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Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Turkey’s Textbook for Terror

A note from the editors: John Tirman contributed this analysis to before the tragic assassination of Hrant Dink on January 19. As events proved, the article's last sentence, warning against Turkey's “darker impulses, now riding herd again,” turned out to be sadly prophetic.

In the violent terrain of the Middle East, there is a Muslim ally of the United States that has confronted its terrorist problems with exceptional displays of military force, legal aggression, and ethnic profiling. It has done so for many years, and today remains a deeply divided society at war with its own citizens. That country is the republic of Turkey. It may provide a lesson or two for the “war on terrorism.”

Having conducted a torched-earth policy to root out a politically violent group, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Turkey remains riven by fears, old and new. Led by its devoutly Muslim prime minister, whose ascent was enabled by the economic chaos and corruption created in part by the Kurdish insurgency, Turkey is lapsing into habits of political repression. Its military is mobilized. Its public mood is dark and suspicious. Much of this angst is spurred by the PKK’s renewed activity after it appeared to be defeated following a 20-year civil conflict that took 40,000 lives.

The military has mobilized some 250,000 troops along the border with Iraq, and another 100,000 on the border with Iran. Neither country has ever threatened Turkey, but Kurdish guerrilla activity is the putative reason for this extraordinary display of force. A new and harsh anti-terror law criminalizes activities that most Westerners would view as normal political discourse. Some 100 publishers, writers, and translators have been charged with thought crimes for publishing work about the Kurdish issue, the 1915 Armenian genocide, or other such matters.

While its attempt to join the European Union has forced it to reform or eliminate many of its worst practices, such as torture, Ankara is relapsing into repression of Kurdish activists and others, such as the long list of writers, who question long-held tenets of Turkish nationalism. The Turkish edition of a book I wrote, Spoils of War, which had been published in the United States in 1997, was one of those prosecuted. The charges were insulting the state, the military, Atatürk, and so on. The publisher, Fatih Taş, and two translators were finally acquitted on November 29, 2006, at a trial that had been delayed several times.

The book, which appeared in Turkish 18 months ago, criticizes the way in which the PKK insurgency was put down—most egregiously, by forcibly evacuating one to two million Kurds from their villages in a “drain-the-swamp” exercise that was by all objective accounts brutal and excessive. I also put Atatürk—a remarkable nation-builder, to be sure—in the context of contemporary statist ideologues like Mussolini, which has not gone down well in Ankara. That was salt on the wounds, however: the charges concern not only the so-called “insults” but the purported promotion of ethnic divisiveness, which virtually any in-depth report of the Kurdish plight evokes from hyper-nationalist prosecutors.

These prosecutions doubtlessly have sent a chill through Turkey’s intellectual circles and dampened enthusiasm for prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s reformist style. While he is different from the old kleptocrats, he is proving unwilling to reign in the prosecutors or harsher laws, unable to confront or control the military, and bent on some sort of Islamic influence, as yet unclear and resisted by Turkey’s now deeply ingrained secular society (for which we do have Atatürk to thank). Official misconduct (corruption, assassinations, and the like) is sloughed off, the prosecutions of speech are said by the government to be beyond its control, and the assertive military posture is blamed on the country’s unyielding generals—raising the question again of whether effective civilian government actually exists in Turkey.

Turkish inflexibility has renewed Kurdish nationalism, on the rise after a brief respite following the 1999 capture of Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK leader. Turkey grudgingly granted basic cultural rights to its 15 million Kurds, including legalizing use of the Kurdish language. But Kurds remain marginalized by electoral rules, economic discrimination, and overt intimidation. The PKK has returned to attacking Turkish troops. Kurdish youth are restless. The “deep state”—paramilitaries linked to Ankara—has been caught assassinating Kurds.

The deployment of Turkish troops along the borders with Iraq, which is meant to contain the guerrillas—who have recently called for a ceasefire—includes cross-border raids into Kurdish Iraq. This enormous show of force, however, is aimed at Kurdish leaders in Iraq rather than at the pesky but small PKK. And it is here that the issue becomes international and potentially deadly on a vast scale.

Many Turks are horrified both by the US action in Iraq and by our apparent strategy toward Iran. An independent Kurdistan in Iraq is most troubling, and Kurdish leaders there do appear to be seeking sovereignty, a goal that stirs Turkish military leaders to state flatly that they would intervene should such a fact come to pass. In Iran, reports (whose reliability is not certain) persist that the US is aiding Kurdish groups as a regime-changing strategy, another gambit that is bracing Kurdish nationalism in Turkey.

It is conceivable that the US government is not pressuring Turkey on the thought-crimes trials because it needs it to behave with respect to Iraq. There has been no public opprobrium expressed regarding these cases by President Bush or other high officials. (Quite the contrary, a junior American diplomat reportedly told Europeans recently to quiet their human-rights criticisms of Ankara.)

While the US misadventure in Iraq and confrontation with Iran are highly complicating factors, Turkey’s deeper problems are of its own making. Its refusal to embrace moderate Kurds in Turkey has backfired—strengthening, rather than diminishing, Kurdish identity—and the anti-terror campaign merely emboldens Kurdish militants. The speech prosecutions, outlawed by several treaties to which Turkey is a party, could be stopped cold by the government, but are allowed to go forward to silence dissent. (It is sometimes argued that Turkey should, in effect, be gently coaxed into Europe; in fact, it has been a member of several European bodies—the Council of Europe, the OSCE, and NATO, among them—for many years. All of these organizations prohibit the kinds of speech prosecutions that have been going on for years.) Meanwhile, anti-Americanism and a politically potent Islamism are on the rise.

If this is a textbook for the war on terror, we are in for a bumpy road, littered with unnecessary casualties for democratic values and human security. Europeans and Americans must speak out forcefully to protect Turkish intellectuals and, in fact, to protect Turkey from its darker impulses, now riding herd again.

John Tirman was Fulbright Senior Scholar in Cyprus in 1999-2000 and is editor of the Website, Now a program director at the Social Science Research Council, he is the author, among other books, of Spoils of War: The Human Cost of America’s Arms Trade and Making the Money Sing: Private Wealth and Public Power in the Search for Peace.
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