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July 29, 2012, Sunday

Tutelage only changes disguise

Things are not rosy -- neither at home nor across the border.

Whatever is aking place in Syria will have to take place: No matter how much some Justice and Development Party (AKP)-skeptic colleagues of mine try to criticize the government's Syria policy as unsuccessful or wrong, they have remained unconvincing so far because it was Assad's ruthless folly, not Ankara's flaws, that brought Syria to the brink. So, let us leave Damascus in the mood of “Que sera, sera.”

It is what is taking place at home that is worrisome. In the vast regional turmoil, Turkey's highest priority should be to mobilize the entire nation for a new social contract, but all indications tell the same story.

Just a day or two before Parliament's Constitutional Reconciliation Commission restarts its preparatory work, both the AKP and the judiciary continue to alienate liberals, Alevis and Kurds from the hope that there can be a new order based on freedom of choice and respect for diversity.

While the Kurds -- sympathetic to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) or not, secular or pious -- are left in limbo regarding their basic rights and suffocating under mass arrests, Alevis have been delivered humiliating blows by the massive tutelary body of the “old state” -- the Directorate of Religious Affairs -- and, later on, by the Court of Cassation, which indicated that they have no right to open their own prayer houses (cemevis) either in Parliament or in other places (they may only operate as “culture centers”).

We have some 14 million Kurds and 9 million Alevis (according to the pollster KONDA) in this country. How this disappointment -- now turning into despair and anger -- will play out in the new social contract is not hard to predict.

The sad part is that large swaths of pious Sunnis have chosen to remain indifferent to these episodes while cheering all steps that are aimed at correcting the historic wrongs that have to do with them. As the divide widens, suspicions rise; faith in a better future is narrowed to only the Sunni segments.

The political executive only adds salt to the wound. Take the so-called alcohol ban on the Efes Pilsen One Love Festival, which took place at the Santralİstanbul venue, belonging to İstanbul Bilgi University. It had begun with the Eyüp Municipality forcing a ban on the sponsor's name and continued with the pulling of licenses for alcoholic beverages.

There were initially some rumors that “a highly placed person from Ankara” had called the university administration to see that the ban was imposed properly. Then, a couple of days ago, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan openly declared it was him. The motive was that the youngsters would not be allowed to use the venue to “get drunk and attend classes.” Then a reporter from the Hürriyet daily clarified further: Erdoğan had asked Egemen Bağış, the minister of EU Affairs, to make the call.

This is, to say the least, an eyebrow raiser of the first order. Not that the venue was just hired for concerts nor that it has two restaurants that have been serving alcohol for years; it was the chilling idea that such micromanagement of lifestyles was seen as an act of normality. It was a clear example of tutelage over 18-plus-year-old adults. That the management of the university simply nodded to the orders has added to the scandal.

This episode took me back to the spring of 2004. A world congress of journalists -- attended by more than 1,500 of them -- was organized by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN), sponsored by the Doğan Media Group. For the opening dinner, the hosts had to change the venue -- due to heavy rain -- to a large hall at the campus of İstanbul University (then strictly policed by its ultra-secular president, Kemal Alemdaroğlu).

The idea was, as is customary at such events, to invite a key minister from Ankara. Abdullah Gül, then foreign minister, was invited -- of course with his spouse, Hayrünnisa Gül. As is known, Lady Gül wears a headscarf.

The night before the event, a huge crisis broke out. Alemdaroğlu had sent a stern message to the local host, Aydın Doğan, saying, “I would never ever allow a woman with a headscarf to come to my campus.” Panic broke out, and a prominent, elderly columnist who knew Alemdaroğlu was sent late at night to his residence. “Over my dead body,” he repeated. He referred to the idiotic ban on headscarves at universities. He would hear no arguments. There was no time to move the event to another place. And, in the end, Abdullah Gül, who has always been a gentleman, said he would attend alone and still make a keynote speech. He did, and a scandal was averted.

It saddens me to see that so little -- nothing in fact -- has changed in the minds that regard tutelary behavior, disrespect for adult individuals' basic choices in daily life, as legitimate.

Yesterday somebody saw it natural to impose a ban on this, today somebody else on that. It's the same mindset: open abuse of power, vanity.

Unless those in power are clearly and loudly told this is a dead-end street, freedom in Turkey will remain a dream. We will only be chasing our tails, bitterly, feeling cheated, in anger.

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