[Published on susam-sokak.fr on January 14, 2013. Updated and translated in August 2020]
This article is a continuation of “Accused of “blasphemy” (1) : Sevil Akdogan (link)
Oguz Atak, a barman killed on May 5, 1997. Screenshot from TGRT Channel published in the daily Radikal on May 6, 1997.
After the case of the philosophy teacher escaping a public lynching, another case was given coverage out of proportion by a media, implicitly appealing to public vindictiveness against the author of a purported blasphemy. The differences, however, not only lie in the modalities and the personality of the victim, but in the intervention, not of a mob, but of professional killers.
In May 1997, the issue rolling the media is a long confrontation opposing the National Security Council (MGK), the instrument of the army, then the supposed-to-be guardian of official secularism, to the Refahyol Islamist government. An ultimatum had been addressed to the Prime Minister on February 28, 1997, and until its resignation in June, the Government was under severe pressure. Therefore, the place of religion in public life, meanwhile, is a particularly sensitive concern.
On May 6, a less ordinary topic is broadcast in the media: a rather good one, since it deals with a murder committed in Bebek, a very chic area of Istanbul on the Bosporus. The victim is an “eccentric”, “picturesque” character, and the crime's motive would be a suppositional blasphemy.
A few days before, the Istanbul drug squad had carried out checks in the neighborhood's bars and clubs, accompanied by television crews, especially of the reactionary TGRT channel, close to the far-right daily Türkiye. During the police checking in the “She Bar”, the cameramen lingered on the person of the barman, Oguz Atak, 42, known as “Ozzy”, who serves clients shirtless, and whose back is tattooed with an Arabic calligraphy of the name of Allah and the name "Huwa" ("Him", another name of God), in the style that can be admired on the walls of the Great Mosque in Bursa. The barman has made-up eyes and lips, a shaved head, and another tattoo bars his forehead vertically; in the photos published by the press (screenshots in fact), he is a smiling man who seems well being in his professional work.
According to the media, Oguz Atak would be a gay. This "orientation", the style of the man, his profession, would be totally incompatible with the names considered sacred. So, on the topic of the planned report, the fight against drugs, an another one is grafted, unexpected and providential, because picturesque and doubly scandalous in the eyes of the channel's audience.
The report was broadcast on May 4 and was looped on the screens throughout the day; the camera focused on the barman and his tattoos, the commentator on his homosexuality and the alleged blasphemy, saying: "He has polished nails, a hideous head and he wears earrings; he lives according to a certain idea of democracy. But he pours out streams of alcohol while carrying God's name on his back". It is a call to hatred as we often heard it in the mouth of some presenters indulging in the role of public prosecutor like Reha Muhtar on Show-TV and Star channels during the same period.
The story was meant to shock. And it did. The day after, two men approached Oguz Atak as he was walking his dog in Bebek Park and shot him.
Unlike in the Sevil Akdogan case, the punishment for "blasphemy" was immediate. Promptly arrested, the murderers, Hüseyin Ulas and Alaattin Polat, were members of the mafia gang of Sedat Peker, a very important godfather close to the extreme rightist organization of the Grey Wolves (Bozkurt) and, according to persistent rumors, occasionally in the service of the State. The legal proceedings began in June 1997 – an unusual celerity - and lasted until 2005.
As a consequence, and unlike in the case of Sevil Akdogan, the memory of the event and that of the victim have lasted some years, at least on the Net, where Oguz Atak left three interesting "traces". The first is a press recension, due to a blogger, Pippi Hasmet, who was moved by this story, and collected articles on the murder of Oguz Atak and the trial of his murderers (see some references below). The second is an entry in an online participative dictionary, eksisozluk.com, which, from 2003 on, has attracted comments about the event, some of which asserting that the victim was a Sufi "guide". As a matter of fact, the She Bar originally was in Kusadası, a fashionable resort on the Aegean coast, and it was known as a place for meetings and discussions about the poet Mevlâna and Sufism. The third interesting "trace" is a work by an artist living in Amsterdam, Beldan Sezen (beldansezen.com), who interpreted one of the photos of Oguz Atak published once by the press. While searching for the topic in research engines, I immediately recognized this cliché now turned into an icon. The story of Oguz Atak affected the artist so much that she wrote a poem in 1999 and chose to interpret the image of the barman seen from behind, showing his tattoos, adding this excerpt from her poem: "I don't know you, assassinated by men who loved a god instead of men".
Three traces, spread along a decade, give measure to the emotion Oguz Atak's death had resulted in.
People attended his burial by hundreds, including famous artists. But the imam of Bebek shocked the public by refusing to pray for “Ozzy”. On the spot, a petition claiming for the indictment of the TGRT channel immediately collected 400 signatures. Then, the hearse left to Izmir, accompanied by the applause of the crowd.
Blasphemy, a pretext for killing
But after all, was Oguz Atak really killed because he would have committed a “blasphemy”? Most likely, the true reasons were probably quite different and the famous godfather Sedat Peker himself was suspected of organizing the murder. The fact is that the She Bar, as it is reported, had refused to comply with the racketeering imposed by the mafia gang to the local bars. Consequently, Sedat Peker, sought by the police, extradited from Romania in August 1998, was imprisoned, to be released in May 1999. The affair could merely be a mafia story and have nothing to do with Atak's tattoos, even if they were deemed as shocking for the believers.
From the beginning, however, the role of the purported blasphemy was important. First, the news item was deemed as worthy to be reported by a TV channel, and to be diffused in the loop all along the day; and the case of Oguz Atak worthy to be stigmatized as both scandalous and source of scandal for the believers. Secondly, the assassination was precisely committed the day after the broadcast, in order to disguise the murder as a spontaneous and epidermal reaction of “believers” who simply couldn't be able to accept such an insult to their faith. And thirdly, for their defense, the murderers chose to justify themselves by a moral motive the opinion, if not the court, would consider acceptable.
The trial of the murderers began on June 20, 1997. The underworld was present in the court, with several men of the gang, to support the indicted. According to the daily Milliyet, Ulas defended himself in court as follows: "I had seen on television the guy with the name of Allah tattooed on his back. By chance, I recognized him in the park and pointed him out [to Polat]. Thus, Atak comes to me and asks me, 'Why are you pointing at me?' As I explain, he answers, 'So what, you think it to be odd?' - 'Yes, as a Muslim I don't like that. You sell and serve alcohol, you poison the people, and moreover you offend the religious values of Islam'. The guy starts insulting me and hitting me with the dog's leash. Alaattin holds me, but Atak comes back and grabs my throat. I'd just undergone surgery, and I can't breathe. While Alaattin pulls me back, Atak pulls down his tracksuit and shows me his organs: 'Look, this is where I'm going to get the next tattoos!' So I felt obliged to take out my gun and fire three or four shots to protect myself.”
This story would be funny if it wouldn't result in a man's death. The investigation had concluded to a real execution since both mobsters fired. In his plea, Ulas's lawyer argues that his client comes from a very conservative region of Turkey and that he got a very rigorous education. In April 1998, at the end of the last hearing, Ulas again asserts that he did nothing but responding to a provocation, and Polat still claims that he was not involved in the affair. Ulas was sentenced to 19 years for "homicide after minor provocation" and Polat to 5 years for complicity in homicide and for carrying a prohibited weapon.
Oguz Atak's parents had brought against TGRT another court case, which concluded in 1999 in heavily condemning the channel for incitement to aggression towards their son.
Endly, the legal procedure continued until 2005. The prosecutor did not forget the mafia aspect of the case, and Sedat Peker was arrested on the basis of phone records which seemingly could have charged the godfather. But the court concluded the recordings to lack of decisive evidence and terminated the proceedings.
“How can such affairs happen in that country?”
In her blog, Pippi Hasmet makes "a humble request": she asks us to remember, to keep alive “Ozzy”'s memory. "I wrote this post for that. I wrote for his friends, shine a spotlight on it, to explain it, to let people know how such an event can happen. You must understand how such things can happen in this country”. By transmitting the memory, Pippi Hasmet is herself part of the event, by keeping it alive. Similarly, artist Beldan Sezen has completed the process by transforming the image published by the press on May 6, 1997 into an icon. Even though this iconic status exists only for a few people, the event however continues to live on before our eyes, thanks to the Net.
The barman and the philosophy teacher
Now, how do both affairs, Oguz Atak's and Sevil Akdogan's, allow us to "understand how such things can happen"? Before I tried to delve deeper, collecting my press clippings and browsing through the photos, I thought first I was dealing with two rather similar cases of "blasphemy" punishment. But the second case can be examined in a very different light, that of the world of mafia gangs.
I tried to draw a parallel between both facts: perhaps wrongly, but it may however shed some light. First of all, these events are almost contemporary, they occur during a very specific period, marked by strong political tension. They both undoubtedly occur because of the use – deemed sacrilegious - of objects that are signs of the sacred, two scriptural objects: the Koran and the calligraphy of God's name.
The purported blasphemy stems from a rapprochement deemed scandalous. In the teacher's case, it is told that she had the Koran in hands: she perhaps did not respect the precautions the believers request in the handling of the Book. But there is in fact no evidence that she actually had it in hands. In the barman's case, the scandal is caused by the close proximity between the name of God, calligraphed in an alphabet and language considered to be the language of God, on the one hand, and a proscribed element, alcohol – let alone the barman's alleged homosexuality. In both cases, from a narrow, even bigot, point of view, there is an incompatibility; both attitudes are a sign of disrespect, insult, blasphemy, which was certainly not the intention of the victims.
The second common point between both cases is the role of the media, or at least two of them, launching imprecations rather than broadcasting information, whose discourse incited to mobilization and action. The attempted lynching of Sevil Akdogan is an example of the efficiency of the daily Akit as a relay between Islamist activist circles and the public, as a broadcaster of watchwords and ultimately as a trigger of mob events. The people thus mobilized are, on the one hand, agitators in direct contact with the prescribers (the press, the parties, the brotherhoods...), and on the other hand, activists or even mere individuals (like parents and high school students, too happy to break from the everyday ordinary school life) who take political discourse at its word, and even call for violence, the apparently sacred character of the cause seeming to them to justify everything.
The role of the TGRT channel in the Atak affair is rather different, more insidious. The channel, without to call to action, is nearer to calumny. But by charging a man, identified by name, of a most serious accusation to the eyes of a part of its audience, it points him out to the crowd's justice. In this case, however, Atak does not meet an angry crowd, but two gangsters, whose real motivation is neither political nor religious. The TV channel's denunciation has provided a convenient opportunity to act, which probably was not foreseen by the gang.
Thus, in both cases, "blasphemy", a matter to be taken seriously for a part of the opinion, is a lever for action, whether political or criminal (but isn't crime a part of political life, especially in Turkey?); those who denounce "blasphemy" well know that the current atmosphere can be conducive to the mobilization and action of a part of the population, and allows an activist or even a rioter to bank on a lenient justice.
On that point, the Turkish Penal Code is clear: "unjustified provocation" (haksız tahrik) is considered as a mitigating circumstance; the sentence incurred for a crime can in this case be reduced by one third to one half, and the life sentence reduced to twelve years (article 51 of the then Penal Code, article 29 of the 2004 Code). Obviously, Ulas's lawyer was aware of these legal provisions and invoked his client's religious faith and rigorous moral education to make the "provocation" more credible, and the court that tried Ulas did indeed consider that he was the victim of a "minor provocation". But, conversely, another court deemed the TGRT's attitude blameworthy and subject to legal penalties.
In the case of Sevil Akdogan, no one was litigated, not because she committed suicide, but because as far as I know, no one has filed a complaint, neither against Akit, nor against the organizers and cadres of the October 10, 1996 demonstration, nor, later, against those who harassed her, until she left Istanbul. Sevil Akdogan herself, destabilized by the attack that killed Onat Kutlar, her former husband, probably was fragile, not strong enough to pursue, alone and without any support, a legal action that could last long.
Among the lessons that can be drawn from these cases is the intertwining of politics, religion, and, occasionally, the extreme right and mafia affairs. The denunciation of "blasphemy" comes from an ultra-nationalist milieu where religion is at the centre of values. Religion and blasphemy were chosen as part of the scenario developed by the killers and their godfather. Atak's behavior and lifestyle seemed to them to provide credible, admissible circumstances for killing.
"How can such things happen in that country?” asks blogger Pippi Hasmet. Well... If it is normal to walk around a public park with a loaded gun, if it is normal to respond to a "provocation", even serious, by using that gun, not to defend oneself or to threaten, but to kill; if it is still normal to solve problems of religious behavior by firing a gun, "such things can happen". Let us wonder too whether it is normal, in the Üsküdar case, for journalists to refrain from investigating before overstepping their role by calling for the demonstration; whether it is normal to consider as plausible and reliable the denunciations of young schoolchildren; whether the police, who are present, do nothing or so little to prevent a lynching attempt and whether no one brings a legal procedure to follow up advocacy of hatred... Yes, "such things can happen in this country".
Sevil Akdogan and Oguz Atak are two "Autumn Leaves" still floating on the surface of social life in late twentieth-century Turkey.
Beldan Sezen's poem is accessible on the Net (link) (http://www.bintelnas.org/04divine/oguz.html
Beldan Sezen's website :https://beldansezen.com/
Articles listed by blogger Pippi Hasmet (https://pippihasmet.blogspot.com/2010/04/oguz-atak-hatrlamak.html)
Özlem Öztürk, Ertugrul Erbas, Atilla Dısbudak, « Cenazede imam krizi », Milliyet, May 8, 1997 ;
Atilla Dısbudak, « Barmen cinayetinde tahliye istemine ret », Milliyet, June 21, 1997 ;
« 'Dövme' tahrik unsuru ! », Radikal, April 18, 1998 ;
« TGRT, barmen cinayeti için tazminat ödeyecek », Hürriyet, July 23, 1999 ;
« Ergenekon'un yeni bassavcı vekili Sedat Peker'iiddianameye almamıs », Zaman, July 29, 2009 ;
Orhan Yurtsever, « Peker'e 'barmen' cinayetinden 13 yıl sonra yeniden takipsizlik », Sabah, March 11, 2010.
Most of the articles are now on a dedicated Facebook account: https://www.facebook.com/pg/Ozzy.OguzAtak/notes/