Lebanon under my skin

Lebanon got under my skin.

It was not the beauty of the place. Beirut is a city with little to discover for the classical tourist. One can walk along the Corniche – the boulevard along the Mediterranean coast. One can spend time getting lost in the shopping streets of Muslim West Beirut. One can eat in good French restaurants in the Christian quarter. On Saturday evening all the outdoor tables of the many restaurants in the rebuilt downtown are full with people, many smoking water pipes. All of this is nice, the weather in October is glorious, but the sights hardly compare with Istanbul or Thessaloniki: not the walks along the water, not the shops, not even the restaurants and cafes.

What transforms this city into something remarkable is not what one can see but the stories that cling to every building: it is discovering the downtown’s pre-war history, its war-time fate and the remarkable story of its reconstruction after 1990 (which is still ongoing), that turns sitting here into an exercise of rubbing Aladin’s lamp. Ghosts quickly appear, and take one on trips to the past and future.

First one finds oneself in the middle of a pleasing yet “sterile urban ideal of cobble-stoned streets, art galleries and boutiques” (Nicholas Blanford): the present. Then one sees oneself sitting on top of an archeological goldmine, with Roman roads, Greek mosaics, Phoenician burial chambers: the distant past. The next image is of this very same place looking like “a wasteland of shell-scarred ruins and overgrown streets, inhabited by families of destitute squatters and packs of prowling wild dogs”: the downtown two decades ago. Then “countless bullet holes pitted the sandstone facades of Ottoman-era houses lining streets named after First World War generals such as Foch, Weygand and Allenby” (Nicholas Blanford in his gripping “Killing Mr. Lebanon”). I look up and see that the elegant shopping street where I sit is still named after Allenby today.

On Saturday I drive to Byblos. This is one of the oldest towns in the world, on the coast north of Beirut. It was one of the obvious tourist attractions when a 2-day visit to Lebanon was still part of most package tours to the Middle East. Tourists would be shown the remains of a crusader castle and a 12th century church, some Ottoman buildings, and a little harbor going back to Phoenician times. A picturesque and interesting site, definitely worth an excursion but hardly warranting a special trip. Today there are very few tourists, however. I learn in Byblos that most EU embassies have put out a travel warning for Lebanon, so tour operators coming to Syria do not dare to come here at the moment.

What fascinates me more than the old remains is the drive from Beirut to Byblos (Jbeil in Arabic): the chaotic and dense construction along the coast, the obvious lack of urban planning, coinciding with the construction of shopping centres, casinos and nightclubs: a “glittering and shallow facade of ersatz Westernization for rich Arab tourists”, as one author unkindly calls it. The Beirut metropolitan area does not end north or south of the city itself. Kosovo is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, with some 2 million people living on 10,000 km2. However, in Lebanon there are 4 million people living in a territory of the same size as Kosovo. This is a very crowded place indeed.

The area north of Beirut is largely populated by Christians. Lebanon’s current president (who is always a Maronite Christian) comes from here (the Maronites are the largest Christian group). Here, as in East Beirut, one can see evidence of Christian life everywhere: pictures of the Virgin, statutes of saints, signs pointing to educational establishments run by religious orders.

Lebanon is not only crowded; its population is also – proverbially – extremely diverse. It was the strong presence of the Maronites in the region of Mount Lebanon which led the French to create Lebanon as a separate country, severing it from Syria when both were a French protectorate. This explains one cause of Lebanon’s recent turmoil: a Syrian reluctance to accept Lebanon as a fully sovereign neighbour. Damascus is only some 30 kilometers away from the Lebanese border, and friends tell me that it takes less than 2 hours to drive there from Beirut.

Lebanon’s diversity has been a source of tensions throughout its modern history. Who should be in charge? How is power to be divided between different sects, Christians and Muslims, Sunnis and Shiites, Druze, Armenians, smaller Arab Christians groups and the very large number of Palestinian refugees? The formula found to share power was “confessionalism”, based on a very rough idea how many people of different faiths lived in the country. And since demographic balances change over time, it was decided early on to stop counting the ethnic make-up: ignorance was to be a solution where too much knowledge was dangerous.

In her book Bring down the Walls Carole H. Dagher describes the demographic evolution. The last official census was undertaken in 1932: then there were 32,4 percent Christian Maronites, 9.8 percent Greek Orthodox, 5.9 percent Greek Catholics as well as 22.4 percent Sunnis, 19.6 percent Shiites and 6.5 percent Druze (plus other smaller groups).

By 1990 the total number of Christians had fallen to 43 percent, plus another 29 percent Shiites, 24 percent Sunnis and 4 percent Druze. These figures do not include some three to four hundred thousand (mostly Muslim) Palestinian refugees, nor a large number of guest workers from Syria. It is due to this “fragile balance” that even the descendants of Palestinian refugees who arrived in 1948 have not been given citizenship or other basic rights (such as owning property) in Lebanon. This was an obvious second major cause of instability in recent decades: the uncertain relation between Lebanese society and these refugees, and the direct link this created between Lebanese politics and the wider Arab-Israeli conflict (triggering a number of Israeli interventions).

And yet, comparing population figures from the beginning and the end of the 20th century, one remarkable fact stands out: how little has changed.

By the standards of the early 20th century Beirut was a normal Ottoman town: a city with an ethnic variety similar to Istanbul, Izmir, Jerusalem or Thessaloniki. By today’s standards Beirut boasts an almost uniquely mixed Christian-Muslim population. In most other places, including Mediterranean Europe, such diversity was destroyed in the 20th century. In Beirut it survived.

Visiting this city today is thus to travel back in time to the communal organisation of Ottoman times. As Charles Winslow wrote: “People in the Middle East must not only learn to live with differences but also must institutionalise the means of doing so … the individual needs security at the communal level, something parallel to what the old Ottoman millet system used to provide.” Sectarianism remains very much alive today, even though the Taif accord, which ended the war in 1990, had called for the “phased abolition of political sectarianism.”

Walking through Beirut I begun to wonder: was this what Istanbul “felt” like one century ago, when it was still a city with a large Christian population? When villages along the Bosporus were populated by Greeks and Armenians and when today’s Bosphorus university was run by American protestants? When the legacies of the millet system were still visible?

It is difficult to feel romantic about Beirut’s diversity, even if it is impossible not to be fascinated by it. Everywhere there are reminders of a recent history of inter-religious conflict as much as of millenia of coexistence. Opening the English or French daily papers, one reads about continuing tensions which confound all easy categorisation: there is a history of Muslims fighting Muslims, of Christian militias fighting other Christians. The crisis of this moment is one pitting Salafist Sunnis near the Northern city of Tripoli against other, more moderate, Sunnis and the government (as one recent Carnegie Paper on “Lebanon’s Sunni Islamists” describes well). At the same time, throughout most recent conflicts, the large Armenian community in East Beirut also managed to stay neutral in the confessional battles of recent decades.

[As elsewhere, I wonder if Samuel Huntington has ever actually set foot in Lebanon: he could not have possibly have come up with his theory of the clash of civilisations in light of this particular complex story]

In fact, visiting today’s Lebanon is a bit like visiting a modern-day Al Andalus … only without the romanticism that comes with the distance of time. A place where the meeting and mingling of cultures and religions can be observed without any certainty about the next chapter in an open-ended story of coping with diversity. And as in the case of medieval Spain there is a sense that the fate of multi-confessional Lebanon, like that of multi-confessional Bosnia, matters in a wider sense.

Carole Dagher concludes her book Bring Down the Walls with a reference to the “mission” of Lebanon:

“Its challenge illustrates somehow the challenge of the entire region. The failure of the Lebanese would mean the failure of a meaningful experiment in the Arab world to manage religious pluralism and cultural diversity, and to institutionalize freedom, equality, respect and participation for all. It would deprive the Arab world of a model it could relate to, reminiscent of its lost Andalus.”

The history of medieval Spain was a history as much of interaction as of conflict. There were local struggles, manipulated and even instigated by outsiders; crusading Christians in the North and fanatical North African rulers in the South played their part in the eventual destruction of a unique culture. But today Andalus is a myth, no less than its hero, the mercenary El Cid.

Multiethnic Beirut is a reality; the fate and future of this modern millet system a matter of war and peace. Beirut is Mark Mazower’s Thessaloniki without being a city of ghosts: a place where different confessions continue to live together as they did a century ago. It is a mirror of a universal promise, and having looked into it, it becomes hard to tear oneself away.

It is on my way to the airport that I finish another little book, recommended by a friend: Mai Ghoussoub’s Leaving Beirut. If there is one book on Lebanon that I have come across these days and that I would recommend to you to read it is this one: an ingenious personal reflection by a Lebanese writer, artist and activist on the urge for revenge after horrendous crimes, on slippery notions such as honour and treason in times of conflict. It is a very rich book and I will return to it later, but let me conclude my description of what I saw in the mirror of Beirut with Ghassoub’s case study of Lebanese reconciliation:

“In Lebanon, in 1994, the victims of a massacre in the Chouf area were invited to participate in a three-day conference on Acknowledgement, Forgiveness and Reconciliation – Alternative approaches to conflict resolution in Lebanon. The village concerned, Maasir al-Chouf, a Christian enclave in a Druze-dominated area, had lived in peace for the major part of the civil war. So much so that a few days before the massacre, a number of French journalists, invited to visit this haven of civil coexistence between two rival communities, had rushed home to write articles under headlines such as “Peace is still possible in Lebanon”, illustrated with big pictures of hte local priest and the Druze sheikh shaking hands and smiling.”

The journalists wrote their articles on 7 March 1977. On 16 March, following the death of Kemal Jumblatt, Druze armed men opened fire on Christian houses in Maasir al Chouf. …

In this conference for reconciliation, designed to encourage the relocation of the Christian refugees in their village of Maasir, the victims of the violence made a statement: ‘We buried our dead with dignity, we transcended our wounds and we forgave … The state wants time to work towards a solution: time would weakend resentment, and the effect of forgetting would be that the demands for justice would recede. We, the victims , are not asking for the impossible. but we refuse to be ignored, neglected and subjected to a fait accompli. We insist on our right to return to our village and our land. … at the same time, we believe in the logic of coexistence.'”

And here it was: the echo of Bosnia’s displaced, one decade ago, asking to return to their homes in Central Bosnia, in Herzegovina, in Republika Srpska. The universal dilemma of forgiveness after conflict, of the struggle for justice, while trying to build a viable future at the same time.

Leaving Beirut this Sunday morning, I felt that I would soon be back.

And that, in fact, we have all been here before.

Beirut Place d’Etoile

It is my prefered routine upon arriving in a new, unknown city: First, drop all luggage at the hotel. Second, take a taxi to the nearest foreign language bookstore. Third, find a nice cafe in the city centre to read through the pile of new books on the country in question. Forth, go for a walk, get lost in the city, take a taxi to criss cross the town from one end to the next. Then meet people who live here from all walks of life.

This is how I ended up here: in the rebuilt downtown of Beirut, on the Place d’Etoile in an outdoor cafe, opposite the Lebanese Parliament. Before me a stack of books: “At home in Beirut – a practical guide to living in the Lebanese capital”, “Lebanese cinema”, “Paradise divided”, “Refik Hariri and the fate of Lebanon”, a few books on the history of Lebanon, two books on the Lebanese Hizbollah, and one collection of speeches by Hizbollah leader Nasrallah. In addition a map of Lebanon, a few policy papers by the Carnegie Middle East Centre and Oliver Roy’s “The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East.”

The weather is perfect to sit outside. The downtown is quiet: the only sounds one hears are the chattering of some neighbours on the other tables in the cafe – mixing Arabic, English and French words within every other sentence – and some children playing football under the bored glances of the soldiers near the clock tower. This peace is also due to the fact that cars are not allowed to enter this area. Guards with machine guns control everyone walking through checkpoints before one reaches the Place d’Etoile and the downtown area. There are numerous check points in the city still, soldiers standing in front of little wooden guard houses, like those outside royal palaces in EU capitals, painted in the Lebanese colours and boasting the cedar flag. On the way here I also saw two tanks alongside the road and numerous gaps in the architecture of the town, plus a few houses still riddled with bullet holes. However, considering that this downtown area was for almost 15 years the fought-over green line, dividing majority Muslim West Beirut from mainly Christian (Arab Christian and Armenian) East Beirut, there are few traces of the distant war. And the area around the parliament is full of glittery cafes, with outdoor tables and fancy restaurants next to a Christian church and, behind it, a new Ottoman style mosque.

I have come to Beirut to give a talk on Turkey’s Muslim Democrats at the Carnegie Middle East Centre; to do interviews to better understand Turkey’s new foreign policy in the Middle East; and to satisfy my basic curiosity about a country that has been in the news so often since my childhood, with reports of war and assassinations, that I have started to wonder how any peaceful life was possible here. I realise that this is also how people in the rest of the world might feel about the Balkans, an area which has superficially a lot in common with Lebanon: the Ottoman past, different Christian denominations living among Muslims, a tradition of outsiders interfering in domestic politics and a very bad international image. And as one Lebanese asks me, when I explain that I have worked for many years in the Balkans: “Why are people in the Balkans getting on so badly? Here, at least, tensions are at the political level, not on the level of the religious communities, which are getting on more or less well.”

It is an interesting shift in perspective. Of course, Lebanon’s reputation for instability even now is not undeserved. Only this year in May there was fighting between the Shiit Hizbullah and government forces in the very centre of Beirut. The last real war which saw the bombardment of Beirut took place in summer 2006 (when Israel attacked Lebanon in its struggle against Hizbullah). And the string of recent political assassinations, including that of Mr. Lebanon, long-time prime minister Rafik Hariri, in 2005, is worse than anything that one has recently seen anywhere in the Balkans.

So Lebanon is a perplexing case: a deeply imperfect example of a multicultural democracy. But a democracy it is, the most liberal place in the Arab world, and a true patchwork of ethnic and religious identities despite a 15 year horrendous civil war that only ended in 1990. As Paul Salem, director of the local Carnegie Centre, writes in a not yet published book “Lebanon’s quick return to normalcy is proof that failed states – even failed nations, in a sense – may be historically bound phenomena and that failed states, under certain conditions, can succeed again.” For somebody interested in how to manage ethnic and religious diversity in a small country this is indeed an extremely interesting case study.

The muezzin calls to prayer from the nearby mosque. I turn to the practical guide on living in Beirut to get a sense of what everyday life in the city is like. P. 52, security: “Beirut is a relatively safe place. Women walk around during the day dripping in gold jewelery and diamonds with little or no threat to their safety.” Page 40, Adapting to life: “There are few other places in the world where you will come across such a fascinating mix of cultural identities. It thrives on diversity.” Descriptions of different neighbourhoods: Hamra, the “busy shopping street close to the American University in Beirut”; Ashrafieh, a “European style inner city environment”; Rabieh, “luxurious apartments and villas nestled on the wooded slopes”; Khaled, a busy southern suburb where “rental prices are reasonable.” There is a 20 page section with activities for childen, and a long list of international schools. The first impression this guide gives is not of a city teetering on the edge of intercommunal tensions.

On the contrary: a few hours later I meet a friend, posted in Beirut as diplomat, who attempts to persuade me that this is the best possible city to live and to bring up one’s children. Learning that I am wondering wether to relocate eventually from Istanbul to Paris, he objects: why Paris? Why not Beirut? Better weather, good schools, a multilingual environment, a buzzling, endlessly interesting city full of entrepreneurial energy …

I am left baffled. This was not what I had expected to find here. And I think of those uninformed visitors who probably have the same experience coming to Tirana for the first time …

Then, scratching the surface a little, I turn to my other books. “All Lebanese films seemed to be about the Civil War in one way or another”, I read. Sectarianism continues to thrive, the author notes, and this has influenced all post-war Lebanese cinema, “consumed by a feeling of loss and emptiness, where violence lurks at every corner.” And the author continues: “suddenly I realized that Lebanese cinema’s obsession with the war was more than simply that. It was as if the cinema was warning us against the inevitability of what was to come.” And it came: 10 days in May 2008 saw the worst sectarian fighting since the Civil War: “those 10 days in May saw more than 80 people killed and 200 wounded, the takeover of most of Beirut by Hizbullah militants and their allies and street fighting between militiamen of different factions … a nightmarish reminder of the days of the Civil War, where a person’s sect could determine whether they lived or died.”

Yes, my diplomat friend would add later in the evening, there was one (slight) draw-back to settling in Beirut: one should expect that every year there might be a short security crisis, a few days when it is better not to leave the appartment with one’s family, and when armed people might roam around the streets and shot. But these crises would pass, and even then, all depended on where in the city one had one’s apartment.

Is this enduring instability simply a by-product of the complex communal organisation of Lebanese society, with 18 recognised religious communities, a history of tensions, and many weapons? Or is it above all the unfortunate product of wider conflicts in the neighbourhood, from Sunni-Shia tensions elsewhere to the rivalries between the US and Iran, Israel and Syria? I realise, perusing through the other literature, that even reading all the books on my table will not allow me to come to a tenative conclusion. But this is not my ambition, and it would be a foolish one to begin with.

Instead, I note some questions that I hope to find out more about.

  1. Given that the country is run along confessional lines, with all family matters settled by the religious courts of the 18 recognized denominations, how does this work in practice: and what does it mean in particular for women in this society?
  2. How does this economy actually function … in a society that is largely urban, with no raw materials, having received very little outside assistance for reconstruction following its own civil war? (one book notes that “Lebanon’s main asset is its educated, westernized and multilingual population.” Another notes the huge influence of the diaspora)
  3. What is the relationship between democracy and the confessional system, allocating positions, according to a complex key, to all 18 communities? What is the prize paid in terms of good governance of not having dared to have another census since the 1930s? How does this confessional system work on the level of local government, for instance in Beirut?
  4. Given the complex politics of this society, and the many outsiders who are tempted to try to shape it, what is really the influence of the European Union on events and local actors … if there is any? And then, my main question: what role is there for Turkey?

The first day in a new country is successful if it leaves one thoroughly baffled, with a string of articulated questions that relate to the burning issues one cares about most, and with a growing appetite to find out more. By the time I return to my hotel in the evening, this has turned into a very successful first day.

Taraf, the military and taking sides


Freedom of speech is a fundamental value in the European Union. It is also one of the basic Copenhagen criteria of human rights that Turkey continues to have problems with. However, recent months have seen many examples when, across the Turkish media scene, taboos were challenged and even the most powerful state institutions, such as the Turkish military, were critiziced.

Taraf, a young newspaper set up in late 2007, has been at the forefront of such open debates. On the case against the Ergenekon network. On the military. On the closure case against the governing AKP. And recently again in the context of the attack in South East Anatolia on a military post in Aktutun by the Kurdish terrorist PKK, which caused 17 deaths of Turkish soldiers.

A few days ago Taraf published on its frontpage a number of photos suggesting very serious problems and shortcomings in the context of this battle with the PKK. As one Turkish paper noted:

The images published by Taraf clearly showed figures approaching the area through the northern Iraqi border. Images from Oct. 3, taken from an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), show a group of individuals laying mines at around 9:35 a.m. local time, about three-and-a-half hours before the attack. The group gets larger in the following images as more and more of these individuals — who eventually attack the outpost — take their positions on hilltops in preparation for the attack. The UAV camera then switches to the Aktütün military outpost, where the attack occurred. The terrorist raid, which killed 17 young soldiers, was literally broadcast live on General Staff monitors. Taraf said this is concrete evidence that the security forces had been informed about every move made by the PKK terrorists. Taraf also claimed that the General Staff actually had intelligence about the plans for the attack one month before it occurred. On the day of the attack, live UAV images were transmitted for hours to the Electronic Systems Command of the General Staff, as well as to a monitor in the office of the deputy chief of general staff in the capital.

This was not the first time that Taraf raised uncomfortable questions about PKK attacks on military installations. In 2007 there had been an attack in Daglica in South East Anatolia which had then triggered an invastion of Northern Iraq:

In both the Aktütün and Dağlıca raids, there was evidence suggesting that military commands had intelligence about the plans of the terrorists to attack. The investigation into the Dağlıca attack, which took place in October 2007, revealed that the General Staff had been tipped off about the plan nine days ahead of the assault. According to Taraf’s reports and earlier allegations raised in the Aktütün raid, military units had been informed about the plans at least 10 days ahead of the incident.

The Taraf article led to a very strong warning against the paper and its journalists by the top military commanders. Flanked by four top generals, Chief of General Staff Gen. İlker Basbug attacked the media for publishing confidential information revealing that the army had known in advance about a deadly attack on a military outpost. This sparked an outcry that media freedoms were under attack:

In a rare appearance with commanders of the land and air forces, the gendarmerie and the education and doctrine unit, an angry Başbuğ said the military was taking legal action over the leak of reports on the attack of Oct. 3, which killed 17 soldiers. Liberal newspaper Taraf published classified aerial images on Tuesday showing outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorists preparing for the attack hours before they hit the outpost with heavy weaponry.

“This is my last word: I invite everyone to be careful and to stand in the right position,” Başbuğ told a hastily arranged press conference in the northwestern province of Balıkesir, where he was attending a routine military ceremony. Journalists were flown to Balıkesir from Ankara on two planes, and the brief conference was broadcast live on television. “Those who present the actions of the separatist terrorist organization as successful acts are responsible for the blood that has been shed and will be shed.”

The reaction by Taraf and other journalists was equally strong: there would be no backing down from asking the military even uncomfortable questions:

The liberal daily Taraf, a target of accusations from the military after publishing leaked documents concerning a deadly attack on a military outpost earlier this month, vowed to continue publishing similar documents as long as they are reliable and urged the military to respond to critical questions raised by its reporting.

“Are Taraf’s reports, reprinted widely by other newspapers on Wednesday and showing that the army had known about the attack, true? Is it true that images transmitted from unmanned aerial vehicles were almost watched live at the General Staff headquarters? These are the questions to which the public is awaiting answers,” said Yasemin Çongar, deputy editor-in-chief of Taraf. She said a strongly worded statement about Taraf’s report on Tuesday, indirectly accusing the paper of praising the PKK’s actions, was “threatening” and appeared to be a “command” to the media on what to report.

“I don’t understand why democratic criticism is considered an attack. Gathering the top commanders and holding conferences to scare people like that will only upset everyone,” said Mehmet Altan, chief columnist for Star daily. “Everyone should do their job in the best way they can. We, however, have very serious indications that the job was not done in the optimal way.”

Yasemin Congar

I met Yasemin Congar as part of the research for the documentary on Istanbul in the Taraf offices in Kadikoy in July 2008. Following the interview I felt that this deserved to be shared in a longer version with a broader audience. It offers important insights into the workings of a daily paper that had become, in a very short period of time, one of the power brokers in Turkey during 2008. Turkey might have developed very differently in the past months without the journalism at Taraf.
GK: Why is your newspaper called „Taraf”?

YC: “Taraf” means “taking sides” and we do take sides. We believe in the objectivity of journalism, going to several sources about a story, checking and verifying all the facts in a story. But we do not believe in not taking sides when it comes to issues of human rights, democracy and basic freedoms in Turkey or in the world, or war and peace questions. So we do take the side of democracy and human rights. It is very much of an opinionated paper and we don’t hide that and wanted it to be reflected in our name as well. One other thing we take a side on is nationalism. We are not nationalist, we are internationalist and we are very clear about that.

GK: Who writes for Taraf?

YC: People like myself. I have been a journalist for about 25 years now and I worked for the “big” media in Turkey for many, many years, but I call myself a democrat and I always had a longing for an independent newspaper, independent of other business interests, independent of government, independent of religious groups – independent of all kinds of powers and centres of power.

One of our chief editors is a bestselling novelist of Turkey. Other people who work for us, mostly very young journalists, are all aware that Turkey needs a newspaper like Taraf. I don’t remember – certainly not in my lifetime – that there has been a paper that is really truly independent from business interests, from political interests, from the government the military and that is also courageous enough to criticize all those centres of power equally. Traditionally in the Turkish press institutions like the military, for example, have been a big taboo, you don’t criticize them, you don’t say anything against them.

GK: Last year, there was a magazine, Nokta, that tried to do something different, publishing leaked documents from the military about plans for a coup in 2004. In the end Nokta gave up and closed down. Is this experience, of tackling a taboo and then closing down – also in the back of the minds of people here?

YC: We have difficulties and we are aware of the risks for sure. Nokta is a good example. Nokta’s former chief editor is now a columnist for Taraf. Many of Nokta’s correspondents now work for Taraf. Nokta was not very lucky. There was a lot of pressure, financial pressure for a small institution and it had to close down. We have similar financial pressures. So we have to really be on our two feet and basically depend on the circulation and our sales. And it’s not easy. That’s why we are a very small paper. We have about 70 people on our staff. You and I are talking on the fourth floor of a bookstore now. That bookstore is owned by our publisher but it’s just one floor and editors are sharing rooms. So, we are cutting our expenses. We are trying to hopefully attract more advertising to support the paper. But there is also, of course, political pressure. We are here to use our legal rights to the end – legal rights that are defined in the press law of Turkey and in the constitution of Turkey, however backward it is and however undemocratic it is, still there are rights and freedoms there to be used to the end.

Yasemin Congar

What we don’t do is self-censorship – that is really the biggest impediment to good journalism in Turkey. Yes, there is pressure, yes, there are all these links and ties to different interest groups, but there is also the tradition of self-censorship. Because you do not want to hurt the government, you do not want to hurt the military, that person, that company, that businessman – you end up limiting what you write. You end up sitting on documents when there are leaks. You just have them in your drawer in your desk. That’s not what we do. If we get them, if we know that they reflect the truth, we will publish them, no matter what.

GK: Can you tell us something about how your circulation developed since November 2007 and to what extent this reflects an appetite among the public for what you are writing?

YC: When we first began, we were selling for one lira a copy, which is very expensive for the Turkish buyer. We didn’t sell much. There were days when we sold under 5 000 copies a day. These were really bad days. Then we brought the price down to 40 kuruş, it was a big drop. The first region in Turkey which appreciated this price change and the newspaper was the Southeast, the Kurdish region in Turkey. All of a sudden, we became the second highest selling newspaper in that region. That was also because of our coverage of the Kurdish region. Myself and other writers went to the region; we went to Northern Iraq, we interviewed the PKK, the people of the region.

Turkey is, of course, going through very interesting political times, our coverage of the closure case against the government, our coverage of the military operations in Iraq and within Turkey, our coverage of the Ergenekon-case – this case against a state-sponsored crime in Turkey – were appreciated. On average we sell about 60 000 to 65 000 copies daily. It is a good number. Hopefully by increasing the quality of the paper we can aim for 100 000 copies a day in 2009.

GK: One of the things that have built your reputation as a small paper is a series of revelations, internal documents, particularly about the military and the Ergenekon-investigation. What have been the most interesting internal documents you have published?

YC: We really published several. One of the very important things we published was the document about the Daglica raid in Turkey. Daglica is a small military garrison in the southeast of Turkey. There was an attack by PKK militants on that garrison last year. 12 Turkish soldiers were killed; eight were kidnapped by the PKK. As a result, Turkey started a cross-border operation into Northern Iraq. As a result of it there were nationalist rallies everywhere in Turkey and some anti-Kurdish demonstrations. It was also an event with a huge political impact in Turkey. The document we published showed that the Turkish military was informed about the raid in advance. It was a military document. There were clear indications that PKK was preparing an attack, that they were in the region, that there were vulnerabilities. That report was written nine days before the raid took place. We know what happened in those nine days. The commanders, all three of the garrison, were on leave – two of them were on longer leave. The commander who was not on leave went to a wedding celebration that night. The number of units was decreased. There were problems with ammunition and guns, which were reported, but nothing was done about it. There was a request for helicopters – nothing was done about it. The list is very long. So it proved to the Turkish people that that attack was in the making for a long time. The top brass of the Turkish military knew about it and they didn’t do what they were supposed to do or at least they could have done much more to prevent it.

This is important because, as I said before, Turkey is a country where criticism of the military is very rare and even the most justified criticism can be easily labelled as being anti-state, anti-military, anti-nation and so on. But we just brought out that document. And when we had it, when we knew it was authentic, it was coming from one source, we could verify it with another source and we had the official documents in our hands, we said we were going to go ahead and publish it. That was one. And I think that changed the way the Turkish people viewed the attack, the raid and perhaps the military a little bit.

We also published a story about a secret meeting between the deputy chief justice of the constitutional court and the commander of land forces in Turkey. This was of course very important because it was a secret meeting and a long meeting. It was at the military headquarters in Ankara and it was taking place at a time when there was the closure case against the AKP and all kinds of allegations that the closure case was also being manipulated by the military and other forces in Turkish bureaucracy, who want to get rid of the AKP government. So we did not know what these two gentlemen talked in that meeting but the fact that they met and they met secretively for such a long time at such a conjuncture was very important.

There was also one very important document which was entitled “The plan to shape the Turkish politics and society”. It was a very long plan and an action plan to go with it. It is called “Lahika” for short. That document shows that the Turkish military had plans to shape the Turkish way of thinking, to shape society and politics. It was clearly aiming at creating an opposition to the government. In it there were actions that were planned, such as using journalists, having continuous contacts with high-ranking judges, university professors and others. That document was also very much against the entire constitutional draft that was prepared by the government. We have a constitution that was ratified in 1982 during the military regime in Turkey. Although there have been some amendments, the essence of the document is still very much belonging to a military era. The government had a plan to change that, so they came up with their own constitutional draft. And then we learned from that document that the Turkish military made plans to defame, to badmouth that draft. It was showing us that the Turkish military was ready to have social contacts with society leaders, to organize civil society in certain organisations, to again organise defamation campaigns against writers and journalists and artist who were not sharing the same kind of ideology with the military using and sponsoring and financing other artists and writers and journalists.

Yasemin Congar

So, we were faced with a military, which was not doing its job, which is to defend this country against enemies or against threats, but which was very much occupied with social engineering and politics, which is not their job and which is illegal.

GK: What are the major sins in the eyes of the military of the AKP government?

YC: You read their documents and you see that they really think that AKP is a threat to Turkey, that AKP leaders and members are Islamists and that they would bring an Islamic way of life and an Iranian style-theocracy if they could and are using the governmental power, even the EU-membership process to pave the ground for such an Islamic revolution. They have this threat-perception. I don’t know if they really believe in it in their hearts and minds, but that’s what they use as an excuse or as a pretext for being still very much active in Turkish political life. My personal view is that the Turkish military, and parts of the Turkish civilian elite, want to grab as much power as they had in this country beginning in the 1920s. They still have this Kemalist ideology reflective of the 1930s way of thinking, which has not really evolved with the world and with society in Turkey.

In Turkey now we have a new class of people, a new business class, which is not only based in Istanbul or in Ankara and which doesn’t have anything to do with the state or government but they is very much independent, middle-class, very conservative, very religious in their way of life but also global thinkers and actors. They support the EU membership for example. They want to trade with the world and have been trading with the world without using Ankara or Istanbul as go-betweens. So it is a new, powerful class, an emerging middle-class, an emerging ruling class also and AKP represents them much better than any other party did in Turkish history. And this class is not the class which founded the country. This class is not the small, very elitist Kemalist bureaucrats who really have nothing to do with religion. They might call themselves Muslims but they don’t practice Islam and they don’t like Islam. They associate it with some kind of backward ideology or with the Middle East and they cannot see that Islam can also be Western and Islam can also be global and modern and new.

GK: How important have been the arrests in June, for the first time, of 4-star ex-generals for plotting coups?

YC: I think it’s a revolution. It really is because Turkey has had so many coups and coup-attempts and never have we tried a general for staging a coup or planning a coup. Those coups killed may people. Many people were executed. I would call it summary executions, done under military law with very, very short cases at military court. But never ever have we tried a general for that. There have been a few cases of fraud in the past in which some high-ranking military officers were taken to court and even convicted. But never for political activities. Now former 4-star generals are under arrest, in custody for setting up an organisation within the Turkish military that aimed to topple the civilian elected government and to reshape the society. They were at least allegedly ready to use means like killing people, political assassinations, working with terrorist organisations including PKK and some Islamic organisations in this country, having all this clandestine contacts with members of the civil society, artists, politicians, the media.

At least their plans sound very scary. We know that there have been murders in this country – prominent journalists, prominent judges, politicians had been murdered – and some of these cases have not been solved. And now we see the traces, the clues about a certain involvement of this organisation, which is now named Ergenekon, in all these murders and attacks and other kinds of activities. It is perhaps bigger than we now realize. It’s Turkey coming to terms of its own Stasi-type inner-state organisation, which has really gone out of control. There was a government within the government. There was a state within the state. And now we are trying to cleanse that out off the system and while we are doing it we are realizing that it’s not possible to do it if you don’t go after the military. Because the military was actually the institution that started Ergenekon and that very much controlled Ergenekon. Now, that step the prosecutor has taken by arresting those former 4-star generals I think is very courageous but also, very necessary if he wants to achieve any results.

Taraf cover

GK: Now, there was a prosecutor a few years ago that was trying something equally ambitious but who failed completely. Where does the courage of these prosecutors in your view come from? There are claims they are tools of the government. What’s their motivation?

YC: I have talked to them. They don’t sound like they are the tools of government. For one thing, I think they are more courageous than government leaders like Prime minister Erdoğan and others. Because I have talked to them all I know how they approach things. It is a sense of duty. It is a sense of responsibility. It’s the belief that they should really cleanse out the system, because they are also the representatives of the state and they want to be proud of what they do and what they are part of. It’s very much rotten and very much criminal at this point and they want to cleanse it outt. But also it’s just coincidence. The chief prosecutor in this case, Zekeriya Öz, ended up with this file in his hands as a result of a series of events, which were all coincidental. He didn’t know what he was getting. He didn’t know there was an Ergenekon. He wasn’t aware of certain documents within the state, within the government files about Ergenekon. All of a sudden, he started discovering the ties, the links, the people, the dialogues and all the money flow, the plans and schemes. With professional honesty and curiosity he started digging deeper and deeper. And now he knows it’s a colossal thing he ended up with. He knows the risks. There are threats against him and his family but he can’t simply get out of it. He does have some political support. I think, he has popular support and he realizes that – from at least certain parts of the media and from the people in general.

The government also has backed him, at least they haven’t told him to stop. And he says that even the top ranks of the military haven’t told him to stop. Some active generals encouraged him. He says Turkish intelligence encouraged him. But he also knows, within all these institutions there are arms of Ergenekon. There are people who would want to stop him, who would want to get him out of what he is doing. But he looks like a stubborn man. And he looks like he will keep doing what he is doing. Hopefully nobody will stop him.

GK: What you are describing is a Turkey in which almost every institution seems to be divided within the military, within the police, the gendarmerie. How confident are you that liberals will win?

Y.C.: It is true that almost every institution in Turkey has two different groups of people now. They have many different groups of people, but it looks like the society is very polarized and these two poles are trying to pull the country in different directions. But what this means politically is that in every institution there are people who say “Enough is enough. We need to change. We need to change the ways we do business.”

Let’s take the military. Some there say now: “Our job is to defend this country. Our job is to be the military in this country, not the politicans of the country or the civil society leaders of the country. We are not to lead the society. We are to obey orders given to us by a civilian, elected government. And then we will be a good military. If there is a threat, internal or external militarily, if there is a Kurdish incursion for example, then we will be successful. There are people who say that within the Turkish military now.

Then there are people who say “No no no, we are the founders of the country and we are the real rulers of the country. We will never give this up. We don’t trust the popular vote or the way the people think in the society. We have to basically shape it. Never never let it go free of our hands.” That kind of thinking is everywhere. This is in the judiciary, in the media.

At Taraf we define citizenship not as something much defined by the state, but defined by the rights and freedoms that come from being a citizen of Turkey. Not how one dresses, for example: “A good Turkish citizen doesn’t cover her head!” Or “A good Turkish citizen loves Atatürk.” There is no such definition of a good Turkish citizen except that a good Turkish citizen abides by the law, which should be a democratic law, and a good Turkish citizen pays his or her taxes. One side is for change, the other one is for the status quo, but even worse because the other one is going back to the 1930’s to which they look as our golden era.


GK: If one reads your paper and if one reads the Nokta diaries one gets the feeling of vast conspiracies. How surprising is it to somebody like you, who has been following this all the time, that so many different dots seem to be connected? Do you really believe that this investigation will lead to the end?

Y.C.: I hope so, I don’t know and it’s very difficult. Probably there will be always people and groups and little cells here and there, who will be still conspiring and plotting. But I think, by bringing out what the organisation was, what kind of thinking they had, what kind of plans they had, even if the prosecutor is unable to solve the murders, or unable to name all the names that were active in the organisation, I think, it will set up an example to many people in Turkey that being part of such an organisation is a crime and is punishable by law and no one is untouchable. If you are a four star general and if you were active in it, you will still be arrested, tried and if needed be convicted. I think it’s showing a very new and important thing to the Turkish people that everyone can be touched.

I don’t know if two or three years from now, when this operation is over, if we will be able to say “Okay, the state is all clean now.” Probably not.

GK: How important has the EU process and reforms associated with the last few years been to getting you to the stage where you are now, in terms of public debate, the investigations, the discovery of the dark chapters of the past?

Y.C.: The EU process is very important. I used to look at it as a locomotive of change for Turkey and it was for a while. This government, the Justice and Development Party government in its early years in 2002, 2003, 2004 really introduced reforms at a very fast pace and did a lot to achieve membership status, or candidacy status at the EU, and they did that.

But after achieving candidacy they stopped. First they slowed down, and then they almost came to a complete stop. That was the biggest mistake of this government. At the same time there were all these negative voices in the EU, narrow-minded politicians and opinion-makers who would be vocal about their opposition to Turkey’s membership.

Of course Turkey is not ready for it now. But even if Turkey is ready politically, economically someday, they would reject it because culturally Turkey is a Muslim country. Of course this resonated very badly with the Turkish people and Turkish politicians, even the reformers. And then, I think, EU started losing its soft power in Turkey. It was seen less as a locomotive, less as a fair player.

I still think that the EU process is very important for Turkey’s change. The split I tried to describe is also a split about the EU. If you talk to those nationalist, those Ergenekon symphatizers and Kemalists, you will discover that they are Anti-European. They love everything about Europe, “Oh, we love the European culture, oh we love German music and the French wine”, but when you go to the basics, how everyone should live, issues of multiculturalism, issues of freedoms, civilian control of the military and democratization and equal rights for everyone, you realize that they are not European at all. They don’t have this Western way of thinking. I think, if Turkey wants to keep changing, and wants to keep becoming a more liberal and democratic society, we need that symbol of the EU.

GK: Do you think that AK Party and the AK Party government has the courage to confront the deep state?

Y.C.: I’m not sure. They have been more courageous than any other government we had, that’s for sure. Prime Minister Erdogan said during his election campaign last year, that waging a “clean-hands” operation in Turkey, waging an operation like the Anti-Gladio operation in Italy was one of his major goals, and so far he kept his word. He did not stop the prosecutor from doing what he is doing, and all indications are that he has not discouraged anyone from going deeper and deeper into this investigation. But I don’t know if he has the courage to go to the end.

My fear is that there could be some closed-door negotiations, closed-door give-and-take. For perhaps saving his party and his political life, he might say, “Ok, we will just cover it up, we will stop here at the Ergenekon investigation”. But perhaps he won’t. I can’t be too confident about this, but I also know that he is a clever man and he has seen a lot, and I think, in his heart he must know that if he covers it up now, if he doesn’t go to the end now, sooner or later it will come back to hit him and people like him, who are reformers and who want change.

GK: You are an investigative journalist. Many people in Turkey believe a different conspiracy, a conspiracy of the government, a hidden agenda. Why is this belief so popular and what makes it credible?

Y.C.: I don’t find it credible. I don’t think the government has a hidden agenda. I should say, I don’t know if they have a hidden agenda. All I know is that they have been around for five-six years now, and they have been in government, they have had controlling numbers of the parliament. They could have done many things! If they really wanted to change the society toward a more Islamic kind of regime. They did not.

What they did was that they pursued EU membership. I don’t see that as a way to Iranian kind of theocracy! They pursued economic liberalization and they implemented IMF programs. They pursued good, very close contact with the US. They are political and economic liberalizers. I don’t find them democratic enough. I think democracy for them is still a new idea and they are trying to come to terms with it. But if they have a hidden agenda, they are hiding it very well. I think one should really judge them with what they do. We can all have our dreams and phantasies and secret agendas. But as long as they are that deep and that secret, it is okay!

GK: Why are there are so many educated Turks attracted to anti-democratic and authoritarian ways of thinking?

Y.C.: You have the answer in your question. They are educated Turks! They are educated Turks and they are very much used to an authoritarian way of thinking, because it’s the education we have! The education system in this country that we have all gone through is very much of a reflection of Kemalist ideology. I’m okay with Mustafa Kemal, with what he did. I like many of the things he did, and I think he was a very strong, very powerful leader in his time. He had minuses and pluses, he did some wonderful things and perhaps he did some not so wonderful things. But he was a great leader and founder of this country. But that was the 1930s!

Go around in Turkey. You will see his pictures everywhere, his words everywhere, his sculptures everywhere. So we made a cult out of that great leader. We turned him into some kind of a Lenin figure. There are all these limits to your thinking when you have to apply Kemalism to your day-to-day life. His six major rules such as “You have to be a statist, you have to be a nationalist, and you have to be a populist” there is no end to it. Why today should I be a nationalist? Why today should I be a statist?

Many educated people in this country still associate Modernism and Westernization and progress with what Mustafa Kemal said in the 1920s, 1930s. Because the education system does not teach us ways of alternative thinking. They don’t teach you to be individuals. They just teach you that “The state is our father, and the military is our leader”, and “Atatürk is our eternal leader”.

This is like North Korea. There are no countries in the world like this anymore. Perhaps some in the Middle East, but even they are changing. And Turkey is changing very rapidly, opening up, but we haven’t changed our education system yet. It is very difficult to get out of this way of thinking.

GK: One of the major claims against the government is that is has a conservative agenda on women, keeping them at home, keeping them out of the public space. A lot of women we met say they are indeed really afraid. What is your view on this? How is Turkey changing for women in the last ten years?

Y.C.: It’s changing for the better for women. As a women, who doesn’t practice Islam and who has been educated in the West, let me say: I’m not afraid at all. You are right that there are these accusations. However, the reality is just the opposite. It’s that powerful “elite”, that state elite, which wants to keep women out of public life. Because they have an image of an ideal woman, of a Republican woman who looks like me a little bit. Doesn’t cover her head, does not practice Islam, is modern, drinks wine and dance. Fine!

But we also have religious people in the society and they are the majority in Turkey. They want to practice Islam, and if they are women they want to cover their heads and they don’t want to eat pork or they don’t want to drink wine. Why is this a problem? These people still want to go out, these people still want to go to the university, and want to be active in business and social life. It’s the powerful elite who tell them “No, you can not go to the university if you cover your head! If you’re being yourself you cannot be active, stay at home!” The problem is, these women do not want to stay at home anymore.

It’s not because all of a sudden Turkey has become more muslim. No! Traditionally they would stay at home, they would not go out, they would not demand their right of equal participation in education and in business. But now they want to be a part of it, without changing how they look or what they believe in. That’s their basic right!

I was in central Anatolia recently, touring all those very conservative towns. I was amazed because the last time I did such a tour was about fifteen years ago. There was such a big change. I think the most important element of this change concerns the role of woman in society. They’re everywhere – go to Konya, go to Kayseri, go to other cities in Central Anatolia. You will see many covered women active in shops, selling, trading, going to school. They still can not go to the university or they use wigs to cover their heads to go and sit in the class – but they are everywhere. They go out with their husbands and boyfriends, they go to restaurants.

Fifteen years ago, I was in those cities, and you wouldn’t see as many women on the street. At night, you would see no women. Usually you wouldn’t see women walking by themselves, they were always in the company of men, and always like walking a few steps behind. Now, go and observe for yourself, you will see them around and you will see really demanding their right to participate.

I was in Kayseri, they invited me to this meeting at the Kayseri Chamber of Industry. It was the meeting of the women entrepreneurs of Kayseri and their board had nineteen woman on it. All in sectors like metal, tourism, banking, textile, construction, you name it. They were CEOs or highranking officers at different companies, all women. Some of them were very religious and covered, and some of them weren’t. But they all wanted to basically make money. Their problem was about business, about how they could trade with Europe, how they could trade with the Middle-East. They were already very secularized. Secularization is not becoming a-religious or losing your beliefs, secularization is being part of the social and economic life of the country with people who are not necessarily like you, who don’t necessarily share the same kind of beliefs or lifestyle as you. If they can participate in that socio-economic life, being who they are, they have become secular. And that’s what they want. They don’t want to become Iran, they want to become Germany!

GK: There are prosecutions against different writers. How much courage does it take today to break the rules?

Y.C.: Well, you have to take risks. First of all, if you attempt to break these taboos, there will be court cases against you. You will be called to testify at the prosecutor’s office many times which happens to all of us in journalism. And then, perhaps you will be convicted in some of these cases, and also, as in Hrant Dink’s case, your life might be in danger. So there are risks out there, but I think that also is changing. If we had this interview ten years ago, the Kurdish question was still a taboo. We were talking about it but we were not talking about it as openly as we are now. The Armenian Question was still a big big taboo, the word ‘genocide’ was not used as often and as freely as it is now. Still very few people would use it, but I and others use it and we basically get by using it. At least there is the discussion whether what happened in 1915 was a genocide or not in Turkey now. That’s positive. Again the military is always a taboo, but now we are criticizing it, we are discussing it. We can tell the military to get out of politics and to do its job, and yes, we might be tried for it, but still we are doing it. And self-censorship on these issues is a less and less powerful. That’s very important.

Süddeutsche Zeitung, Kai Strittmatter, “Denken heißt kämpfen” (22 October 2008)