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Susam-Sokak in English

Searching for the roots of present Turkey, by Etienne Copeaux

Accused of Blasphemy (1) - Sevil Akdogan

Publié par Etienne Copeaux sur 12 Août 2020, 10:42am

Catégories : #Religion and Society, #Turkey in the 90's, #Turkish nationalism

[Previously published on January 11, 2013, on susam-sokak.fr. Updated and translated in August 2020]

Blasphemy”, for a non-believer, is a meaningless concept. In France, in autumn 2012, a hot debate had arisen following the publication, by the satirical weekly Charlie-Hebdo, of caricatures supposedly depicting the Prophet Mohammed. Astonishing was the tone of some mainstream media, which, roughly, asked the question in the following terms: "Can blasphemy be publicly allowed?” As a matter of fact, in France, as in every secular state, blasphemy has no legal meanings; the penal code, like the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens (1789), guarantee the freedom of expression, provided it doesn't cause any disturbance in public order. But precisely, the delicate point is that notion of "public order". Very often, the group considering itself outraged by an alleged blasphemy is itself the cause of public disorder, each time it violently reacts to the "insult". Those outraged by "blasphemy" are often simply intolerant and unable to conceive that their sense of the sacred is not shared by everyone. All religions are involved, all have their extremists who refuse to admit a different point of view.

Another tricky point is the notion of provocation. At the time of the cartoons affair, the editor of Charlie-Hebdo had said that the cartoons would shock only “those who would want to be shocked by reading a weekly they never read": a hypocritical statement, in fact, since the weekly's aim is precisely to shock and hit segments of the population who rarely are part of its regular readership. The question of mutual respect is therefore central to the notion of blasphemy. Respect for beliefs and religious communities when they don't aim an hegemony over the society, but, conversely, respect for non-believers, their criticism and even their impertinence.

In short, blasphemy is only recognized as such, in public debate and political confrontation, when a religious group is hegemonic and believes that its point of view should wholly prevail over the society, that the values it considers as sacred should be held as such not only by the believers, but by the society as a whole; and that otherwise offenders should be punished, not for public disorder or public insult, but specifically for blasphemy. To the eyes of such groups, canon law or sharia should be a substitute for penal code, and religious authorities should replace public authority.

Such an attitude may be fostered by political circumstances. This is the case in Turkey during the Refahyol era, a coalition led by an Islamist-conservative party, which sought to impose religious values in the field of public life. During this short period of one year, the penal code was not amended; therefore, the notion of blasphemy (küfür) remained absent and the judiciary, even until now, apparently has in hand no tool to punish what would be perceived as an offense by the believers. However, articles 3, 122 and 312 (216) of the Turkish Penal Code, can be used. Articles 3 and 122 prohibit discrimination against a person “on the basis of their race, language, religion, sect, nationality, color, gender, political (or other) ideas and thought, philosophical beliefs, ethnic and social background, birth, economic and other social positions”. In this official translation provided by the Council of Europe, the word “ethnic” is deceptively used for the Turkish word “milliyet”, which effectively has a sense of "nationality" or "ethnicity"; but this notion is itself strongly bound to a religious belonging: for example "Greek" usually means "Orthodox", regardless of the language of the community; often translated as “national” or, like here, “ethnic”, the word actually clearly has a religious remanence, even when it remains implicit.

Article 312 (which matches with the article 216 of the new code promulgated in 2004) prohibits any provocation to hatred on the grounds of belonging to a social class, religion or sect (mezhep), or on the grounds of regional origin; it also prohibits any discrimination, any act or statement that would aim to break social peace by discrediting the religious values of a part of the population. Noteworthy is the mention of “social class”, which allows the repression of the Marxist movements in Turkey.

The word “blasphemy” does not appear in these articles, but they can be used bogusly in order to charge someone with “discrimination” or “racial hatred” when uttering, allegedly injuring statements against the Muslims. This is what happened to the pianist Fazıl Say, sentenced to 10 months in 2013, on charges with “insulting religious beliefs held by a section of the society”, since he had retweeted several lines attributed to poet Omar Khayyam: “You say its rivers will flow in wine. Is the Garden of Eden a drinking house? You say you will give two houris to each Muslim. Is the Garden of Eden a whorehouse?” (Hürriyet Daily News, September 20, 2013). So, punishing someone for “blasphemy” is easy, and the law, in that case, does protect the Muslim population of Turkey, immensely predominant, against the non-Muslim “infidel (gavur)” (1%) and the non-believers!

But the problem lies outside of the law. The mere existence of a religion-inspired government provides self-confidence to the Islamist activists, they feel fostered, even implicitly, and they feel acting rightly. Certain statements - were they uttered whether in sermons or in pamphlets or tracts, even if they are only circumstantial or demagogic - can create, merely by their endless repetition, a climate which may give to activists an impression of impunity when reacting to what they consider blasphemy.

For a long time in Turkey, some segments of the public opinion use to take the discourse of extreme nationalism at its words. The ideology of the far-right does not basically differ neither from the official ideology nor from what is taught at school. Those who are close to the conservative Islamist currents are self-confident and sure of themselves. At the time when the Refahyol coalition led the country, Islamist groups, brotherhoods, parties, or even informal groups or isolated individuals actually had the upper hand in Turkey, or they organized to have it.

Thus, the motives and catalyzers of the facts I am about to narrate do not very much differ from those of other murders or lynching committed by far right activists. But this time, it was a lynching with a lagged effect. It very probably stems from the resurgence of a latent discourse and its taking at words, a phenomenon analyzed by Jean-Pierre Faye in his Langages totalitaires (1972).

A climate of alarm


The period is already haunted by some serious concerns. Political Islam is scary, and rightly. The news coming from Algeria, which lives its “black decade”, is all the more worrying as the Islamist media in Turkey stand up for the Algerian Islamist killers. Far-rightist daily Türkiye, although more nationalist than Islamist, regularly publishes chronicles by Necati Özfatura, who legitimizes the Islamist violence by the “oppression” allegedly endured by the Muslims.

In Turkey itself, the massacre of Marash, with more than one hundred Alevis murdered in December 1978, is not forgotten, nor the arson in Sivas, July 1993. The images of the Islamist crowd shouting “To death!” in front of the burning hotel where 37 people, including artists, writers, musicians, young performers, and even children, lost their lives, are in everybody's memory.

Thus, when the Refahyol coalition comes to power in June 1996, worry increases since everybody knows what Islamist activists are able to do, in Turkey and elsewhere, and that in a certain political climate, provocative and demagogic words can foster hatred and make easier to carry a criminal act.

At that time, the mainstream newspapers – with the exception of Zaman – still are, at least in surface, more or less “secularist” and Kemalist. Not surprising are their reactions, in 1996, vis-à-vis the Refahyol government: among others, Kemalist Cumhuriyet or left-leaning Yeni Yüzyıl are on the lookout for signs of Islamization of public life, all deemed as provocations in the country of Atatürk. For example, on September 27, 1996, Yeni Yüzyıl publishes a report on the Islamist municipality of Sincan, close to Ankara, with on its front page this headline: "It stinks of Sharia in Sincan". On October 5, a report about the Aczmendi brotherhood, in Milliyet, is illustrated with photographs of bearded and turbaned activists walking around the streets dressed in djellabas, bludgeons in hands: a clear representation of the menace. At the beginning of October, the Islamist mayor of Ankara, Melih Gökçek, presents the new logo of the city, representing a stylized mosque, which replaces a Hittite symbol of the sun: Cumhuriyet stigmatizes the new logo as scandalous, since Ankara is in itself the symbol of Kemalism, and the Hittites that of an Anatolian culture, supposed to portend, in the Kemalist vision of history, the new Republican Turkey.

The lynching of a philosophy teacher


In these circumstances, on October 11, the daily press reports a worrying event, which in my opinion was not enough highlighted, as it most probably was a provocation organized by the Islamist daily Akit, aimed at "putting pressure" on a philosophy teacher, who was within an inch of lynching – and anyway ended badly.

Akit had previously reported a "blasphemy", purportedly committed by a female philosophy teacher employed in a private religious school ("High School for Imams and Preachers" or IHL) at Üsküdar (Istanbul). According to Akit, quoted on October 11 by Sabah, the teacher, in order to illustrate the idea of God's omnipresence, had asked the pupils: "Consequently, now, under my feet, is God present?”. Then, she would have trampled on the ground (as one might do instinctively to draw attention to something on the ground), reportedly saying: "So now I am trampling on your God". Outraged by this "insolence", Akit continued, the students protested to the teacher and then went to the headmaster's office. There, some of them went further, claiming that the teacher had trampled on the Koran and thrown it in the students' faces.

The teacher's name was Sevil Akdogan. She had been temporarily employed in various private schools, notably in Beykoz, an Islamic stronghold on the Bosphorus, where, according to Akit, she tried to force a girl to remove her headscarf. Seriously threatened after this disputed philosophy lesson, she took refuge with the headmaster, who made her leave discreetly.

Concluding the relation of its version of the event, Akit called for a rally on October 10 in front of the school. According to Sabah, around 100 people, "bearded people dressed in chalvar and turbans, and veiled women" gathered to demonstrate "against secularism and the republic". A black-veiled woman waved a green flag and demanded an apology to the Muslims.

That day, the press was very present, as if it was specifically invited: in the photograph published by Yeni Yüzyıl, at least five cameramen are visible. About fifteen policemen only were there, for a demonstration of one hundred people: by contrast, for the weekly sit-in of the mothers of the disappeared in Galatasaray, in the same period, the policemen often outnumber the demonstrators and wear their anti-riot equipment. In fact, the local police commissioner had allowed the demonstration to pass and the police did not make any arrests.

Akit's journalists did not do their job. They did not question neither the headmaster nor the teacher herself. They wrote on the basis of the rumors and babble of the students and probably of their parents. According to the headmaster himself, Akit had greatly exaggerated: "Sevil Akdogan did not at all throw the Koran down, and committed no blasphemy. She only invited the students to discuss religion”. He admitted the teacher to be an unstable person and knew that she was the former wife of Onat Kutlar, a well-known writer, movie critic, and founder of the Istanbul “Sinematek”, who was killed in an attack on Taksim Square in December 1994 - long considered as an Islamist attack but in fact carried out by the PKK.

But the “secularist” Sabah, no doubt to worry its readers, and to conform to the prevailing stereotypes about the Islamist menace, also distorted the facts. The photographs gainsay the description of the event: there are actually very few bearded people, and none of them are turbaned. In the middle of the group, there are a dozen women wearing full black veils, one of whom actually waving a green flag. Apart from this, the group is made up of ordinary people; in particular, the front rows are occupied by young adults, only a few of whom have beards. Some of them, the leaders, perhaps, shout, raise their fists, and seem angry. High school students are present, very young, wearing the traditional blazer and, for some, a tie; they seem to have a good time. The middle of the group, more visible in Yeni Yüzyıl's photo, is made up of women, almost all with their heads covered; another group of young men close off the demonstration, very few of them being bearded.

The demonstrators in Üsküdar. Photo Cumhur Elmas, Sabah, October 11, 1996

The demonstrators in Üsküdar. Photo Cumhur Elmas, Sabah, October 11, 1996

When covering an "Islamist" demonstration, the secularist press, in Turkey and elsewhere, carefully chooses among the images taken by the reporters. To underline the Islamist menace, the portrayed ones must correspond to the prevailing stereotypes: women must be in black, men with beards and their heads covered with a turban. From this point of view, Sabah's page does not meet these standards. But, in fact, the image is really worrying, because this crowd pouring into the street forms the actual basis of political Islam: people are young, even very young, easily manipulated by elders who can be identified in the cliché. The women in black and the turbaned men are there for the folklore; the other women, in simple headscarves, were probably mobilized as part of a brotherhood or of a Koranic school.

The photograph published the same day by Yeni Yüzyıl represents a later moment of the demonstration and the cliché is misleading. The photographer has waited until the first half of the procession has passed; the women dressed in black, barely visible in the photograph of Sabah, are here in the foreground; they are passing the police blockade, which does not look very severe, and form with them a black mass that fills a good part of the field. Some of the demonstrators are already behind the photographer, another part in the background, almost invisible. Most of them are in their twenties and thirties, with a determined look in their eyes. Obviously, they are not there to have fun: they are activists. In the center of the picture, the green banner is clearly visible. The presence of cameramen, in the background on the left, attests to the not-spontaneous character of the event.

The same demonstration, as seen by Yeni Yüzıl (left) and Milliyet (right), October 11, 1996The same demonstration, as seen by Yeni Yüzıl (left) and Milliyet (right), October 11, 1996

The same demonstration, as seen by Yeni Yüzıl (left) and Milliyet (right), October 11, 1996

As the article says, the demonstration ended without any incident: after a common prayer, the demonstrators dispersed without police intervention.

A non-event? Certainly not. It is not known how often this type of intimidation has occurred over the years. For someone who has been threatened, it is frightening. Even without physical assault, the psychological violence is very strong, especially for Sevil Akdogan, given the trauma she had suffered less than two years earlier.

About one year later, on December 17, 1997, I found this sad information in Sabah, written by Can Ataklı:

"Every day a journalist is informed of hundreds of news items; some of them are taken into account, only a small number are published. Most of them evaporate the next day. But what about the people involved? With few exceptions, we don't know what happens to them. We publish, a name appears in the press, then we forget.”

"Yesterday when I was reading the newspapers, I felt my hair stand up. In Bozcaada [or Tenedos, a Turkish isle in the Aegean Sea], a teacher committed suicide; her name was Sevil Akdogan. She had been assaulted by a group of Islamists while she was a philosophy teacher at the Imam-Hatip High School in Üsküdar. The veli [class delegates – often snitches] had denounced her for having allegedly insulted the Koran. Some wanted to lynch her. [In Sabah] we had given this news a good place.”

"Later, Sevil had been transferred to the Kandilli Girls High School, and then she was fired... Throughout this time, the fanatics went on harassment and bullying. That's why she left Istanbul and settled in Bozcaada, before ending her life.”

"Here we go: being a journalist can be depressing at times. For us, it is a short news item, for others it's a matter of life and death.”

"May God welcome Sevil Akdogan into his bosom, and let us hope that she has found peace.”

About Sevil Akdogan, see Batuhan, Hüseyin (2002). Sevgili Ölülerim [Dear Departed]. Istanbul: Kitap Yayınları, 2002.

About Onat Kutlar and the 1994 attack on Taksim Square, click on the link below (this article is in French)


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