As a matter of fact, there was no debate on this subject for several years. The discussion began only a few months ago and the media are now talking more about it, but only because the situation got out of hand, as demonstrated by the pogroms that took place when the tensions between the local population and the refugees became too high.

Does the Turkish debate focus on the dynamic situation in Europe or is it more inwardly oriented?

Turkey is now in a state of chaos. It is the worst I have seen since the 1990s. The state is busy fighting against the Kurds. All the newspapers report on it. It is nationalism and chauvinism at their peak. Mainstream magazines, mostly those supported by the government, concentrate on Turkish losses, never touching upon the issue of civilian casualties among the Kurds. The truth is that it is a form of preparation for the elections. The message “the country is in chaos” is used to convince people that they need a strong dictator to put things back in order.

The “refugee crisis” – to use your terminology for the moment – is a secondary issue. It is strange because Turkey’s coastal line is a major route for the refugees trying to get to the European Union. Let me tell you about a more important issue that is not discussed in Europe. When Greek border police patrol boats catch a raft full of immigrants, the Greek policemen usually let the air out of the raft and let it go. The refugees still have four or five hours of air, which is usually enough to get them back to the Turkish coast. Greece has been doing this for a long time. I know people who tried to escape this way and they said that one of the most dangerous things is to be caught by the Greek coast guard. When Turkish papers reported these practices, they were accused of spreading anti-Greek propaganda.

Newspapers report dozens of deaths, but this gets little attention. Somehow, the picture of Aylan, the Syrian boy who drowned in the sea off the Turkish coast, made it on the front pages in Turkey, but it was not as widely discussed as in Europe. We have been seeing refugees for years now and we have gotten used to their misery, even in Istanbul. There, the streets are full of poor Syrian immigrants and children walking around barefoot.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been ruling Turkey with a strong hand but, as opinion polls indicate, he does not enjoy overwhelming support. At the same time, support for Kurdish parties is reported to be growing. What would you say are the current political attitudes in Turkey and what do they mean for the EU?

Turkey is currently going through an identity crisis. If you compare Turkish society today with how it was ten years ago, you see much greater divisions. For example, if you look at a map of Turkey, you can clearly see the political parties’ zones of influence. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) dominates in the middle of the country and on the Black Sea coast. The Mediterranean and Asian coasts, up to Istanbul, which is divided fifty-fifty, “belong” to the social-democrats and the Kemalists. The south-east is mostly Kurdish. It has been like this for the last four or five elections. In the past, people would be more hesitant in their political choices but today they are sharply divided, like enemies.

Would you agree with the opinion that Turkey has hit a dead end that is very difficult to overcome? And if so, what are the roots of this situation?

The roots of what is going on in Turkey right now are most likely found in the political system itself. When Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established the Turkish Republic in 1923, he set very strict rules (six arrows of light): republicanism, populism, nationalism, secularism, statism and reformism.

Since that time, Turkey has always looked to the West and secularism was implemented from the top. Traditional Muslims suffered under this regime. However,  they also exaggerated their victimhood. The truth is that it was the left and the communists that suffered the most, especially under the rule of the military regimes. Of course, the Kurds suffered a lot as well. Keep in mind though that the history of the left in Turkey is different than that in Eastern Europe, where socialism meant establishment. In Turkey, it meant being in opposition to the system. After 1990, the socialist movement was crushed. Labour unions and other left-wing organisations were harshly suppressed. The vacuum that appeared in their place was quickly filled by religious groups. The success of AKP can be also explained insofar as when it was formed, there were no other channels for opposition. Socialism in Turkey was supressed and it was also globally compromised after the fall of the communist bloc, so the youth turned to Islam.

How would you describe the political system in today’s Turkey? Can we say that it is still a democracy?

Democracy in Turkey is a tale of the past. The only remaining democratic elements are elections. Nevertheless, it is clearly not enough for a real democracy to function. In the 1980s, Turkey was a military regime and it did not even try to pretend it was a democracy. The 1990s was a time of opening and partial liberation. Today’s system is being compared more and more to the 1980s, when western Turkey was safe and peaceful but the regime was committing atrocities in the south-east. Many people ask themselves today whether we are back in the 1980s.

I have recently been to eastern Turkey and I can say with certainty that the 1980s are indeed back. The power in my country has never been so monopolised. Erdoğan is omnipotent. He is second only after God. The press is silent and the judicial system has collapsed, hence everything is in the hands of the president. Even when he is caught stealing millions of dollars from the state budget, nothing happens. All the judges who investigate his case are simply replaced.

Erdoğan is not stupid, though. He pursues his agenda in a very intelligent way. For example, he passed a law which states that no academic paper can be published if it hinders the security of the state. Nobody noticed this new regulation as, at the same time, tens of other laws (some of them actually beneficial) were passed. Another good illustration of Erdoğan’s rule is abortion. Theoretically, in Turkey it is legal for a woman to have an abortion up to eight weeks of pregnancy.  However, a piece of investigative journalism revealed that in Istanbul, out of 34 state hospitals, only four were performing abortions. What makes things even more difficult is the fact that a woman who wants to have her pregnancy terminated needs to get permission from her husband.

Would you say that this restriction is also a reflection of Erdoğan’s religious stance? Many argue that he has been bringing Turkey back onto the path of Islamisation and abandoning secularism…

Turkey has been perhaps the most successful Muslim-majority state in implementing secularism. In my view, religion is beautiful if you do not experience its oppressive side. I am an atheist but I study religion. To me, the Bible is beautiful. To you, as you live far away from the Islamic world, perhaps the Koran is beautiful. In Turkey, the majority of people who live on the west coast are very secular. They are the so-called “white Turks” and are very much against the AKP. They are also very much against female headscarves but my question is how secular they really are if they fast during Ramadan?

On the subject of secularism, ten years ago, Istanbul was a city with a buzzing nightlife. However, after the introduction of some new laws like the smoking ban in bars (the majority of Turks are smokers) or the prohibition of selling alcohol after 10pm, the nightlife became gradually supressed. Religion is also becoming more and more visible in schools. Religious secondary schools have become very popular under the AKP regime. Around one-third of all secondary school students attend a religious school. There are now four to six hours of religious classes per week in non-religious secondary schools. In my day, such a thing would be totally unthinkable. Now you have to study religion if you want to continue your education.

How would you characterise the situation with the Turkish media? How independent is the press?

There are around 20 newspapers in Turkey and 15 of them are state-controlled. During my last stay in Turkey, in September 2015, three magazines – Zaman, Hürriyet and one kemalist magazine – were attacked. The Fethullah Gülen’s sect was publishing Zaman. In the US, it is a very powerful organisation which was once in alliance with the AKP. However, after a power struggle between the publisher and the government, Zaman, which has a  circulation of 800,000, fell under really strong pressure from the state.

A columnist for Hürriyet was physically beaten by a state-controlled crowd. It is a mainstream magazine and one of the biggest on the Turkish press market. Hürriyet has its own ideology; for example, it accused all human rights movements of being terrorists. It also launched a campaign against me in 2003. As a result, since 2012, there have been no articles written about any of my books by its journalists. I am on their blacklist. Hürriyet‘s motto is “Turkey belongs to the Turks”. Now though, even this paper is in trouble. It is the only remaining important “opposition” paper. Another outlet, a social-democratic, kemalist paper, was busted last summer because it published evidence that Turkey is supporting ISIS, which is something everybody knows. I have even seen it with my own eyes. Its editor in chief was sentenced. The prosecutors asked for two life sentences plus 40 years for him.

In the West, we hear speculation about Turkey’s supports for ISIS, but what do you mean when you say that you have seen evidence of such collaboration with your own eyes?

I once made a call to Turkish and Kurdish writers to go to the Mursitpinar border crossing between Turkey and Syria. It is very close to Kobane. All we wanted to do was hold a peace chain. There were 12 writers from Istanbul and around 40-50 Kurdish ones. The army did not want to let us go there, so we sneaked in thanks to some friends living in the area. Next to the mine field, we found a spot where people from Kobane could see us. In the end, we created a 500-person-long chain. At the same moment, the American bombardment against ISIS began. The photos taken there now look so beautiful because the bomb explosions made the scene look like a sunset. It was just one kilometre from where we were. There, I realised that the border with Syria in that place was closed. Kobane was surrounded by ISIS. One of our slogans was to open the corridor to Kobane. We were not saying “open the borders entirely”, that would be unrealistic. We just wanted to make a human corridor in order to help the suffering people.

However, Turkey was not even letting in the wounded. Twenty of them died because the border was deliberately closed. For the people who live there, the border is completely artificial. These are Kurdish towns and many families are divided on both sides. However, the border with the ISIS-controlled areas remains open. Anyone who wants to join ISIS can pass without any problem. Weapons deliveries are uninterrupted.

How would you describe the current state of relations between the Turks and the Kurds?

When I arrived here in Kraków, the war between the Turks and the Kurds had just started. It happened because Erdoğan could not secure enough votes to gain complete power. Peace negotiations with the Kurds have been taking place for two years and suddenly, after a poor election result, he simply knocked over the negotiation table and everything was finished.

Ankara accuses the Kurds of a bombing in Suruç on July 20th 2015, where 33 young socialists, some of whom I knew personally, were killed. However, there is no way that the Kurds could actually have done this as the socialists supported Kobane. It is clear that only ISIS or the Turkish government could be behind this attack.

When I was in Turkey recently, I saw the hysterical mood. One Kurdish man showed me a picture of a wounded female guerrilla caught by the Turks. She was tortured for four days and nights and then her naked body was dropped in the middle of a town called Garto. When I was repeating this story to my friends and used the word “guerrilla”, one of them said: “Do not call her guerrilla. She was a terrorist.”

Once, I was invited to take part in a discussion in Şanlıurfa, the oldest city in Turkey and the birthplace of Abraham. It was organised by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a Kurdish party. In the evening, I saw that Şanlıurfa was totally empty because the local people are afraid of ISIS, who are very strong in that region. There are ISIS strongholds on Turkish territory as well. In September, I went to Diyarbakır. I knew there were some cities under police siege. The situation in Cizre was the worst.  Yet the press in western Turkey presented it in the following manner: “The Turkish army is fighting against the PKK.” It is nothing like that in reality. These are little, civilian towns. The police were continuously shooting at anybody who would appear in public. The people in Cizre quickly ran out of food and water. One woman literally begged a Turkish police officer to take her baby to the hospital. Of course, this did not happen and the baby died. Overall, 21 civilians were killed in the siege. The oldest victim was 80 years old. Are they all PKK terrorists?

Would you say that there is now a regular war occuring in eastern Turkey?

When I arrived in Diyarbakır in September this year, shelling was taking place all night long. What is more, there were also jets and helicopters flying over the area. Forget about sleep! My friend, a Kurdish lawyer who was imprisoned for five years – apparently being a Kurdish lawyer is enough to be imprisoned in Turkey these days – decided to take me to the Silvan district. This area was barricaded by the police but they were opening up when I was there. First, we went to Silvan, a small town of around 90,000 inhabitants in eastern Turkey. I walked around the city and it looked totally empty. Houses were completely devastated by the shelling, all types and sizes of ammunition. In the hospital’s courtyard, all the ambulances were burned out. You could also see bullets up to the third floor of the hospital building. When one of the doctors looked through the window with a white flag during the shelling, he was shot at as well.

The evening of September 9th 2015 was probably the worst in Turkey’s history since the Istanbul pogrom in 1955. After more than 30 soldiers died in the fighting, many Turkish people went out on the streets in various cities, calling for a massacre of the Kurds. The main HDP headquarters were attacked in Ankara. Silvan went under siege again. Buses to Diyarbakır stopped. All the Kurdish shops were destroyed. It was literally like a crystal night (Kristallnacht). Many social groups took part in the pogrom, including the white Turks and kemalists. Erdoğan simply set them against Kurds because it was easy to play the hate card. One week later, Erdoğan made a smart move; he gave a speech under a huge national flag, which had always been a symbol of the kemalists, who waved it at anti- Erdoğan demonstrations. He stole their symbol when he said: “We are all brothers, we are just against the terrorists”.

Is there any hope for a bright future in Turkey?

No. If things like the  pogrom are taking place, it means that the country has crossed the red line. There is no return from that. Totalitarian regimes do not just appear overnight. The formation of these systems is a process. You wake up one day and it is too late. Of course, you could, say about Turkey, “It is not Iran” or “it is not Syria” but you can always find a worse example. This does not mean, that things are not very bad there.

Aslı Erdoğan is a prize-winning Turkish writer, human rights activist and former columnist for the newspaper Radikal.

Iwona Reichardt is deputy editor-in-chief of New Eastern Europe. She holds a PhD in political science.

Bartosz Marcinkowski is a former editor with New Eastern Europe.

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