Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Selective empathy and dangerous nationalism: “Kurdish terrorists, Turkish revolutionaries”?

In no way am I questioning the legitimacy of the Gezi Park protests. The overwhelming demonstrations in Istanbul, which have now spread across the country, illustrate the increasing dissent among the people in Turkey against the government’s horrid human rights violations and authoritarian rule. These protests need solidarity – they are necessary and positive developments. And it was about time!
However, without attacking the movement, I have to ask the global media: Where were you during thousands of Kurdish protests and uprisings that preceded #OccupyGezi? Kurds have been killed, beaten up, tear-gassed, arrested, and tortured on their protests (with popular support) for decades in Turkey, much worse than the images we see today.  Millions of Kurds occupied the streets in Turkey this year and this sort of terrifying police violence is not at all new to them. The difference is that nobody cared. Why?

I have heard of stories of protestors who say things such as “The police attacks us like we are terrorists”. This weird arrogance is very problematic. Would these protests take place in the South East of Turkey (i.e. the Kurdish cities), instead of Istanbul, the protestors would be called "terrorists", "separatists" and "traitors", the police would be praised as heroes! I don’t wish for any more pain, but perhaps these protests will create empathy and open some Turkish people’s eyes to what Kurds face every day in Turkey. If Turks get to walk in the shoes of those that the state politics and its media alienated them from, those that they have perceived as "terrorists" for decades, but in whose position they now find themselves in, perhaps this will constitute a change in their consciousness. As Kurdish MP Selahattin Demirtas explained: "It's the time to understand the Kurds". 

Newroz 2013 in Amed (Diyarbakir)
To be clear, I am definitely not against these protests. In fact, I passionately follow the events and hope for genuine changes. But where was the world and the anger of the Turkish population after the murderous massacres in Roboski (Uludere) or Reyhanli? Who looked after the Kurdish mothers that were collectively beaten up on the streets, lungs filled with pepper spray, just because they wanted to celebrate Newroz, the new year of Mesopotamia? Where is the anger over lynchings of Kurds and Alevis in Istanbul? Where was Turkey, when the military burnt every tree in the Kurdish East? Were the Kurdish demonstrations that were attended by millions of people over decades, never worth being fashionably termed as a “spring”? Why is police violence against Kurds not frowned upon? How many news outlets reported about 19-year-old Sahin Öner, who was killed by a tank in Amed (Diyarbakir) a few months ago? Don’t Kurds deserve the same solidarity and media attention? Why is there such a selective empathy when it comes to who is rising up in Turkey?

Another troubling factor is the increasingly nationalist color of the protests. Though it would be ignorant to generalize this multi-facetted movement, especially in the light of the complex political culture of Turkey, it is important to pay attention to the dangers that a rise of anti-AKP Turkish secular nationalism could bring about, if certain parties take advantage of the unrest. Turkish flags, national anthems –Just to oppose the AKP, some resort to the “We are Atatürk’s soldiers” mentality which is, however, responsible for prevalent racism and numerous human rights violations in Turkey.  Certain groups seem to fear a loss of “Turkishness” under the current AKP government, mostly because Erdogan is perceived as an authoritarian Ottoman sultan with his increasing Islamization of Turkey and who defies Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s republican principle of secularism. But Erdogan never degraded “Turkishness” in his eyes; he actually continued to oppress non-Turkish groups and to reinforce punishments on those that insult Turkey or Turkishness, just as his secular precedors.
A reactionary response to the Islamic-conservative authoritarian AKP regime seems to be found in good old Kemalist secular nationalism yet again. Neither one is known as an advocate of human rights, though – Kurds know this too well. What started as a protest against the destruction of trees at Gezi Park is now seen as an opportunity for some to raise anti-AKP momentum for their own gains. It is wrong to think of these protests in terms of a simplistic black-or-white "political religion versus secularism" narrative. Of course secularism is desirable, but secularism for the sake of it is not sufficient to establish a true, coherent democracy. Especially in Turkey, secularism has violated human rights, because it was accompanied by harsh nationalist chauvinism that ethnically discriminated against all non-Turks. Were there no human rights violations, extra-judicial killings, village destructions, massacres under secular rule in Turkey prior to Erdogan? Replacing one sort of fascism by another would only turn the clock of Turkish history back a couple of years. The legitimate protests must not be exploited for such interests. 

Resistance is good, resistance is life. But democracy can only come through unity and equality of the peoples in Turkey, not through nationalism and “Turkism”. There are many fascists among the protestors that call themselves “devrimci” (revolutionary), just because they oppose the AKP government.  The real revolutionaries in Turkey who were executed by parties that now declare themselves to be revolutionary would roll over in their graves! A new, alternative thinking must develop in Turkish consciousness that is democratic and secular without crushing the heads of the many ethnic and religious groups that don’t fit into the myth of the glorious Turk.

My hope is that the protestors in Istanbul and all over Turkey let go off this Turkism paradigm. I am not accusing every protestor of racism obviously, but even a small rise of Turkish nationalism could be dangerous. After all, it has a mass-murderous history. Certain parties that oppose the peace talks between the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Turkish government may use this movement to disrupt the peace process. This must not happen. Instead, this movement must unite Kurds, Turks, Laz, Arabs, Alevi, Sunnis, Yezidi, Christians, Orthodox people of all genders and demand genuine democracy in Turkey.   While many revolutionary quotes and pictures that are normally associated with the Kurdish movement and the leftist spectrum of Turkish politics were widely shared, two Turkish Hashtags were trending worldwide on Twitter at the same time last night. “Good thing you are here, Atatürk” and “Good thing you are here, Tayyip”. Both of these streams massacred, imprisoned, censored and tortured Kurds and other groups and dissidents. In such an ethnically and religiously diverse region, the people shouldn’t have to pick between two evils...

Social media, international solidarity, creative forms of protests – these are all amazing tools of mobilization in this era. It is great to see such fresh, dynamic, creative global support for the demonstrations in Istanbul. But in spite of hundreds of overwhelming protests in Kurdistan and in the Kurdish diaspora, the Kurdish struggle has been marginalized. This selective empathy, interest and attention is disheartening, when we consider the legitimate demands of the Kurds, who have been politicized from young to old for decades, and who never got this much attention or solidarity, no matter how many tons of tear gas their bruised bodies inhaled. The global media that now wonders why there is no democracy in Turkey must first criticize itself for its own silence, when it came to the oppression of the Kurdish people. Democratization in Turkey must include the Kurds. If this Turkish uprising leaves the Kurds behind, just as the so-called Arab spring left women and ethnic minorities behind, we cannot speak of a revolution in any worthy sense. Tyranny would only change its face again.

Of course, one should express solidarity with the Turkish protestors, but when talking about a “Turkish spring”, please do not forget the hundreds of Kurdish springs that preceded it and which will continue beyond Gezi Park. If the amazing energy of #OccupyGezi gets taken advantage of by certain nationalist groups, the same protestors that have discovered their inner revolutionaries in the last couple of days will continue to watch their football games, when the Kurds get tear-gassed tomorrow. May this struggle form unity and uprising in a meaningful, democratic way that encompasses every group in Turkey. In this sense, resist, Gezi Park, but resist for all!

Twitter users apologizing to the Kurdish people for looking away for so long

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