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In Turkey A Single Word Can Land You In Jail, K?

erdogan 2013-06-03-basbakan_erdogan
Turkish prime minister Erdogan keeps with tradition by not taking criticism lightly.

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 to the tweet 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 196019711980, and 1997), and has spearheaded a campaign of economic reforms that enabled Turkey to enter the prestigious G20. At the same time, it has reintroduced religion in state affairs (the AKP 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.

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 God’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 an entire 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:

Article 301 is a controversial article of the Turkish Penal Code making it illegal to inslut Turkey, the Turkish nation, or Turkish government institutions.

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 AK Party, 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 in it, and to do so 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 all this tyranny, there has to be a common denominator, at least a confluence of factors leading to the phenomena we are observing. Naming them and hypothesizing about how they work is not a prejudiced act. It’s the process of observation at work, dealing with a troubled part of the world, whose history is riddled with institutionalized abuse and violence toward ethnic ‘others’ i.e. infidels-cum-blasphemers-cum-dissidents-cum-threats (see the ArmenianAssyrian 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. It’s a very disturbing fact when one notes that Turkey is (or was, until last year) widely considered to be the model state of the Muslim world. If Turkey was a model state and yet stuff like this is systematically taking place there, the Twitter incident being just the tip of the iceberg, then imagine how serious the ustam problem is in other places where criticism of authority is met with divine wrath.

Yes, tyranny is not restricted to Islam. Many other religions and political systems are averse to criticism too, crushing those who challenge them. We’ll get to that in later articles.

The Bitter Truth

The world may not be perfect, with oppression and persecution being observed everywhere, but it’s even less perfect when the dominant and underlying values of a place are rooted in rigid, self-righteous premises. It’s all the more easier for things to explode.

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, which is always, always conducive to oppression. Despite the fact that all 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 am 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, or land me in trouble, should I come across a Muslim, or in the grave, should God, Ustam, or any of their agents command it.

I find this a highly disturbing and ridiculous prospect — a situation that says more about those who support it than about me.