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Breaking Turkey’s Taboos

24 September 2009

Rising nationalist sentiments in certain circles in Turkey has put minorities in a vulnerable and compromising position. In Turkey ‘insulting the Turkish nation’ is a criminal offence, which someone can be arrested for. MRG’s Ara Iskanderian speaks to a young Turkish human rights campaigner working for DurDe, an initiative seeking to stop racism and nationalism within Turkey. Her name has been left out of the article for her protection. By Ara Iskanderian

After hearing about her work campaigning against racism at a recent conference in England, I managed to persuade a young Turkish activist to be interviewed.  After some convincing, she agreed to answer some questions while everyone else was at the closing party. She asked to remain anonymous: publicising one’s work on human rights doesn’t always go down well in her native Turkey.

I am Armenian: to break the ice we talk about shared favourite Turkish pop-songs and common dishes, translating the names into Turkish and Armenian. Gradually, I slip in some questions and begin interviewing the young, proud, twenty-something Istanbulite who passionately gesticulates as she speaks.

She begins talking about the Turkish penal code’s notorious Article 301, which criminalises any act seen as ‘insulting the Turkish nation’. The infamous article has led to charges being brought against over sixty Turkish intellectuals including Nobel literature laureate Orhan Pamuk. Pushing out her arms and opening her palms skywards she calls Article 301 racist and an attack upon freedom of expression, all too often used to silence political opponents. ‘You cannot make a law that privileges your nation, which is what 301 is’ she says referring to how 301 seemingly favours the Turkish majority at the expense of minorities. She adds angrily, ‘it’s ridiculous.’

Maybe because the book’s still fresh in my mind, I’m momentarily distracted by her resemblance to Turkish author Elif Shafak, another victim of 301. Shafak was subjected to a Kafkaesque trial because of certain comments made by a fictitious Armenian character in her novel, The Bastard of Istanbul. The book’s anti-heroine is a young Turkish girl called Asya: a secular liberal alone in the crowded city as she navigates awkward relationships with friends and history. The parallels between Asya and my interviewee, who tells me how onlookers give her dirty looks when she eats on the bus during Ramadan and how much she loved Shafak’s book, are remarkable, so I’ll refer to her as Asya from here on.
Asya looks uncomfortable about her last answer and explains her misgivings – she says she feels unqualified to talk, and worried about having her words used against her. She asks that we don’t continue, obligingly I fold my notes away. I can’t help wondering if fear of 301 causes her to clam up. Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, tried and convicted under 301, talked of how the spectre of 301 made him feel ‘as scared as a dove.’ He was later killed by a Turkish nationalist.

A few weeks later and Asya sends me an email from Istanbul. Can we continue over the phone? Sure.

Following the murder and funeral of Dink in 2007, when crowds took to the streets declaring ‘we are all Armenian’ as an expression of solidarity with an ethnic minority, Asya and others like her took the initiative. They established an initiative that campaigns against racism and nationalism. ‘Nationalism is seen as a positive in Turkey, people are proud to be nationalists, but it’s often a negative in reality’ Asya says. She is quick to add that her organization is not ideologically motivated, saying that it reacts to incidents rather than pursuing an agenda.

In just two years, their support base is nearly 30,000 strong and includes young Turks and prominent intellectuals alike. Asya however, laments that this is not enough in a country of 75 million people, especially as their support base is almost exclusively within Istanbul and Ankara.

Asya tells me of an incident in January when in the Anatolian town of Eskishehir the director of a cultural foundation placed a sign up in his headquarters stating, ‘No Jews or Armenians allowed, dogs are free to enter.’ She describes such actions as ‘horrible’ and talks about the statement her organization released in response. ‘We work on hate speech and hate crime’ she says and identifies 301 as a major obstacle, saying that it must go.

The organization found a prominent ally in Baskin Oran, an academic who argued that the synonymy of ‘Turk’ and ‘citizen’ should be replaced with the term ‘citizen of Turkey’. Oran was also tried under 301. Asya tends to agree though, she says, ‘I’m from Istanbul or Turkey. I don’t say I’m Turkish or I’m a Turk, I go by geographical location’.

Given their activities it’s unsurprising that the organization added its weight to supporting the online petition ( ‘we apologise’. Asya helped organise a series of forums explaining why people apologised to the Armenians for the ‘Great Catastrophe’ of 1915.  The controversial petition led to suggestions of mass trials by certain nationalists. When I asked Asya why she added her real name to the petition, she makes it clear it was because she is a human being with a conscience. Asya doesn’t wish to be identified with either the modern day deniers or the historic perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide. She feels it’s important to make the distinction.

Asya’s dream is to see Greeks along the Aegean and Armenians in Istanbul, hear their languages spoken loudly, to have churches reopened and a multicultural Turkey accepting of its history and diversity. It’s a nice dream but Asya admits she’s a minority view before going silent again. Campaigners like Asya do important work and whilst some might consider their actions to be too little given the possible repercussions their bravery in breaking taboos is commendable and should be supported. Fear, though, shouldn’t be part of their doings and its fear of a backlash that has Asya reminding me again that she wishes to remain anonymous.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.