«Starting from the 19th century, Europe became the land of opportunity for the Turks. In Istanbul, the Galatasaray School was tasked to create an ottoman conscience. It proved to be a failure but on the other hand it created a republican conscience, explains Ali Sirmen, One of the biggest names of Turkish journalism, columnist of the daily Cumhuriyet (“Republic” in Turkish). He also opened the doors to his apartment to me, both an elegant and welcoming place. While he prepares coffee, I say hello to the cat who’s come to greet me and gaze at the roofs overlooking the Bosphorus. “Cumhuriyet is a hard-hat newspaper to some and leftist to others”, says Ali Sirmen while laying the steaming coffee cups on the little table in front of us. It is true, this “kemalist left” newspaper is increasingly accused of becoming nationalist.
«Strong misunderstandings subside between Europe and Turkey, resumes our columnist, for example the values Europe claims as being its own are universal. Our secular system was actually born with the Turkish nation.”
«I’m quite sceptical as to the entry of Turkey into Europe. Once you observe the negotiation process closely, you realise that according to the text approved on 17 December 2004, Turkey will never be a part of Europe. Nevertheless, our intelligentsia believes that the Turks are incapable of improving their situation by themselves.
In addition, Europe does not want to incorporate an Islamic regime among its states. Turkey is quickly drifting away from the contemporary world and its secularism, and I see no political alternative to this. Islamists are cunning and they understood that with the support of foreign forces they can become stronger. In fact, moderate Islam is accepted as it allows foreign capitals to slip in the Turkish financial system. But let’s go back to this so-called tolerance of moderate Islam! Has the Sivas massacre of July 1993 really been forgotten? Turkish progressive artists and intellectuals were burned alive in the hotel where they gathered for a meeting. This happened in the face of the Government and of public opinion. The lawyer of those fanatical murderers then became Minister of Justice! He did his best to cover this sinister affair up at the time. He’s also the one who managed to prevent the law to prohibit the headscarf”. (1)
We investigate this other facet of Turkish politics, with all its grey areas, with writer Aslı Erdoğan. She is part of those intellectuals that took the streets to sell the first number of “Agos”, created after the murder of Hrant Dink. Some 40.000 copies, that is six times more than its usual run.
«Eight of us distributed “Agos” – five women and three men – and we saw our names published on a right wing Islamist newspaper, says Aslı Erdoğan. In fact, this testifies of the highly-strung climate looming over all Turkish democrats, for example “Agos” has received mails full of hate. Turkey is living a very harsh conflict, opposing democrats to anti-democrats. This has happened before. In 1999, I received harassments after publishing an article on “Radikal” that denounced the massacre of ten political prisoners. Back then, the government pleaded on the accounts of mutiny, and the press spoke unanimously of revolt. A year later, they found evidence of the massacre: the traces of bullets inside the cells clearly proved that there had been no confrontation. The trial lasted a year and a half, but those found guilty were never convicted.
Three groups of houses further away, riding up Taksim square, I meet with Didem Boy and Tilbe Saran up İstiklâl Street in one of Istanbul’s nicest restaurants: the Hacı Baba whose spacious art nouveau style hall gives out on the garden of the Orthodox church. The food is excellent, though with little wine. Since the rise of the Islamic party, taxes on alcoholic drinks lead to prohibitive prices for wine. But we can’t be too picky: if this restaurant were to be near a mosque, we couldn’t even have a sip of alcohol! In this case, the licence would be categorically refused in respect of religious taboos.
Didem Boy studies political sciences. She decided to follow a master on international relations, specially focused on Turkish European relations. “We feel that Turkey has become a puppet in the hands of European institutions”, she states bitterly.
« Turkey is treated like a child and pointed at by the European Union. After all, it doesn’t exist only according to Europe’s requirements. It has to carry out these reforms for itself. Turks are now losing their hopes on the European Union, they’re starting to abandon this idea. The first request to adhere dates back to 1963, and since the launch of negotiations, eight chapters were blocked whereas Europe has just painlessly opened its borders to Romania and Bulgaria. I ask myself whether this adhesion was a good idea: don’t they already have a privileged partnership with Europe through the Customs Union, which for that matter has already caused trouble to Turkey? Perhaps it would be better to conceive an alternative plan: a stable Middle East, a wide group to which Turkey could belong to and be the lead player”.
Turkey at the head of a big alliance formed by Arab countries? Isn’t Didem picturing a new Ottoman Empire in a third millennium version? Maybe being an artist makes Tilbe Saram see things differently. Tilbe is a comedian who has been acting for several months now in “Nathalie” by Philippe Blasband, a play that has had an incredible success in Istanbul and in the rest of Turkey. “The great Italian scene director Eugenio Barba used to say that theatre actors and actresses don’t need passports and I agree with him. I don’t understand politics, but I firmly believe that cultural politics can create room for discussion, and lay a bridge between Europe and Turkey. In fact, Turkey’s adhesion under this aspect can only be positive, for itself as well as for Europe. If we want to educate people, make them understand the differences that separate them and go beyond prejudice, we need this cultural Europe. Keeping Turkey out can only favour this ultra-nationalist trend we’re witnessing, which rests behind Hrant Dink’s murder. We all have our skeletons in the closets, every nation has to cope with its own history, it’s the only way we can live together”.
Tilbe is right. Thousands of people of all ages, sex and background came to cry out at Hrant Dink’s funeral: “We are all Armenians”. As a counterpart, over-excited ultranationalists were shouting at the top of their voices in the stadiums of the Anatolian provinces: “we are all Mustapha Kemal, we are all Ogün”. Ogün Samast, the young murderer of the Armenian journalist was shown, days after his arrest, in a video next to policemen who had rushed there to take a picture with him.
The Armenian issue is still painful to Turkey. Even the most open-minded democrats, the strongest pursuers of the Armenian cause, fail to mention the word “genocide” to designate what they rather qualify as “massacre of Armenians” whose horror, on the other hand, they lament sincerely.
«I am not a nationalist though Europe has wounded us, especially France and its law on the Armenian genocide. Even Hrant Dink – a real Turkish patriot and defendant of the Armenian cause who paid with his life – had announced his intention to go to France and declare he would reject the genocide though he thought exactly the opposite”, grimly affirms Sunay Akın(2), director of the only toy museum in Turkey, a special place located in an old wood cottage on Istanbul’s Asian shore, which has miraculously eluded the cranes of real estate dealers.
«In 1915, Europe invaded us, so when it calls upon this page of history, we fell like answering ‘but you’re the ones who invaded us, you also committed massacres that our grand-parents told us of’. Europe blames others but never seems to point the finger at its own wrongdoings in that period. There’s still a lot to be done if we want to put this shared history in the right perspective. The pains we suffered, the “great sorrows” of our history, don’t only belong to the Armenian issue, as they also knocked down the mosaic of Ottoman communities”.
Listening to these different voices from Istanbul tell more than any text book about the fascinating diversity of the Turkish society. I would nevertheless recommend to consult the issue of “Autrement”(3), dedicated to the emerging civil society of Istanbul, in which 26 partakers of Istanbul’s cultural and social scene reflect on economic development, of where women and communities (Jewish, Armenian, etc.) stand in Turkish society, of arts and education. In short, it pictures a dynamic and lively Turkey that we all wish would win over the chauvinist and hateful spasms which it sometimes falls prey to.