“Young [military] officers uncomfortable” was the main headline of the ultranationalist Cumhuriyet daily on May 23, 2003, which inspired the group to choose “Young civilians” as the name of their organization and a red athletic shoe as its symbol as an apparent protest against soldiers’ boots. Courage, wisdom, dynamism and a strong sense of humor have helped them gain wide public appreciation since then. Currently, the group is still not that big, composed of a few thousand subscribers to its network, but has a much larger popular support base throughout the country. Interviewed by Sunday’s Zaman, academic experts on civil society, activists and artists underlined that the key to their success is that they are heterogeneous with respect to ethnicity and religious conviction without having any political affiliation and employ political satire very effectively for widely sought-after values such as democracy, cultural pluralism and respect for human rights.
Non-polarized, impartial stance
People have so far seen the Young Civilians protesting against the government, the opposition parties, the army and the judiciary, simply everyone they think has breached any of the values they fight for.
The last time the Young Civilians hit the headlines was when they organized the “First Traditional Folder-Carrying Footrace” from the Republican People’s Party (CHP) headquarters to the Constitutional Court in Ankara last week, mocking the main opposition because it has run to the top court after every government bill aimed at raising democratic standards in the country. However, only a week ago, the group’s stance was no less critical of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan following his remarks on the possibility of deporting all Armenian citizens illegally working in the country.
Certainly, the military and the judiciary have received the lion’s share of their criticism. When the General Staff issued a threatening and poorly written memorandum against the government in the middle of the night on April 27, 2007, the group swiftly issued a counter-statement and said they “do not have the intention of falling victim to the games of midnight coup-making by some amateur coup leaders.” And, they were no less courageous when they nominated a judge who ruled to release a naval colonel arrested on suspicion of drafting a plan to undermine the government only 19 hours after his arrest for the Guinness World Records, stressing that anyone who could read the heavy case material that quickly must be the “world’s fastest reader.” Observers specifically applaud this non-polarized and impartial style.
“They are making politics independent of ethnic, religious, political and gender identities. They are, in fact, not homogeneous with respect to any of those and merely a free and democratic sociopolitical order keeps them together. For instance, I see a headscarved girl carrying a banner criticizing Erdoğan, and I am not surprised at all,” said Professor Bekir Berat Özipek of İstanbul Commerce University, noting that they have rather a “conscience based” approach.
Creative sarcasm employed skillfully in good faith
Civil Society Development Center (STGM) Chairman Levent korkut agreed on the Young Civilians’ politics-neutral approach, too. “This is a heterogeneous and non-polarized group containing many differences within it. They are certainly not acting as a proxy of a particular political ideology either,” said Korkut, who also teaches at Hacettepe University in Ankara.
Experts point out the group’s talent for using humor as a tool in their demonstrations. Media Association (Medya Derneği) Chairman Salih Memecan, also one of the most famous cartoonists in Turkey, said humor is vitally important while putting up a fight for freedoms, and he observed that the Young Civilians are highly successful in employing it. “I am even worried that I may lose my job if, one day, they also begin drawing cartoons,” he stated, in appreciation of the quality work the Young Civilians do.
Özipek’s assessment of the group focused on its talented use of humor, too, but also drew attention to another dimension -- that they use it in good faith and in an inclusionary way, which is uncommon for Turkish humor. “Humor is a mode of resistance against authoritarianism for them, and they use it skillfully for a more democratic and libertarian Turkey, which is so noteworthy because the old language of Turkish humor had plenty of pro-establishment and statist elements in it. Those who are alienated by the official state discourse, be it ethnically or religiously, like pious people, Kurds, Alevis have all been subject to an exclusionary and critical treatment for so long. In the Young Civilians, I see all those estranged are rather embraced,” he said.
Creativity is seen as another strength of the group’s use of humor in demonstrations. Memecan, Özipek and Korkut have all expressed their appreciation for the group’s inventiveness. “It is certainly not the only NGO in Turkey, but creativity is what these youngsters have. Even those opposing the group cannot help but admire their inventiveness,” Özipek said. Having noted that Turkey is going through an enormous fight for democracy, Korkut lauded the Young Civilians’ creativity, which makes them highly productive, putting their shoulders to the wheel in the country’s struggle for the consolidation of democracy. “In Turkey, NGOs have a problem of being unable to produce and eventually create an effect. The Young Civilians here are certainly an example for others with their fertile imaginations and their influence,” he said.
Setting an example for civil society
Korkut detailed his reasons in labeling the Young Civilians as an example for other NGOs. “They are doing what civil society should actually do in Turkey, showing them how to use and develop their capacities. Reaching out to people and the media is something they do very successfully,” said the STGM chairman, adding that many NGOs in the country rather opt for taking funding mainly from the European Union for their projects but pay little attention to the effect they create. “The Young Civilians, however, are raising funds on their own and focusing on how to be more influential,” he concluded. Indeed, the group depends solely on modest donations and fees from its members.
Professor Fuat Keyman of Koç University also believes that the Young Civilians set an example for Turkish civil society. “They showed very well that an NGO could overcome financial and organizational weaknesses and be very influential once there is a will and endeavor and when these two are combined with creativity,” he noted.