Turkish journalist Önder Aytaç tweeted a comment in 2012 that recently landed him in jail for ten months.
The tweet had to do with a number of schools Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wanted to shut down because of their alleged ties with the Gülen movement, which is in the opposition, and to which the journalist was sympathetic.
Here’s it is:
Ustam means ‘my master’ or ‘my chief’ in Turkish, but with a K at the end, it means ‘fuck off.’
So instead of the tweet saying ‘Shut them down master’ (being sarcastic), it said ‘Shut them down fuck off.’
The journalist claims it was a typo.
I guess it could have been. I don’t think it was, but it could have been.
From Sarcasm To Insult, To Blasphemy
You may find the Turkish system’s reaction a little over the top, and the sentence a tad harsh. I do.
But let’s frame the picture within the culture and see why it wasn’t so unexpected.
The AKP (Justice and Development Party) that Prime Minister Erdogan leads is a conservative party, which some deem religious and neo-Ottoman. Over the past few years it has successfully dislodged the Turkish Army Generals, who ruled Turkey either overtly or from behind the scenes for decades (see military coups in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997), and has spearheaded a campaign of economic reforms that enabled Turkey to enter the prestigious G20. At the same time, the AKP has reintroduced religion in state affairs (the party was founded on Islamic values, and though it has gradually changed its policy from Islam to ‘conservative democracy,’ it maintains deep ties with the faith) something the Generals had been keeping away from politics at all costs. The Turkish Republic had been founded as a secular republic after all, a situation which the AKP decided to reverse during its administration.
Now, as everyone and their aunt knows, in Islam it’s inconceivable to use critical language toward the highest authority, God. Challenging his authority has for the past 1600 years been considered blasphemy, which may land a person in deep trouble, ranging from fines and castigation to corporeal punishment and death.
This notion of untouchable authority is so prevalent in Islam that it extends to its agents on earth. One can’t insult anyone who represents God because it’s as if one were insulting God himself. (It was the same in Christendom, and in some places, like Russia, still applies.)
Thus, the agents of God have placed themselves above criticism too.
Genius, isn’t it?
This, of course, begs the question: who are the agents of God?
Let’s see. On the one hand you have the chosen individuals: clerics, holy men and political leaders i.e. anyone with authority, plus pious and devout followers i.e. anyone doing God’s work.
On the other hand, you have the groups and organizations that have submitted to Dog’s will: nations, countries, states, religious movements and cultures — the aggregate of those doing God’s work.
Any one of these agents can’t be questioned, challenged or otherwise criticized in any way that pertains to their culture or faith, because doing so is like going against God.
Therefore you end up with a belief system that is beyond criticism.
Genius, isn’t it!
Mentalities like these have a way of spreading, entrenching themselves deep in people’s psyches. Jailing a person for having ‘insulted’ its leader with a tweet that said, ‘Fuck off’ is one of its unfortunate manifestations.
Let’s pause and take a look at the legislation powering the charge and sentence: Article 301. According to Wikipedia:
This law was enforced on 1 July, 2005. The AKP has been in power since 2003. Make the connection.
Those of you familiar with Turkey’s abysmal human rights history will object. You know that this attitude can’t be pinned on the AKP. There was another version of the law in effect prior to 2005, which made it a crime to insult ‘Turkishness’ in general, a law devised not by Islamists but by the previous governances of Turkey and their all-too-secular but nevertheless sanctimonious General overseers.
Of course, one can’t help but make the connection again. In a culture where complete submission to a divine authority is expected, nay, commanded, certain nasty habits are bound to creep in no matter who you are or what you believe in. Blind obedience to authority in whatever form, and the strict prohibition of any kind of direct challenge to that authority across all levels of society, is what Turkey is all about. It’s part of the culture, and its rulers capitalize on it. First it was the Sultans, then the Young Turks, then the Army Generals and the governments they intimidated, and now it’s the neo-Ottoman prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his AKParty, and its resurgent Islamic values. And their minions, all the way down to the local level.
Calling Apples Apples And Holier-Than-Thou Holier-Than-Thou
I know that many will find my piece offensive. Singling out a religion or culture like that is going to be considered an act of prejudice. But I know of no other way to talk about an issue other than to name the main actors and factors involved, and do it clearly, specifically, and without beating around the bush.
Fact is, this is a Turkish issue. It’s not a fluke or an isolated incident that misrepresents an entire people. It’s indicative of a prevalent reality that has been around for centuries.
It stems from the dominant religion behind the culture, whose institutionalized aversion to criticism can be followed from its inception all the way to present times.
It takes place in a religiously resurgent, neo-Ottoman Turkey, under the supervision of a conservative party with deep Islamic ties.
It comes a couple of months after the prime minister promised to ‘wipe out Twitter.’
It compounds the already serious problems facing journalism and the (lack of) freedom of the press, plus women’s (lack of) rights, whose treatment in Turkish culture ranges from distressing to atrocious.
Somewhere in there, in the midst of this tyranny, there are common denominators, a confluence of factors leading to the phenomena at hand. Naming them and hypothesizing about how they work is imperative, if we’re to deal with them, prevent them from spilling over into our affairs. This is a troubled part of the world, the history of which is riddled with institutionalized abuse and violence toward ethnic ‘others’ i.e. infidels-cum-blasphemers-cum-dissidents-cum-threats (see the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek Pontian genocides, plus the Kurdish issue) about which people are trying to do something, looking for ways to change the culture of oppression, and reverse the trend.
The irony is that Turkey was, until last year, seen as the model state of the Muslim world. If Turkey was a model state and yet stuff like this took place there systematically, the Twitter incident just the tip of the iceberg, imagine how serious the ustam problem is in places where criticism of authority is met with theocratic wrath.
This applies to all kinds of theocracies, not just Islamic.
Yes, tyranny is not restricted to Islam. A number religions and political systems are averse to criticism, crushing those who challenge them. We’ll get to that in later articles.
The Bitter Truth
The world is in a funk — oppression and persecution are on the rise — but that doesn’t mean we have to accept it and give in to it. The situation is especially bad in places where the dominant and underlying values are rooted in rigid, self-righteous premises that facilitate suffering.
Apparently, I’ve just violated both Article 301 and threatened the entire Muslim faith by generalizing the issue and daring to insinuate that the act of making an authority such as God untouchable and beyond criticism is an ill-conceived, self-serving, pernicious act — an act that is conducive to oppression. Despite the fact that my arguments are substantiated and supported with data, and that I’m exhibiting no ill-feeling toward anyone except those who systematically seek to tyrannize and crush others by either enforcing their beliefs on them or prohibiting them from voicing their own, I’m somehow in the wrong, at least in the minds of this tyranny’s apologists, and could be, in all practical purposes, charged with something that could land me in jail, should I ever go to Turkey. It could also land me in trouble, should I come across a devout Muslim or a multiculturalist zealot. It could see me to the grave, should God, Ustam, or any of their agents command it.
I find this a disturbing and ridiculous prospect, a situation that says more about those who support it than about me. This is what I have to say about it, for all to hear. Make of it what you will, and pray that history takes a long time to catch up with whoever thinks that God and country are good enough reasons to champion systems of oppression. U(nder)stannnndk?