‘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.”

‘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 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'

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.


‘Image of “Midnight Express” is gone, but…’

Please elaborate on the change you talk about in the book. How are the people and state attitudes changing?

The Turkey of the late 1970s, of the “Midnight Express,” no longer exists, and this is something to be proud of. People are not summarily executed and torture is not endemic, even though ill-treatment in custody and police brutality remain endemic. Turkey is not a liberal democracy, its institutions remain contested and its politics extreme.

At the same time, the industrialization of the Anatolian heartlands since the Turgut Özal years, the 1980s, are breathtaking. Just think of the success stories of Gaziantep, Kayseri, Kahramanmaraş, Denizli, Kütahya, Afyon -- all landlocked, formerly isolated cities which had lost their Armenian, Greek and Jewish middle classes after the tragedy of 1915 and through the extreme centralization of the republican era. They have now become bases of globally operating entrepreneurs. This is a shift of paradigmatic proportions. Recall the discussion on “Islamic Calvinists” which the European Stability Initiative began a few years ago: Many of these stories are based on the successful alliance of religion and capitalism. Yet, as in the Geneva of John Calvin, there is also a downside, and that is the imposition of conservative communitarian values.

The image of Turkey in the Western eye was usually and for a long time based on the movie “Midnight Express,” don’t you think?

The image of “Midnight Express” is gone, but today, there are two countries: a self-confident growing Turkey that inspires the world and a semi-democracy that has some of the highest rates of incarcerated journalists in the world. Turkey is both.

In addition, throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, when the conservative but hardworking Turkey emerged, the Kurdish war was taking place with its tens of thousands of dead, and millions of refugees. The Kurds of Turkey went through uprooting and eviction. Much of the Kurdish region, with its cities, villages and landscapes, has suffered greatly.

So, different parts of the country have developed in different contexts. The Kurdish provinces are now catching up, but the scars remain. And still, there is no question that İstanbul has become a global city that excites people from all over the world and Turkey a country that governments and people elsewhere take seriously. But it is still very much a work in progress. Accidents can always ruin it.

‘Turkey My Paradise’

Öktem uses a wide range of material and methods, from interviews, films, music and media to field research and weaves them into a compelling narrative. Here is an excerpt from the book:

“Throughout the years of military rule, state TV regularly featured a clip with the singer Müşerref Akay. Dressed in a red uniform complete with the crescent and star, a blonde curly haired Akay performed the song ‘Turkey My Paradise,’ while tanks and soldiers in combat uniform marched on in the background, alternating with touristic images of Turkey’s monuments.

Betrayal has infiltrated my heroic race

My enemies are not brave, they are cowards

There is no friendly nation to the Turk. […]

Let us celebrate the principles of our father [Mustafa Kemal]

Let us run toward the goals he has shown us

Turkey, Turkey my paradise

“‘Turkey My Paradise’ was commissioned by the generals and used systematically throughout the junta years during torture sessions. A survivor of such torture, the music producer Cem Yılmaz, bought the rights to the song in 2007 to prevent any further performance of it in public.”


Kerem Öktem, author of ‘Angry Nation: Turkey since 1989’

A research fellow at Oxford University’s St. Antony’s College, he teaches Politics of the Middle East at the Oriental Institute. He studied Modern Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford, where he also completed his Ph.D. in 2006. In his doctoral work, he explored the destruction of imperial space in the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent construction of an exclusively Turkish national territory. His research interests range from nationalism, ethno-politics and minority rights in Turkey to the country’s tormented relations with Armenia and Greece. He now works on a project called “Europe’s Muslim Neighborhoods,” in which he discusses the role of Islam and Muslims in the politics of the Balkans and Western Europe.


‘Women are also participants in the political space’

On the cover picture of “Angry Nation” are women carrying Turkish flags in what looks like a demonstration. Öktem said his publisher suggested a cover photo with many Turkish flags and very angry men, but he didn’t want to go for that cliche. “You know, somehow every book on Turkey that is published in Europe or the US has to have at least a mosque in the background, Turkish flags and lots of edgy men with moustaches. I thought, why don’t we shift the perspective a bit? After all, women are also participants in the political space, and now increasingly also in formal politics.”

2011-04-18

Interviews