Turkey Rallies Against War

IssueMarch - May 2003
Feature by Ayse Gul Altiny

Recently, Turkey witnessed an unusually spirited long weekend. There was action almost everywhere in the country starting on Friday 24 January.

In expectation of the UN Weapons Inspectors' reports, people from different political backgrounds and worldviews stood united against the war plans on Iraq. With significant international participation in some of the events during this “peace weekend”, anti-war messages were conveyed in the streets, congress halls, theatres, music clubs and the meeting rooms of the parliament. The motto was the same: Let us turn Ankara into the capital of peace.

Pressure from within

Since Autumn 2002, Ankara has been a popular destination for top-level US politicians, diplomats and Pentagon officials. This time the decision-makers in Ankara felt a different kind of pressure coming from their own citizens, as well as peace activists from the USA, Britain, Israel, Yugoslavia, Greece, Sweden, Italy, and Germany.

One of the first events in this “peace weekend” was a press conference by conscientious objectors at the Human Rights Association (HRA) in Istanbul. Young men met at the HRA conference room to announce their objection to all wars and military service in front of 60-70 human rights and peace activists. Most made individual declarations refusing to serve under any military, Turkish, American, or other.

Although the declaration of conscientious objection has been recognised as part of the freedom of expression in recent legal cases, conscientious objection is not recognised as a right to opt out of military service in Turkey (see PN 2447). In a country where conscription has been mandatory for all citizens since 1927, the growing number of conscientious objectors is a new phenomenon, posing a line of resistance against the current war plans, as well as introducing a new discussion to the political agenda, that of militarism and its connections to compulsory military service.

Support from without

During the weekend, writer and activist Norman Finkelstein, the Midwest coordinator of the September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, Ryan Amundson, and peace activist Michael Simmons appeared in live interviews on Turkish national television.

Professor Norman Finkelstein stressed the possible consequences of the war for the world at large. For Finkelstein, a war on Iraq would ignite the Middle East as a whole. “The whole world is watching Turkey,” he said, “to be honest, history is watching Turkey.”

Ryan Amundson, who has lost his brother in the 11 September attacks, asked the Turkish government to resist his government (see PN 2447). “I know what it means for an object from the sky to come and kill a loved one. I don't want anybody else to experience this,” he said. For Amundson, the world was not divided between good and evil, but between violence and non-violence. He urged Turkey to lead the non-violence camp against the Bush administration and the Saddam regime simultaneously.

Michael Simmons is the Director for the European Programs of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). Simmons emphasised the outcries against the war coming from the American public: “I would like you to know that there are millions of American citizens who are ashamed of the aggressive actions of the American government ... we stand together in solidarity.”

Across the country

On Saturday 25 January, there was an uncommon peace event in Istanbul's most prestigious congress hall. The Assembly of the 100s brought together representatives from 20 professional groups for a series of anti-war statements, followed by a joint declaration for peace. Organised by the Peace Initiative of Turkey, the event drew an audience of 2000.

At the same time, anti-war demonstrations took place throughout Turkey. In Izmir, 7000 people held hands to create a “Peace Chain”.

On Sunday, 26 January, an anti-war rally drew 15,000, many of whom had never participated in one before.

Afterwards, Bogazici University hosted an international peace forum. Participants from North America, Europe and Israel gave speeches. Some had just come from Iraq, others had fresh memories of their own experiences with war.

The weekend reached a peak at the Babylon Peace Night where anti-war messages from all over the world were read aloud, anti-war ad campaigns and films projected on the screen, and anti-war songs played live and from recordings. Some presented music and poetry.

“History is watching us”

On Monday, 27 January, the Chair of the Human Rights Commission Elkatmis reminded the group that his commission issued an anti-war statement during its first meeting in December. He publicly declared that he would vote “no” to war when the issue was brought to the parliament. “Today's wars not only kill innocent people when the bombs are dropped, but the coming generations of innocent people as well” he alluded to radioactive material in contemporary US weapons and the rising rates of cancer among Iraqi children in areas bombed during the 1991 Gulf War.

As PN went to press the Turkish parliament was about to vote on whether to allow US troops into Turkey.

The answer to this question will determine the fate of not only Turkey, but also Iraq and the whole world. As Professor Finkelstein remarked last week, “history is watching us.”