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Persecuted Turkish journalist Can Dündar: ‘I still think there is hope’

Tayfun Balcik
Journalist. Programmacoördinator bij The Hague Peace Projects voor de Armeens-Koerdische-Turkse werkgroep. Lid van de Nieuw Amsterdam Raad (Pakhuis de Zwijger).

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The persecuted Turkish journalist Can Dündar was in Amsterdam for a few days last week. He took part in the freethinker’s festival at the debate centre De Balie, which took place under rigorous security measures. De Kanttekening managed to interview the ‘journalist-warrior’ who now lives in Germany.


Can Dündar is big. That may be said. Whenever his name is mentioned anywhere in Turkey, it immediately addresses the country’s most fundamental issues: the situation of minorities, the murder of journalist Hrant Dink in 2007, the Syrian war, and naturally the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Unlike the latter, Dündar is seen as the liberal and progressive voice of Turkey. And it is precisely for this reason that he is considered a traitor by nationalist Turks.

An animosity that is personally fueled by the Turkish president himself. A hostility that also requires visible security measures, such as guards at the door and police cars driving back and forth at Amsterdam’s Leidseplein, located diagonally opposite from De Balie.

According to Erdogan, Dündar is someone who has revealed state secrets – and therefore he is ‘a dangerous man’. He reported on the shipments of Turkish weaponry to Syrian fighters in 2015. ‘If it is a crime to record the truth, then I am a criminal’, Dündar said earlier.

During the freethinker’s festival at De Balie, in the room which is is packed with people, Dündar can be seen as anything but a dangerous man. He is a small, friendly man who is willing to speak to anyone around him. He starts the evening off with showing a work of art that he brought along with him to Amsterdam. It is a replica of the Turkish solitary cell in which he was detained. The cell is placed at the front of the building of De Balie. There are mirrors on the walls inside the cell, and on the outside it is transparent. People who enjoy the Amsterdam nightlife can look inside the cell, but inside the solitary confinement, the prisoner can only see himself.

‘I apparently missed the cell’, Dündar says with a laugh, when he talked about the reason to create this work of art along with the Iranian artist Shahrzad Rahmani – who much like the journalist himself, also fled to Germany for being persecuted in her own country. ‘We felt at home for a while because journalists in our countries of origin spend most of their time in a prison cell’, he says of the time he was captivated in Turkey.

But on a more serious note, he speaks: ‘The whole point is that people are still incarcerated, for more than four years in solitary custody for what they have written or tweeted. Turkey is the largest prison for journalists, and it takes courage to publish under those circumstances.’

That evening in De Balie, it did not take long before the names of the Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas and the philanthropist Osman Kavala were mentioned. Both men have been detained in Turkey for years. He sighs. ‘Turkey wanted to become part of Europe, but Europe is so far away now. But’, – Dündar continued as if he has no time for disappointment – ‘you also have secular-democratic forces in Turkey.’

Dündar has a taste for battle, and his willingness to strive for justice was even more visible during the evening in De Balie. In his willingness to fight for human rights and freedom of press, he refused to spare Europe for even one bit. At least not when it comes to the European governments. According to him, the European governments have sold their souls to Erdogan for some time now. They maintain relationships of interest with the Turkish president over the heads of refugees.

‘It’s a deal that works for everyone: Europe doesn’t get refugees from Turkey, and Europe isn’t all too critical about Erdogan. Everyone is happy, except for us. And in doing so, Europe is sacrificing her own values’, says Dündar icily.

When asked whether Erdogan is a dictator, Dündar remarkably says that he no longer is, although he used to be. ‘With female activism, and student protests of last spring, Turkey has shown that it no longer tolerates him. People resist. And for the first time, the opposition is united. They will not stand idly by and let Erdogan turn the country into a dictatorship or an Islamist republic.’

Have faith in the ‘other Turkey’ is what Dündar means to say. ‘It will not come from Europe, which only ‘condemns’ what is going on in Turkey. We need something different’, he says. ‘We need a stronger civil society that works together and fights back. And this is exactly what we do in an era where we can fight for justice on a global scale.’

The audience also has critical questions to ask. Has there ever been freedom in Turkey? And is it as simple as the struggle between the ‘traditional, islamist Turkey’ and the ‘modern, secular group’?

‘No, we have never known full freedom in Turkey’, Dündar responds. ‘But twenty, and even forty years ago, we had more freedom’, he claims. ‘Turkey was never the hell it is today. There have never been so many journalists in captivity. This is worse than a military regime.’

So much for last Thursday’s discussion. Two days later, we spoke to Dündar himself, in a meeting room of De Balie. To reinforce his image of a ‘united opposition’, he talks about the 2019 Istanbul municipal elections, where a secular mayor was elected instead of the AKP candidate. This, he says, ‘undid the thesis of “They can’t get together”‘.

He continues: ‘They came together – and won. It is important to see that. This has happened for the first time. This is not just about Kurds or Turkey’s left. The Good Party (a secular-nationalist party split from the MHP, ed.), the old constituency of the MHP (the ultra-nationalist party affiliated with the far-right Grey Wolves, ed.), voted with the Kurds for the same party (the secular CHP, ed.) in the Istanbul elections. We should not lose sight of this. This is a turning point.’

Recently the Good Party – unlike the rest of the opposition – voted to extend Turkey’s military presence in Syria and Iraq. Does this action damage the opposition’s coalition?

‘Yes, of course. Such things will happen. It is also so easy. There has been a decades-long hate campaign and demonisation against the Kurds. When the CHP takes a step towards the Kurds, people immediately say, ‘You are following the PKK.’ The fear of that propaganda is still alive, it exists. So yes, it is not going to be easy. But we have seen that it is not impossible. That is what I am trying to say.

On the other hand, when the repression intensifies, you also will see that the opposition discovers that they need to come together and to support each other. That is why I am not without hope. For example, look at the six parties that have come together in a few months for a new constitutional draft. They are now drawing up a road map. This is something the opposition is doing for the first time since the last 20 years. That is why it is important to keep a positive outlook.’

As a famous journalist, what is your role in bringing about this unity in the opposition?

Dündar smiles. ‘As a journalist, I can only make news of this. But anyway. We are actually talking about something that goes beyond journalism. Yet we are all defending our profession, our country and our freedom in a certain way. Thus, we journalists have turned into activists. And yes, we get together with friends, we talk as a diaspora (many more Turkish journalists have fled abroad, ed.), we support each other’s initiatives and see if we can do more things. We try to find solutions. We also think a little about post-Erdogan Turkey and make plans. Instead of bickering about how we will get out of this hell, we are already thinking about how the foundations of a new, democratic Turkey will be laid.’

You are setting up a publishing house in the diaspora for authors banned in Turkey.

‘Yes, among other things. But more importantly, we are working on a think tank consisting of people who have emigrated from Turkey – the Turkish brain drain, and whether we can use it for the Turkey of tomorrow. Can we achieve the unity that we have not been able to achieve in Turkey, and come up with solutions for Turkey?’

Is there anything you want or expect from Europe?

‘Yes, we want one thing from Europe: don’t create a shadow.’

What do you mean by that?

‘There is a Turkish saying: ‘Don’t give me shadow, other than that I don’t need anything from you’. In other words: don’t meddle in our affairs, keep your distance. Because as long as Europe interferes with us, Europe is doing harm in a general sense. Of course I do not mean the European civil society, organisations and colleagues. Look, we (dissident Turks and Europeans, ed.) are here together at De Balie. But we unfortunately experience a conflict of interests with the European governments. They choose to stand next to Erdogan.’

‘We want one thing from Europe: don’t create a shadow’

Now it is Erdogan, but it seems that in Turkey – no matter who comes to power – it always ends up being an authoritarian regime. What is the cause of this?

‘That’s a very broad question. There are of course cultural, geographical, political and economic reasons for this. Actually, we should deal with all of them one by one. Let me stress that Turkish society stems from an Ottoman tradition of over six hundred years: a patriarchal society where men are dominant. In the family, they are in charge and are seen as the leaders of the family. The men are also proud of the military, Turkey is a militaristic society. Turkey is therefore a country where the military always sees a role for itself in politics. Turkey is a country were people grow up with the pressure of the imam in Koran classes, with the commander in the army, with the father in the house, where women are oppressed by their men. Then, whether you like it or not, you get a militaristic society that is always looking for an authoritarian saviour. Education, politics: patriarchy reigns everywhere. Even within the parties there is no democracy. We could go on like this until dawn.’


Do you think there are things that Erdogan structurally and permanently has destroyed in Turkey?

‘In Turkey, everything is taking place on a slippery slope, whether you’re talking about the independence of the judiciary, the freedom of the press, the autonomy of universities or the separation of powers. There is no doubt that a great deal of damage has been done in these areas.’

After Erdogan, can the Kurdish question still be solved within the framework of a single Turkish republic?

But of course. It has always been our objective to find a peaceful solution. A solution where Kurds and Turks can live side by side in peace. In this society, people have been making an effort for so long to make that happen.’

When I look at this from the point of view of many Kurds, but also from my own roots – the Grey Wolves – I have to conclude that there is no unity at all. There is a deep split in Kurdish society towards everything that has to do with Turkey. After everything that has happened, people have no faith whatsoever in the Turkish Republic. 

‘I look at this question differently. I still think there is hope. The elections in Istanbul are an important example. Indeed, we can give thousands of examples about why this society is falling apart, but I prefer to focus on the good examples. The 2019 Istanbul election did show us: when there is a rational choice, Kurds and Turks can operate together in achieving the same goal. Istanbul thus came out of Erdogan’s hands again, with Kurdish support. I see this as something great, a turning point – as far as I am concerned, also in the political cooperation between Kurds and Turks.

The earlier peace process between Turkey and the PKK (which was disrupted in 2015, as a result of which they are now at war again, ed.) actually also showed how much this society is expecting a peaceful solution. But at the same time, the peace process also showed how fragile peace is. We have an obligation to look at it from the positive side: there seems to be such a (peaceful, ed.) vein running in this society, despite all the politics based on hostility.’

Can Dündar (Beeld: Jan Boeve/De Balie)

In Turkey, the army and the security apparatus have traditionally had a lot of power – remember all those military coups in the past – which is why they were also referred to as ‘state within the state’ or ‘deep state’. Over the years, however, Erdogan has increasingly taken control of the army. Is the deep state gone? Or has it changed?

‘The Turkish deep state is like a horse that constantly gallops in a certain direction, while the jockey occasionally changes. The horse does what it knows and keeps on galloping. Unfortunately, in Turkish society there is now such a reality. At the moment, the deep state and the Turkish government embrace each other. That is also a possibility. Sometimes the deep state throws off the jockey, but sometimes the horse is satisfied with the rider and surrenders to him. That is now the reality.’

But who exactly has embraced the deep state in Turkey?

The party or the person who is in charge now (the AKP, Erdogan, ed.). From time to time there are conflicts. There was a time when the deep state wanted to get rid of former prime minister Bülent Ecevit (late 1990s, ed.). What is agreed within the deep state is difficult to say. There was also a long period of cooperation with the Gülen community, which even took the form of the deep state coinciding almost one on one with it. And then it can just happen that the same deep state turns against them and persecutes them. So conflicts of interest and interest relationships are frequent in Turkish politics. But as I look at the deep state now, I see that until about a year ago, the deep state has backed Erdogan. Now it seems that the deep state is looking for something else.’

Not only at home, but also abroad, Erdogan is very active in pursuing his plans. He is establishing more and more relations with the Islamic world and presents himself as its leader. Does Erdogan’s neo-Ottomanism also have positive aspects, or can it only be classified as vulgar imperialism?

‘It’s only imperialism. This is an idea that is conceived by Erdogan himself and former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. It is about the utopia of the Red Apple (a Turkish-nationalist expansionist mythology in which world domination is the aim, ed.), an old idealist vision, which they use to motivate society. But it is a move that has absolutely nothing to do with reality. Go to Thrace, the Balkans or the Middle East: the only Ottomanism you find there is hatred of Ottomanism. Ottomanism is romanticized and made sympathetic through Turkish series. But if you look at the historical roots, you only find hatred.’

In neighbouring Syria, too, Turkey is active. The Turkish state supports the opposition to Assad, also by deploying jihadists. Is the role that Turkey is playing in Syria only negative?

‘I remember very well that Erdogan was one of Assad’s best friends. They went on holiday together with their families. Assad has not changed, he is still the old Assad. Erdogan has changed and found himself in the midst of the Syrian war. He thought that his involvement in the struggle against Assad would be better for his own political career, so he worked with jihadists to protect them – and to prevent a Kurdish state there.’

‘Turkey’s Syrian policy is completely conceived by Erdogan’s imperial vision. This is the reason why he is now stuck in the Syrian mud. I think his policy is not realistic, it is utopian. It is also very damaging for Turkey with the refugee problem, but also the problem of jihadists in Turkey.’

IS and Assad committed mass murders in Syria. What else could Turkey have done about this?

‘Look, of course Turkey was forced to open its borders to refugees. And – I also say this to European countries – every society that is oppressed, and causes a wave of refugees, you are obliged to protect. But Turkey made it worse. By arming jihadists, they escalated the violence. Of course I am in favor of helping refugees and protecting the Syrian people against Assad. Also I am convinced that Turkey has a responsibility in this – but that is not the occupation of Syrian territory.’

‘Turkey should not fuel the flames of war in Syria, but cease the fire’

What is to be done with the four million refugees in Turkey? The CHP, the largest opposition party in Turkey, regularly says that they must go back. Is this realistic?

‘Some refugees will stay in Turkey for good. For another part, Turkey can create conditions for the save return of refugees – I think that is what the CHP means. So not by dropping refugees at the border, but by creating living conditions in Syria, so that they can live there again in peace. That is what Turkey can do. And this is also possible.’

How?

‘With economic support. So that living and working conditions are created for return. Construction companies that until now have only worked for their own interest, can build houses and factories cheaply there. The Turkish government can stimulate that, so Syrians invest, work and create jobs there. And that can only happen if there is peace. If there is peace, the rest will come.

Turkey should not add fuel to the fire, but fight the fire and help, so that people can return to Syria. This also applies to people who have migrated from the Kurdish villages. Only if there is peace they  will return to their villages.’

So with whom should Turkey make peace in Syria? You have the Kurdish YPG fighters and the Assad regime. Should Turkey cooperate with both sides?

‘Yes they should. Those who are seen as the legitimate authorities, or those who have really built a legitimate government in the region, those are the parties for Turkey to talk to. That way you also respect the will of the people there. But if there is oppression, then you can be critical, you keep your distance and you choose for a different course. If you look at the area now, you see that the legitimate representation – in a national sense, but also from an international perspective and from international relations – is the YPG. So I think Turkey does not have much choice in this. All the Turkish investments to destroy the YPG have only brought Turkey into trouble.’

You have been in Europe for five years now and have been able to observe Europe. According to many, there is a big problem here called ‘Islamophobia’. How do you see that?

‘Yes, there is a variant of Islamophobia in Europe that is racist in nature, where people condemn you at a glance because of your color or belief. This is the kind of white supremacist, European view that we have to fight against.

On the other hand, while we are fighting this battle, women in Afghanistan, for example, who take off their headscarves, are whipped. If we, as Islamic communities, do not raise our voices against this kind of injustice and accept it, we actually legitimize Islamophobia. Then it is not so easy to say: ‘You should not be Islamophobic’.’

‘We can defend the religious freedom of Muslims here (in Europe, ed.). But we are not in the position to say: ‘Support Islam’, when people are tortured and killed because of their thoughts, dress and faith – in the name of Islam. ‘

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