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May 19, 2013, Sunday

National unity and solidarity

There are two terms that we often hear in Turkey: national unity and solidarity. The political leaders and heads of state deliver a message of national unity and solidarity to the people.

If you think about what the call for national unity and solidarity suggests and take a look at how it has been implemented in the past, you will realize that this is actually a call for submission to the official state ideology. This is not a call for submission based on the voluntary choice of the people. It is obligatory to observe the call. The tone of the call implies that those who do not observe it will be punished.

Last May 19, which is Youth and Sports Day, the Şişli Municipality adorned its main street with a huge flag, portraits of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and placards displaying quotes of things he said. I am talking about a very straight, long street, starting from Mecidiyeköy and continuing to Taksim. Imagine the buildings on the sides of that street covered with photos of Mustafa Kemal.

Last year, at the Taraf daily, we covered what happened in Şişli on May 19 and went on to declare that Şişli could be considered akin to Pyongyang. That part of the city indeed looked as though it could have been in North Korea. The next day, Şişli Mayor Mustafa Sarıgül said that the municipality had not looked at the displays that way and admitted that it did give a militaristic impression. And I was pleased that such exaggerated celebrations would not take place and that Atatürk would not be promoted as the country's “sole man.”

I have no problem with the flag. The flag of a nation represents its history and the sacrifices it has made; however, unfortunately, the flag has been an element and source of fear and intimidation for the “others” in Turkey. What a shame, right? Those who claim they love this country, flag and Mustafa Kemal hide the injustices they have caused behind national symbols; for this reason, most people do not feel as though they belong to this country or identify with its symbols. When violence against and repression of the Kurds in the eastern and southeastern parts of the country grew in the 1990s and as the number of unidentified murders escalated, the size of the flags at the entrances to cities and on mountains, as well as the photos of Atatürk, grew bigger.

And while the homes, stores, churches and graveyards of non-Muslim minorities were being destroyed and plundered on Sept. 6 and 7 in 1955, the vandals carried Turkish flags. The poor victims, in anticipation of being spared from the pillage, hanged Turkish flags in their homes and stores and told the vandals they were Turkish, not Armenian, Greek or Jewish.

Nobody would argue that the flag was used as a symbol of peace and democracy in the anti-government rallies at which the army was called to take action against the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), which had come to power in 2002. The participants also held Atatürk's photos in the same demonstrations. And the people chanted slogans of national unity and solidarity.

Let us get back to Şişli. Probably because of the impact of strong populism, Mayor Sarıgül did not keep the promise he made last year; the whole street was covered with huge flags again. I noticed one particular placard displaying a quote of Atatürk. He said, “A nation that, when necessary, is unified as a single entity for the homeland and which knows how to work decisively is of course a nation that deserves a bright future.”

The reference to “when necessary” is important here. Our statesmen will tell us when and how we will come together for some glorious purpose. And we will sacrifice ourselves to the nation while ignoring the fact that we are actually individuals.

First of all, we have to reconsider our approach vis-à-vis our national symbols -- including our flag -- and our history, which are supposed to embrace all of us, and take them out of the sphere of exploitation. I believe that unity and solidarity are achieved by democracy and the expansion of the sphere of freedoms rather than a chain of command, because in a democratic and wealthy country, the people would like to keep the order in which they live. Fixation on a single idea and collectivism lead to authoritarianism rather than democracy.

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