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Trying to Stop the Other Invasion of Iraq

Inside Turkey's risky anti-war movement.

By Cam Sylvester 14 Nov 2007 |

Cam Sylvester, a professor of international relations at Capilano College in North Vancouver, is traveling and researching in Turkey.

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Anti-war protest in Istanbul.

In a country where most homes sport a bondcuk, the blue glass amulet believed to ward off the evil eye, Mehmet is seemingly free of superstitions. Except for one. The number 301 gives him the heebee geebees.

And with good reason. Article 301 of the Turkish Penal code makes the "public denigration of Turkishness" punishable for up to three years in prison. As a prominent member of the anti-war movement in this country, Mehmet knows all too well that the line between political dissent and affronting "Turkishness" is a dangerous one to walk, especially since it wobbles wildly at the government's whim.

"Article 301 is something you think about a lot because people are regularly charged," Mehmet tells me as his wife Zuleyha spoons out tarhana soup at their apartment in Izmir, a port city on the Aegean.

He then lists off those charged of late, an inventory mirroring Amnesty International's, including author and Nobel laureate, Orhan Pamuk, and Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, assassinated in Istanbul in January 2007. When photos surfaced of smiling Turkish police officers posing in front of a Turkish flag with the 17-year-old Turkish nationalist charged with Dink's murder, there were more than a few red faces.

'Whipped up fervor'

These days it's Mehmet's city that's flushed with red. Walk along the Kordon, Izmir's picturesque seawall, and it seems every wall, every balcony, every taxi is waving a Turkish flag. They first appeared on Oct. 29th, Turkish National Day. But by all accounts many more are flying than previous years, and unlike other years, they haven't been packed away after a few days.

"The country has been whipped up into another nationalistic fever," Ozge, another anti-war activist told me a few days ago in Istanbul. "It has happened many times before, and it will happen again."

This time, the impetus was the death of nearly 40 soldiers in rebel attacks by the outlawed Kurdish Worker Party (PKK) over the last month. The PKK, with bases in Iraq, have been ambushing Turkish soldiers since 1984 when they began calling for a separate state for the Kurds, a nation spread over five states, one half of whom (about 15 million) reside in Turkey. Since then an estimated 37,000 Kurds have perished at the hands of the PKK and the Turkish military. In October, the Turkish parliament voted 507 to 19 in favor of a motion giving the government of PM Tayyip Erdogan the thumbs up to invade northern Iraq to hunt down the PKK.

This fed the frenzy, but raised the hackles of the Kurds in Turkey, the semi-autonomous Kurdish government in northern Iraq, the Iraqi national government, and George Bush himself, who dispensed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Ankara, and summoned Erdogan to Washington last week.

Calls to invade

On Saturday, the Kordon was crammed with Turks calling on the government to make good on the motion and invade. Marchers included men carry placards with the photos of dead soldiers, women in burkas (a rare sight in this officially secular country) and children wearing headbands with the words "I follow Ataturk," the revered former leader of the country. The peddlers selling balloon versions of the Turkish flag were doing a brisk business.

Simultaneously, 600 miles to the east in Ankara, anti-war activists were staging a rally in Shihhiye Square. Mehmet and Zuleyha were there, walking that wonky 301 line again with 40,000 other protesters carrying signs that read "Solve the Kurdish Problem in a Political Way," and "Don't Send Our Soldiers There."

Like Mehmet and Zuleyha, most rode the overnight bus on Friday, marched on Saturday, and returned to their homes around the country by overnight bus on Sunday. "Of course, we did have time to have a drink with old friends before we got back on those busses," Mehmet tells me. "I even ran into my sister."

Unions fueling demonstrations

Ironically, the original reason for the march wasn't to demonstrate against the possible invasion.

"The Confederation of Trade Unions of Public Employees, the Union of Turkish Chambers of Engineers and Architects, and the Turkish Union of Physicians had called for this rally months ago because with this government we can always find something to demonstrate against," Mehmet says mischievously.

"Originally we were demonstrating for a new free and democratic constitution. But with all the talk about invading Iraq, we changed the focus of the march to anti-war." And in another ironic twist, by deploying as many as 100,000 troops to the south-east border, the Turkish government seems to have given itself the evil eye.

Invading Iraq would upset the Americans and seriously impact Turkey's tenuous application for EU membership (made more tenuous by the existence of Article 301, which the EU is calling on Turkey to rescind before any membership application can go forward. All previous forays into northern Iraq to chase down the PKK have gummed up in the mountainous terrain. Worse, they've only served to help the PKK recruit more members.

But now that the population is whipped into a nationalistic, anti-Kurd frenzy, Erdogan's legitimacy would suffer if he doesn't invade, or at least put on the show of an invasion by bombing a few PKK bases. He seems to be clinging to the dubious strategy of getting the U.S. to believe he actually will invade, forcing the Bush administration to put further pressure on the Iraqi national government and the semi-autonomous Kurdish government to clamp down on the PKK.

Catch 301?

Still, if Erdogan really did want to ward of this evil eye of his own making, he does have a bondcuk available: the negotiated settlement called for by Mehmet's anti-war colleagues. Such an unlikely outcome would, of course, raise an interesting legal question: if Erdogan's government publicly questioned its own policy and turned its back on adopting the tediously inept logic of the blunt military solution, would it then have to charge itself with the denigration of Turkishness under Article 301?

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