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An Open Letter to the US President

in TURKEY, 24/02/2011

Kursad Kahramanoglu, former ILGA co-secretary general, voices out the issues of religious, ethnic and social minorities in Turkey

An open letter to the President

Dear Mr. President,

My name is Kursad Kahramanoglu, and I write a column for the BirGün daily newspaper, printed in Istanbul. Presidents of the USA are always extremely important political figures in my country, and what they think and say are inevitably major news. This is due to the fact that the President of the USA is seen as the leader of the Western World and there is, and always has been, a close strategic alliance between Turkey and the US. Thus, the leader of the western, democratic world is also a very important opinion leader in Turkey. This demonstrated itself no more so than during the recent troubles in Egypt. Our media reported that you have been speaking often with Prime Minister Erdogan during this Egyptian crisis, and that you have sought his counsel and support throughout the troubles. We are also led to understand that in your mind, and also in the minds of many westerners, lies the idea that Turkey can be a model for the many Arab countries and other Moslem nations who are rebelling, one-by-one, against the autocratic regimes they have had to endure for so long.

If this is true, and is not just propaganda from the ruling AKP Party and their supporters here in Turkey, I must tell you that this is a very Orientalist approach, because to call Turkey a democracy really requires quite a vivid imagination. Describing this country as a paragon of democracy must, therefore, be a purely relative concept.

Mr. President please allow me to voice some of the issues in our so-called democracy; issues that demonstrate that for religious, ethnic and social minorities, Turkey is far from being a paragon of democracy.

Under the AKP government, human rights issues in Turkey have been reduced to one issue alone. For almost a decade, the only group of people whose human rights have been a priority for our rulers us are the women who want to cover themselves, according to Islam. The largest religious minority in Turkey are those who we call “Alevi”. Alevis are a religious, sub-ethnic and cultural community, primarily in Turkey, numbering in the tens of millions. Alevis are classified as a branch of Shi’a Islam, however there are significant differences in Alevi beliefs, traditions and rituals when compared to other orthodox Shi’a sects. Alevis in Turkey have nothing in common with the Shi’ites in Iran, for example.

Alevi worship takes place in assembly houses (cemevi) rather than mosques. The ceremony (âyîn-i cem, or simply cem), features music and dance (semah) in which both women and men participate. Instead of Arabic, the respective native language, predominantly Turkish, is used during rituals and praying. The Turkish state, by passing a law in Parliament, contrary to parents objections and in spite of the decision of the European Court of Human Rights to the contrary, made it compulsory that the children of these Alevis are schooled in religious studies based on the majority Sunni sect theology. The Government is systematically building unwanted Mosques in Alevi villages and appointing Sunni imams, who are civil servants receiving salaries from our taxes, to attend to completely empty Mosques!

Our largest ethnic minority in Turkey are the Kurds. Almost everybody in Turkey agrees that the Kurdish Question is our biggest problem. A couple of years ago this ‘exemplary’ government began to address institutional discrimination against the Kurds in a much-vaunted policy they called the Kurdish Opening. At long last Kurds would not find themselves labelled a criminal simply for working, communicating and educating their kids in their own language. Unfortunately, as soon as the inevitable pressure was applied by right-wing nationalists, and with a general election approaching, this initiative suddenly found itself with a new name, the Democratic Opening. With all liberalisation of language laws extracted, the policy ceased to mean a thing, and soon many leaders of the Kurdish movement, including some elected mayors and representatives, found themselves in front of the judges for flouting the primacy of the Turkish language. The saga continues and these people are, unsurprisingly, prohibited from defending themselves in their own language.

Homophobia is rife amongst the ruling classes in Turkey. A government minister responsible for families and children, Aliye Kavaf publicly declared only last year that she believes that homosexuality is “a biological sickness”. Chair of the constitutional committee of the Turkish Parliament, Burhan Kuzu, who has now been appointed to head the project to write a new Turkish constitution, is on record as saying “Homosexuals want their rights too. Are we going to give it to them? Of course not.” Both these politicians continue to hold on to their posts.

Incidentally, the same Burhan Kuzu is currently pursuing me through the courts, claiming that I have insulted him by writing in one of my columns that he is a politician who belongs to the last century. He believes this is an insult. He wants the court to put me away for two years and that I should pay him 10,000 TL for the hurt my comments caused. What may seem a ridiculous and unbelievable case in the West is a commonplace for those who write on political and social topics in Turkey. We have one of the worst records for press freedom in the world and over 50 journalists are currently in prison in Turkey for expressing their opinions.

Increasingly people believe that the politicisation of the courts, and the level of self-censorship amongst writers, academics, and intellectuals has reached an unprecedented level in Turkey. We do not enjoy the rule of law because our legal system works at a pace that guarantees a massive amount of injustice. The number of people arrested, accused and awaiting trial in prison far outweighs the number people who have been tried, convicted and sentenced.

During your consultations and various meetings with Prime Minister Erdogan, he may have bragged to you about the state of our economy. We hear and read that Turkey has become the 16th biggest economy in the world, however, according to UN statistics, we also suffer one of the highest unemployment rates in the world. Youth unemployment in particular is dangerously high in my country. According to the UN, we are amongst the top 5 countries in the world for this dubious honour.

Mr. President, I am telling you these things about the situation in Turkey because it is also reported by our media that you were upset by the lack of intelligence you received on the situation in Egypt. Please do not believe everything you hear from whatever your information sources are about Turkey. This is not a happy democracy, one in which the rule of law and human rights are respected. The situation, which we have all observed, beginning in Tunisia and unfolding in Egypt, could well happen in Turkey too.

Our elected government have won two election victories in eight years, and may well have another in five or six months’ time, however this is only possible due to the inadequate electoral system we have in Turkey. Contrary to the Venice Commission’s Criteria (the Commission is an advisory body of the Council of Europe, composed of independent experts in the field of constitutional law) we have the highest threshold for achieving parliamentary representation in Europe, 10%. This means that minority opinion in Turkey is voiceless, in parliament and in the country as a whole. I do hope that during your next consultation with Turkish leaders, indeed with the leaders of other countries whose grasp of the concept of democracy is similarly flawed, your advice to them would be, “Put your house in order!”

I believe that by not doing this, or by leaving it too late and only to start talking about them because of a mass rebellion, is taking the Orientalist approach that I mentioned at the beginning of my letter. There cannot be one set of standards for human rights, democracy and the rule of the law for some nations, and a diluted, second-class set for others. Are these concepts based on universal values, or relative values?

Mr.President, I am not expecting or even hoping for a response from you. However, I hope those reading this letter in the West will distribute it as widely as possible, because a member of any minority here in Turkey and/or in Egypt deserves the same level of democracy and human rights as those who live in New York, Paris or London. The citizens of all countries desire and deserve to live under the rule of law. I do believe these concepts are based on universal values.

To suggest to Egypt or Tunisia, or indeed any other country in which the people are demanding work, rights and justice, that they may aspire to have the kind of democracy we have here in Turkey, is to offer them a second-class democracy and inferior human rights. All the peoples on Earth desire and deserve human rights, democracy and to live under the supreme rule of law regardless of their religion, sex, race and/or sexuality.

Respectfully yours
Kürşad Kahramanoğlu
BirGün – Istanbul

February, 2011
 

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