Mesopotamia doesn’t exclude anybody

I had already seen him at the symposium, sitting in the conference hall with a large framed image next to him. I didn’t ask him what it was, I thought that he must be one of the speakers and we would find out eventually. And yes, we did find out eventually. Right after the closing words of the symposium were spoken, he rushed to the front of the hall and exploded in anger, his framed image in his hands: ‘Look, these are my ancestors!’, pointing at the framed image which turned out to be, or so he claimed, his family tree. ‘The Abbasid dynasty ruled here for centuries, so why are they not even mentioned once in a three day symposium on Hakkari history?’

Rugged Hakkari mountains.
Rugged Hakkari mountains.

He then turned rude and abusive, asking for example why ‘kafirs’ were speaking at the symposium, thus losing his right to speak up for diversity, so naturally people  stopped listening.

But the guy had a point. Continue reading “Mesopotamia doesn’t exclude anybody”

Ravished Armenia and Ezidi lands

While Islamic State was starting to take over Ezidi towns in Iraqi Kurdistan this weekend, I was driving around in Dersim and Erzincan provinces. I was following the trail of Arshalus Mardiganian. She was 14 years old in 1915, when she and her family and all other Armenians in Tchemesh-Gedzak were forced to leave their home town on foot, on the way to an almost certain death.

Arshalus Mardiganian
Arshalus Mardiganian

Tchemesh-Gedzak, that’s the name that is used for present-day Cemisgezek in the book Arshalus (meaning: ‘light of the morning’) wrote after she arrived in the United States shortly after the genocide. Well, she didn’t write it herself, she was only seventeen years old and didn’t speak a word of English, but she shared her experiences with a journalist, who wrote it down for her. In the States, her first name changed to Aurora. Continue reading “Ravished Armenia and Ezidi lands”

Inside all those houses

I’m on the sixth floor of a big apartment block of some twelve floors. From the balcony I look out on the surroundings and chat with R., the lady of the house. The area is called Diclekent, a huge and still new part of the city. The block where R. lives with her husband and three children was completed in 2007. Luxurious, spacious apartment blocks, parks in between, children’s playgrounds. Diyarbakir is still growing fast, and new areas like this continue to be built. It all looks very modern.

It looks modern, but that doesn’t mean life is always very modern here. We look out over other apartment blocks and a small new park with baby trees, but, behind that, over a huge wasteland. There are two fires there, with women sitting around it. ‘I often go there too’, R. says. She is originally from a village in the province of Hakkari. She continues: ‘We make a fire and we grill vegetables, mostly peppers and eggplant. It’s very tasty’.

I know, I have tasted that often in Turkey, and it’s multi-purpose and is also used for a very nice dish, eggplant salad. R. opens the drawer of her fridge and shows me a few big frozen packages: ‘See’, she says, ‘I make a lot at one time and freeze it. I love going there. We sit together with the women, we chat and we grill. It’s very traditional; we don’t give it up even though we live in these modern houses.’

Diclekent (though not the part where R. lives). On the left behind the buildings a wasteland used for grilling and such. Click to enlarge.

In the corner of the wasteland there is a pile of stones. I recognize it from the distance: it’s a bread oven. You make a fire inside and stick the flat bread to the inside of the oven. It’s ultra tasty once it’s ready. I remember once when I was strolling around in Diyarbakir a woman insisted on giving me one. She just stuffed it in my backpack; I felt the heat of it through the fabric on my back. Not too far from this wasteland in Diclekent, there is a bakery shop. Of course, many people go there to buy bread, but the oven is also used on a daily basis.

It is nice to hold on to old traditions. That the women still come together for these traditional ways of cooking, despite not living in villages anymore but in a big city. But a few days earlier, I also heard about the other side of holding on to traditional life. It happened when I was walking in a park close by my house in the evening.

As I was sitting on a bench, two young men came towards me. Could they ask me something? Yes, of course. They recognized me from a TV appearance on CNN Turk, earlier this year. ‘We loved it’, they said. Could they sit down and talk a bit? Of course.

Three minutes later they had told me they were gay. Very suddenly, after asking where I was from and after getting my confirmation that yes, gay marriage was legal in my home country, ‘We want to go there!’ they said. ‘What a freedom!’

I use exclamation marks, but they were actually sort of shout-whispering. Because they soon added they were secret gays. Nobody knew. They met each other via an internet site and became good friends. One of them had a boyfriend, the other didn’t. Nobody could ever know. ‘You have heard about gay Kurds being killed by their families, haven’t you?’ Yes, I have.

Gay rights demo earlier this year in Diyarbakir, organized by local group ‘Hebûn’, meaning ‘To be’. Click to enlarge.

I brought up a gay rights group in Diyarbakir, that actually held its first gay rights demonstration this year in the city. Did they attend? ‘No, definitely not. Hardly anybody from Diyarbakir did. It’s too dangerous. The participants were mostly from other parts of Turkey, just here to support gays in this region. Which is great, of course.’

They dreamed of moving to other parts of Turkey. Izmir, on the west coast, was their dream destination, or Istanbul. There they could live a more free life, away from the pressure of their families. But they worried about living in those cities too. ‘It’s not easy being a Kurd in the west of the country. There is discrimination, you know. When you say you are from Diyarbakir, you are treated differently. So if we ever move there, we will have to be secret Kurds.’ They laughed. ‘It’s tragic-comic, isn’t it?’, one of them said. ‘Here in Diyarbakir we are secret gays, in Izmir we will be secret Kurds’.

They looked around. Cars were speeding on the busy road alongside the park. An older part of Diyarbakir on one side of the park, brand new apartment blocks on the other. ‘Don’t be deceived by all these modern-looking buildings’, they told me very seriously. ‘It’s only the outside. Inside all those houses, life is still very traditional. You have to fit in. And it’s very difficult if you don’t.’

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 ;-))

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.

Cemevi, and the freedom of religion

Good news this weekend from south-eastern Diyarbakir. The municipality joined with an Alevi organisation in a ceremony for the opening of a cemevi, a prayer house for Alevis (a liberal path in Islam). A brand new, multipurpose building where the (small) Alevi community of Diyarbakir can come together to celebrate their religion. Still, I have some reservations too. Because in Turkey, religions other than the state version of Sunni Islam depend on the goodwill of local authorities to practice their religion freely.

Turkey is a secular country, but not in the sense that religion and the state are strictly separated. On the contrary: religion and the state are very closely intertwined. Religious life is controlled by Diyanet, the state directorate for religious affairs. Their version of Sunni Islam is taught in schools (mandatory) and in all mosques, all imams are civil servants educated in state schools and universities, and the highest religious authority is also a public servant. Diyanet was founded right after the foundation of the Republic, to protect the ‘secular’ state against the power of religion.

Treaty of Lausanne

Diyanet has in this way always contributed to protecting the unity of the Turkish nation state. Everybody was proclaimed to be a Turk (even if you were Arab, Greek, Kurd, Armenian, Laz, or whichever other ethnicity), and everybody was a Muslim following the state religion. The only exception was made for ‘non Muslim minorities’, as mentioned in the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923: Greeks, Armenians and Jews were entitled to practice their religion, have their own schools and other facilities. Muslim minorities who were not Turks and/or not Sunni Muslims, like Kurds and Alevis, were not recognised as minorities. In practice this meant they also didn’t get any rights to their own religious or ethnic identity.

Which doesn’t mean by the way that there are no cemevi’s in Turkey. There are, but they are cultural centres, not houses of worship. Comparable to the derwish lodges, a religious sect that was also reduced to something cultural in stead of religion, as you can read in this former blogpost. *)

Multi-religious

It is not surprising that it is in Diyarbakir that a cemevi is now being opened. The municipality, ruled by pro-Kurdish party BDP, knows what it’s like when your identity is being denied. Osman Baydemir, the mayor of Diyarbakir, is pretty determined to make his city a place where everybody can be himself – he referred to that also in his opening speech at a conference about the history of the Diyarbakir region which I recently visited. He had already mentioned the opening of the cemevi at the conference, and he also expressed his wish to make the city more multi-religious, as it used to be in pre-Republic times, when for example large groups of Christian Armenians were living there.

In most regions of Turkey, Alevis don’t get their right to open a cemevi. On the contrary even: the AKP government is known for building mosques in predominantly Alevi regions, like the province of Dersim/Tunceli. That’s not the only problem Alevis have in Turkey: their children still have to follow the mandatory religious classes even though they teach nothing about their religion, and despite a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights – read more about that here.

Greeks

I admire the efforts of Baydemir very much. He shows that a suppressed people like the Kurds who get some power, are able to look beyond the interests of their own group, and are eager to give others the rights they are also denied. But he too has to act within the limits of the state, like with the cemevi: it’s officially a cultural centre, not a house of worship. If – which is pretty theoretical at the moment, but never mind about that now – Armenians decide to settle in the region again, would it be possible to re-open one of their churches for religious ceremonies? In theory, maybe, but in practice? In Diyarbakir they would have the support of the municipality, but how about other regions of the country? Imagine Greeks re-settling in the north of Turkey, known for being pretty nationalist. Would they get support from nationalist mayors to experience their religion the way they want, and to re-open their confiscated and abandoned houses of worship?

The opening of the cemevi in Diyarbakir shows the deeply rooted problem that Turkey has with religious freedom. No kind-hearted mayor, no municipal goodwill should be needed to settle somewhere as a religious group. What is needed is a solid law that guarantees the freedom of religion. So that all groups, whether they are Alevi, Greek, Armenian, (or Dutch Christian, for that matter) or whichever other religious identity, can just open a house of prayer if they feel a need for it.

*) This small paragraph was added after the comment underneath of Theoldtturk, since I don’t want people to think that the cemevi in Diyarbakir is the first in Turkey and you could indeed get that impression. 

Wounds

1.
Rosarin and I are having lunch. We are in Mardin, southeast Turkey. Mardin is a beautiful village on a mountain; it’s very old, well preserved and known for being the most ethnically mixed city in Turkey. Turks, Kurds and Arabs live here, and Christians too. In peace, and they always have. While we are having lunch, our good moods are being distorted by history. We are just chatting, when suddenly Rosarin’s past comes up. She has been living in the Netherlands since the mid-eighties. She fled from Turkey a few years after the 1980 coup – exactly 31 years ago today – and after her very young son was tortured in their house by army personnel.

How did she reach the Netherlands in those days? I ask. Maybe I shouldn’t have. But she started telling the whole story. I’m not going to repeat it fully here, but the most heart-breaking part was the fact that she had to leave her young daughter behind in Turkey. Passport issues. She missed her so much that four years later she returned to Turkey with a false passport to get her and take her to Holland too. She hugged her daughter, but the girl, about 8 years old, was uncomfortable being hugged by a ‘stranger’.

She starts crying. Not a little bit, but really crying. ‘I never talk about it’, she says through her tears. ‘Now you see why. It’s just too much. Those years were so difficult. I took my daughter, but I was still waiting for refugee status in the Netherlands, and when we got into trouble in Romania, the Dutch government didn’t help us at all. It’s dangerous for a woman and daughter to travel alone without anything to guarantee your safety, without any legitimate papers. A human trafficker locked us up in a room for eleven days with only water. Can you imagine, seeing your girl in such circumstances?’

I hug her. We don’t change the subject. We are just silent till it’s time to pay the bill and go.

2.
Rosarin and I hire a car. From Mardin we head further south, to Kiziltepe, right by the Syrian border. We visit Fatma there. Fatma welcomes us in Dutch: ‘Hallo, welkom, hoe was jullie reis?’ (Hello, welcome, how was your trip?) The three of us laugh: here, in this dusty, hot southern corner of Turkey, we understand each other in Dutch. Fatma, now around sixty years old, lived in the Netherlands for thirteen years but returned to her homeland twenty five years ago. Her Dutch is rather basic, but very understandable, and she keeps it up by talking to her children, her sons- and daughters–in-law (some of them Dutch) and her grandchildren, who all live in Holland. But we don’t talk too much Dutch, she can’t really express herself in it. We mostly talk Turkish, and sometimes she and Rosarin talk Kurdish and translate to Turkish and Dutch for me.

The three of us are very different, our lives are very different, but from the first moment, we match. We talk about everything without holding back, we laugh, eat, sleep and drink tea. Fatma lives alone. She shows us pictures. In one picture there is an old woman, and I ask her if that’s her mother. ‘No, that’s me’, she says. I look from the sad, old figure on the picture to the lively woman sitting next to me and ask: ‘How come you were so sad?’ Rosarin immediately interferes: ‘No, we are not going to open those wounds now.’ Fatma gets up and is off to the kitchen.

Rosarin tells me Fatma’s story in short. She married a Kurdish man in Holland, left Turkey to live with him and they had four children. But something went wrong (I won’t get into details here). Fatma filed for divorce, but her husband warned her not to leave. The children were taken by the state child protection institute and put in foster homes. To escape her ex and to obey her family’s demand to quickly marry again and return to Turkey, she fled back to Turkey and married. She became the second wife of a Kurd, and after her he married another woman. The marriage lasted twenty four years and was not happy. Only one year ago did she feel strong enough to leave the man.

In all those years, she didn’t see her children or have any contact with them until after her marriage ended. Fatma returns to the rug we are sitting on in the living room, wiping her tears away. We look at more pictures. A whole lot of pictures of her and her children and grandchildren. There is a CD too. Unbelievable that all these were made in only one year. They have a lot of catching up to do.

3.
The next morning, we go on a trip with four women. A niece of Fatma, Gülbahar, is joining us. She too lives in Kiziltepe, so we pick her up from her home and hit the road. First to Daba, a historical town from the early Byzantine period that is being excavated. Totally impressive, we walk around, make lots of pictures, have tea, buy earrings and shawls in the souvenir shop. Then we go to Nusaybin, another border town. It’s hot, we open the windows, play Kurdish music on the radio. I drive, and they clap their hands and sing along when they know the song. We drive along the Syrian border. There are signs along the fences: ‘Caution, land mine area’. Nusaybin, that’s where the camps with refugees from Syria are, but I won’t get to see any of that. The ladies want to go to some creek, after doing some shopping. I buy a skirt in the old town of Nusaybin, Rosarin buys clothes for her grandchildren, Gülbahar for her teenage daughter.

Gülbahar wears a wedding ring. I’m a bit surprised that she is actually going with us. That could be very prejudiced of me, but in general traditional men don’t really stay home with the children and do the cooking to let their wives go on a fun trip the whole day, so to speak. But I don’t ask anything; maybe I’ll find out her story, maybe not.

The creek the ladies wanted to visit turns out to be ‘Beyazsu’. It’s close to Nusaybin, on the road to Midyat – do visit, if you are ever in the region. There are restaurants right by the creek, corners with cushions to sit in. We occupy a corner, spread the cig köfte we bought in Nusaybin on the table and order a pot of tea. We put our feet in the water. We are warm, sweaty and dusty, the water is ice-cold.

At night, when we return to Kiziltepe, we have (again!) tea, in Gülbahars house. Her two daughters are home, and her son, all around twenty years old. There is a picture of a man on the wall. He looks like Gülbahars son. I look at it, and Gülbahar says: ‘That’s my husband. He was killed fifteen years ago in the prison of Mardin. Tortured to death.’

For privacy reasons, the names of the women are fictional, and a few details were changed.

The book in the shop window

I walk down Istiklal Street and see a huge advertisement in a book shop window. ‘Historical lies of the Republic’. I step back and look again. A book critical of the truths of the Turkish state through the decades? And it’s advertised that prominently? Then I see the sales slogan accompanying the book: ‘Documented answers to the lies of the enemies of Atatürk and the Republic’. Ah, of course, things fall in place again. One of the state truths is confirmed here very clearly: the Turkish republic and Atatürk don’t have critics, for example, or neighbours or groups with different views; no, they have ‘enemies’. I think that’s one of the most dangerous state truths.

Ironically, I bumped into this advertisement on 6 September. In 1955, on 6 and 7 September, the ‘Istanbul Pogrom’ took place, an event usually referred in Turkey to with the understatement ‘the Events of 6 and 7 September’. Nine hours of orchestrated riots against Greeks and their properties in Istanbul. The events were triggered by the rumour, deliberately fed into the media, that the house in which Atatürk was born in Thesaloniki, in present-day Greece, had been bombed. Which wasn’t true. The story behind it was the dispute over Cyprus, inhabited by Turks and Greeks, in those days still under British rule. The riots were orchestrated by nationalist Turkish groups, supported by media and the state – the rioters even had been brought to the city before it all started. The pogrom is the reason that there are less than 5000 Greeks in Istanbul left today – they didn’t die, they fled the country.

Fighting for survival

Anger against Greeks was not too hard to incite. The Greeks were among those Turkey fought against in its war of independence. The Greeks were the enemy at the time. Like the Armenians were in the decade before that, during the First World War: the Ottomans fought the Russians, who were Christians like the Armenians, and since Armenians tended to side with Russia because it gave them a chance to get their own country, they were considered ‘traitors’.

The thing is, in those days around the First World War and the foundation of the Republic, it was total chaos in this region. Very bloody battles were fought, on all sides thousands and thousands of people died, and the whole region was in an amazing transition. Countries and regimes were fighting for survival, and it’s not strange that in such times you refer to others as ‘enemies’ or ‘traitors’, ‘allies’ or ‘friends’. But after that, you have to change your vocabulary. You have to consider the outcome of all that bloodshed and find a way to live together again.

That process didn’t take place in Turkey. Or at least not to a great enough extent. The concepts of enemies and traitors are kept alive. Not concealed, but very openly. Atatürk addressed the youth of Turkey in his famous Nutuk, ‘Speech’, to the parliament in 1927, in which he spoke about the foundations of the republic. He tells the youth of Turkey: ‘In the future, too, there will be ill-will, both in the country itself and abroad, which will try to tear this treasure from you.’ The treasure being the national independence and the Turkish republic. Further on, there is talk of traitors and enemies, and noble Turkish blood. You can read the ‘address to the youth’ here.

Carved in stone

Atatürk considered it the first duty of the youth to protect and defend Turkey’s independence. Again, remember this was almost a hundred years ago. Atatürk was, following the ideal of ‘nation states’ of the time, building a new country from scratch, and he did an amazing job. But in time Nutuk became a sort of bible, Atatürk the prophet and his words a gospel. It’s still taught to Turkish children every day, the ‘Address to the youth’ can be read everywhere were children come together, and it is, for example, the reason why most Turkish men have no problem whatsoever in doing their time in the army. But what’s the usual fate of sacred books, prophets and gospels? They become carved in stone. Unchangeable. They don’t adapt to the times. The same goes for the old concepts of enemies and traitors. They are kept alive, even though (a few) Greeks and Armenians still live in Turkey, and Greece and Armenia are now neighbouring countries Turkey has to somehow maintain or build relations with.

Today, some Turkish papers have huge headlines about ‘the shame of 1955’. Black and white pictures of 1955 are published, articles written in the past tense. But I wondered when I saw the book in the shopping window: could something like this really not happen again? People could see through fabricated lies more easily with modern means of communication and the ultra-fast speed that news travels with, but wouldn’t it still be very easy to once again incite hatred against alleged enemies? Hatred that is deeply rooted and still very much near the surface?

A terrorist in parliament

The ‘oath crisis’ in parliament is still not over. Ever since both CHP and BDP refused to take the oath to be inaugurated in parliament, there is a lot of good will talk going on between different parties, but for now, it all leads totally nowhere. It’s been almost three weeks now, and no (for the outside world visible) concrete steps have been taken to solve the problem – or you would have to call opposition parties shaking hands and speaking positive words ‘concrete steps’. But by discussing the options, an intriguing question has come up: would it be possible a terrorist one day enters Turkish parliament?

One way to solve the problem, is to change the laws related to terrorism. One of the BDP MP’s can’t take his deserved seat in parliament because he was once convicted of ‘terror related crimes’, more precize ‘making propaganda for a terrorist organization’. Now if you would make it possible for people who have committed terror (related) crimes to enter parliament, would it one day open the way for the PKK-fighters to be elected? Could PKK-leader in the field Murat Karayilan be an MP, and, the biggest nightmare for many Turks, even jailed PKK-leader Abdullah Öcalan?

Insurgents

Thinking about this, my mind wandered off to a Turkey in which Karayilan and Öcalan would actually want to be candidate members of Turkish parliament. That would have to be a Turkey in which the Kurds finally have the cultural and political rights they deserve. In that Turkey, they apparently had a reason to lay down their arms. On the road towards that situation, they would at some point not be called ‘terrorists’ anymore, but ‘insurgents’, like also Cengiz Candar suggested in his recent report in which he proposes ways to solve the Kurdish issue and make PKK-fighters come down from the mountains.
Especially Öcalan would be seen as interlocutor, because whether you like it or not, he is seen as an important leader among part of the Kurds and shutting him out of any negotitation wouldn’t lead to a real solution. Anyway, the state has been talking to him for years already, although now it’s still to early for the state to openly confirm that.

But the actual discussion should, in my humble opinion, not be about persons. It was a dirty retoric trick of (now former) Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin to point out that in case of a legal change, also Ogun Samast (the murderer of Hrant Dink) would maybe one day be elected to be an MP. It muddies the waters of the discussion to talk about specific people. The basic rule should be that every Turkish citizen has and should keep the active and passive right to vote. Also if convicted, even if convicted for (crimes related to) terrorism. Okay, you can discuss when to convict somebody to have his passive right to vote taken from him, but that should be decided in an individual court case, not by general laws that are too much open to manipulative use, like now. And the instrument should be used extremely rare and only in extreme cases, since the passive and active right to vote are one of the most important basics of democracy.

Peaceful society

So, extreme cases, that would include Öcalan and Karayilan, right, since terrorism against the state is one of the most serious crimes? Well, that depends. If Turkey in the coming years manages to slowly change the term ‘terrorism’ into ‘insurgency’ and actually sees the connection between PKK violence and the Kurdish issue and seriously starts working on the issue, the perspective on the PKK and their members might change. There would actually be a chance the PKK lays down its arms, and transfer from terrorists via insurgents to active members of a peaceful society. If that includes (to try) to become an MP, would be up to them, and if so, to the voters.

And Ogun Samast? In today’s Turkey, I can imagine a party that would actually consider putting him on their candidates list. But in the Turkey I imagine, extreme nationalism has no ground anymore. Talking about the Kurdish issue and solving it, can’t be done without discussing nationalism, identity, discussing what it means to be a Turkish citizen and at the same time be a Kurd, a Greek, a Turk, an Armenian, an Arab, or any other ethnic group that lives on this soil. There would be unity in diversity, less polarisation, and no party would want a nationalist killer as their MP, and not enough citizens would vote for him to get a seat anyway. The Turkey I imagine would be a full democracy.

Church or museum?

Churches are hot news these days in Turkey. Yesterday a mass was held at the Armenian Church of the Holy Cross in the eastern province of Van; some weeks ago a religious service was held outside the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Sümela in Trabzon province. And last week, a group of Greeks from the United States were set to come to Istanbul to pray in the Aya Sofia, the top tourist attraction.

I talk of churches now, but it would be more correct to speak of museums. Because both the Armenian church and the Greek Orthodox monastery as well as Istanbul’s Aya Sofya are officially museums, belonging to the Turkish state. Officially, it’s not allowed to perform religious ceremonies in museums. So when a believer comes and lights a candle, an official comes an blows it out. That is, unless the state gives special permission for a ceremony, as happened in Sümela, and yesterday in Van. Both places of worship have permission now to have a religious service once a year.

Over the last couple of years, more and more churches have undergone renovations paid for by the Turkish state. The Armenian Church of the Holy Cross in Van was one of them, and across the country other, usually less famous, churches are being saved from total dilapidation. After renovation, they are always turned into a state museum. That’s an easy way to hinder any religious activity and totally control what does and doesn’t happen in religious buildings. What it comes down to is this: churches become a tourist destination, or just a renovated building not many people are interested in. They are considered part of Turkish cultural heritage.

The state never allows a church to get its original purpose back. Or for the building to be officially owned by the religious group that once – generally before the foundation of the Turkish republic in 1923 – had the use of it. On one side, this has to do with the secularism that applies in Turkey: the state controls religion, mosques are owned by the state and Turks follow the state version of Sunni Islam. Other religious foundations are not allowed to legally exist. Neither Christian foundations, nor Muslim ones, which for example causes big problems for the large group of Alevis, a path in Islam.
If the state were to allow Christian congregations to officially exist, then Muslim groups other than the state Islam would also demand rights, and that’s the last thing the secular republic wants. In fact, strict secularists fear that that would be the beginning of the end of the Republic of Turkey as we know it.

On the other hand, allowing churches to function as churches (including the ringing of church bells, mass whenever there is a need for a mass, a cross on top of the dome or tower) brings out fear in some Turks that the places will be used for ‘political reasons’. If the Armenian church in Van gets the right to function fully as a church, there is a good chance it will become a place of pilgrimage. Before the mass killings of Armenians almost a hundred years ago, huge numbers of Armenians lived in the region, and they are all dead or gone now. The church could be used in the efforts of (diaspora) Armenians to get their claims that at the time genocide occurred recognized.

The same goes for the Monastery in Trabzon. Many Greeks lived in the Black Sea Region. During World War I they were subject first of all to ethnic cleansing and later, after the foundation of the Republic of Turkey, to the population exchange between Turkey and Greece. Many so called ‘Pontus Greeks’ left the region when they saw what was happening to Armenians at the time. Reviving the old culture could stir up some historic and nationalist sentiments, both on the Greek and on the Turkish side.

These fears are understandable and not unrealistic, but is that a reason to restrict the freedom of religion? Not in my view. What if the Turkish state and citizens could take the sting out of the whole matter by speaking openly about history in these regions of Turkey? Not only really acknowledge the deaths among Turks around the time of the First World War (yes, there were, that is often forgotten), but also acknowledge that in the end, Turkey was ethnically cleansed. Firstly to try to save the Ottoman Empire and later to build the Turkish nation state. If the members of all communities that used to live in Anatolia and in small numbers still live here, felt that their grievancess were really heard, there would be no need to use sacred places for political purposes.

To come back to Istanbul’s Aya Sofia, mentioned at the beginning of this blog post. Greek-Americans planned to come to pray in the building. They were all ready to come, but the Ministry of Culture made very clear that praying in the building would not be allowed and would be considered a provocation. In the end the group was wise enough to decide not to come. Wise? Yes, wise. Aya Sofia was built as the Cathedral of Constantinople in the sixth century, and was the largest cathedral in the world for about a thousand years. It became a mosque when the Ottomans took over in 1453. The Aya Sofia is of great significance for the history of architecture, for the Byzantine area and for Christianity and Islam. The decision of Atatürk to turn it in a museum in 1936 was the only right one.

Aya Sofia cannot serve as a church anymore, nor as a mosque – as some Muslims would like. Many other old churches in Turkey, and their congregations, would be done more justice though if they could serve their original purpose again. As cultural heritage of the people who used to live on this soil.