“Some AKP deputies say they fear for their life’’
“A large segment of the AKP’s grassroots voters doesn’t support a monist, racist ideology,” according to HDP İstanbul deputy Garo Paylan
"I am the middle of three siblings born in Istanbul to a family originally from Malatya. I’ve worked as an executive in Armenian schools for many years. I’ve been a soldier for the Armenian people’s century-long fight for justice.”
This is how Garo Paylan, an Istanbul deputy from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), is described on his social media page. Paylan, who also describes himself as a human rights activist, is among the few HDP deputies who can continue the battle from “outside,” as opposed to many HDP deputies who are imprisoned. Most recently, he was suspended from attending General Assembly sessions in Parliament for his words “Armenians, Syriacs, Greeks and Jews were decimated between 1913 - 1923 [in Turkey]. They were either exiled from this land through major massacres and genocides, or were forced out as part of population exchanges.” In response, Paylan has appealed the suspension punishment at the Constitutional Court and petitioned the Parliament Speaker's Office. He has also received threats for his statement. Garo Paylan has shared with us his opinions on the state of freedom of expression, parliamentary backroom talks and the referendum process.
Many a huddled discussion took place in Parliament during the voting on the proposed constitutional amendments. Has any of what happened during this phase struck you as “being too much”? Have you encountered an episode where you said, “This is too much, I didn’t expect?” Have you found what you hoped to find in Parliament after your election as a deputy?
We all had our dreams in the process of parliamentary elections. That dream was a pluralistic Parliament and a constitution that is in keeping with that. This is the reason why I entered politics, and this is the purpose of my party. However, unfortunately, when President Erdoğan’s alliance with Gülen came to an end, he turned to the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), to the status quo. This is the new normal; a racist climate that narrows the scope of everything. “You can’t speak about that, you can’t say that” or “You can’t do that, if you do, we’ll kick you out of Parliament…” Unfortunately, such a climate has come about. So, there’s nothing surprising there. I have been experiencing these for four generations. I am an activist who is waging a battle for human rights. I wanted to be active in every rights-based sphere. My main problem was for a wind of freedom and respect to prevail in Parliament. I wanted a Parliament and a constitution, which would ensure that everyone feels included. I have seen that it is very important with whom you go along your path within the balances of politics. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) in its initial period where it complained of [military tutelage], promised change and transformation, tried to walk with many liberal segments. Its newest comrade, recently, has become the MHP, and the MHP’s ideology has unfortunately become dominant in this country. Everyone says “The MHP is dogging the AKP.” The AKP is dogging the MHP. This is a big gain for the MHP. For a leader who is approaching the end of his political career due to advanced age such as Bahçeli, this is, I am saying this quote unquote, a massive achievement. Here’s the issue: A large portion of that 50 percent which supports AKP in no way believes in that monist, racist ideology. They all supported the peace process [with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)] only two years ago. A massive majority of the AKP grassroots were behind the peace process and a pluralistic constitution. I see this in talks we have with AKP voters, which I do have such talks, we see that they also want peacefulness.
When was the last time you could meet with AKP voters?
I have such meetings every day. I have relationships that go way back. They are all very confused. Erdoğan is talking about a War of Independence, and they partially believe that statement. Everyone in their eyes is an enemy, they are all attacking us. I tell them, “This is exactly what the old state used to tell you.” Internal enemies, foreign enemies. My biggest hope was for the religious Muslims, who are the majority, to believe in change. There will be no change in Turkey without their support. As recently as two years ago, there was a religious-conservative segment that were made to believe in the peace process. If we could have drafted a new constitution in those days, that constitution would have been adopted with that support. These segments need to be convinced of that and I think they are ready to be convinced. The AKP failed to establish the peace. We also failed, as the HDP. A certain segment of the CHP’s voter base was also convinced [of the necessity of a constitution supporting peace]. Even some MHP supporters were behind it, I know this very well. But we failed. The responsibility here lies primarily in the government party. We might have also made mistakes, certainly. Today, we have been drifted into a nationalist climate.
Do you ever come across MHP deputies who are unnerved by MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli’s support for the proposed constitution?
Bahçeli turned the MHP into an actor in politics. He said to the AKP, “Come on, let’s draft the constitution of Turkishness for the continuity of Turkishness.” Constitutional Committee member Mehmet Parlak has said: “Our constitution is a Turkish Constitution.” In that sense, I think the MHP has been seized by this promise. We know very well that the Fethullah Gülen network supporters and the democrats who were eliminated from the ranks of the state hierarchy were replaced with MHP supporters. Say, if 20,000 new police officers are to be appointed, 10,000 of the newest posts are given to the MHP. This means that the MHP becomes a player again at the local level; that it has gained a position within the state once again. Some MHP deputies have publicly stated their unease [with Bahçeli’s support for the proposed constitution] but there are no others except for that. If your leaders say something, you rationalize it in your mind in some way. Unfortunately, unyielding loyalty to the leader is at a maximum level also in the MHP. Those who are against [the proposed constitution] have publicly voiced their objections; the rest are rationalizing it.
A recent statement from HDP deputy and academic Mithat Sancar -- criticizing the AKP deputies who were silent in the face of recent expulsions of academics from the academia and recalling that some of the dismissed had stood by the academics removed from their jobs during a phase of similar expulsions during the Feb. 28, 1997 unarmed coup d’état process -- was widely discussed. Have there been any AKP deputies who have told you in person that they think the expulsions and the recent arrests of HDP deputies were wrong?
There certainly have been. What’s more, there were AKP deputies, prior to and during the drafting of the proposed constitution, who expressed serious objections. There was even a deputy who said who feared for his life. There were those who said they were under pressure and they faced threats. There were those who said they weren’t able to shout “The Emperor has no clothes;” that all sorts of things could happen to them if they did. The number of AKP deputies who don’t support what’s going on is probably more than 50, but the number of deputies in this situation is at least 30. The more we are in trouble, the more they want to explain themselves. We see such deputies during backroom talks in Parliament. I know they are under serious pressure. They are trying to bury their objections inside, and perhaps that’s why they shout too loudly. You call for caution, and they try to drown out your statement instead of listening to what you say. Because with your objection, you are holding a mirror. They don’t want to see that mirror. Mithat Sancar's statement was something like that. This is a serious examination of one’s conscience. To avoid conducting that examination, you can only shout.
In the US, people resisted Donald Trump’s so-called Muslim ban. We saw that people kept watch at airports. Do you think that a similar response could be seen regarding religious minorities if a similar situation occurred in Turkey?
This response formed in 2007 [when Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was assassinated]. Hundreds of thousands marched shouting the slogan “We are all Hrant, We are all Armenians.” But today, it cannot happen, unfortunately. I felt terribly sorry about the AKP base. Can you imagine, the same segments which have claimed all through their life that they fight Islamophobia, they fought against the humiliation of the conservative-religious segments were completely silent on Trump’s ban. They couldn’t say a thing. I was most upset because it is unacceptable that they cannot object to injustice directly targeting their own identity just to protect their own interests. It is impossible for these people to stand up for me, or for an Armenian, in such a climate. They could at least object to the injustice targeting them. I did [oppose the Muslim ban]. This shows that the AKP has completely strayed away from its claim to being an Islamist democrat party. It also shows that it has completely abandoned the Islamist card and that it is moving on relying only on the Turkish card. I think this should lead to serious questioning among the religious-conservative segments. We will see whether this happens.
What sort of an influence, in your opinion, would playing this “Turkish” card you speak of, create in the short term?
This card completely failed in Syria. The Turkish-Islamist political movement is much like a see-saw. It sometimes brings the Islamist card to the forefront, and the Turkish card at other times. The essence of the alliance [the AKP has with] the MHP these days is this: “We will return to the former codes of the state. We will bring Turkish nationalism to the forefront. We will declare all those who oppose this traitors. We will either put them in jail, or force them to leave.” This is the ideology. This is the position of 100 years ago. The position assumed by the Enver-Talat duo [Mehmed Talat Paşa, the Grand Vizier (prime minister) and Minister of the Interior; İsmail Enver Paşa, two senior officials who ruled Turkey during WWI along with Ahmet Cemal Paşa, the minister of Navy who are largely believed to be responsible for the Armenian genocide of 1915]. We have seen the consequences. Yet, 100 year later, we’ve been thrown into the same spot. The consequences of this will be destructive in every sense.
Do you feel that you ever practice self-censorship when, say, tweeting or making a statement?
In my life, I’ve always stated what I believe to be true. I don’t practice self-censorship in this regard, but those around me do. I can see that very clearly. Journalists do it, intellectuals do it. I never had such reservations. The duty of a politician is to convince people. Everyone around me is worried that they might go to prison if they use a particular phrase. Or there are people who say, when you tweet, “Delete that, they’ll send you to jail.” But that’s exactly what they are trying to do. They are spreading the feeling “If Aslı Erdoğan was arrested, it could happen to me too.”
Do you think that minority communities have withdrawn into themselves at this point?
Absolutely. That’s how the psychology of minority communities works. As persecuted communities, we have come to this point by narrating what we have been through from one generation to the next. What some society segments are experiencing perhaps for the first time are things that we have lived through for generations. Therefore, I repeatedly made this warning last year: “This state is very cruel, and it can commit all sorts of crime to perpetuate itself. This is why we need to take care of each other.” This is exactly what I saw after the end of the peace process. At such points in history, minorities usually do two things: They either stay silent or migrate. Hrant Dink was an outspoken Armenian but a private named Sevag Balıkçı was murdered. He was an Armenian who never spoke in his life. In the catastrophe that befell us 100 years ago, [those who perished] were mostly Armenians who didn’t have anything to do with politics. If this climate is in place, just saying “I am Armenian” is enough to get in trouble.
Is there anybody around you who has migrated?
Unfortunately, yes. And there are those who are thinking of emigrating. At a point where we were dreaming of a pluralistic democracy, we felt that something in this country is changing. Today, minority communities feel week and they know very well that they are often used to ignite many a provocation. There are people who don’t want to raise children in such a climate. “We have already suffered for four generations. At least my child could live outside this atmosphere.” But as politicians, changing this atmosphere is our duty.
How do you think that the suppression of freedom of expression will influence the upcoming referendum process?
During the June 2015 general elections [when the AKP garnered %41 of the total vote, a 9 percent drop from the previous general elections] we benefited from a free media and the government saw the disadvantage it created for it. [The government] has blocked the media entirely. They think they'll just pass the constitution saying “everything we do is justified.” And maybe, they can. They can increase this crackdown and do it, but trust me, it won’t be long lived. We feel that we will succeed. We believe that the “No” votes will win. This land has seen certain periods of oppression. We are not a country that has oil or other assets like in other kingdoms. This place, this particular society democracy. We can live better only with democracy. The Turkish society will come to this awareness. There is a willingness to live better, especially among the segments that support right-wing politics. Those who want to invest in this country have no confidence. We are becoming poor in every sense. We are falling behind in all world classifications and rankings. Right-wing politics in Turkey will see this. If the outcome of the referendum is “No,” the cards will be reshuffled. And if “Yes” comes out of the ballot, we don’t think it will be sustainable for a long time.
This piece was originally published in Turkish on p24blog.org. Translated by Evin Barış Altıntaş.