Power struggle, or: off the shelf

On Thursday, daily Taraf revealed a document from a National Security Council (NSC) meeting at which it was decided that the movement led by the influential Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen should be finished off. The signature of Prime Minister Erdogan is on the document, which dates back to August 2004.  A long time ago, you would say, so is it actually still relevant today?

Representatives of the government, like Erdogan’s advisor Yalçın Akdoğan and Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arinc, have admitted immediately after Taraf’s scoop that such a document exists, but claim that the government never took any action on it. It was just an ‘advice’ from the NSC, a monthly meeting at which representatives of the army and the government discuss current affairs.

Fethullah Gülen
Fethullah Gülen

I don’t find that hard to believe. Turkey was quite a different country in 2004 than it is today. Erdogan’s AKP had been in power for only two years, and was not as firmly in the saddle as it is now. The party was deeply distrusted by the army because of its Islamic  roots, and the AKP had to take that into account: the days of military coups, with or without tanks in the streets, was not yet over at the time.

In 2003, the National Security Council, established after the military coup of 1961, was reformed. The authority of the NSC had been expanded after the 1980 coup, and till 2003 the government had to follow up on the ‘recommendations’ it gave. The balance between military and civil representatives in the NSC (five members from the military: the Chief of General Staff, and the commanders of the air forces, land forces, navy and gendarmerie, and five from the government: the president, the prime minister, and the ministers of internal affairs, foreign affairs and defence) had only been a balance in numbers. And in 2004, Necdet Sezer was president of Turkey, a man of the old guard, who opposed the AKP just as fiercely as the army did.

Huge election victory

Since 2003, the government doesn’t have to follow the NSC ‘recommendations’ anymore. And it’s very likely that this specific recommendation was not carried out, because the relations between the AKP and Gülen were still very good at the time. The followers of Gülen helped deliver the AKP a huge election victory in 2002, after the party was established in 2001. The AKP’s economic policies helped the businessmen in Anatolian cities who voted for the AKP. The Gülen movement, in which education plays an important role, got the opportunity to open private schools, both for regular education as for private prep schools for, amongst others, the university entrance exam. And slowly the ‘Gülenci’s’ were rewarded for their loyalty by getting increasingly important posts in the bureaucracy.

The document with Erdogan's signature, source: daily Taraf
The document with Erdogan’s signature, source: daily Taraf

In the summer of 2011, the AKP dealt an important blow to the military power, which is now largely (but certainly not fully) under civilian control, and the army is now lead by a man loyal to the AKP. That, along with the closure case against the AKP that the party survived, made the AKP free, or, more precisely, confident. Very confident. We all know by now what that lead to: Prime Minister Erdogan is increasingly authoritarian and tries to dictate his conservative values to society, either by law or by publicly scandalizing people with a different lifestyle.

Tremendous changes between the time of Erdogan’s signature on the NSC document in 2004, and now. Old powers have been marginalized, and that has given space to a new power struggle: between the AKP and the Gülen movement. It first started to surface in February 2012, when Gülen followers in the judiciary tried to incriminate the leader of the national intelligence service, Hakan Fidan (an Erdogan confidant) by connecting him to the banned Kurdish organisation KCK. Ever since, relations between the AKP and Gülen have deteriorated.

Education is crucial

The latest low is a fierce discussion about the prep schools that the Gülenci’s had opened all over the country in the last decade: the AKP wants to close them down. Prime Minister Erdogan says attending the prep schools shouldn’t be necessary to be successful in the university entrance exam, but the Gülenci’s see the attempt to close their schools as a direct attack on their movement. Education is crucial to them: there they educate their young followers, there they keep them inside the movement by housing them in their own student accommodation, and there they make them ready for the highest  possible positions in society.

The power struggle between the AKP and the Gülen movement seems to have everything to do with the presidential elections scheduled for August 2014. Although not announced officially, nobody doubts Erdogan wants to run for the position. The other less certain but still anticipated candidate is the incumbent President Gül (who was present in the NSC meeting in 2004 as Minister of Foreign Affairs). The latter has, as is widely assumed, always been closer to the Gülen movement than Erdogan. If Erdogan breaks the movement, he may lower Gül’s chances for presidency.

Erdogan may have had no reason to follow up on the National Security Council’s recommendation in 2004. But it looks like he never forgot about it, and has now taken it off the shelf.

A man-made law

It was 2007 and I was in Cappadocia (central Anatolia) with my parents. It was spring and hot, we had taken a walk through a valley and ended up in a small village, Ibrahimpasa. We went to the cafe on the town square for a drink. My dad, not yet a regular Turkey visitor at the time, sat down on the small terrace, sighed, wiped the sweat off his forehead and said: ‘I’ll have a beer.’

Five minutes later, we were having hot tea and cold water. Of course, beer wasn’t available there. That’s very normal in Turkey: in the great majority of restaurants and sidewalk cafes, alcohol is not served. Not in the small towns in Anatolia, and also not in Istanbul. (You know that too, Hugh 😉 And a Spanish journalist who is surprised about not being able to order wine in a lunch restaurant in Istanbul reveals more about his lack of knowledge of the local customs than about the extent of Islamization of the city.)

In general, people in Turkey drink tea. I remember sitting outside at a cafe in Kadiköy, Istanbul, where alcohol was available and I was having a beer, but young and modern people around me were having tea. On a sunny weekend afternoon. Turkey just doesn’t have a drinking culture. When you want to have alcohol with your lunch or dinner, you need to ask if that’s possible when you enter the restaurant. If not, you’ll need to go somewhere else.

Red or white?

That’s totally different to the situation in the country I come from, the Netherlands, as in any other European country. There, drinking is almost automatic. Alcohol is available in practically every restaurant, also for lunch. When you sit down in an outdoor cafe in summer in the afternoon or evening, beer or wine is what you have. When I visit friends in my home country, the question is usually not which drink I would like, but ‘Red or white?’ – white, please. When I visit my parents, I can count on dad having put a bottle of white wine in the fridge beforehand.

Now Turkey is in an uproar because the AKP government has changed the laws concerning alcohol. Part of the package is that retailers cannot sell alcohol anymore between 10pm and 6am (cafes, hotels and restaurants still can) and that alcohol cannot be sold anymore within a hundred meters of a mosque or a school. Alcohol ban! some people shout.

Sorry, but that’s not an alcohol ban. Even stronger: with the time limitation, in practice nothing much changes from the current situation. Supermarkets are usually already closed around that time, and you would have to search for any small specialized alcohol sales point (Tekel) that’s still open.

Some hotels, bars and restaurants will probably be affected by the 100 metre rule, but there is also a good chance there will be exceptions for tourist areas. Not only to support businesses, but also to support the incumbent AKP local government in many tourist areas. You see, there are local elections scheduled for the beginning of 2014. Both the new alcohol law (AKP voters are against drinking) and the expected exceptions to it will serve the AKP, the party that loves power more than God.

Centuries ago

For many people, even foreign observers, this alcohol law is the proof that the AKP is actually ‘Islamizing’ Turkey. I find that intriguing. I think Turkey, or the land we call Turkey now, was already Islamized centuries ago. Just as the part of the world where I come from was Christianized centuries ago. I know of course that what people mean when they say ‘Islamizing’ is that the AKP wants to impose its Islamic values on society. But my point is: Islamic values are already ruling this society, just as Christian values are ruling the Netherlands.

The criteria are: does the AKP limit other people’s choice to drink? They do when it comes to the hundred metre rule. Not selling alcohol around schools though, is actually not the worst idea ever. Not around mosques? Now on that particular point, the new law directly touches religion, is definitely inspired by Islam and should be cancelled.

Still, I think alcohol has become only more available since the AKP has been in power. Look at the very conservative city where I live, Diyarbakir. Within walking distance from my house in Baglar (I tell you, that’s not a modern part of town) there are two ultra modern shopping malls where I can buy all the alcohol I (think I) need. No way was it like that ten years ago. Thanks to AKP’s friends in the construction business, shopping malls with Migros and Carrefour (two of the big markets that sell alcohol) are still expanding all over the country.

Not a healthy product

The other details of the law aren’t necessarily ‘Islamizing’. I for sure support harsh punishment for driving under the influence of alcohol. That advertising alcohol will be restricted is bad news for the alcohol producers but not such a strange policy. Don’t forget (as I sometimes tend to do) that alcohol is not a healthy product.

Which doesn’t mean that I think it makes any sense whatsoever to introduce stricter alcohol laws in Turkey. PM Erdogan and some AKP MP’s say many EU countries have similar laws and Russia tries to limit alcohol use too – which made me laugh out loud, because the social problems caused by alcohol in the EU and definitely in Russia are uncomparable to the situation in Turkey.

Like I said, these lands were Islamized centuries ago. The alcohol consumption in Turkey is very low. Turkey has no alcohol problem and people don’t need a man-made law to not touch alcoholic drinks. It’s true what PM Erdogan said some weeks ago: the yoghurt drink ayran is Turkey’s national drink. He said it himself, so why on earth restrict alcohol? Well, that’s where the previously mentioned local elections come in.

Underage marriage

If Erdogan was really concerned about the people’s health and the welfare of the family and of Turkey’s youth – the reasons he claims to have for the new alcohol rules – I have some ideas.

Please, please urgently draft (and implement!) a serious policy against domestic violence, sexual abuse and underage marriage. Launch a campaign to inform the public about the dangers of smoking, and especially of smoking in the presence of children. Reduce the places where you can buy cigarettes, raise the prices a lot and implement rules that ban children from buying tobacco products. (There are new tabacco rules to come, let’s see what they contain.)

And who is going to tell people in this country about the biggest health risk every single Turks inflicts upon himself? I’m talking about sugar. Putting three or four sugar cubes in ten to twenty cups of tea a day (thats 210 to 560 cubes a week!), and accustoming children to that from a very young age, is very hazardous to your health.

But don’t expect too much from the AKP in these fields. You don’t want to estrange the voters from you, do you?

‘Saint Nicolas must return to Turkey’

ISTANBUL – The remains of Saint Nicolas must be brought back to Turkey, according to Navzat Cevik, archaeology professor at the Turkish Akdeniz University, as reported by Turkish press agency Anadolu. The professor claims to know that would also be the wish of the saint himself.

Saint Nicolas is currently buried in the Italian province of Bari, after being, according to Cevik, illegally taken from Turkey in 1087. Saint Nicolas lived in Myra in SouthernTurkey, now called Demre. The saint has a church there, where many mainly Russian tourists visit. It is there that the saint should rest for ever.

Archeologist Cevik added that Saint Nicolas is also an important figure for Muslims. ‘He tried to spread Christianity, and Christianity is a religion sent by God as well’, he told Anadolu.

As far as is known, the Vatican, to which Cevik made his appeal, has not yet responded.

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.

Turkish Muslims relaxed about Muhammad film

ISTANBUL – Muslims in Turkey remain remarkably quiet about the film mocking Muhammad, which sparked unrest in the Arabic world. There was a small demonstration in Istanbul, but that went quietly and without violence. The American President Obama has even asked the Turkish PM Erdogan to help quieten down Arabic Muslims, Turkish media report on Saturday.

On Tuesday the still popular Turkish PM Erdogan called on his citizens not to be provoked by the film, right after the American ambassador Stevens died in an attack. And religious leaders who are important in Turkey called on the people to remain calm, among them the head of the directorate of religious affairs, Mehmet Görmez, and the preacher Fethullah Gülen, who lives in the United States.

But there is a big chance Turks wouldn’t have reacted aggressively even without those calls, says Islamexpert and political analyst Mustafa Akyol: ‘Fanaticism is not in the Turkish religious tradition. Turkey for example has no Salafists, a group that does play an important role in the Arabic world. Turkish history has not seen any armed Islamic groups come into existence from the grassroots of society.’

This doesn’t mean Muslims in Turkey shrug their shoulders about the film, according to Akyol: ‘There have been some small demonstrations, for example by the small religious Saadet Party, but they never turn violent.’ And Turkish religious leaders raised their voices against the film while calling on their followers not to be provoked.

As well, the Turkish form of secularism plays a role: in Turkey it is not permitted to start your own religious movement, open a mosque and employ your own Imam. Islam is controlled by the state. The Turkish version preaches that religion is something personal that should not be mixed with politics.

There is another sentiment though that is being kept warm by the state: nationalism. Akyol: ‘Turks are more fanatical about that than about their religion.’


Calm believers

‘That protest? That was just to save face.’ I hadn’t yet seen it from that angle, and the friend who said it made me laugh. Turkish Muslims who feel they have to somehow show they are against ‘insulting Muhammed’ to confirm their identity to the outside world. They think of some slogans, carry a banner, walk along a route and then go home again, back to the routine of the day. I don’t know if that’s true, but the fact is: Muslims in Turkey are not consumed by anger and aggression because of the video that has pushed many Arabs to violence and even murder. Why is that?

Did I see the video? No, I didn’t. I hear it’s dramatic quality-wise. It made me think of videos on YouTube that are supposedly ‘insulting to Atatürk’. I saw a few of those and really, too stupid to watch longer than ten seconds. But also, I didn’t watch it because, in a way, how the video really looks is irrelevant. Insults are in the eye of the beholder. So called ‘insulting videos’ usually say more about the people that make them than about the people they are aimed at. I mean, how pathetic and sick are you if you spend money on shooting a video purely made to stir up emotions?

Then again, the reactions to it say something about those being ‘insulted’ too. If you feel secure about yourself, about your faith, about who you are, you don’t care about how others see you and you sure don’t get insulted easily. And definitely you don’t get aggressive. I can’t compare Turks with people in countries where violent protests do occur because I don’t know too much about those countries, but I do know Turks are just not fanatical about their faith. They are calm believers.

Personal lifestyle

It’s always said 99% of Turks are Muslim, but that’s just because ‘Muslim’ is written on 99% of the identity cards given out. Many of them don’t practice their faith, or just apply the Islamic rules that fit their way of thinking about Islam or that fit their personal lifestyle. If you make religion that personal, how could you be insulted about a video that targets ‘Islam in general’, made by some American and which gives a very narrow picture of your religion? Religious feelings that are so personal don’t easily get damaged by general attacks.

The way Turks react to this video, or actually don’t react, also has to do with the lack of freedom of religion in Turkey. The country is usually referred to as being secular, but Turkey is all but secular. The state controls religious life. All the mosques are state-owned, all the imams are paid by the state, and Diyanet, the directorate of religious affairs, is a state institution controlled by the government. It preaches that religion is a strictly, repeat strictly personal thing, and that it can’t be used for political reasons.

Atatürk arranged it that way because he was afraid that Islam would get too much influence on political life and that it would hinder progress and westernization. It’s the typical Turkish form of ‘secularism’, which aims to protect the state against the influence of religion rather than, as in western secularism, protect religion against the influence of the state. So in Turkey, it’s forbidden to form your own religious group, to build your own mosque, or any other prayer house. It is, in other words, a tool to limit freedom of religion, and many groups that are not Sunni Muslims following the state version of Islam have trouble with it, as you can read here and here.

Nationalism, not religious fanaticism

Which automatically raises the question: would Turks behave differently if there was freedom of religion in their country? Would they instantly become intolerant, easily inflamed and insecure religious fanatics? I don’t think so. Turkey doesn’t have a history of fundamentalism, of practicing a form of Islam that prescribes strict rules about every step you take in life.

In Ottoman times, religions other than Islam were relatively free, which explains the number of churches and synagogues in Anatolia. The violence against religious and ethnic minorities in the history of Anatolia and of Turkey had more to do with nationalism that with religious fanaticism.

From what I hear, this has its roots in the way Islam came to Turkey, or rather to Anatolia. Not directly from the Arab world, but via Persia. Persia at the time already had an advanced society and had integrated Islam into the already existing lifestyle. Islam didn’t define the societies of for example Persia and Anatolia, the religion was just fitted in. With roots like that, religious fanaticism is just not in your veins.

But hey, I’m not an expert on Islam. I welcome any other view on why Turkey’s Muslims stay calm, the reaction field below is open!

Armenian church gets a real place in Diyarbakir

I do remember the church from before the restoration. I remember feeling sad about an Armenian church in the middle of the old city of Diyarbakir being totally dilapidated. The people once attending mass there were murdered in 1915, the witnesses of their former presence in the city destroyed. So it was really good to see the church of Surp Giragos (almost) fully restored now, and full of people attending a piano recital by Armenian-Canadian pianist Raffi Bedrosyan.

The church dates back to the fifteenth century and is built out of the big black stones that are so typical of old buildings in Diyarbakir. The church doesn’t look like a stranger in the city but fits in perfectly. Its renovation started in 2009, under the jurisdiction of the Istanbul Armenian Patriarchate. It was paid for with funds from Armenians in Turkey and abroad, and with financial contributions from the Diyarbakir and Sur (the old town) municipalities. The mayor of Sur, Abdullah Demirbas, has been a strident advocate of the rights of minorities in Diyarbakir, as has Diyarbakir mayor Osman Baydemir.

Armenian-Canadian pianist Raffi Bedrosyan playing in the restored Surp Giragos church, 10 September 2012. Click to enlarge.

What I find remarkable is that both Demirbas and Baydemir have called on Armenians and other minorities to return to Diyarbakir. They want a city with cultural diversity, like in the old days. Baydemir was present at the concert, with his wife, lawyer Reyhan Yalcindag, and in his speech he repeated his appeal. He got applause for it.

Also present in the church was a group of elderly Armenians from the United States on a ‘roots trip’. Over the weekend, they attended a mass at the Armenian church on Akdamar island, in Lake Van, not too far from Diyarbakir. I talked to one of the women from the group during the concert – yeah, sorry, it wasn’t all silent anyway, people were walking in and out of the church and were whispering, kids couldn’t keep quietly, which really all just added to the good atmosphere – and I asked her what she thought of Baydemir’s call to return to Diyarbakir. ‘I think it’s amazing’, she whispered in excitement, ‘considering all that has happened here in the past’.

But of course I wanted to know if she would ever consider living in the land of her ancestors. ‘No’, she replied without thinking. ‘Not because of the Turks of course, that would be no problem. But you know’, she continued, seemingly not talking only about herself but about other people like her as well, ‘we have very comfortable lives in the States, we are not prepared to give that up.’

Diyarbakir mayor Osman Baydemir calls on Armenians to return to Diyarbakir, his wife, lawyer Reyhan Yalcindag, translates his words to English. Pianist Bedrosyan behind the couple. 10 September 2012. Click to enlarge. (and sorry for bad picture quality…)

After the concert, I talked to an Armenian who now lives in Kusadasi, on the west coast of Turkey. He was originally from Siirt province, east of Diyarbakir. I asked him if he would return to his roots permanently. ‘Oh I come here all the time’, he answered. ‘My life is in Kusadasi now, but my daughter lives here, I have family in Siirt, in Kurdistan (he meant North Iraq, FG), in Syria, in Canada. That’s how it is with Armenians, they are spread out all over the world because of what happened in this region. I will keep coming here and the concert was good and the place is beautifully restored, but I won’t come back to live here.’

The church is not in use as a place to have mass every Sunday, for that there are too few Armenians left. And the wish of the municipality to have more Armenians in the city again is not likely to be fulfilled any time soon. But there will be a concert in the church from now on every month, it was announced. That’s great: it will give the historic building a real place in the vibrant city of Diyarbakir.

Here is a really good pic of the church during the concert, on the site of Diyarbakir municipality. (I’m on the right, fourth bench from the back, second from the right ;-))

Thou shalt not tweet about God

Today I was interviewed on Belgian public radio. Subject: the world famous Turkish pianist Fazil Say. He tweeted about religion, a Turkish prosecutor didn’t like that and started a case against him. Belgian radio wanted to know everything about that because Say was giving a recital that evening in Brussels.

Listen to the interview here – sorry, in Dutch!

Mor Gabriel, Alevism and the ECHR

‘We will fight this decision all the way to the European Court for Human Rights’. It’s a sentence you hear often when injustice is done once again in a Turkish court, or when you talk to people who feel they have been treated unjustly by the state. Way more often than not, the ECHR rules in favour of the plaintiff and the Turkish state is convicted. The unfortunate thing is: both the Turkish government and Turkish judges often just don’t care about a ruling of the ECHR.

The latest case attracting a lot of attention, and which will be taken to the ECHR, is the case of Mor Gabriel, a Syrian Orthodox monastery in Midyat in Southeast Turkey. It was established in the year 397 and is the oldest surviving Syrian Orthodox monastery in the world. It has been in legal battles since 2008, when locals claimed the monastery was using lands that they needed for raising cattle. A lower Turkish court ruled in favour of the monastery, but the state took over the prosecutions and finally won: the Supreme Court of Appeals ruled the lands of Mor Gabriel belong to the state. That is against all logic, since the monastery can prove they have been paying taxes for many decades and they have all their paperwork in order.

An exception rather than a rule

The ECHR will probably take some years to rule that Turkey is wrong and should grant Mor Gabriel the property rights they have. That will be a well deserved victory for the monastery, but I doubt if it will change anything in the way Turkey handles religious minorities. In essence, that means that if you are not a Sunni Muslim, you have no rights in Turkey.

International law has precedence over national law, but the carrying out of rulings of the ECHR can’t be ensured. Parties to the treaty, of which Turkey is one, should just have the decency to implement the rulings under their national laws. Turkey doesn’t have that decency – not that other European countries always have, by the way, as you can read here. But Turkey makes carrying out ECHR rulings an exception rather than a rule.

The whole humilitation again

There is a very recent example of that, concerning another group in Turkish society that is not Sunni Muslim: the Alevi’s. A court ruled that two Alevi children must attend the obligatory religious classes in secondary school, even though the ECHR already ruled years ago that Alevi children cannot be forced to. The religious classes teach the Turkish state version of Sunni Islam, which differs from Alevi beliefs. The two children concerned were, after a legal battle, exempted from religious classes in primary school, but now have to go through the whole humiliation again. The local court just rules that the religious classes are ‘constitutional’ and that’s it.

How the state considers religions other than Sunni Islam was also confirmed by Deputy PM Bekir Bozdag, who said Alevism is not a separate religion, that the Alevi are Muslims and that all Muslims can go to the mosque for prayers. That’s why the AKP has been building mosques in villages where mostly Alevi live – nobody attends those mosques, because the Alevi use cemevi as houses of worship. Not permissible, ruled a Turkish court earlier this week. You can go to a cemevi, but you are not allowed to call the place a ‘house of worship’, only a ‘cultural centre’. Compare that also to how the Mevlevi Order has been reduced to being a cultural activity instead of the spiritual belief it really is.

Current and ancient

On the first of August, the constitutional commission of parliament will convene again. I’m not very optimistic about any progress there. The mindset that everybody in Turkey is not only a Turk but also a Muslim, and more precisely a Sunni Muslim as the rules of the Turkish secular state is rooted too deeply for all members of the commission to accept that all religious groups in Turkey need the freedom to express their faith however they wish, treated with respect from the state for not only their current houses of worship, but also their ancient ones.

Women, choices, politician and dad

Turkey’s wanna be bedroom coach, that’s how I saw Prime Minister Erdogan being described on Twitter this weekend. Fresh in the mind is Erdogan’s call on Turkish couples some years ago to have no less than three children, now he has taken a strong stand against abortion and caesarean birth deliveries. The description made me giggle. Which was quite welcome after the anger I’ve been feeling at how Erdogan addresses these important issues. They require consideration, nuance, humanity, but he doesn’t seem to have these qualities in him so he just throws the topics on the table very curtly and leaves it at that.

Illustration of ‘curt’? He actually compared abortion to the murder of 34 civilians in Uludere, end of December, by the Turkish army: ‘Every abortion is an Uludere’. When you know a little bit about the process women go through before they take the difficult decision to have an abortion (and I know a little bit more about it than average, since in my previous journalistic life I wrote a lot about women and health, including abortion), you could interpret that as: apparently he admits that the bombing in Uludere was a well considered decision made by the one and only person in charge – read: himself. But Erdogan obviously has no clue about the decision-making process of women who have unwanted pregnancies. He just calls women who have an abortion “murderers”. And added that abortions are done to prevent Turkey’s population growth. How dare he?

Crazy Turkish reality

It gets even weirder when you know that this remark actually makes Erdogan look humane in the crazy Turkish reality. A few days ago, Interior Minister Sahin made very rude and totally unacceptable remarks about the Uludere massacre. He accused the civilians who were killed of being ‘PKK extras’ on an illegal mission (smuggling) ordered by pro-Kurdish party BDP and the PKK, and who would have been prosecuted if they had been caught alive. And that therefore there was no need whatsoever to apologize for the incident. Both Erdogan and another high AKP official denounced Sahin’s statement, but of course he wasn’t fired and he didn’t step down.

I am surprised to see the comments about this. Nobody even touches on the possibility that this kind of remark is exactly why Sahin is in the government. He has said and done extreme things before. This is just his role in the AKP. Many AKP voters totally agree with the words of Sahin, and he is the minister keeping them on board. After that, Erdogan can publicly denounce Sahin’s words and use his ‘humanity’ on a totally different subject like abortion, and hop, the whole AKP electorate is happy again. When they see each other without any outsiders looking on, Sahin gets pats on the shoulder: well done! Of course Sahin is not fired; he is perfectly useful as he is.

Every unwanted pregnancy is one too many

Back to the subject – hey, Erdogan links important women’s issues with the Uludere massacre, so don’t criticize me for it. Is abortion a big problem in Turkey? Some statistical research shows that is not the case. In Turkey in 2008 some 17% of known pregnancies ended in (legal) abortion. To compare: in my own country, the Netherlands, this was almost 13% in 2010, in the United States 22% in 2008. Abortion has been legal in Turkey since the early 1980’s, in most cases up until the tenth week of pregnancy and the law prevents underaged and married women from taking the decision totally by themselves. Wider availability of modern contraception methods (among other developments) earlier brought the rate down: in 1988 4,5% per 100 women had an abortion, in 1998 this decreased to 2,4%.

So, beats me what the point is of bringing this up. Every unwanted pregnancy is one too many and is better avoided. If Erdogan is against abortion – which is a legitimate opinion – then it’s up to him to find policies to bring the numbers down further. Sex education in schools, better availability of contraception in the whole of the country, information campaigns at family health centres (and opening or staffing them everywhere), etc. But he is not really interested in that. He just wants to show himself as a pious religious and nationalist man, and is flagrantly using an important women’s issue to reach his goal.

Risks are often being downplayed

Caesarean sections? Yes. They are a problem in Turkey, definitely. The rise of caesarean section deliveries reached a whopping 37% in 2008, coming from 8% in 1993. Especially in the most developed regions in the west of Turkey, women opt for a caesarean section instead of natural birth and doctors at the numerous private hospitals don’t hesitate to help out. From the research I have done, it seems that women make the choice not well enough informed. The risks of a huge operation like a section are often being downplayed, the negative sides of natural birth exaggerated. But a caesarean section is a significantly higher risk than a natural birth: there is a risk of unexpected bleedings, infections, and the risks of epidurals or full narcosis. Recovering from a caesarean takes more time than recovering from natural birth, and also comes with greater risks.

So yes, reason enough to put the topic on the agenda. But to do that by saying you are ‘against caesarean sections’? How can you be against a medical procedure that over the centuries has saved the lives of thousands of women and babies? A slap in the face for all the women that had no choice but to deliver via caesarean. And again: if Erdogan is really interested in bringing the rate of caesareans down, then he has the power to do something. Information campaigns, encouraging doctors to adopt a medical standard in when to choose a caesarean and when not, etc. But he’s not really interested, he just wants to score. Again, abusing an important issue in the lives of many women.

Young women

Erdogan has two daughters, who are young women now. I have been thinking about them this weekend. Who knows how their lives will turn out? Who knows, they may at some point need to consider an abortion or a caesarean section. I hope their dad is a different father than he is a politician, and that he will support them in whatever choice they make.