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)

3 Replies to “Taraf, the military and taking sides”

  1. While one can agree with many of the arguments presented by Yasemin Congar there is a very strong intellectual distrust on my part towards the newspaper Taraf and Ms. Congar herself. I will not resort to the now cliché (but valid) questions about the source of financing for the paper and for the steady and visible change in the views and interpretations of Ms. Congar over the several years she reported from Washington DC and, particularly, after her “landing” on the Taraf leadership team in Turkey. I will, however, ask you, Mr. Knaus, whether you intend to inform your readers that the aerial photos presented by Taraf newspaper were actually taken far away from the location of the attack (as evidenced by the coordinates printed on the same photos) and that the majority of the Turkish media critized Ms. Congar and Taraf for unfair and unwarranted criticism of the military using false (or falsified) material. Taraf is the only paper which appears to have as its primary duty/mandate to attempt regularly to discredit the Turkish military. This paper, in fact, undermines the bona fida efforts of many who advocate the need for openness and accountability also on the part of the military. I will also take issue with Ms. Congar’s very generalized views on Turkish society in Anatolia. It takes more than one superficial visit (after 15 years, as she admits) to really understand the sociological and economic changes in any place in the world and to reach concrete conclusions, particularly on religious issues, unless it is used to service her own ideology. Taraf is indeed “taking sides” but you, as a respectable intellectual, should be fair and present also the “other side”. It is curious that your quotes about Taraf’s publication of the aerial photos are exclusively from Zaman, another Turkish daily, known to be one of the unconditional supporters of the current government. You have lived in Istanbul long enough to know the expression “BOZACININ SAHIDI SIRACI”. Freedom of speech is indeed a fundamental value in the European Union but it should not be used as a weapon for psychological warfare. Having said all this, I applause Perihan Magden ,who was featured in one of your previous issues, for her solid and consistent position and her outspoken attitude in defending fundamental rights and freedoms in Turkey. Her situation fits the freedom of speech definition of the EU more than the one of Yasemin Congar and Taraf newspaper.

    Thank you very much. I continue to read your writings and follow the activities of ESI with great interest.

  2. The thing I don’t buy about Congar’s arguments it the part about the educated turks. I think she is too optimistic about the daily pressures religious sects are applying on young women. She claims that Anatolia is being modernized because there are more roads, companies and stuff. That is so not true! Everyone who has been to anatolia 30 years ago and now would notice that now you cannot drink alcohol easily, good luck if you hold the hands of you boyfriend in park, good luck if you are smoking in during ramadan, and good luck if you are not married to a turban carrying wife and trying to do business with akp municipilaties.
    And we have a Fethullah Gulen sect problem. I am not against it but this is a problem because they are now everywhere including some of the governors, police force showing allegiance to him. They are totally closed, no one knows what is going on inside this sect. And ignore Ms.Congar because they have been very very powerful in ministry of education as well. So is this how our democracy gonna be better, by having a large sect governing our state? Is this how the religious freedoms are gonna be expanded?

    Also, her answer to why educated turks are worried is too simplistic. All she claims is because we are being brainwashed. I mean, come on! I am not educated in turkish schools for most of my life, I was educated abroad, have a PhD. from a US university but live in turkey now. As a young women I am very worried about the conservative agenda AKP is pushing. Ms.Congar should be blind or is really hating us not to see this. It is not just because conservative women are becoming more visible. Being religious in the sense they understand it is being encouraged, religion is being pushed out of personal sphere more and more. Ms.Congar is talking as if fasting, going to mosque, building a mosque, distributing religious propaganda has been a problem in this country! Yes, headscarfed women cannot go to university and I am against this ban. But I would like to ask, people are worried about this not oppose them having an education because we do believe that the government’s aim is to have these people everywhere, even as judges, primary school instructors. If that is what Ms.Congar wants then ok, but what we will have at the end I think is gonna be the demolition of secularity in turkey.


  3. I appreciate Taraf very strongly. They are helping the country change. Kemalists need to understand that we are now living in a different age and most of the ideologies are not universal including some part of kemalism. As some people are living 500 years behind, they are still living in the early 20th sentury. Let’s try a real democracy. Being modern is not about showing the hair, it is about being pluralist.

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