A Turkish National Day question: Abroad or prison?

A Turkish National Day question: Abroad or prison?

Today is May 19, the anniversary of the date when a handful of military and civilian leaders led by general Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) set out for the Black Sea port of Samsun, from Istanbul, in 1919. They were due to launch a war of resistance against armies occupying the last remaining parts of the empire under the fading Ottoman dynasty.

The last straw breaking the camel’s back was the British-backed Greek occupation of the Western city of İzmir just four days before, on May 15. Sultan Vahidettin and his cabinet, led by his son-in-law Ferit, were in open collaboration with the victors of the First World War. According to the armistice that the Sublime Porte signed on Oct. 30, 1918, the Ottoman army was supposed to abandon all arms, empty its garrisons, hand over all ports and railways, and all communication centers to the victorious powers and their local supporters.

The resistance against occupiers turned into a war on two fronts: The war against the occupying Greek, British, French, Italian, Armenian and Georgian armies and the war against the military and civilian forces loyal to the sultan, who still held the title of Caliph of all Muslims at the time. That second front is often ignored or skipped over. But ultimately it was only possible to maintain the continuity of the Turkish state and build a new nation from the ashes of the former regime by changing the borders, capital and entire perception of the world into a secular, Western-oriented one. 

But on this particular National Day, it is sad for this news editor to be publishing stories with headlines like “Two Turkish generals seek asylum in Germany.” A similar wave of escapes from Turkey was seen in the years after the Sept. 12, 1980 military coup, when dissidents fled from the military regime that toppled the elected government by force in order to escape a landscape of mass arrests, torture and unfair trials. 

Today, after the July 15, 2016 coup attempt, dissidents are once again fleeing, many of whom are accused of having links with the illegal network of the U.S.-based Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, who is accused of masterminding the coup attempt. What’s more, hundreds of soldiers carrying diplomatic passports have fled with their families and asked for asylum in Germany. Turkey continues to demand the return of eight military officers who escaped to Greece on the night of the coup.

It is similarly sad to be publishing stories with headlines like “Protesters demand release of jailed journalists on 200th day of Cumhuriyet arrests.” The number of journalists, editors and publishers currently in jail in Turkey now exceeds 150.

Just a few days ago I was having coffee in Istanbul with a long-time friend from a European country. He asked me about the general atmosphere in the country and how was I doing. He was already aware that under the ongoing state of emergency, Turkish democracy is not exactly experiencing a golden age, while also struggling to cope with acts of terrorism agitated by the civil war in neighboring Syria.

Then my friend directly asked the question: Would I want to leave for a Western country if the circumstances become too difficult for me? “No, I don’t want to leave my country I said,” I said. “What if the alternative is going to prison?” he asked. “I don’t think I will face such a situation for the time being. But in such a case I would go to prison,” I said.

It is also sad to be in a position to be answering such questions, even if they are asked by a friend.

Still, today Turkey is not experiencing conditions as bad as those it experienced under foreign occupation 98 years ago, with a government collaborating with invaders. It still has the potential to put things back on track by not losing its Western-oriented secular, democratic look and by enhancing its democratic qualities as soon as possible, which would also help strengthen its bonds with modern democracies and economies.