Circumvening censorship in Istanbul (once Constantinople)

Is Turkey on the verge of becoming a part of Europe? It’s a question worth considering and certainly one that was tangentially related to my conversations in Amsterdam. I was hired by a client to do a training there on technology for bloggers, artists, and activists working under difficult circumstances in a variety of countries. It was my pleasure to explore Istanbul and for such a noble cause.

It was particularly interesting to have arrived at the same time as President Barack Hussein Obama [emphasis theirs]. As an alternative to Bush, he was greeted with relief. As a man trying to bridge religious, ethnic and cultural divides, he was embraced. It was generally agreed that his trip was a successful one, wooing Turks both religious and secular. For the fomer, he visited the Blue Mosque (pictured below). For the latter, the tomb of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern state.

Blue mosque on Obama day

Blue mosque on Obama day

Ataturk was a revolutionary statesman who fought to transform the Ottoman empire into a modern, democratic and secular country. He did this through a series of radical reforms, including replacing Arabic script with Roman, replacing the Fez with Western hats for civil servants, equality for women, and the abolition of the Caliphate, among other things. Despite these shifts away from the structures that had once identified Ottomans, as a leader he was, and remains, revered. Pictures of him hang in every shop that I entered.

This reverence is now insured by legal mandate as it is a punishable offense to criticize him. Youtube fell victim to this, purportedly after a video was posted on the site that alleged he was a homosexual. Given his democratic leanings, I’m curious to know what his own position would be on this type of censorship.

One of the problems of not being able to look backwards is that it makes it more difficult to look forward. The controversy over what Obama called “the killings” rather than what Armenians refer to as genocide was understood differently to the East than to the West of the country. It certainly helped to bring closer ties between the US and Turkey. The question is at what expense. One theory is that these connections were forged precisely because of the unliklihood of Turkey being invited into the EU.

It’s a theory that’s gained traction in the Caucasus, and is leading to increased unrest. Just mentioning killings has ruffled feathers. But without any strong position, people are left with their imaginations to interpret circumstances and the appropriate response. Over Nagorno-Karabakh, this can have dangerous consequences. Tensions are already high from Russia’s involvement in Georgia’s questionable territories, and growing with further unrest there and in Moldova. Does this mean that countries to the East will turn to Russia as a more concilatory and less acusatory option for resolving disputes? Remains to be seen.

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