Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Syrian Uprising: A Day of Blood and Rage

April 23, 2011

Less than a month ago, I submitted a blog entry entitled, “Now it is Syria’s Turn: The uprising on its Way?” Clearly, we can say now that yes it is here and the Assad regime has showed no signs of mercy. Since the pro-democracy protests first broke out over a month ago, over 300 people have been killed. Yesterday alone over 100 protestors were killed, and if the images emerging from Syria are authentic then the victims are also children. According to Amnesty, a 7 and 10 year child were shot dead along with a 70 year old man in the city of Izzra. In fact,with most foreign media banned from Syria and with severe restrictions on al-Jazeera and other Arab networks, which are confined to quite neighborhoods in Damascus, much of what we know reaches us from social network sites such as facebook, twitter, and youtube. Yes, April 22 2011 will be a day which will go down in history as the day Syria followed the path of Tunis and Egypt (as, I write this reports are coming in that at least eight people have been killed today during the funeral processions of those killed yesterday).

Breaking out in the coastal regions, southern cities, the major cities of Homs and Hama, it seems that it is only time until the thousands of demonstrating in the suburbs of Damascus will be able to break the gates and enter the capital. With the huge Syrian bureaucracy and security forces well penetrated deep within the society, the revolution has its work cut out. In other words, Assad’s regime will not go down easily and the Syrian opposition has not clearly emerged. The Syrian government’s claim that the opposition is just a group of radical Muslims cannot be bought, and it seems that protestors include articulate groups from among Syria’s different sects: secular and religious Sunni Muslim, the Greek Orthodox and other Christians, the Druze, and it will only take a matter of time before members of the Alawi community will join in. For the Kurds in the Northeastern parts of the country, who seemed to have been appeased following Bashar Assad granting 300,000 Kurds with citizenship, they most likely will continue to work to progress their rights within the country and will throw their support to the Syrian opposition once a clear leadership emerges.

Regionally, it seems that Turkey has failed the test with them remaining silent to the Syrian people’s will and surprisingly still supporting Bashar Assad. However, with violence in Syria hitting new heights, Turkey might need to reconsider the “no-visa entry” recently granted to Syrians to prevent a influx of refugees, and political asylum seekers. Currently, I am trying to receive statistics of how many Syrians have crossed into Turkey during the last month to check if there has been an influx of entries. Nevertheless, with years of instability in Turkey’s Southeastern provinces, Turkey must now begin to worry that perhaps the lifting of visas with Syria was premature and might even lead to an influx of Kurdish activists that do not see eye-to-eye with Turkish policy makers.

Lastly, while many people supported the western invasion of Libya, on the night of the invasion I voiced my skepticism (see link) and questioned the intentions of the US and European forces. What now remains clear is that if the revolutions are to take hold and overthrow their despotic rulers, they will need to remain in the realm of a “popular” uprising as we are seeing in Syria and Yemen; in this sense, Egpyt provided all of the Arab countries how a non-violent civil protest can lead to regime change. Sadly, people will be killed as we have seen; however, the Libyan case has shown us that outside intervention actually can add to the pain and suffering of a local population and even prevent the success of a revolution. At this moment we need to ask ourselves if it had not been for the invasion of the forces would the Libyan Qaddafi still be in power?

For now, we will need to wait and see how successful the Syrians will be at overthrowing Assad. I also do not want to speculate now if these regimes will be “better” or “worse” for the entire region at whole since nothing can justify a country that has kept its people “under lockdown" for over four decades.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Upcoming Elections: Erdoğan’s Legacy Put to Test*

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey has transformed into multicultural and dynamic country. Even though Erdoğan and his AK party are religious conservatives, the Prime Minister ensured the Turkish public that his agenda was to create a free and vibrant Turkey and convinced them that he held no “secret-agenda” to turn the country into a radical “Islamic” state. In the first election, he received 34.3 percent of the vote; and in the second election in 2007, with the Turkish economy booming and freedoms arise Erdoğan received a whopping 46.6 percent of the vote. However, if Erdoğan does not change his path, it seems that in the upcoming June election the tide might be turned back, even only if by a few percent. However, it should be clear that any loss by the AK party will mark an important shift in Turkish politics.

During Prime Minster Erdoğan’s two terms, Turkey has witnessed a widespread expansion of individual freedoms, with numerous rights being extended to the Kurdish population and a proliferation of NGO’s. Breaking from the Turkish secular parties, which remained conservative through their adherence to a staunch interpretation of Ataturk’s legacy, the AK party not only struggled to allow religious women university students entrance into the classroom, having been barred from wearing their headscarf, but also set off a liberal agenda at the at the cost of a collective Turkish nationalist narrative. The reality that the secular parties held a conservative agenda against a conservative party with a liberal agenda seemed to be one of the greatest ironies of Turkish politics during the last decade.

These reforms are evident in Taksim, the main entertainment district of Istanbul, where today one comes across numerous bars where Kurdish music is performed; a decade ago, the very act of speaking Kurdish in public was illegal. Further, in the same district, one can see numerous protests taking places; one of the many emerging groups is the LGBT community, which attracts thousands to their annual Pride protest march every June. These two examples are similar in the sense that while they recognize the AK party’s role in allotting their freedoms, they remain frustrated that reforms have not gone further. For example, the Kurdish question has yet to be resolved and language reforms have not entitled the Kurdish population to use Kurdish as the language of instruction in primary schools. Further, while organizations based on gender equality have become visible in urban arenas and universities, they have run head-on into an unsympathetic government, with the Minister of Family and Women Affairs, Aliye Kavaf, refusing to retract her statement that gays are sick and need treatment. While the Kurdish example is more urgent due to the fact that the armed conflict continues, the latter exhibits the problems of a conservative party which promoted a liberal agenda but retained their prejudices.

Most recently, we see that the freedom of press might also become victim of a conservative backlash to the liberal arena the AK party created during the last decade. This has been highlighted by the recent arrest of two journalists Ahmet Şik and Nedim Şener. Both journalists, who have been hailed as outstanding in their field, were arrested as part of the ongoing Ergenekon trial, which is aimed at uncovering and prosecuting members of a secret gang who along with Turkish army officials are accused of planning a coup d’état against the AK party’s government. The main problem with the trials and arrest of hundreds of army officers and civilians is that since the first arrests began a few years ago no one has yet to be convicted. Without a doubt, when the Ergenekon conspiracy first hit the headlines, the majority of Turkish citizens believed there was some truth to the fact that the secular establishment along with the army planned at all costs to derail their AK party opponents. However, with the arrest of these two journalists, large parts of the Turkish public have come to understand the Ergenekon affair as also being used by the AK Party to silence harsh critics.

While focusing on the freedom of press, one also needs to examine the numerous lawsuits brought on by Erdoğan against journalists and magazines. During his tenure, Erdoğan has campaigned to prosecute critics who “cross the line,” and who have slandered him, collecting impressive sums in monetary fines of those found guilty. However, Erdoğan’s recent lawsuit against Ahmet Altan demonstrates how his wrath can be directed at friend and foe alike. In January, Erdoğan opened a cased against Altan, the editor of Taraf, for writing an article that included “extraordinary severe insults” of Erdoğan. This is surprising since Taraf is a liberal newspaper, which since its introduction in 2007 has forged strong ties with the AK party and has been influential in uncovering some of the Ergenekon coup plots. Simply put, in his fervor to protect his honor, Erdoğan seems to be “biting off the hand that feeds him.”

The upcoming June elections will certainly be a test for Erdoğan. Just last September, the Turkish electorate gave the Prime Minister a vote of confidence in the referendum aimed at introducing constitutional reforms; however, with freedom of press under a suspected attack, not to mention the brutal police force used against recent student and worker protests, it seems likely that Erdoğan is at risk of eroding his important liberal constituency. With the economy continuing to grow at impressive rates, it is almost inevitable that the AK party will once again take the elections. However, Erdoğan without liberals will lose much of its credibility and the Republican People’s Party, under the new leader Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, will certainly gain from this. The once conservative Ataturkist party seems set on adopting the AK party’s liberal agenda, offering the Turkish voter a social democratic option. The irony lies in the fact that Erdoğan during his tenure in essence created two new playing grounds: one liberal, and one conservative. Sticking close to his main conservative base, it seems Erdoğan is set on abandoning the liberals in order to strengthen his party from within. The question which needs to be asked is whether these steps were consciously taken by the Prime Minister who has for some time campaigned to transform Turkish politics into a two-party liberal-conservative system. Whatever the case, the upcoming elections will be crucial for Turkey’s future and no less for the legacy of Erdoğan himself.

*This article was written a few weeks ago, and only published now. However, even if some new events have arisen I think overall these points remain central.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Anger and Frustration: the Death of Juliano Mer-Khamis

April 6, 2011

Writing about Juliano’s death almost seems unreal. Is he really dead, was he really killed by a masked gunman outside of the Freedom Theater in the Jenin Refugee camp, could a Palestinian really have killed him? Sadly, yes. Juliano Mer-Khamis, only hours ago was buried in the soil, which gave birth to him and now has taken him away. It is still hard to believe that a man, the human being he was, who during his 52 years of life refused to compromise with the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict, has fallen victim to this uncompromising conflict.

Born to Arna (a Jewish mother) and Saliba (a Palestinian father), both members of the Israeli Communist Party, both from the generation who witnessed 1948, Juliano came to this world in May 1958. In her article on the killing, Amira Hass of Haaretz so eloquently described him in the following words: "This angry man was beset by conflicting yet complementary identities. He was the long shadow of an imagined binational community from the 1950s. Like a Peter Pan who refuses to grow up, Juliano embodied the potential of a shared life (ta'ayush in Arabic ) while striving for equality."

Juliano himself would describe himself as “one-hundred percent Jewish and one-hundred percent Palestinian.” Truly, he was unique. He was outspoken, hyper-critical, and simply someone who refused to be categorized, living his life as he saw fit and never compromising his ideals.

As an actor he was superb and I remember years ago when I taught a film class, my students were shocked when they learned that the strong young Israeli sabra, who played the role of the youth advisor in the film Etz HaDomim Tafus (Under the Domim Tree), was actually half Palestinian. In Palestinian productions he was just as believable.

There is no doubt that Juliano was an outcast within the Israeli society, and there was no lost love among those Israeli extremists who sent him death threats or rejoiced upon hearing about his death. As an activist, he refused to remain silent in light of the ongoing Israeli occupation and dedicated his life to the plight of the Palestinian people. However, while we still need to wait to find out more about who is behind the killing, with all pointing to a Palestinian assailant, it is clear that he fell victim to his own dream. Once again to quote Amira Hass:

"This violence has so many different angles that it can drive you mad. Juliano was lucky to be an artist, and madness was one of his paintbrushes. Through the theater he founded in Jenin, Juliano allowed himself to criticize repressive aspects of Palestinian society. One would guess he did so as a left-winger, as an actor committed to the artist's oath of truthfulness, and as a Palestinian. Let's hope that the killer will be found, and then we'll know if a Palestinian artist was killed because of his courage to live in a way that disrupts the order, or if a Jewish artist was killed because he gave himself permission to overtly criticize a society that is not his, according to some, or if a left-winger was killed because he was disrupting the norm. Or perhaps all three together. Even if he was killed for some other reason, Juliano was still an artist and a Palestinian, a left-winger and a Jew."

Below is a clip about the theater he established in Jenin in 2006. In the words of Juliano, “the Freedom Theater is a venue to join the Palestinian people in their struggle for liberation. We believe that the Third Intifada, the coming Intifada, should be cultural with poetry, music, [and] theater…”

Today, I woke up early and made my way to Haifa to pay my last respects, comfort friends, and show my solidarity. It was hard to believe that it was him, Juliano, in the casket which rested upon the stage where he once performed. Together we walked him through the Arab neighborhood Wadi Nis Nas; perhaps one of the only neighborhoods in Israel or Palestine where the residents actually understood, or come close to understand the reality of this Palestinian-Jewish man. He lived in this neighborhood for years, along with so many of his friends and family. After I parted, his journey continued on to cross the Jenin checkpoint for the last time to allow his loved ones who cannot enter Israel to say goodbye. Following this, he was taken to Kibbutz Ramot Menashe where he was buried.

May his dream of a just land where Jews and Palestinians can live together live on. May his memory evoke in us action and not only words; yes, because he was a man of action, not just empty words. May he rest in peace, and my sympathy goes out to his children and his loved ones.

For the link to Amira Hass's article in Haaretz click here