[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News]
A few weeks ago, the cultural bureau of the municipality of Sakarya, a mid-size city to the east of Istanbul, invited me to give a public talk on secularism. They said they also invited another columnist, Yıldıray Oğur from daily Taraf, to speak on the same topic. I accepted the invitation, and thus went to Sakarya last Monday to speak at the central conference hall.
There were about 300 people in the audience, who listened to us carefully and calmly. In my speech, I criticized the Turkish version of secularism, for its lack of emphasis on religious freedom, and contrasted it with the First Amendment of the United States constitution. I also said the definition of secularism should be made by the Turkish Parliament, preferably in a new constitution, rather than being imposed by an ideologically hyper-secularist constitutional court.
In his speech, Yıldıray Oğur took a similar line. He also criticized the official version of nationalism, pointing out that it has some racist tones.
In the Q&A session, a university student asked me why Muslims should not ask for an “Islamic state,” rather than a secular one, even if the latter becomes as liberal as I wish. In return, I said that Islam really doesn’t demand or define an “Islamic state,” and the efforts to create such a thing have resulted in tyrannies that were bad for both Muslims and others. Many in the audience, including the fashionably veiled young women, seemed to be convinced.
But then came the tense moment which would make the panel national, breaking news. A student, who had raised his hand to ask a question, stood up and began to make a heated comment.
“This is the city that gave so many martyrs in the war of liberation,” he said, and accused us of defiling that glorious heritage. He was mostly angry with daily Taraf for its anti-militaristic line. But he was no fan of me either.
Then a few other students who sat next to this guy stood up and opened a Turkish flag and a flag of HEPAR, a marginal ultra-nationalist party founded by retired general Orhan Pamukoğlu. They started to yell at us, calling us “traitors,” while the security personnel in the hall dragged them outside. Then I saw some unexpected object flying in the air toward me: a hangman’s noose. I also heard the words, “hainlere idam!” which means “execution to traitors.”
That night, I had imagined that this show must be the work of a bunch of angry, and creative, university students. But the next day, the head of the Sakarya branch of HEPAR gave a press conference giving full support to the noose-show.
“The punishment to high treason is indeed execution,” the man said, and heralded that they will indeed execute “those who sell the homeland” when they come to power. He also said that me and Oğur should be wary of the “fate of Ali Kemal,” a journalist who was lynched in İzmit in 1922 for being a “British spy.”
But what exactly made me such a “traitor”? Well, the fact that I was daring to criticize the official ideology was probably enough. But there was also a particular piece of mine which seemed to further enrage the traitor-hunters. This was an article I wrote a few months ago in Turkish titled, “That place is not ‘England’.” I had explained that we Turks keep calling the United Kingdom “İngiltere” (England), wrongfully dismissing Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Then I inferred that the existence of self-governing regions in a country doesn’t necessarily “divide” it. I also I added that I am not in favor of replicating such federal regionalism in Turkey; I just wanted to remind fellow Turks that “our concept of a monolithic nation is not the only way.”
Apparently, that reminder did not go well with the HEPAR folks. Two days before the conference, a likeminded local website ran a comment which presumed that I wanted to “divide” Turkey with my article on the U.K. After some vulgar insults, the commentator also argued that I was an agent of “the imperialist Great Britain.” Hence comes, I guess, the analogy with Ali Kemal.
So, this is the whole story. I am thankful to all the kind people, including opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who condemned the noose-show, and voiced their support. But I am a little sad to see that there are many people on the other side as well, who keep sending messages or writing online comments saying that “traitors” like me indeed “deserve” such death threats.
Why, I keep asking myself, so much hate?
The answer is not that hard to find. Turkey’s official ideology has long defined all opposing ideologies as treacherous deviations with evil intentions. So, when you criticize the official ideology, what you often get back is not a counter-criticism. You are rather vilified as an enemy within – a “divider,” a wild-eyed Islamist, a “British spy,” or something equally bad.
The only good news is that this is an ideology on the retreat. In the past, its advocates were really using hangman’s nooses to execute their political opponents. Today, thank God, they only can throw them at speakers.