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Human Rights

new internationalist
issue 315 - August 1999


Ataturk's children
Repression is the legacy of a regime in Turkey where anything goes – so long as it’s
not Islamic and doesn’t suggest political opposition. Arzu Merali pays a visit.

We trudged around the standard sights of Istanbul: Orthodox monuments and retreats, the Basilica cistern, signposts in Latin and Slavic script to cater for the tourists. Our trip was a snapshot of radical Europhilia and consumerism – and of a country mired in the murder of 10,000 political prisoners in ten years.

We had arrived on the 75th anniversary of the Republic. Its founder, Mustafa Kemal Pasha, took the title Ataturk – Father of the Turks. His image, Nietzsche’s last man – amoral, apolitical and above all modern – looked down on his subjects from all the lamp posts.

The end of history would indeed be nigh if the West’s perception of Turkey as a ‘modernizing’ and ‘democratizing’ state had any meaning. Turkish George Michaels and Madonnas perform on terrestrial and satellite TV channels. Advertisements for shampoo and exotic night-life are set beside semi-naked women on billboards selling cars. A culture of imported (female) and indigenous (male) prostitution mimics the meaning of freedom. Ataturk’s children can buy (into) it all. But still they resist.

Nazat Ashik is in her fifties. She has set up an organization to help prisoners and their families, in a country where even criticizing the founding dictator is still treason and no-one knows exactly how many prisoners there are. Her son, Mustafa, is serving a 17-year sentence for writing against the Government. He bled from his genitalia for two months before admitting the charge. Turkish prison officers use similar methods to the Algerian and Iraqi security forces – electric shocks, dousing in cold water, buggery with broken bottles.

Mazlumder is the name of a human-rights organization with 22 branches around the country. Since the 1997 ruling by the National Security Council (an amalgam of politicians and generals) that Muslims were the ‘number-one enemy of the principles of modern Turkey’, its offices have been repeatedly raided. Three were recently closed down and the organization’s accounts frozen.

I first met Ipek Firat at Mazlumder. She had been detained during a prison visit to her husband, Mehmet, who is an alleged associate of an Islamist group. Together with their cellmate, the journalist Gul Aslan, they were repeatedly tortured. Ipek was released without charge. Her husband ‘confessed’ and is now serving 15- and 22-year sentences consecutively.

Aslan’s case hasn’t been heard in two-and-a-half years. I met her in Bandirma Prison. Behind two sets of bars and reinforced perspex she looked far older than her 24 years. ‘Don’t worry about me,’ she smiled, almost smug in her passive resistance. ‘The fact that I’m here means they, the generals, are scared... It’s only a matter of time before their rule will end.’ How long would that be? In her lifetime? Conscious that her lifetime might be considerably shorter than most, she answered: ‘Maybe. God willing.’

Our unofficial guide, Rabia, is articulate, intelligent and determined – a veritable heroine of the human-rights epic that is gripping her country. She is one among thousands of Turkish women students who have been banned from attending university. She is ‘suspended’ because she is a practising Muslim who wears a headscarf. The ban on headscarves is now more strictly enforced than at any time since the military coups of the 1980s. Few teachers are brave enough to allow any choice – ‘treason’ covers many crimes. So every day groups of students arrive at class. Every day the police remove them. Every day they show their defiance by holding their own classes on the pavements outside.

In October 1998 countrywide demonstrations in support of veiled students saw four million protesters – male and female, veiled and mini-skirted – hold hands. Only a skirmish between police and protesters in Ankara made the news. These are never ‘Ataturk’s children’.

Women like Rabia, Ipek and Gul have, however, become the new advocates of emancipation in Turkey. Akit, a well-respected secular periodical, asked: ‘Why not be like Iran?’ Turkey has fewer women in universities, the medical profession or the media. The Ayatollah has outstripped Ataturk.

Islamaphobia in Turkey is one of the more ridiculous imports from a Europe the generals so desperately wish to join. Istanbul’s elected Mayor, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was prosecuted for reading out Ottoman poetry in public. He was sentenced to a year in prison and a lifetime ban from all political activities. Westernization, says the author Emine Senlikoglu, means that ‘anything goes’ – except political opposition. She currently awaits the outcome of two cases against her for proposing an independent judiciary. Her first prison term was for a book on freedom of speech, her second for answering from a conference platform a question about why she was imprisoned.

Aslan’s husband, Tamar, still suffers torture. She too was arrested on a prison visit. Their three-year-old daughter sees them every two weeks – had Aslan been a common criminal, her child could have stayed with her.

‘What’s your daughter’s name?’ I asked as the little girl ran around the prison visitors’ hall.

‘Azad,’ she replied. ‘FREEDOM.’

Arzu Merali is a freelance journalist based in London.

Every Saturday in Istanbul, Mothers of the Disappeared bear witness on the streets.

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