Anti-War Activism in Turkey
Ayse Gul Altinai, Turkey
February 4, 2003
Last week, Turkey witnessed an unusually spirited long weekend. There was action almost everywhere in the country starting Friday, January 24th. In expectation of the UN Weapons Inspectors’ reports, people from different political backgrounds and worldviews stood united against the war plans on Iraq. With significant international participation in some of the events during this "peace weekend‚" anti-war messages were conveyed in the streets, in city squares, in congress halls, in theatres, in music clubs as well as in the meeting rooms of the parliament. The motto was the same: Let us turn Ankara into the capital of peace.
Since last fall, Ankara has been a popular destination for top level US politicians, diplomats and Pentagon officials. This time the decision-makers in Ankara were made to feel a different kind of pressure coming from their own citizens, as well as a select group of peace activists from the USA, Britain, Israel, Yugoslavia, Greece, Sweden, Italy, and Germany.
Conscientious Objectors: A Rising Voice in the Turkish Peace Movement
One of the first events in this long "peace weekend‚" was a press conference by conscientious objectors at the Human Rights Association (HRA) in Istanbul. On Friday, 10 young men met at the HRA conference room to announce their objection to all wars and to military service in front of an audience of 60-70 human rights and peace activists. The common line in these individual declarations was the refusal to serve under any military, Turkish, American, or other. This message was particularly formulated in response to a popular slogan used in anti-war rallies in Turkey recently: "We refuse to be US soldiers." For this group of conscientious objectors, militaries were militaries. They were all trained to kill. Theirs was a refusal to supply the human power of all wars.
Although the declaration of conscientious objection has been recognized as part of the freedom of expression in recent legal cases, conscientious objection is not recognized as a right to opt out of military service in Turkey. Theoretically, a conscientious objector can spend a lifetime in the vicious cycle between the military courtroom, military prison and the barracks. In a country where conscription has been universal and mandatory for all citizens since 1927, the growing number of conscientious objectors is a new phenomenon, posing a unique line of resistance against the current war plans and the military in general, as well as introducing a new discussion to the political agenda, that of militarism and its connections to compulsory military service.
Turkey Meets International Peace Activists
At the same time as the press conference by conscientious objectors was being held, international peace activists were arriving at Istanbul’s busy Ataturk Airport. The renowned academic, writer and activist Norman Finkelstein, the Midwest coordinator of the September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, Ryan Amundson, and a peace activist with significant experience in the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war, Michael Simmons, were the first to arrive. All three were taken immediately to the TV studios of the national channels NTV, CNN-TURK and TV 8 for live interviews. Turkey was witnessing a unique gathering of "no-to-war!" voices from countries that were leading the war coalition.
In these interviews and in other talks throughout the weekend, Ryan Amundson, who lost his brother in the September 11 attacks, asked the Turkish government to resist the demands of his government, not only in the interests of the Turkish and Iraqi people, but in the interests of the American people. This war, Amundson feared, would make the US more susceptible to acts of terrorism. He was also worried about the loss of innocent lives in Iraq. "I know what it means for an object from the sky to come and kill a loved one. I don’t want anybody else to experience this," he said again and again. For Amundson, the world was not divided between good and evil, but between the two camps of violence and non-violence. He was urging Turkey to lead the non-violence camp against the Bush administration and the totalitarian, cruel Saddam regime simultaneously.
Professor Norman Finkelstein, writer of The Holocaust Industry (2000) and Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (1995) stressed the possible consequences of the war for the world at large. For Finkelstein, a war on Iraq would ignite the Middle East as a whole and have catastrophic consequences. "The whole world is watching Turkey," he said repeatedly, "to be honest, history is watching Turkey. The bottom line is: No Turkey, no war! Turkey’s decision in the next couple of weeks will be a historical decision which may lead the whole region into a catastrophic war, or be a turning point for the prevalence of peace and the use of non-violent means to solve world problems." Coming from a family of Holocaust survivors, Finkelstein said that he believed he was honoring the members of his family lost in the Second World War by asking for peace to prevail.
Michael Simmons, the current Director for the European Programs of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) was talking with more than 40 years of experience in peace and justice movements. From organizing African Americans for voter registration during the civil rights movements and serving in jail for 2.5 years for refusing the draft during the Vietnam war, to actively organizing programs for the Roma community in Central and Eastern Europe, Simmons had been involved in grassroots activism all his life. Turkey was able to surprise Simmons with its vibrant and committed body of peace activists. "Before coming here, I had no idea that I would find such active participation in such a diverse combination of peace events," he said. During his interviews and talks, Simmons emphasized the loud outcries against the war coming from the American public itself: "I would like you to know that there are millions of American citizens who are deeply disturbed and ashamed of the aggressive actions of the American government. We support and applaud your efforts to bring a peaceful solution to this crisis. We stand together in solidarity."
The Assembly of the 100s: A United Declaration for Peace
On Saturday, January 25th, there was an uncommon peace event in Istanbul’s most prestigious congress hall. The Assembly of the 100s, brought together 100 representatives from 20 professional groups (academics, writers, workers, artisans, engineers, lawyers, doctors, publishers and translators, cinema and theatre artists, business people, students, as well as "the unemployed") for a poignant series of anti-war statements to be followed by a joint declaration for peace. Organized by the Peace Initiative of Turkey, the three-hour long event started with the live performance of Konstantin Wecker, renowned anti-fascist, protest musician from Germany, and ended with the peace songs of a children’s choir. International participants who were also in Istanbul for this event, made short speeches to this vibrant audience of 2000.
The high profile participants from intelligentsia, politics and the arts, the organized voices of workers with their "no to war" caps, doctors, teachers, farmers, students, and the unemployed were united under a single slogan: No to war! They asked Ankara to hear the anti-war messages of its population and to "become the capital of peace, not the headquarters of war." According to the famous woman writer and peace activist Oya Baydar, "everybody was there" in this symbolically powerful assembly of Turkey’s different sectors.
The joint declaration for peace was read by one of Turkey’s prominent actresses, Macide Tanir: "We say NO TO WAR, with full awareness that it is the highest form of terror...We know that this war has no legitimacy in international law, it has no moral, humanitarian or conscientious grounds. Submission to the arrogant pressures of global despotism under the pretext of overthrowing local despots will have as destructive consequences for our country as it does for the world as a whole! If we do not say NO TO THIS WAR today, we, each and every one of us, each and every country, all institutions and establishments, shall, regardless of our reasons, be responsible and guilty before history and future generations. Yet, if we unite, as all the forces of peace who stand for peace, we can score a historic victory against this war. As the "Assembly of the Hundreds" representing the people of our country, we warn all authorized bodies and institutions in the world and in Turkey: Let Ankara be the capital of peace! Let us prevent this war when there still is a possibility of reaching a peaceful solution. Let peace and life prevail!"
As the Assembly of the 100s was meeting in Istanbul, anti-war demonstrations were taking place in other parts of Turkey. The "Peace Chain‚" in Izmir, created by more than 7,000 people holding hands with each other, was accompanied by arrival of the Peace Train (organized by the Human Rights Association) in Adana, the hometown of the major US base in Turkey. Perhaps not everybody was at the Assembly of the 100s, but all those who were not there were some place else with a loud and clear‚ anti-war message.
Anti-War Rally in Istanbul—New Face of Political Activism
The first major anti-war rally in Istanbul was organized by a coalition of more than 160 NGOs on December 1st. Bringing together a group of ten thousand people, this rally had witnessed the creative activism of gay groups, anarchists, and environmentalists. Chanting with drums and coin filled soda cans, a group of colorfully dressed youngsters were dancing: "We are anti-capitalists: We won’t kill, we won’t die, we won’t be anybody’s soldiers." Apart from the scenes of dancing and chanting by these groups, the rally had been like any other. Most of the participants were organized in groups, standing and walking behind a particular banner or group sign. It was a successful event which signaled what was to come: growing anti-war activism among the people of Turkey.
The anti-war rally on January 26th in Istanbul was quite different from the one on December 1st. Chanting and dancing were still there. So were the political groups that had been present in the earlier rally. But this time, there were many individuals who were there not because they belonged to a particular group, but because they wanted to raise a voice against the war. There were families with children who had come to the Beyazit Square to ask for an end to war plans. Little kids carrying signs which said, "children should not die." This time, the participation was also higher despite the announcements by the police in the days preceding the event that they would not allow this rally to take place. Close to fifteen thousand had taken the liberty to go to an unauthorized‚ rally and this time, many were on their own with home-produced banners.
Turkey’s laws, until recently, were quite strict on controlling any form of political action. Still governed by a constitution written by the military regime in 1982, Turkey amended parts of the constitution and the relevant laws to make them compatible with European Union legislations and the international treaties that it has signed. The death penalty was lifted as new laws that brought more liberties were passed. Whether it signals the road to more freedom and democracy in the country or is the outcome of the government’s efforts to remain in the peace camp, anti-war activism so far has not met significant backlash from state authorities.
Recounting the rally last Sunday, famous actor and TV star Mehmet Ali Alabora, was reminding everyone of the familiar scenes of police beating and violent clashes from previous rallies:
"I was at the very front lines of a group of about 2-3 thousand people. We were walking towards the square when we realized that the road was blocked by hundreds of police. The police chief was at the front. Having this many police is not unusual, of course. But this time something very unusual was about to take place. When we reached the police cordon, the police chief smiled, shook my hand and said ‘Welcome.’ He then signaled the police men and women to clear the road. In return, I pointed at the crown behind me and told him ‘They are all with me!’ And we passed."
Actor Mehmet Ali Alabora symbolizes the new face of political activism in Turkey: outside the domain of ideological divides, preaching and practicing non-violence, individualistic yet committed to political action and solidarity, humorous, creative, and persistent. Thousands of such individuals joined the politically organized leftist, liberal and Islamist groups last Sunday to cry out a single slogan: "No to War!"
International Peace Forum: Remember Your Humanity
Hours after the anti-war rally at Beyazit Square, Bogazici University, one of Turkey’s most prestigious universities on the other side of town, was the host of an international peace forum. Besides Norman Finkelstein, Ryan Amundson and Michael Simmons, participants from North America, Europe and Israel gave speeches on the prospects of war. Some had just come from Iraq, others had fresh memories of their own experiences with war.
Scilla Elworthy, the director of the Oxford Research Foundation and a three-time Nobel peace prize candidate, challenged everyone to come up with concrete alternatives to the current situation and asked governments to "treat their citizens as adults and openly discuss the price they have been asked to pay if they resist the US demands." Marijana Komarcevic, a member of the Women in Black in Belgrade, and Obrad Savic, a Milosevic opponent and alternative publisher, remembered their own experiences in war and asked for global demilitarization. So did Raya Rotem, war widow and member of the Bat Shalom women’s group in Israel: "I lost my husband in the Yom Kippur War. Since then, I have been struggling to bring peace and justice to Palestine and Israel. I don’t want the government to use my sorrow to bring more violence, death and suffering. A war in Iraq would mean more oppression of the Palestinians and a possible all-out war in the Middle East. We must stop this from happening before it is too late."
John Hipkin, spokesperson for Campeace, the Cambridge Campaign for Peace, explained their anti-war activism in Britain and stressed that they were trying to include everyone who was interested as equal partners in the struggle, and not as supporters‚ to the struggle: "There is something for everyone to do," he said. Dusan Bjelic, a criminologist from the University of Southern Maine, was a good example of this precise point. He had traveled to Iraq as part of a mission of 31 US academics to hold meetings with their Iraqi counterparts and politicians. Scilla Elworthy had done the same with a different group of NGO representatives and peace activists. They both drew attention to the current conditions in Iraq and the suffering of the Iraqi people under the embargo.
There was poetry and literary reading at the forum as well. Peter Curman and Jan Myrdal had traveled from Sweden to read from their works and to make anti-war statements. Jan Myrdal pointed out the possible catastrophic outcomes of this war for the whole world and asked for more democracy in the countries in the region. "A probable—but not as yet really inevitable—war. The popular majority in every country—except possibly the United States—are against the war. The governments that are to take part in the coalition will have to do so against the expressed will of their peoples. If Turkey refuses the war might—might!—be averted. If Turkey is not able to resist the United States, then war will be a reality. But the consequences both for the region and for Turkey itself will be grave. Also for us in Europe," he said. He also warned Turkey that with the opening of Pandora’s Box in the region, Turkey might become a divided country and lose its current borders. Yorgos Tolis, a medical doctor and professor from Greece, had come from Greece to join the forum and the Assembly of the 100s with his daughter and 100 signatures from Greek peace activists. "Best cure for any disease is prevention," he said. "We have to prevent this war from beginning!" Daniele Tramonti, an anti-militarist activist from l'Associazione Papa Giovanni XXIII, Italy, conveyed the same message and asked for more solidarity with people in conflict areas.
Among the contributions of Tony Simpson from the Bertrand Russell Foundation was a saying by Bertrand Russell, which was immediately picked up as a motto by Turkish peace activists: "Remember your humanity, forget the rest." The peace forum was concluded by the comments of Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s celebrated novelist, who stressed the need to develop a culture of peace‚ in Turkey.
Peace Night at Babylon Music Club
For many peace activists in Istanbul, this long weekend reached a peak at the Babylon Peace Night where anti-war messages from all over the world were read aloud, anti-war ad campaigns and films projected on the screen, and anti-war songs played live and from recordings. Statements by Harold Pinter, Noam Chomsky, and Woody Harrelson were accompanied by the poetry of Safai, Saul Williams, and Nazim Hikmet. Steps to Peace, an instrumental song composed by Derril Bodley (one of the founders of Peaceful Tomorrows) for his daughter who died in the World Trade Center, created one of the most sentimental moments during the peace night.
The Peace Song composed by the group Mor ve Otesi was performed for the first time on this night, first by the group itself and then by a collective of rap, rock, and alternative musicians. An excited audience joined the musicians in singing the song, reading the verses from the screen: "Whose side are you on? The side of oil or the side of life? First truth gets lost, then innocent lives. No reason, there is no reason for war." The CD of this anti-war song will come out in the coming weeks.
With an excellent organization, a beautiful presentation and a dynamic audience, the Peace Night provided a unique combination of joy and serious political talk. As one of the American participants said, "This is a great way of getting the young people involved. We should organize more political events of this kind."
Back to High Politics: Meetings with Officials in Ankara
On Monday January 27th, a delegation composed of international and Turkish peace activists visited the Deputy Prime Minister Ertugrul Yalcinbayir, the Speaker of the Parliament Bulent Arinc, and the Chair of the Parliamentary Human Rights Commission Mehmet Elkatmis, handing them written peace statements (including the verses of the brand new Peace Song) and urging them to clarify their position in relation to the war plans. All three politicians listened to the members of the delegation and shared their anti-war sentiments. "I hope that we will not even have to vote on this issue in the parliament," said Speaker Arinc, "but if we do, I am confident that a majority of the members will vote no‚ to war."
The Deputy Prime Minister Yalcinbayir, was visibly touched by Ryan Amundson and the peaceful efforts of the September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. He asked the American government to think of the Iraqi children as their own children and then decide on the war. He also said that when it was time for him and his fellow parliamentarians to decide they would "remember our humanity and vote accordingly. We will remember that we have children and that the Iraqis have children. We will remember that they are first and foremost human beings. Yalcinbayir defined Iraq as a surrendered party and added: " Iraq has already agreed to UN Inspections. This is a modern form of surrender. Why does the USA want to strike to a surrendered party? What is their aim?"
Chair of the Human Rights Commission Elkatmis reminded the group that his commission had issued an anti-war statement in its first meeting in December. He had publicly declared that he would vote no‚ to war when the issue was brought to the parliament. "Today’s wars not only kill innocent people when the bombs are dropped, but the coming generations of innocent people as well." He was alluding to the use of radioactive material in the form of depleted uranium in contemporary US weapons and the rising rates of cancer among Iraqi children in the areas bombed during the 1991 Gulf War.
Ankara on the Brink of a Decision
The Turkish parliament will be voting on two major proposals in the coming week. 550 members of the parliament will decide whether or not to give mandate to the government to 1) permit the deployment of US soldiers in Turkey, and 2) send Turkish soldiers to Iraq. What will the decision be? We will all have to wait and see.
Like elsewhere in the world, the mainstream media has been preparing the public for entry into the war. The underlying assumption of all news coverage‚ has been that the war is inevitable and that Turkey cannot afford to stay out it.
This message has been challenged by an equally determined message coming from peace activists that Turkey (and the world) cannot afford to go to war! Thousands have been meeting in the streets and meeting halls, millions signing petitions, and about 60 million opposing the war.
Will the Turkish parliament listen to these voices, remember their humanity and forget the rest? The answer to this question will determine the fate of not only Turkey, but Iraq and the whole world. As Professor Finkelstein remarked several times last week, "History is watching us."
An anti-militarist activist, Ayse Gul Altinai was one of the organizers of the Peace Weekend events. For the full text of their International Action Alert, write to Email.