ISTANBUL — In an undeniable milestone for the civil rights struggle earlier this month, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States of America. His victory was much more than just a triumph for equality, but, there’s no denying the symbolic importance it brings in that respect. For years, activists in America have fought, and sometimes given their lives, in pursuit of making the promise outlined in our Declaration of Independence, that all are created equal, a reality instead of just a guideline. When our 44th President took that stage in Grant Park, the promise never looked so valid.
We find ourselves in interesting times. On one side of the globe we have seen a great victory for human rights. Here in Turkey, however, and in other places similar to it, we find that great challenges still exist. While a fight on one side of the globe is closer to nearing its completion than ever before, others around it see victory as something helplessly far away.
In recent weeks, Turkey’s fight for human rights has been set back yet again. In a conversation with Omer Madra, the founder of Açik Radyo (a social force pushing for open society on the streets of Turkey) I discussed some distressing developments in this country.
For instance, Turkey has seen a strong movement of its ruling AK Parti (AKP) towards the dominant military. As reported last month by Turkish Daily Taraf; the military sat and watched as Kurdish fighters prepared a serious attack on one of its bases. Perhaps, it is supposed by the newspaper (and indeed many others who have followed the situation), that the military allowed the attack in order to strike down harder on the Kurds.
What has been surprising, Madra told me, was the military’s weak denial of Taraf’s accusations and the subsequent defense of the military by AKP leadership. By aligning with the military in this sense, it is likely that the AKP is making a play for goodwill — this even though the military’s influence almost led to a ban of the party this summer. Either way, the beginning of a long few weeks was underway; more strong anti-minority positions were yet to come.
The next move came in Brussels last week as AKP Defense minister Vecdi Gönül told a crowd that the elimination of Greeks and Armenians from within Turkey’s borders helped turn Turkey into the nation state that it is today. Said Madra, this is essentially a declaration that genocide was part of Turkish state building.
These moves are alarming steps in the wrong direction for Turkey. For years, Kurds and Armenians have fought to be seen as equal citizens (and for recognition of the Armenian Genocide) yet, the situation has become increasingly difficult. Sometimes the government here seems almost schizophrenic, reaching out to Armenians one day and then making statements such as that mentioned above the next. Whichever way you look at it, one disgusting statement is often enough to erode years of reconciliatory overture.
Where is the hope? It comes through people like Madra. In a country where people will go to prison for airing views contrary to the liking of the state, he has started a radio station which insists on openness. His programs advocate issues such as human rights and climate control and will go to the wall for causes it believes in (Madra himself has sat in prison).
In our talk, he constantly repeated his sorrow over the loss of Hrant Dink, a slain Armenian Turkish journalist who was a dear friend of his, and is seemingly still in shock over his death. How could he not be? The man who shared the same passion for equality and fought that same fight alongside Madra, was gunned down by a teenage nationalist last year.
Madra’s solace, however, comes in his causes and his victories. Today, while still advocating for equality in Turkey, Madra finds himself a leading (if not the leading) advocate on global warming in the country. He has spoken at hundreds of rallies and lectures and leads the fight for Turkish awareness on the issue. With a steel resolve he does not relent, knowing all too well what is at stake if he is to fail.
After spending a few hours at the station, I prepared to leave. Before my exit though, Madra asked me to return and spend a morning with him on his program. Still missing my weekly slot on WVBR and excited about what had previously been told to me about the station, I agreed immediately.
I had heard about the honor of being on Açik from Stephen Kinzer, former bureau chief of the NY Times here in Istanbul. In a conversation with him earlier this year he had pointed me in Madra’s direction. Kinzer, while here, had hosted a blues show on the station and filtered in political talk as he went on. In closing his tremendous book on Turkey, “Crescent and Star,” Kinzer speaks of an imaginary monologue which he would have loved to have given on the air. The words speak of a Turkey which has gotten past the troubles of today. He tells those who have kept the old order that, in this new world, “The state is slipping from your grasp, the people marching away from you.” And, “a new Turkey is being born before your eyes.”
The birth, however, has yet to take place. While much promise remains, it is still just that, tangible yet unfulfilled. What we saw earlier this month showed us that the impossible is now possible, perhaps now that message will reverberate throughout the world. It’s time to let stations like Açik go back to playing music.
Alex Kantrowitz is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He is writing from Istanbul, Turkey this semester. Check out his blog at Smoked Turkey for further coverage. Smoked Turkey appears alternate Fridays this semester. Alex may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org