Hunger strikers against the authoritarian regime want their jobs back.
May 16, 2017
The mood in Turkey is low, and not just among those who oppose President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Even some of his supporters are disoriented by developments in the country. In the aftermath of the failed coup of July 15, 2016, Erdoğan orchestrated the dismissal of tens of thousands of government employees. The figures from the ongoing Turkish purges are startling. The day after the failed coup, Erdoğan’s government fired 2,745 judges, a third of the Turkish judges. Not long after that, over 100,000 civil servants, teachers and journalists lost their jobs. The tally is now astoundingly high: 138,147 civil servants, teachers and academics fired; 50,987 arrested. It is as if the Turkish government—to quote Donald Trump’s advisor Steve Bannon—is "deconstructing the administrative state."
The human cost of the purge is stark. At least 37 of those fired have taken their lives. This number comes from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), whose report was prepared by its Deputy Chair Veli Ağbaba. Seventeen of those who killed themselves were police officers, four of them soldiers and two of them prison guards. The humiliation and the fear took its toll.
Hours after the coup of 2016 failed, President Erdoğan called it a "gift from God." The coup has allowed him to go after anyone he deems an adversary, ranging from those who were once allied with him to those who have always been his opponents. The most striking attack by Erdoğan came against the movement led by the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, who lives in Pennsylvania. Erdogan and Gülen were close allies as the AKP sought to take charge of the institutions of the Turkish state and society. In earlier slow motion purges, the Erdoğan government displaced secular professionals for the adherents of Gülen with the belief that these Islamists would be more sympathetic to the agenda of the AKP. Now, Erdoğan has little use for the Gülen movement. He would like the institutions to be run by loyalists to him not to a broad Islamist ideology. This is the hallmark of an authoritarian system.
Erdoğan will be in Washington, DC this week to meet President Donald Trump. It is unlikely that Trump will offer even a mute criticism of the purges. Erdoğan is expected to ask for the extradition of Gülen as well as for the US to stop sending heavy weapons to the Syrian Kurdish armed forces. All indications suggest that Trump will neither release Gülen nor stop the flow of arms to the Syrian Kurds. However, if Trump does at least allow Gülen to be interrogated by US authorities and stop Gülen’s webcasts to his supporters in Turkey, then Erdoğan will return to Ankara emboldened.
Victory Belongs to Those Who Resist
Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça are, respectively, a literature professor and a primary school teacher. Both were fired by the Erdoğan-led purges. Each day they gather with supporters at Ankara’s Yuksel Street near a statue to commemorate human rights. These two intellectuals have been on hunger strike for almost 70 days. They are kept alive by lemon and saltwater. Gülmen has lost 18 pounds and Özakça has lost 37 pounds. Both are in perilous health. Onur Karahanli of the Chamber of Doctors of Ankara, said, "They are now in a very critical period, where their nervous and cardiovascular systems are being damaged after two months of hunger." Outside Turkey there is little news coverage of their vigil.
Their slogan, "I want my job back," is elegant. It has raised the hopes of thousands of others like themselves. Across Turkey, other teachers and academics have joined in sympathy hunger strikes. Architect Arife Şahin (Duzce), teacher Nazife Onay (Istanbul) and others form this new phalanx of resistance. Groups of academics went on solidarity strike for 24 hours in Istanbul as did faculty and students from the Middle East Technical University. Silently, in fear, others admire Gülmen and Özakça.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s public institutions suffer from the lack of qualified people. The philosopher Halis Yildirim, who has been very public with his criticism of the Erdogan purges, says that "good, dedicated and experienced teachers" are being replaced by lesser qualified government-appointed people. For now, he says, the primary education system is not in crisis because of a large "reserve army" of university graduates who had not been able to find work over the past decade. They are being hired to work in the schools. The universities, however, face a serious problem. Seminars and classes are being canceled, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, which the government does not take seriously anyway. These purges, Yildirim tells me, will produce a "lost generation."
A professor who signed the petition against the Turkish government’s war on the Kurds says the government seeks to shift primary education from the government schools to the religious schools (imam-hatips). In 2004, a mere 65,000 children studied in these religious schools; today, the number exceeds a million children. Islam and Erdoğan have become the new heroes in the curriculum, replacing Mustafa Kemal. Another academic tells me that references to evolution have been scrubbed in the middle and high school textbooks.
Curfew Against the Kurds
In Seyit Riza Square in Dersim, in the heart of Anatolia, Kemal Gün, age 70, has been on hunger strike for almost 80 days. He sits in the square, often by himself, with a dog lying nearby, surrounded by signs asking for the government to return the body of his son, Murat Gün. Kemal Gün’s two sons had entered the revolutionary left movement, which has its roots in the Kurdish struggle for self-determination. Murat was with the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Front (DHKC), 11 of whose members, including Murat, were killed by Turkish government airstrikes in November 2016. Murat’s brother was killed in Geyiksuyu in April of the same year. Kemal Gün is on hunger strike to retrieve Murat’s body.
The situation in Turkey’s southeast is miserable. Curfews have closed down towns and cities, while troops of the Turkish state act with impunity. A United Nations report from March 2017 urges Turkey to cease its "serious" abuses. Thirty towns have been affected by the government operations, with half a million people displaced from the region. There are chilling stories in the report. A man tells of his sister killed in Cizre in 2016, "My family was summoned by the public prosecutor. We were given three small charred pieces of what he claimed was my beloved ablam’s (sister’s) body." The government did not explain why she was killed or who killed her.
Part of the crackdown on the Kurds was directed at the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which is a broad alliance of left and Kurdish political organizations. The government arrested 11 party officials, including its co-chairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ. They even banned the publication of a poem, "Contagious Courage," that Demirtaş wrote while in custody. The point seems to be to break the spirit of the organizational forces arrayed against Erdoğan.
After the referendum, which Erdoğan narrowly won, the hashtag circulating on Turkish social media read "It is not over yet." A journalist tells me she has never seen Turkey so divided. "We’ve lost the mortar that holds us together," she says. An academic tells me that "the mood amongst the public is varied depending upon one’s political affiliation." The secular left is alarmed by the purges and the destruction of reason. The pro-Erdoğan section is "very insensitive to these firings. Some may even think that this was a worthwhile elimination of subversive elements."
Yildirim, the philosopher, says Erdoğan will not tolerate anyone of merit near him. Turkey is being run by those who are obedient to Erdoğan. Critical thinking has virtually been banned.
Meanwhile the hunger strikes continue. They are a way to refuse to submit. Submission is the end of the human spirit. That is the sensibility of Demirtaş’ poem. Here it is, translated by Burcu Gündogan:
They’ll say ‘silence’!
And, they’ll say ‘no colors’!
You will have been rising up in joy,
But they’ll say ‘no roses can blossom.’
Then, let’s laugh so that your revolt does not get orphaned.
And, if that’s a crime; then, let it be…
May the smile of people remain fadeless.
They’ll say ‘the sun cannot rise’!
And, they’ll pull a gun on hope.
But you will have been rising up in speed.
They’ll put the blame on you.
Then, let’s run so that your revolt does not get lonely!
And, if that’s a crime, then, let it be…
Don’t drive people crazy!
The last line is directed at the government. The purge is driving people crazy. It is breaking Turkish society apart. But the human spirit is infinite. On the 69th day of their hunger strike, Nuriye Gülmen, weakened but not defeated, declared a day of solidarity with the hunger strike of the Palestinian political prisoners. Her body consumes itself, but she does not turn inward; her gaze goes south to Palestine. People like Nyriye Gülmen are emblems of human dignity, precisely the attribute denied by the government of Erdoğan.
Vijay Prashad is professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He is the author of 18 books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press, 2012), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013) and The Death of a Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016). His columns appear at AlterNet every Wednesday.