Turkey gets new church for first time

ISTANBUL – In Istanbul, for the first time in the almost 90 year old history of the republic, a new church will be built. The municipality of Istanbul has given its permission, and the church, which will belong to the Suryani community, will take about three years to build. Turkish media reported that on Monday.

The church will be built on a site where, up until the nineteen sixties a chapel and a cemetery of the Suryani’s were in use. They will be restored.

In Turkey it is difficult to officially establish a church, partly because of the high level of suspicion of Christian churches. There have been court cases going on for years between the state and several religious minorities, among others the Armenian and Greek Orthodox. The Suryani’s have been entangled in one of the most notorious cases, which centres on  the ownership of land around the famous Mor Gabriel monastery in the Southeast of Turkey.

Some ten thousand Suryani’s live in Istanbul. It is the second biggest (Christian) religious minority in the city, after the Armenians.

Ji bo welatekî dost dilşad bike

Li Holandayê hevalekî wisa pirsî; ‘Ji bo ku ez li ber kevim sedemek heye?’ û got ku, ‘hebûna PKKê ya ewqas nêzîk min ditirsîne.’ Li bajarê Holanda Zeelandê 55 kes bi endamtîya PKKê hatibûn sûcdar kirin û girtin, qala van girtîyan dikir. Li gor rapora polîsan ev kes tev li ‘civîneke dizî’ bûbûn. Ji bo kesekî ku Kurdên li Ewropa û PKKê nas nake ev yek hinekî dibe sedemê tirsê. Continue reading “Ji bo welatekî dost dilşad bike”

To please a friendly nation

‘Should I worry?’ a friend in the Netherlands asked me. ‘It scares me that the PKK is right around the corner.’ She was referring to the arrest of 55 alleged PKK members in the Dutch province of Zeeland. They were holding a ‘secret meeting’, according to the police. I can imagine that’s kind of scary if you don’t know anything about Kurds or the PKK in Europe.
Continue reading “To please a friendly nation”

Dost ülkeyi mutlu etmek için

Hollanda’da bir arkadaş ‘Endişelenmem için bir neden var mı?’ diye sordu. ‘PKK’nin bu kadar yakında olması beni ürkütüyor.’ Hollanda’nın Zeeland şehrinde PKK üyeliğiyle suçlanarak tutuklanan 55 kişiden söz ediyordu. Polis raporuna gore bu kişiler ‘gizli bir toplantı’ya katılmışlardı. Düşününce Avrupa’daki Kürtleri ve PKK’yi tanımayan biri için bu biraz korkutucu olabilir.

Continue reading “Dost ülkeyi mutlu etmek için”

Esteemed by society

The Prime Minister of a country dealing with huge problems both inside and right on its border, who spends his energy criticizing a TV series. Funny as it seems, the way the ‘problem’ of this highly popular TV series, “Magnificent Century”, is being handled at the moment isn’t very funny at all. Far from it. The law being drafted to ban the Magnificent Century is the sister of the infamous penal code article 301, which makes ‘insulting Turkishness’ a punishable offense.

The law, or more precisely an extra article in the law concerning media watchdog RTÜK, is ready to be sent to parliament. It’s expected that The Magnificent Century, about the life and especially the loves of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, will disappear next year. The series, is Erdogan’s verdict, doesn’t show enough of the political and military triumphs of the Sultan and too much of his interest in the feminine beauty in the harem. The bill reads: ‘Historical events and figures that are highly esteemed by society cannot be shown in a way that humiliates, belittles or distorts them or doesn’t reflect their reality’. Do you see that phrase, ‘that are highly esteemed by society’? It worries me. A lot.

Atatürk is highly esteemed, of course

It will be up to RTÜK, a state institution with only politicians as board members, to decide which historic events and figures that comprises. The state and the Members of Parliament in the board are strongly rooted in Turkish nationalism. They will define what society esteems highly, as the state has already done for so long. Atatürk is highly esteemed of course, as are for example the Turkish army, Ottoman history, Members of Parliament in general and the Prime Minister and the President in particular, and the War of Independence.

Where popular TV can play a big role in breaking the imposed sanctity of these highly esteemed events and figures, and advance democracy by letting people make up their own minds about all the information they get through several different channels, the AKP says: let the state once again decide for you how you should look at our history. Let’s not welcome new interpretations, new visions, new angels. Let’s not sometimes laugh about historical figures, get some amusement out of them, amaze ourselves, get angry, or whatever.

Protect the greatness of Turkey

What worries me even more: how about historical events and figures that are not highly esteemed by society? It’s apparently okay to humiliate, belittle and distort those. Anybody can go ahead with, to name a few, humiliating, belittling and distorting the Armenians and Greeks who once lived in Anatolia in large numbers. It is okay to not show the reality of events like the Armenian genocide, the burning of Izmir, the Istanbul pogrom or the Dersim massacre. Actually, some of these events are actually on the list of ‘historical events esteemed by society’, but then described the way the state prefers to look at them.

In practice, you can say, this situation has already been the reality for ages. True. But putting it down in a law is quite something else. Not only will it lead to high fines and subsequently to self censorship, and not only is it a blow to democratization, it also strengthens the already strong and weakens the already weak. The law is a way to protect the greatness of Turkey, Turks and their official history, and once again leaves the ones that suffered in that history to their fate. It makes the new RTÜK law article basically the sister of the infamous article 301 of the Turkish penal code, in force to this day, which makes it punishable to ‘insult Turkishness’. People have died because of it.

Turkey to ban TV series about Sultan

ISTANBUL – Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent (1494-1566) spent thirty years of his life on a horse, stated the Turkish PM Erdogan. But in the highly popular TV soap ‘Muhtesem Yüzyil’, ‘The Magnificent Century’, he is mainly focused on the feminine beauty in the harem. A distortion of historical facts, according to the Prime Minister, and that’s why the series has to end. A law to indeed ban the series is ready to be sent to parliament.

In the new law it will be forbidden to ‘show historical events and figures that are highly esteemed by society in a way that humiliates, belittles or distorts them or doesn’t reflect their reality’. The party of PM Erdogan, the AKP, expects that the soap series will vanish from TV in 2013. The Magnificent Century started in January 2011, and immediately caused strong negative reactions. Still, the series is a major hit.

The AKP claims it’s not the rejection of The Magnificent Century by Erdogan that has lead to the new law, but the huge amount of complaints about the series that were sent to both the party and media watchdog RTÜK.

The debate about censorship is being heated up again by the bill, also because earlier this week the channel that broadcasts the animation series The Simpsons was fined by RTÜK for blasphemy.

Catching up – from soap series and ombudsman to Patriots and hunger strike

How to start blogging again after not doing it for some three weeks? That ain’t easy, dear readers. Especially when you blog about Turkey, where so much happens in three weeks. How can I decide what’s the most important thing in this period of time, enough to start up the blogging routine again?

There was the death penalty discussion, there is the intention of the AKP to lift the parliamentary immunity of BDP MP’s, school uniforms were abolished all of a sudden and headscarves allowed at religious schools, Erdogan caused a debate about ‘Magnificent Century’, a highly popular soap opera. Also debated: the brand new ombudsman.

Let’s not forget international politics, where my own country the Netherlands was in the news: Patriots will be stationed along the Turkish-Syrian border and the Netherlands, as one of the three NATO countries owning Patriots, is preparing to station them. And Gaza, there was Gaza. Prime Minister Erdogan  is planning, oh no, not planning, he is probably going on an unplanned surprise visit to Gaza this week.

You know what I am going to do? Give you links to nice stories and interesting comments about all these events written by colleagues of mine. So you can catch up a bit, and I can clear the list of blog post subjects and start fresh again after three weeks of silence. By the way, I haven’t been sick or anything like that. I have just been too distracted by a trip to Holland and to Istanbul and Ankara. But I’m back 🙂

Andrew Finkel wrote a great piece about PM Erdogan and The Magnificent Century. Key sentence: ‘My own view is that Erdogan sees “The Magnificent Century” as subtly undermining his own authority’.

The brand new ombudsman – and why the ombudsman system has died at birth, by Murat Yetkin.

Here’s a column in Today’s Zaman about the abolistion of school uniforms. I find it a hilarious piece, actually. The author writes about the freedom and individuality the abolistion of uniforms gives, but refrains from even touching upon the whole school system in Turkey that is designed as a one size fits all. And the plea ends with a call for full freedom for headscarves.  Today’s Zaman at it’s best.

Aaron Stein is an expert when it comes to security issues and Turkey’s role in the Middle East. Here you can find his piece about Turkey’s handling of the conflict in Gaza. 

Want to know more about Patriots and Turkey’s efforts to build missiles itself? Aaron Stein is again your man, read it here.

Also important: the hunger strike in Turkish prisons came to an end. Here’s a list of the articles and blogs I wrote about it:
* Will hunger strikers die in vain? (blog post in English, Kurdish and Turkish, 23 October 2012)
* Hunger strikes in Turkish prisons reach critical phase (article for website SES Türkiye, 25 October 2012 – there is a Turkish version too)
* Thirsty for blood (blog post in English, Kurdish and Turkish, 17 November 2012)
* Dutch MEP causes controversy in Turkey (news agency shorticle, 17 November 2012)
* Kurdish hunger strike over (news agency shorticle, 17 November 2012)
* Demands of Kurdish hunger strikers not met (news agency background, 17 November 2012)
* Prison hunger strikes end without agreements (article for website SES Türkiye, 19 November 2012 – there is a Turkish version too)

Parliamentary immunity crisis seen as setback

A move to lift BDP deputies’ immunity hurts prospects for a negotiated settlement of the Kurdish conflict, observers say.

A government proposal to strip immunity from several deputies with ties to the BDP opposition party could force the Kurdish representatives from Turkey’s political process, observers said.

The prime minister office’s recently submitted to parliament of a motion seeking to strip the immunity of 10 deputies tied to the BDP. Cengiz Aktar, a political science professor at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University, said that the proposal would be “disastrous” for Turkish democracy and paves the way for the government to give courts authority to prosecute the parliamentarians for “links with a terrorist organisation.”

“If their immunity is lifted, the government is basically telling them to go to the mountains,” he told SES Türkiye.

“There are people in the BDP group who are discussing the new constitution that will define how Turks and Kurds will co-exist in this land, and now you take action to exclude them,” he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag moved to downplay concerns, saying deputies won’t automatically be removed from parliament or prosecuted if their immunity is lifted.

“Deputies whose immunity is stripped will continue their work as parliamentarians, it is just that the ban on prosecuting and investigating them will be removed,” he said in a statement posted on the ruling party’s website.

This most recent dispute over immunity was triggered by the so-called “hugging incident” in August, when BDP deputies were filmed embracing and chatting with PKK members after the militants stopped the parliamentarians’ convoy during an identity check on a road in rural Hakkari.

The reaction from other parties in parliament was fierce. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in September that “the pictures in the media already amount to very serious criminal complaints.”

He added: “I believe the justice system will do what is necessary. And then we will do what is necessary, if the job falls to us,” according to Turkish media reports.

Following the end of Kurdish political prisoners’ hunger strike last month, government officials signaled that negotiations with the Kurdish movement, including the BDP and PKK, could resume, creating hope that there would be positive developments toward a solution.

Journalist Necmiye Alpay of the Peace Assembly, an initiative of intellectuals to reach peace in Turkey through democratic means, viewed the situation as test for democracy in the country.

“The parliamentary way is the only way to solve the Kurdish issue,” she told SES Türkiye. “If their immunity is lifted, it means Turkey is taking another step towards being a dictatorial … country instead of a European one respecting democratic values.”

Referring to the immunity issue, President Abdullah Gul said Turkey should beware of going down a “dead-end street,” according to media reports.

Gul added that “there are also examples from our own recent political history of what we tried in the past.” He was referring to 1994, when four Kurdish deputies from one of the BDP’s forerunner parties were stripped of immunity. They were jailed for supporting the PKK, leading to international criticism of democracy in Turkey.

It is not clear if parliament will actually debate the motion submitted by the prime minister’s office. There are 757 files concerning parliamentary immunity pending discussion, but they have all been postponed.

If there is a vote, the AKP and MHP together hold 377 seats in parliament, 10 more than the two-thirds of members required to lift immunity. MHP members have voiced support for the motion.

Aktar said postponing the debate would be positive for democracy.

“But I don’t know if that’s going to happen. The government is so keen on carrying out its own policies that it doesn’t seem to see the consequences of this,” he told SES Türkiye. “It will be an invitation for the elected officials of the Kurdish political movement to quit the political arena.”

BDP Mersin deputy Ertugrul Kurkcu, whose immunity could be lifted, told SES Türkiye it is not clear what his parliamentary group will do if any of their members are stripped of immunity.

“We have not taken a decision about that yet,” he said when asked if they would consider leaving the assembly.


Death penalty remarks find little support

Observers see statements on restoring capital punishment as a political move by Turkey’s leadership and not a serious effort to impose executions.

When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for a public debate on reinstating the death penalty recently, few people took it as a sign he plans to bring the practice back.

But his statements have caused a pitched debate, prompting some commentators to warn that his remarks could harm democracy and efforts to complete EU integration, regardless of his intentions.

“Such remarks are harmful, of course,” veteran journalist and political commentator Mehmet Ali Birand told SES Türkiye. “It is fueling the public opinion about the death penalty. People will say: ‘See, even the prime minister says we should have the death penalty back.’ This is uncalled for, and wrong.”

In a November 12th speech, Erdogan said “in the face of deaths, murders, if necessary the death penalty should be brought back to the table for discussion,” according to media reports.

His remarks came as Turkey’s public debate was focused on the Kurdish prisoners’ hunger strike, which has since stopped. The strikers were demanding an end to the isolation of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and free use of Kurdish in the education and courts systems.

The timing of the comments gave analysts reason to believe they were connected to the hunger strikes and Ocalan, who has been serving a life sentence since the death penalty in peacetime was abolished in 2002.

Birand said Erdogan was only “flirting with ultra-nationalists” when he made his remarks.

“He gave them what they wanted to hear, but he knows it’s impossible to bring the death penalty back, so he also didn’t insist,” Birand said. “Of course [Erdogan] was also distracting the attention away from the hunger strike in prisons.”

Birand added that it would be legally impossible to execute Ocalan even if the death penalty were reinstated, and that Turkey abolished the practice out of concern for what would happen if the PKK leader were put to death in the first place.

“The death penalty wasn’t abolished because of the European Union, as people may think. It was out of fear for our security,” Birand said. “The Kurds were going to really shed blood if Ocalan were brought to death. There would be a leadership war within the PKK, which would cause even more blood. It would have led to a catastrophe.”

Amidst the discussion that followed the prime minister’s comments, a spokesman for EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule indicated that bringing back capital punishment would harm Turkey’s EU prospects.

“Global abolition of the death penalty was one of the main objectives of the EU’s human rights policy,” he told reporters. “Therefore, when the [EU] monitors compliance by candidate and potential candidate countries with the political criteria, it looks at the legal provisions on the death penalty.”

AKP ministers, meanwhile, moved to downplay the controversy.

Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin, for example, was quoted on the party’s website as saying “there’s currently no effort at our ministry to bring back capital punishment.” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutloglu also reaffirmed Turkey’s commitment to EU membership.

On separate occasions, Erdogan voiced for support for the country’s death penalty ban, both before and after it was implemented.

Pinar Ilkiz, a spokeswoman for Amnesty International’s branch in Turkey, told SES Türkiye the human rights organisation does not anticipate the government will take steps to reinstate the death penalty.

“Since the government hasn’t prepared anything, we’ll leave it at this,” she said.