Saturday, December 24, 2005


"But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe…that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market… That at any rate is the theory of our constitution." ~ Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr.

Americans should be concerned about what happens to Roj TV, and lend their support to it, for three reasons: Turkey is not a steady ally of the United States, it is not a secular democracy and it represses the right of free expression, within its borders and without.

Since September 11, 2001, America is no longer an isolated observer of events happening in the Middle East. That tragic day was the beginning of active American participation in changing a status quo that has for too long allowed repressive regimes to crush the populations under their control. The regimes of which I speak have no regard for the human, civil, political and cultural rights of the people they repress. The Kurdish people have suffered and continue to suffer brutal repression under four of these regimes: Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq.

At this point, the Kurds of Iraq have a chance at freedom, thanks to the years of Operation Northern Watch, in which the American people committed themselves to protecting the airspace over South Kurdistan so that a fledgling democracy could establish itself on the ground. Operation Iraqi Freedom brought the final blow to the Iraqi Ba'ath regime, and the result of that overthrow has given Kurds in Iraq the confidence to create for themselves the safest and most energetic part of Iraq. It has been a fitting outcome for the Kurds, especially since they were the second most numerous coalition partners, providing the US with 100,000 combat-experienced pêşmerge on a moment's notice, after America's longtime ally, Turkey, failed to permit the deployment of US troops from Turkish territory.

Right now, Kurds in Turkey, Iran and Syria are looking toward liberated South Kurdistan with hope that this Kurdish exercise in democracy will bring to an end the suffering they have endured since the end of World War I when they were unjustly divided among the regional powers with the blessings of the British and the French governments. During a recent trip back to that part of Kurdistan which has suffered enormously under the Turkish regime, I witnessed this hope personally through those Kurds who were beginning to establish business ties with their kin to the south. I heard it in statements made to me, of how happy friends and strangers were with the new opportunities as a result of the liberation of part of Kurdistan. There were also expressions of hope that America would help them, Kurds in Turkey, to rise from the second-class, or worse, status that they have suffered for so long.

Americans will say to me, "Turkey is a secular democracy and it has been our ally since the Cold War," but the fact is that Turkey failed to deliver when America needed to deploy its troops into Iraq from the north. Another fact is that Turkey is not a secular democracy.

The present Turkish constitution controls religion which, by default, pushes religion to become a means of political expression. Religious education is controlled by the Turkish state. No members of religious minorities have ever been members of the Turkish parliament, the cabinet or in the officer ranks of the Turkish military. The AKP, which is the current ruling party and is Islamist, has recently begun crackdowns on the sale and consumption of alcohol. The government now promotes the products of Turkish companies that support Islamist causes and reports have suggested that Saudi money is flooding the economy. Anti-Americanism and antisemitism have been on the rise.

As for democracy, this is a fiction, not only for many Turks but particularly for Kurds. Kurds have been engaged in military or political resistance against the Ankara regime since 1925, when the repression began. It didn't matter if a village stayed out of fighting and remained loyal to Ankara; the Turkish government brought destruction to all of them, simply because they were Kurds. With the military coup of 1980, a new round of armed resistance began. It was the response of a people with no other means of defending themselves against the brutality the Turkish military. This most recent fighting resulted in the ethnic cleansing of between 3 to 4 million Kurds, the destruction of some 4,000 Kurdish villages, disappearances, extrajudicial murders, and the enjoyment of impunity by the state security forces which uses torture against those detained. If not for these atrocities of the Turkish state against the Kurdish people, there would never have been a need for armed struggle. If not for these atrocities, there would have been no PKK.

This reign of terror resulted in the flight of many Kurds from Turkey to other parts of the world. It was in Europe that Kurds who had fled Turkey began to rediscover and preserve the culture that Turkey had sought to destroy, especially the Kurmancî language. It was there that the Kurds began to create their own media without fear of Turkish repression, without worrying that Kurdish journalists, or non-Kurdish journalists, who wrote about Kurdish issues in Turkey, would be disappeared, extrajudicially murdered or imprisoned. It was there that Kurdish-language media offices could function without fear of bombing.

Roj TV has been the best and brightest of these efforts, covering the news of the entire region, and the world, from the Kurdish perspective. Roj TV's programming is primarily in Kurdish, but includes programming in other languages as well, including Turkish. Almost 30 million Kurds in 77 different countries enjoy news, cultural and educational programming, music videos and movies, primarily in their mother tongue--Kurdish.

While Turkey has promised limited Kurdish-language broadcasting as part of its EU accession efforts, after several years, the promise has proven to be empty words. Roj TV is popular, even in the Kurdish areas of Turkey, because Roj TV has enjoyed the right of free expression from its European base, the Turkish state has been clamoring for its closure by making claims that Roj TV disseminates "terrorist" propaganda. But Roj TV does nothing of the sort, nor do the people who operate Roj TV have ties to terrorist groups of any kind, but they strive to maintain their programming within the boundaries of law as set by Danish broadcasting authorities. These authorities have investigated video footage supplied by the Turkish embassy in Denmark. No incitement to violence or terrorism of any kind was found by Danish authorities.

The Turkish state attempts to silence those outside of its own borders who speak out about such truths as the Armenian genocide and the violence in the Kurdish region, even going so far as to call for prosecution of members of the European Parliament. Orhan Pamuk is not the only writer to find himself facing prosecution under the Turkish Penal Code's infamous Article 301, which can severely curb freedom of expression depending on the interpretation of individual judges. Fatih Tas, a journalism student at Istanbul University faces imprisonment for his translation of American John Tirman's book, The Spoils of War, which criticizes Turkey's violence against its Kurdish population. Orhan Pamuk and Fatih Tas are only two examples of the 50 to 60 journalists and writers who are currently facing prosecution from a government which does not recognize the right of free expression. The Turkish government would like very much that Roj TV become another victim of its intolerance of free expression.

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

So reads the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. This amendment is rightly placed at the head of those ten initial amendments, which are known to Americans as the Bill of Rights. It encompasses the right to free expression--in religion, in speech, in the press, in public assembly as well as in the process of approaching all branches of government for help in solving problems in the interests of the people--and free expression is the very essence of democracy. As the United States endeavors to encourage the spread of democratic values and practice in the Middle East, Turkey continues to threaten the same, especially in its totalitarian-style tactics aimed at silencing Roj TV.

Since the United States is supporting Turkey in its EU accession process, Americans have an interest in lending their support to those who remain on the frontline of the battle for democracy, both in Europe and in the Middle East. Americans ought to insist that Turkey engage in truly democratic practices, especially with regard to free expression, or risk facing a new Europe, one in which free expression is severely diminished and America's efforts at democratizing the Middle East become nothing more than expensive exercises in hypocrisy.

No comments: