A Turkish Spring? Freedom To Decide, Freedom To Remember

Spring is a time for optimism and so, despite all the troubling news coming out of Turkey, let me call attention to some positive signs.

The week started badly, when the Turkish Higher Election Board declared that a number of mostly Kurdish candidates for parliament, including Leyla Zana and other former prisoners of conscience, had been disqualified from running.   The decision led to massive protests in Istanbul, Van, Diyarbakir, and elsewhere. In the wake of these protests, however, the Higher Election Board has reversed itself and most, if not all, of the candidates, including Ms. Zana, will be able to run for office.

The coming week promises an event which holds reason for optimism of another sort: on Monday, April 24th a number of Turkish NGOs, will be holding a march to commemorate the Armenian Genocide and call attention to continued issues of bigotry in Turkey. This brave action is a part of a larger effort to deal forthrightly with Turkey’s past.  For example, in ways that were unimaginable only ten years ago, there are now open discussions of the Turkey’s open warfare against the Kurds of Dersim in 1937 – 38, which left tens of thousands killed and uprooted many thousands more.  What is particularly remarkable about these discussions, which have gone on for decades in intellectual circles is that they are now entering into the popular consciousness: as one taboo falters, others are weakened.

More recent history, too, is being addressed.  Prosecutors are examining the coup d’état of 1980 to see if criminal charges are possible.  Such an examination would be a landmark of accountability in Turkey and hold the possibility of further investigations into torture and extra-judicial killings that have been a continuing legacy of that dark era.

Of course, these debates are still on the margins and discussion of them can still run afoul of popular hysteria, shadowy violence, or the courts.   In 2007, Hrant Dink, an Armenian journalist was murdered and the initial investigation points to ties between his teen assassin and members of the security services.  A monument erected in honor of Turkish-Armenian reconciliation is being destroyed at the behest of the government.  A prominent Turkish artist who spoke in defense of the monument was stabbed.  The Turkish government still defends an “official history” that is intolerant of criticism.  Publishers of “controversial” works, like Ragip Zarakoglu, continue to be targeted by the  courts.  And, of course, by some counts, Turkey still has more journalists in jail than any other country in the world.

Yet at some level, one feels hope that change is slowly occurring, that change is possible.  Perhaps it is just the warmth of Spring.

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