Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Are Official Bans and Slurs the Start of Full-on Persecution for Turkey's LGBT Community?*


Haaretz: "Turkey's LGBT community is a tangible, visual challenge to Erdogan's vision of an Islamically 'pious generation' – and now he's cracking down on them, with enthusiastic support from other Islamists and ultra-nationalists."

A week ago, the governor of Turkey’s capital city banned all events - "cinema, theater, panels, interviews, exhibitions" - relating to the gay, lesbian and transgender community from taking place in the nation’s capital in the name of the wider "community’s public sensitivity [and] to provide peace and security." 

The governor’s official statement went on to say: "Such events publicly harbor hatred and hostilityand therefore pose a risk to public safety and morality."

It was only a matter of time until the ban reached Istanbul. And so it was: days later an LGBT-related film screening, to be held at the Pera Museum, was also banned by the Istanbul governor’s office, who claimed that the organizers had failed to submit the proper authorization papers. 

Why is Turkey cracking down on its gay and lesbian community right now? Is it an assertion of Islamist identity politics and a kick at secular opponents of an increasingly authoritarian regime? And how reasonable is it to assume that the orders for this repression came from President Erdogan at the top, with provincial governors acting as mere agents of the government?

If the intention was to silence the LGBT community, it didn't work, at least in the short term.

Two Ankara-based LGBT organizations, Kaos GL and Pembe Hayat, vowed to take legal steps to reverse the governor’s "illegal, discriminatory and arbitrary ban," and added that "there can be no legitimate or legal grounds for such a wholesale ban that touches the core of [our] rights."   

Defying the ban, students at Ankara’s prestigious Middle East Technical University screened a gay-oriented film. The university cut the electricity in order to stop the screening. Fortunately, the Turkish police opted not to use force against the students, who went on to march and chant slogans supporting LGBT rights.

Follwing that, a massive march held for the international day against violence against women included protesters proudly demonstrating with LGBT rainbow flags, a scene that has been less common on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara since 2015, when the annual Pride March was broken up by police with batons and water cannon. Although the police threatened intervention over the flags, the march ended peacefully.   

The LGBT ban should be seen in the wider context of Turkey’s ongoing clampdown on civil society. The first spike came during the Gezi Park protests, but accelerated since last year’s failed coup, when Turkey came under a State of Emergency that continues up to today.

The great pressure Turkey’s LGBT community has been under for several years contrasts with the early 2000s, when the community experienced a kind of public renaissance. At that time, Erdogan’s AKP was winning support from liberals, and a civil society niche for the LGBT community flourished.

During those years, the LGBT community built coalitions with many other civil society organizations, not least those representing other oppressed minorities, such as Kurds. This solidarity led the mostly Kurdish party, the HDP, to adopt an ambitious agenda that advocated for LGBT rights - despite their mostly conservative voter base.

The secular, yet more socially conservative, opposition party, the CHP, began to take part in discussions at the annual LGBT Pride lecture series. It, like the HDP, gradually opened its doors to openly gay and transgender candidates within the party.

That bridge-building paid off: By 2014, tens of thousands of allies were joining marchers in the Pride March, since banned.  

Of course, this is only one side of the picture.

For the ruling AKP, LGBT issues for years were too much of a taboo to address, both among the party leadership and its constituency. During its long rulethere have been plenty of of homophobic slurs by AKP members. However, these spiked as the LGBT community became more politically ambitious, as was evident during the 2015 parliamentary elections.

Then-prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, stated during the campaign that "Gays caused the destruction of the [Biblical] tribe of Lot, and the HDP offers [a gay] candidate." 

Just earlier this month, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who rarely mentions the subject of LGBT people, openly criticized a neighborhood committee controlled by the CHP for introducing positive discrimination quotas for LGBT participants, saying they had "broken their ties with our nation’s values."    

Clearly, the more LGBT community members enter the political arena, local or national, the more they pose a threat to the AKP: They offer a tangible, visual challenge to Erdogan’s attempts to raise a "pious generation," based on Islamic values. 

Just as important, the AKP’s attacks paint the opposition as being hopelessly liberal and out-of-sync with the generally conservative Turkish population at large, and has worked diligently to promote rifts within the opposition, where acceptance of LGBT rights does not enjoy the wholehearted support of all  members.

The AKP is, of course, also tending to its socially and religiously conservative base, and its anti-LGBT line also has the potential to attract hardline nationalists.
The increasingly homophobic tone of the government strengthens various Islamist constituencies, who take it as carte blanche for broadcasting repugnant anti-LGBT slurs, often in the same pro-government media where vicious anti-Semitism is an almost daily occurrence.

Turkish ultra-nationalists have also joined the fray. One group threatened last year’s Pride, which gave the government a proximate reason to block it for the following year to secure the "security of the marchers, tourists, and residents." It is in this context of support that the recent across-the-board ban of all LGBT events is a first sign of what could easily become an accelerating repression.

With rampant homophobia and violence - often hitting hard at the transgender community - LGBT individuals in Turkey have few safe spaces to express themselves, meet, and organize. Now, with these bans, this space will shrink further.

It's disheartening but perhaps not unsurprising that the Turkish government's anti-gay direction has many similarities with the officially-sanctioned persecution of the LGBT community in Russia and Egypt, where gays and lesbians are at any and every moment subject to harassment and assault if they dare organize any type of public expression.  

However, it is important to remember that Turkey’s LGBT organizations are rooted in decades-old resistance and are no stranger to animosity.

Even if there is a sustained clampdown, the seeds planted by activists, and by those activists in political circles, university organizations, and other civil society groups, know how to continue working and organizing.

And they'll also be strengthened by a wider circle of sympathizers and allies built by patient debate and interactions who, just a decade ago, would never have imagined that they would be defending the rights of the gay and lesbian community.

This article appeared in Haaretz on November 30,2017. Click here for the Link

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

'Be Careful': If You're Visiting Turkey, Don't Provoke the State*

Haaretz: "If Turkey hadn't directly provoked the U.S., reports of its human rights violations would be collecting dust. Now, with red lines being crossed and Americans targeted, Congress is upping the ante."

It's been more than two weeks since the United States suspended the issuing of all non-immigrant visas in Turkey, halting the travel to the U.S. of thousands of Turkish citizens. Tit-for-tat, Turkey announced it would stop issuing e-visas and airport visas to U.S. citizens arriving directly from U.S. destinations.

American sanctions on Turkey come as Turkish citizens working at the U.S. consular offices in Ankara have been targeted by the Turkish government’s expanding purge: two consular workers have so far been detained.

U.S. visa sanctions sent shock waves through Turkey, especially for those accustomed to frequent travel to the U.S. over the last decade. Turkish Airlines’ extensive U.S. flight schedule is testament to the Turkish demand for interconnectivity with the U.S. Thousands have had their plans put on hold or cancelled altogether.

Thus far, the damage has been limited. Since U.S. visas often have a ten-year expiration date, many still have no problem getting through; and, for those desperate to get to a U.S. destination without a current visa, they can also apply through a third country - though that’s certainly a costly and time-consuming process.  

Unlike in Turkey, in the U.S., the visa suspensions have barely made the headlines, and Turkey’s reciprocal act - while in line with diplomatic protocol - shortsightedly hurts its own interests far more. Turkish Airlines has reported a 45 percent drop in reservations from Turkey to the U.S.

But even if the visa issue hasn’t made much impact newswise for many Americans, Turkey’s image has already hit rock bottom, thanks to other events that have indeed made a media impact, not least Erdogan’s intemperate language towards the U.S., and the whole sorry episode of his presidential guards who beat up protestors in D.C. 

The complimentary image of Turkey I used to hear described in America has been replaced by one dominant take: Turkey as an authoritarian state. And, as the political situation in the country has worsened, the many students, colleagues and friends who once streamed to Turkey, slowly stopped going.

Now, those friends and colleagues tell me before I go there to visit: "Be careful."
Back in 2015-2016, "be careful" referred to one’s personal safety.

During those years, Turkey was struck by ISIS and PKK terror, one bomb coming a bit too close for comfort, hundreds of yards from a student group I was leading last in early 2016. Turkey has been able to bring back a sense of security to its streets.

However, following the 2016 attempted coup and the ensuing State of Emergency, which has led to the arrest of tens of  thousands, "be careful" has become a wider warning: "Beware of protests", and "beware of protesting". Americans saw firsthand how protesters in Washington D.C. were attacked by Erdogan’s guards.

It would be equally relevant to add further warnings to visitors: "Beware of journalism", after Wall Street Journal reporter Ayla Albayrak was sentenced to two years in jail in absentia for an article she wrote that the government condemned as "terrorist propaganda".

And they also could add "beware of human rights activism", in relation to the members of Amnesty International, who were released last night on bail after spending almost 100 days in jail (Turkey’s Amnesty chairperson, Taner Kilic, is still in custody).

And "beware of working with NGOs of any kind", after the recent arrest of Osman Kavala, who has played a key role in promoting civil society and international art projects.

And "beware of just being an American who can be used as a hostage", after U.S. media coverage of an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, who’s been held for over a year on dubious espionage charges, went up a gear since fears were raised that Brunson is being used as a bargaining chip by Turkey. That was after Erdogan hinted that he could be exchanged for Fetullah Gulen, the Islamic cleric wanted in Turkey for allegedly masterminding the coup.   

The sad reality is if Turkey had minded the diplomatic niceties and worked to stay off the radar of the U.S. and had avoided unnecessary conflict, most of the overflowing and documented human rights violations in Turkey would have remained tucked away in reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

How many Americans realize (or care) that the co-chairs of the third largest political party, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag of the mostly Kurdish HDP, are behind bars, together with a long list of other MPs from the same party, effectively silencing the opposition?

As news of Turkey’s human rights violations become more mainstream, there is a growing bipartisan consensus in the U.S. Congress that Turkey has crossed all democratic and rule of law red lines.

Despite concerted attempts by Turkey to sideline Congress and State Department officials, Erdogan’s attempts to carry out a direct line of communication with U.S. president Donald Trump, for now, at least, seems to have failed as a strategy.

Just yesterday, U.S. senators sent a bipartisan letter to President Trump expressing their grave concern over the "continuing erosion of human rights and decline of democratic values in Turkey."

As Turkey repivots closer to Russia, and as more voices arise in the U.S. calling to rethink the historic strategic relations between the two countries, Turkey is on track to fatally tarnish its image in the United States, risking not only a key ally but also the chance of Turkey once again becoming a magnet for American investment and support. America is also paying a price, absorbing varied geopolitical losses as Turkey retreats.

This article appeared in Haaretz on October 30,2017. Click here for the link

'This Is 1940s Germany': Can Turkey's Revitalized anti-Erdogan Opposition Prevail?*

** This article is from July 2017 and was written in wake of the masive Justice rally held by the CHP in Istanbul. 

Haaretz: "This week, one million people in Istanbul demanded civil rights, law and justice. As Erdogan's purges intensify, can a fragmented opposition sustain that momentum?"

"This is the era of dictatorship. This is the era of 1940s Germany."

Such explicit fighting talk directed against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is rare these days in Turkey, not least in the heart of Istanbul. But they were the words spoken days ago by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, of the mostly secular center-left CHP party, at a huge rally rounding off a 25 day march through Turkey aimed at strengthening the democractic spirit in the country which has been under intensified assault for a year.

A year go, following the July 15 failed coup attempt, Turkey’s three main parties (excluding the mostly Kurdish leftist HDP party) came together at a massive rally held in Istanbul’s Yenikapi neighborhood. For Erdogan, having nationalist MHP leader, Devlet Bahceli, and the main opposition leader, Kilicdaroglu, join the rally, together with his AKP party, seemed liked an impossible feat. Following the rally, a new term emerged on the Turkish political scene to describe this show of unusual unity: the "Spirit of Yenikapi."

However, this spirit was short-lived. With the government moving full steam ahead with its extensive purge, a clampdown that includes the arrest of critics of the government, such as journalists, academics and Members of Parliament, what seemed to some like a new dawn for Turkey, quickly turned into a nightmare for tens of thousands of people who have found themselves behind bars, not to mention the far greater numbers of family members affected.  

Fast forward a year. Turkey’s second massive rally, termed the “Justice” rally, held in Maltepe (also in Istanbul), highlighted the failed spirit of Yenikapi.  At this rally, over a million people joined Kilicdaroglu to chant in unison three words: Hak, Hukuk and Adalet: Rights, Law and Justice.

Never has Turkey seen such a huge and blatantly anti-Erdogan rally, nor has it seen Kilicdaroglu perform with such sharp, high caliber language to lash out at Erdogan, accusing him of implementing autocratic rule and using the attempted coup to enact a civil coup through the State of Emergency, introduced five days after, which has enabled the ongoing mass purges and arrests.

So how did Kilicdaroglu succeed in transforming himself from a predictable - and at times obedient - opposition leader to a level of popularity unprecedented since becoming party head in 2010?

The answer is by marching over 400 kilometers over 25 days from Ankara to Istanbul, and the massive rally for which he set the agenda. On the march he endured mountainous steep climbs, pouring rain, and burning summer heat, but endeared himself to many of those he passed. It not only didn’t exhaust the modest 69-year old politician, but he positively gained momentum with each passing step.  

It wasn’t only admiration for his determination that boosted Kilicdaroglu’s success. The march functioned as a process of renewal; by removing himself from Ankara’s petty politics and parliamentary hallways, he was no longer a secondary figure, trailing behind Erdogan, but transformed into a real leader.

Over 25 days even groups who were initially reluctant joined in. Their differences with the CHP and its secular and Kemalist legacy quickly dissipated once it was made clear that no party or organization would march with their own banners. The march had one title and one title alone: justice for all those who have been wrongly sentenced to prison, serving time waiting for trials, or fired from their jobs.

So, where from here? Will the massive rally in Maltepe transform into a new movement for the return of law and an independent judiciary?

In the short term, no change is in sight, and the purges and arrests will continue. What better proof of this than this week’s arrest of Bogazici University professor Koray Caliskan, on charges of possible links to the Gulen movement (a claim that seems absurd on the surface, not only due to his past leftist politics but also due to his ties to the CHP).

Whether there’ll be a longer term effect depends mostly on if Kilicdaroglu can convince his party to keep building coalitions, to push beyond his electoral ceiling of around 25-30%. However, the time is ripe for this approach. If the opposition learned anything from last April’s constitutional referendum, that is only by finding common ground and rising above their differences can they defy the odds; true, the opposition lost the referendum, however the margin of Erdogan’s victory was small, and the opposition took all the major urban arenas, including Istanbul, once an Erdogan stronghold. Elections are due in 2019.

The CHP will need to reach out to conservative and more right-leaning voters, while continuing to develop a dialogue with new emerging voices, such as with Meral Aksener, who is set on establishing a new party in the near future together with other defectors from the ailing MHP. As for the Kurds, few expect Kilicdaroglu to get their votes, but the HDP’s participation in the march was a positive step forward; however, without a transformative initiative to end years of violence, it is highly unlikely the CHP can reach the level of optimism needed to make real change, something once offered by Erdogan and the AKP.

So, for now, it is hard to declare that the Maltepe Justice rally was a turning point, and better to echo Kilicdaroglu’s own words: that July 9, 2017 was only the beginning of a movement. For now, the spirt of Maltepe is very real; whether it awaits the same fate as the 2016 spirit of Yenikapi remains to be seen. Only time will tell, but the almost impossible weight of Turkey’s future is riding on it.  

**This article appeared in Haaretz on July 12, 2017. Click here for the link