Last year at this time I was in Istanbul for Armenian Genocide Centennial commemorative events. It was a sad milestone, but it was also a time that was full of hope. Our Project 2015 organizing team and almost two hundred participants had flown in from New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Yerevan, Beirut, and other cities. My experiences in Istanbul that week were so inspiring that I was fully planning to return the following year, thinking that I would even go to Diarbakir, the de facto capital of Turkey’s Kurdish region, for the 101st anniversary of the genocide on April 24, 2016.
Last April my friends in Istanbul—Turks, Armenians, Kurds, and ex-pat Americans—were excited about the prospects for the upcoming elections in June 2015. They were supporting HDP (the People’s Democratic Party, a left-wing and anti-nationalist coalition), many of them electioneering for the party and all of them hoping that it would cross the 10% threshold for entering the Turkish parliament. There was jubilation when they succeeded.
Fast-forward to a year later and the situation in Turkey is worse than I could have imagined possible. Erdogan’s failure to win the super majority he needed to change the constitution and to consolidate his presidential power led him to reignite the war against the Kurds. Kurdish towns and cities were placed under military sieges with round-the-clock curfews lasting for weeks and months. The district of Sur in Diyarbakir, where the recently restored Sourp Giragos Armenian Church is located and where I visited in June 2014, is now a blasted-out war zone under threat of an “urban renewal” project that is a combination of a construction boondoggle for Erdogan’s cronies and a “cleansing” program aimed at the PPK (The Kurdistan Workers Party), but also at poor and working class Kurds. The church itself has been slated for expropriation by the government.
Turkish nationalists inside and outside the government whipped up anti-Kurdish sentiment, accusing anyone who criticized the war on Kurdish cities and towns of supporting terrorism. Once again rumors spread purporting that members of the PKK were actually Armenians, those perennial traitors to the Turkish state.
Added to all this, there have been a number of bombing attacks, two claimed by ISIS in Istanbul tourist districts, one in Suruc, and one in Ankara attributed to an offshoot of the PKK. The Turkish government continues to play a double game with regard to the Syrian war, seeing the Kurdish YPG militants in Northern Syria who are fighting ISIS under U.S. protection as a bigger threat than ISIS itself. (Admittedly all the political actors involved in the Syrian Civil War are playing double and even triple games.)
In January academics in Turkey signed and circulated a peace petition entitled “We Will Not Be Party to This Crime,” denouncing the renewed state violence in the Kurdish southeast. Within days, a witch-hunt had started against the professors and graduate students who had signed the letter, with twenty-seven of them temporarily detained, and dozens suspended and fired from their jobs. International professional associations and many academic institutions sent letters and petitions to the Turkish government decrying this crackdown on academic freedom and free speech. But in March three professors were arrested and charged with “Propagandizing for a Terrorist Organization.” This week the arrested academics will go on trial in Istanbul, and a call for a social media solidarity campaign has gone out under the hashtag #RaiseYourPenForFreedom.
I decided I wouldn’t be going back to Istanbul or Diyarbakir this April; instead I’m heading to Beirut on a research trip for my current fiction project. Turkey’s democracy has been on a downward trajectory this year—sad for me from afar, but devastating for the Kurdish communities that have been subjected to brutal military siege, and frightening for the academics and journalists who are threatened and harassed for their dissent. As HDP’s co-chair Selahattan Demirtas put it in his New York Times op-ed last week, “By ending the peace process with the P.K.K., by creating a repressive security state, by shelving the rule of law and by cracking down on free speech, he is drowning what is left of Turkey’s democracy — making this country more susceptible to radicalism and internal conflict than ever.”
New York City
April 19, 2016