An ode to traitors: dissent is always patriotic

Yigit Kahyaoglu, Staff Writer

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On Oct. 5, 2019, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a military operation into Northern Syria. According to statements by the Turkish government, the military operation, ironically named “Springs of Peace,” is intended to secure the Turkish-Syrian border, and rid the region from the influence of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party): a militant group acknowledged to be a terrorist organization by many countries, including the U.S. The announcement was vague, yet concerning — politicians and journalists around the globe guessed how the operation would unfold.

On Oct. 9, Turkish military forces began advancing into northern Syria, and the domestic response in Turkey was remarkable. In Turkey, a polarized country since its founding, people from different political factions rarely unite.

But the operation brought people together, resulting in near consensus  support. The conservatives (mainly the Islamo-conservative AKP -Justice and Development Party- and ultra-nationalist MHP -Nationalist Movement Party) and the center-left (the CHP–Republican People’s Party, the center-left opposition party that upholds its founder Ataturk’s ideology) are always at each other’s throats.

Only two things can help them to overcome their differences: love for the military and national pride.

The media and state agencies described the operation as a war on terror. It aimed to remove the influence of the YPG (People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish militant organization active in Syria — it is widely considered the PKK’s counterpart there) in the region to make the Turkish border safer.

There is some truth to the idea: the presence of the PKK makes eastern Turkey unsafe, and the YPG has connections to the PKK. Despite romanticized descriptions in Western media, the PKK’s violence actually does a lot of harm in the region. Their violence, however, does not mean that any Kurdish self-governance is a security threat to Turkey.

In many ways, the target of this operation is not terrorism, but Kurdishness — an identity that is conveniently pitted against Turkishness in mainstream political discourse.

Turkishness, like all national identities, is built on exclusionary terms. Its power comes from the vagueness of its definition. Historically, groups have been included and excluded from Turkishness in order to advance political agendas. “How happy is the one who calls himself a Turk,” Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Republic of Turkey, declared in a speech. This implied all who called themselves Turkish were, as a matter of fact, Turkish.

Most Turks are proud of this definition of Turkishness, because it includes all who want to be Turkish. It’s easy to overlook, however, that it excludes those in Turkey who already have other names to call themselves, be they Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, etc. Ataturk’s vision for the Turkish identity, sadly, is a noble yet not feasible one.

Many political factions have united under the shared belief that the Springs of Peace operation will consolidate and “save” Turkishness. Citizens of a country with the eighth strongest military in the world are made to feel an existential threat, so that those in power can remain in power.

It is a clever move on Erdogan’s part, unifying the country using the racial divisions in society at a time when his power is being challenged the most. The real goal of this operation was achieved the day after it began: the country finally united under his reign.

But endless military operations will not solve the issues in the region. If they could, they would have in the last four decades. Systemic change is the only way — replacing the racist institutions of the state to radically redefine what it means to be Turkish and what it means to be a minority in Turkey.

Only then can we move past decades of ethnic violence and move towards a more stable political situation, both inside and outside of Turkey. This is what we need to truly become a democracy. It is hard, of course, because those who benefit from the current power structure do not want to let go of their position.

Critics of the operation face a far too familiar accusation: that they are traitors. The few journalists and politicians who dare to criticize the government are denounced immediately by liberals, Islamo-conservatives and nationalists all at once.

So who is a traitor? A traitor is someone who refuses to unite when the unity means death and destruction. Someone who wants an end to perpetual violence that benefits only the powerful. Someone whose views must be suppressed or eliminated. There is no place for them in dictatorships; traitors are the killjoys of authoritarianism.

Traitors are as despised as they are necessary, for liberty, justice and human dignity. Let it be known, then that I am a traitor — and I hope you are one too.

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