‘To see junta leader Evren in the dock would be massive catharsis for Turkey!’
|If the Sept. 12, 1980 military coup leader, Kenan Evren, is tried in a court for »»|
If the Sept. 12, 1980 military coup leader, Kenan Evren, is tried in a court for his crimes against humanity, this will be a healing experience for Turkey, according to Kerem Öktem, author of “Angry Nation: Turkey since 1989.”
Speaking to Today's Zaman for Monday Talk, Öktem was referring to the investigation of the Sept. 12 coup that a prosecutor in Ankara recently started based on criminal complaints against the perpetrators. This came as a result of the Sept. 12, 2010 referendum on a constitutional reform package paving the way for the trial of the leaders of the 1980 coup.
“I do hope the prosecutor acts fast now. To see junta leader Evren in the dock would be a massive catharsis for Turkey. But it doesn't stop there. What about the thousands of military commanders, policemen and jail officers, who have tortured and murdered? New forms of justice need to be found, and they are being discussed. Maybe a truth and reconciliation commission can be a way forward,” said Öktem, who examines the junta regime in detail in his book.
Öktem made headlines recently when he cancelled a book launch at the prestigious National University of Ireland, Maynooth, upon learning that Ireland’s minister of European affairs, Lucinda Creighton, was going to introduce his book. Creighton is known for her strong opposition to Turkey’s EU membership and her skepticism towards Turks. “There is a difference between a radical critical approach, which I follow in my book, and an essentialist anti-Turkish position, which I find populist and ill-informed. Ms. Creighton would have been the wrong person to host me,” Öktem told us.
Answering our questions, Öktem elaborated on “Angry Nation” and on the pressing issues on Turkey’s political agenda.
Angry nation! It’s a direct statement. Do you think Turks are prone to being irritated?
True! When I first proposed it to the editors at Zed Books, they thought it might be too strong. But after they read the manuscript, they dropped their objections.
Of course I am not trying to say that Turks are angry by nature. I am describing how a particular regime and its ideology have created a political space that is characterized by manipulation and violence. In terms of ideology, it is the legacy of Unionism, of 1915 and of the unfortunate alliance of modernism and extreme nationalism. In terms of politics, it is the struggle between elected representatives and the unelected guardians in the military, the judiciary and the bureaucracy. It is the sanctity of the state. All these have shaped modern Turkish politics and produced the conditions for manipulation and anger.
You often refer to acts of mass violence, murders and extrajudicial killings in the book…
Yes, those have determined the experience of Turkey’s recent past. Look at the pogroms against non-Muslims in İstanbul in 1955, the murder of Catholic priests in 2006 and the slaying of Christians in Malatya in 2007. Remember the massacres of Alevis in Sivas in 1993, or the assassination of Hrant Dink. None of these crimes were committed by lunatics who kill out of hatred. Young men were set up by others. They were lured into committing crimes because they were told that they were defending the state and their religion. I believe that the revelations of the Ergenekon investigation are significant: It is not the people who are full of hatred, but the state and its guardians, who incite them to violence. And where there is manipulation and injustice, there is anger.
‘Ergenekon is complex’
Amid controversy surrounding the Ergenekon investigation, what would you say about its reality, as you find it more complex and flexible than a strictly controlled terrorist organization?
To think of this network as a hierarchic terrorist organization is more a reflection of the mindset of the prosecutors. This is not how people organize themselves, especially if they act clandestinely. Turkey’s modern political life began with secret organizations like the Young Ottomans and the Committee of Union and Progress. Professor Şükrü Hanioğlu’s work gives us a crucial insight into the history of clandestine structures and their role in running the state.
In the 1950s, you had the Special War Office, in the 1980s and 1990s you had JİTEM as executioners. As far as I can see, “Ergenekon” is a continuation of those early parallel state structures, with guardians in the bureaucracy, the high judiciary and, of course, above all, in the military. They work together, with people in the media, in the universities, even in the parties and NGOs. We have seen it all during the 1997 intervention against the Welfare Party [RP], and again in the mid-2000s. These are flexible, adaptable structures with shifting geometries and changing actors.
If you assume a hierarchic structure, you are bound to misunderstand it. And the recent course of the court case suggests precisely this. It would be good to remember Aristotle here. He asserted that only in a state governed by law, God and reason alone rule. Yet, passion perverts the minds of rulers, even if they are the best of men. There is too much passion around the case, and too much partisanship.
You also argue that the root cause of tension and anger in society is the power struggle between elected governments and non-elected guardians of the state -- namely, the military and the bureaucracy. What is happening in that regard? Is the ruling Justice and Development Party [AK Party] government trying to remove the old guardians?
As far as I can see, there has been a change of heart. The AK Party started off with a mandate of weeding out the guardians and paving the way for a fully democratic system. I am not sure the resolve is still there. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan comes across as much less interested in democratic reform, in stabilizing the rule of law and in ensuring accountability. But there are not that many alternatives: Either you continue the reform agenda, invest in EU accession, even if the EU itself is a mess now, and prepare a liberal constitution that will protect the individual against the state and minorities from majorities -- this is the democratic scenario -- or you become like the illegitimate guardians of the Kemalist system, but with an Islamist twist. This is a purely majoritarian democracy with religious brotherhoods and networks running the show, a new guardian scenario maybe. The government has been wavering between the two for some time now. Anywhere else in the world these two scenarios would be mutually exclusive.
With general elections coming up, do you expect more anger to come out?
If history is anything to go by, the buildup to elections in Turkey tends to be a time of polarization. This is a time when all political actors get nasty and issues take on an existential significance. And then there is election day, a sigh of relief and, suddenly, everything looks different. It never is, of course! There are too many pressing issues that cloud the horizon: From the concerns of the non-religious segments of society to the unresolved status of Alevis, from socially conservative policies to the depth of Kurdish rights, a lot remains contested. As long as injustices remain unaddressed, and politics is considered a zero-sum game, the anger will remain entrenched.
‘On Kurdish policy’
What are your thoughts about the acts of civil disobedience of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party [BDP]? Do you think such acts have the potential to turn violent?
The idea of civil disobedience is, I believe, a great step forward. It is about nonviolent politics, about standing up for your rights by disobeying the state. This really tests the government’s Kurdish policy: How much violence can a government use against peaceful protests, especially at a time when protests are taking place all over the Middle East?
The government’s Kurdish policy is a curious mix of a courageous extension of minority rights on the one side and a massive oppression of the Kurdish national movement on the other. From the launch of the Kurdish language TV channel TRT Seş to the opening of university departments of the Kurdish language, the government has made great steps. A new generation of provincial governors has become much more welcoming towards Kurdish citizens. The government has hence gone a long way in ending the state denial of Kurdish identity. Yet, it has done so in parallel to a massive legal case which has put hundreds of Kurdish representatives in jail, often under humiliating circumstances. One wonders: Who are you going to speak to, if not to these democratically elected representatives? It is they who have chosen to engage in legal politics in the Turkish Republic. Why would you try to ignore, even silence them? Engage with them, integrate them into the mainstream, if you want to see politics as a way of solving problems.
How do you see the new probe into perpetrators of the Sept. 12 coup?
The 1980 coup is the turning point of modern Turkey. It is the big rupture, and one which people have been forced to forget. In my first year at Oxford, in 2000, I came across a lecture by Norman Stone, organized by the Turkish students’ club. Stone argued that the coup helped Turkey’s future by bringing stability and prosperity. I wondered what he would like to say to the hundreds of thousands of men and women who were tortured in the prisons of the regime. Responding, he asked me whether I have any documents to prove my point! Today, no one in his right mind would question what happened in 1980. There are a growing number of films and testimonies that deal with the trauma of the junta years. I do believe that many citizens voted “yes” in the referendum because they want to see the generals tried.
I do hope the prosecutor acts fast now. To see junta leader Kenan Evren in the dock would be a massively cathartic experience. But it doesn’t stop there. What about the thousands of military commanders, policemen and jail officers who engaged in torture and committed murder? New forms of justice need to be found, and they are being discussed. Maybe a truth and reconciliation commission can be a way forward. I am of the opinion, though, that no crime against humanity, no act of torture or ill-treatment should ever lapse and should ever be left unpunished. Let’s hope that the investigation will pave the way for a coming to terms with this darkest moment of Turkey’s recent past.
Do you have doubts?
The dominant mindset in the Turkish judiciary remains authoritarian. We have to wait and see whether the investigation will be spared the fate of the Ergenekon case, which is increasingly turning into a sham. For justice to be done, prosecutors and judges need to move beyond the reflex of defending the state, its agencies and employees, or any other religious or political group. They need to defend the individual against the state and the weak against the powerful. I am not too confident that this is happening, but I would like to keep my hopes up.