February 8, 2004
Dear Prime Minister Erdogan,
You may be surprised to hear from me. I was part of a group of protesters in front of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) on Thursday, January 29, 2004, that denied you front door entry to the building. You had to go to the garage in your armored vehicle to take the elevator to the conference room on the twelfth floor. If I had it my way, you would not have entered that building from any door, either on foot or on wheels. A drop off from a helicopter on the roof would have done you a lot of good. You might have then learnt something about what it means to ban the language of twenty million Kurds in the Turkish occupied northern Kurdistan. The photo opportunity, as they call it here in Washington, DC, of that memorable event might have won you — oops, sorry — the photographer the Pulitzer Prize. Only then could I have said I put in an honest day’s work toward the liberation of Kurdistan. I know you will be back soon. Be assured, we will be demonstrating against you again. Oh, one other thing, in Ankara, I would not have been allowed to protest you at all, or up so close. In Washington, I was allowed to do so, and I am deeply grateful — for the privilege — to the children of Jefferson.
The day before, you had met President Bush at the White House. The man from Texas called you, “a straightforward man.” I imagine hearing the most powerful man in the world praise you as such must have kept you awake all night. Did it? I don’t want to cast a shadow on your joy, but this is the same man who called President Putin, “straightforward and trustworthy.” See, you are in good company. You get hives when the words, Kurds and Kurdistan are brought up in front of you; Chechens and Chechnya do the same honor for Mr. Putin. It is a pity that Osama Bin Laden’s war on America has made the struggle of the Kurds and Chechens irrelevancies in Washington. You and Mr. Putin should congratulate each other for such a stroke of good luck. Don’t get too excited; I don’t think your comparison with the Russian is all that accurate. President Putin, to his credit, has a tight grip on his military. You, on the other hand, take your orders from them. Most people in the Bush administration call your country a “democracy”; Russia, they say is an “emerging one”. If truth be told, neither of you qualify for that title. Personally, I haven’t got a clue why you are placed above Mr. Putin. But I have a feeling your military likes this arrangement very much. They run the country, show you as its elected face, and call the whole thing “democracy”. There isn’t anything like it in the whole wide world, is there? I am curious about one other thing, Mr. Prime Minister. Has your military ever said anything close to what President Bush told you at the Oval office? I think I know the answer, but I thought I would just ask for the record. In fact, I am pleasantly surprised that they are letting you speak on behalf of Turkey at all! Between us, Ataturk wouldn’t have allowed it. You are one lucky man, aren’t you?
I am not very sure of the veracity of the news that is circulating on the Internet, but rumor has it that you got your first lucky break for the highest office in the land on September 11, 2001, and the second one on November 4, 2002. There isn’t anyone on the face of the earth, thanks to mass media, who does not know what happened on the first date, but on the second one, you “apparently” urged Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz to use his good offices for a meeting between you and the Turkish chief of staff. The intervention, “evidently”, worked and the top Turkish general “allowed” you to run for a special election. You won it hands down, and became one of Turkey’s youngest prime ministers. If the chain of events is true, you are the puppy of the United States and Paul Wolfowitz is your patron. If you say, Kani, this is too harsh, then let me quote you a columnist, Tony Parsons, of Daily Mirror, a leftwing publication out of London, England, who in the aftermath of September 11 said, “I would rather be a dog in New York City than a Prince in Riyadh.” (I think you get my point, but if you don’t, let me know, I could dwell on it a bit more for you in my next letter.) So puppy love must have been the reason you were received almost like a “native son” in America, earnestly praised to the high heavens on numerous occasions, and hailed not once but several times as a “statesman” of our times. You, Mr. Prime Minister, accomplished a feat no Turkish dignitary has ever done before. You proved, of all people, Harry Truman wrong. The old man of the republic once famously noted, “a statesman is a politician who has been dead for 20 years.” The math is pretty simple. You are 49 years old. A wonder, (or should I say marvel?), you are ahead of your times by at least 50 years! If I did not know you any better, I would have joined the chorus inside the AEI to sing your praises instead of comparing you to Saddam Hussein outside of it.
Don’t tell anyone, but there was one big problem with the “native son” theory. You had forgotten your mother tongue. If it ever comes up, I guess you could say something along the lines of, like Homeric fighters, you spent too much time under the walls of Troy, which happen to be in present day Turkey, and lost your language to the local vernacular. If this is too much history for you, say you played football professionally, which is the honest truth, and the English language with its cumbersome conjugations failed you. Yes, blame it on the language, Americans don’t speak any other, and you will be, I am pretty sure, duly forgiven. I will fill you in this time, but only this time, for I strongly suggest you and Mrs. Erdogan start learning the American, oops, my mistake, English language from now on. To begin with, the New York Times referring to your stewardship called you and your country, “The Turkish Success Story”, in one sentence, I guess, they did not want to waste space for a second one. The man who played you host at AEI — Richard Perle was his name — gazed at you the way Brazilian football fans used to worship their favorite son, Pele. At Harvard University’s JFK School of Government, the best and the brightest — not just from this country but all over the world — surrounded you for words of wisdom on freedom, democracy, tolerance, pluralism, peace, and love too, and just like at AEI, you ended your impassioned plea with an unforgettable — or should I say incredible — line, “This is what we believe in.”
Never in the history of this nation has a politician — no, I should say, magician — beguiled so many with so few stale and sour tricks as you did in your whirlwind tour of the United States. What amazed me even more was people that I had looked up to as serious scholars took time off from their busy schedules to hear you speak in droves — here I must ask my Kurdish readers to please sit down when reading this — on the vexing issue of our times, and I loved it when you said, in Turkey we call it, “deep democracy”! According to you it meant, “The ideal is not to have a mechanical democracy that is reduced to elections and certain institutions, but an organic democracy that pervades into the administrative, social and political fields. We refer to this — we coined a new term for it, and I’d like to underline it — we refer to this as deep democracy.” Up until then I had never understood the ancient Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times.” Suddenly, a light bulb went on inside my head. I was witnessing not just ordinary “interesting times,” but very special ones in one of the most interesting cities of our times, and in one of the most interesting countries in the world. I was beginning to think that I, a tormented Kurd, should stop complaining and start thinking that just like you, I am a very lucky person to be alive in these times, and that I, pity me, should just begin learning how to be thankful and grateful for my lot. But just as I was beginning to dream, the twin bombings in Hawler, southern Kurdistan, jolted me back to the frightening-world-for-the-Kurds again — damn you guys, can’t a Kurd dream a little bit? Listening to your lecture on television — there is no other word for it — I was floored. I said to myself, “this is priceless stuff worthy of remembrance till the end of time.” It was nothing short of a blind man addressing an American audience on the nature of colors; or a chicken telling a pond full of ducks how to swim; or a comatose patient dictating a prescription to a roomful of doctors. You were applauded for it. I have a videotape to prove it. It brought to mind the memorable scene in Tacitus’s Annals where a room full of Roman senators declared Emperor Tiberius God against his will. He is said to have exclaimed in Greek, ”men fit to be slaves!” Even he, freedom’s enemy, knew what was real and what was absurd. You, a proclaimed “authority” on freedom, surely must have felt a lot of pain in that conference room filled with that searing hot air. I felt it just listening to you. Honest, I am not pulling a Clinton trick on you.
This trip of yours was not about freedom, democracy, tolerance, pluralism, peace and love, Mr. Prime Minister. It was not about Islam either, even though you cleverly said things like, “Our religion, Islam, considers the killing of a person as destroying the house of God.” Did you really believe Americans, the cousins of Europeans, people who as late as September 11, 1683, had prayers like, “God, save us from the terrible — read Muslim — Turk”, to believe you? I guess it was not just English that you neglected in school, but also history, which identifies your ancestors as “destroyers of humanity”. Let’s not kid ourselves, Islam didn’t reach the gates of Vienna, in the heart of Europe, with the hippy message of universal love and peace. You know this, right? I know you did not have time for the study of the past, playing football was more important for you in college, but just for your information, on the above referenced date, thank God, the Ottoman Armies were rolled back from the gates of Vienna, Austria, once and for all. Imagine, if you will — don’t worry I am not going to pull a John Lennon trick on you here — if your ancestors had possessed chemical weapons at that time? London, England would have been a Turkish city now. John Stuart Mill’s book, On Liberty, would have been titled, I am sure of it, On Despotism. You would have never made it to America on horseback and these shores would have been better off for it. Truthfully, I think the Americans duped you, and I give them credit for it, to say those things about Islam not just for the innocents in the USA, but also more importantly, for the misguided in the Middle East. You see, Uncle Sam wants to prove a point that there are “good” Muslims, like you, and “bad” ones like those who are now lost to the orbit of people like Osama Bin Laden. I bet your lecture will be duplicated and distributed free of charge all over the Muslim world! Tell your people to charge America for royalties every time one is handed out to a fatherless boy in Afghanistan or a widow in Iraq. You could be rich in no time. Now that you have name recognition it is so very easy. Oh, by the way, in case you didn’t know it, Osama was a favorite CIA puppy for a long time. (I know comparing you to President Putin was bad enough and now Mr. Bin Laden, I can almost hear you say, Kani, please, do not bring that one up. I won’t, if you could only tame that wild horse, the Turkish military, and recognize my people as human beings.) Osama had, as you know, a falling out with Uncle Sam and look how it helped your star to shine. This world of ours is bizarre, isn’t it? Don’t you ever think of following his script though! No, I take it back, please do. Who knows, Americans might finally go back to their roots and find their real purpose in life and, this time, really support the forsaken children of Kurdistan as people worthy of the sacrifices of people like Patrick Henry and Nathan Hale.
Forgive me for going on a tangent here, for I was trying to tell you about the real purpose of your trip to the United States. I think you know it, but let me note it for the readers of this letter as well. You came to the United States for the Kurds. Yes, it is true, you came on the orders of your military to implore the greatest military power on the face of the earth to crush the Kurds of Turkey once and for all and bridle, really tight, those of Iraq until another Saddam pops up his ugly head in Baghdad. You know something else; I was quite impressed with your use of the Kurdish word, “gel” at your White House briefing. It came out so smooth that, for a split moment, this absent-minded activist thought you were a Kurd. I bet this was probably your first time use of a Kurdish word in public or private. I was hoping you would have coupled it with tolerance, pluralism, peace and love — the words that flowed from your tongue effortlessly like the mighty Mississippi River when you spoke of everyone else. Oh, I need to tell you something else, I am glad you uttered the Kurdish word, “gel” in America; in Turkey, the prosecutors might have been on your heels by now. You remember what they did to Leyla Zana back in 1994, right? To be fair to you, she had uttered a full sentence in public. She was cited for it in the indictment that sent her to jail for fifteen years. I bet you don’t know what the prosecutors charged her with! They said she had broken the Turkish law by speaking a language that was “indecipherable”! It really bugs me that your prosecutors call our language, “indecipherable,” Mr. Prime Minister. Imagine if I said this about your language! Besides, to call the language of a people “indecipherable” is very very impolite. I take it as evil doing on the part of your government. It violates the will of God. It simply doesn’t go well with your message of love and peace. If you insist on it, even your children, now that they are being educated here, will disown you one day down the road. Enforced ignorance is pure evil, Mr. Prime Minister. God knows we have enough of it in this world. A little bit of it out of Kabul has shaken this world to its foundations. In your country, there are factories dedicated to its mass production — just visit your prisons where Kurdish political prisoners are held, often for fifteen years at a time, for wanting to remain Kurds. I think you should consider shutting them up. If the graduates of those hells-on-earth, God forbid, ever act in a vengeful fashion, let’s say in Europe, your country may be invaded just like Afghanistan and Iraq. You would still be a prime minister, I know. But then some might also add the word Quisling to your name. Do you really want that? I would like to think that the answer is no.
I cannot help but raise one other issue that popped up in the course of your trip here. I promise this will be the last, so bear with me for one more digression and then my conclusion. Did you notice it, or was it just me, how people were nice to you when you lectured them on the virtues of “deep state”, I meant, “deep democracy”, honest! (Forgive me for this Freudian slip for we both know how shadowy and deep-rooted it is in the Turkish society. Please make sure it never mixes with your new love, “deep democracy”, for if it does, we are going to have to pull Kanan Makiya up from his home in Baghdad to write the second volume of his Republic of Fear, this time on Turkey.) Take for example the following question from someone who could easily pass as a statesman in Turkey — yeah, just like you, this country has produced a few living ones as well — who asked you, “Of course, Turkey and the United States oppose a federation based on ethnicity. But if a sovereign Iraq chooses to allow a federation — to have a federation based on ethnicity, or particularly a federated state for the Kurdish population, is that something that the Turkish Republic will accept, or does Turkey want to keep open the option that it will use other means to prevent that from happening?” I was, naturally, amazed with the “of course” part of the question. What is it that America and Turkey want in Iraq? Are they going to respect the will of the peoples that make up that forsaken country or dictate to them orders from the top? If it is the latter, is it any different than what Saddam Hussein had as a rule? If it is the first, what is wrong with consulting the Kurds about their political future the way English Canadians consult French Canadians about a common future that respects their diversity and recognizes their equality?
The voluntary union of French and English Canadians has brought about a functioning democracy to Canada that has stood the test of time. The same in Iraq, according to you, will only bring chaos and calamity. Or in your words, “What you’re saying is a very weak possibility. Why am I saying that? I’m saying that because the Iraqi people don’t want that kind of structure, because we’ve been speaking to them. And we are also making a diagnosis here, if you will, because first you have to diagnose so you can treat it. And the diagnosis here is that if there is an ethnically based structure that will not create a healthy Iraq. But if in fact that is what comes about, then all of the Iraqi people will stand to suffer from it. This is my assessment of the situation for the moment.” I wonder, Mr. Prime Minister, if you have ever heard of a man by the name of John Stuart Mill? He once famously noted, “There is no tyranny worse than the tyranny of majority over minority.” It may be true that you may have indeed talked to the majority Arab population of Iraq — which I doubt very much — who like the majority population of Turkey, has no sympathy or understanding of the plight of the Kurds of Kurdistan. When Saddam Hussein gassed them, some people in your country were elated by the deed. This time though, the Kurds don’t want to provide entertainment to their foes and would like to control and protect their own lives. You and your military are at a loss on how to outmaneuver them. Meeting with the Syrians and Iranians who are archenemies of Uncle Sam has not helped. Help, it looks like, is coming from another quarter; your godfather, Paul Wolfowitz, has decided to rescue you once more. On the same day that you said you knew what was “best” for Iraq, Mr. Wolfowitz gave an interview to CNN Turk and seconded your point, or was it just a mistake that you spoke before him? The new Kissinger wannabe of the Kurds said, “I believe we have a completely shared view with Turkey about what the future [of Iraq] should look like.” It was a father and son act choreographed to the dot. Both of you played your roles really well.
Saying things well does not mean things will go well, however. These people who against their better judgment declared you a “statesman” want to use you against Osama Bin Laden and give you the Kurds as dog biscuits. This commerce in human cargo is vile and abominable, and when it comes to fruition will have losers on all sides. You are making the biggest mistake of your lifetime by trying to sell your military’s half-cooked scheme that al Qaeda and the Kurds are one and the same. You know they are not. To say that they are is like to say that the sun has the shape of a triangle. It is bound to boomerang and hurt you badly. A day before your visit to the White House, a daughter of your people together with an American writer, Zeyno Baran and Andrew Apostolou, wrote a piece in the National Review Online that addressed the very problems that preoccupy your administration. I guess they must have known that you were powerless relative to your military so they directed their counsel to your interlocutor: “President Bush should declare that he has a grand vision for U.S.-Turkey relations, of the U.S. supporting Turkey’s EU ambitions as firmly and unambiguously as it opposes Turkish interference in Iraq. He should state that the entry of predominantly Muslim Turkey into the EU would be a major U.S. foreign-policy success on a par with the democratization of Iraq, a development that Turkey so loudly fears.” You should take the time to read their piece in its entirety. You should also perhaps hire a couple of historians to help you navigate the shallow waters that you are in. One of them might even tell you of a man called Otto von Bismarck who had to deal with a problem called the “Eastern Question” in his own times, just like your people derisively call the Kurdish Question, the “Eastern Problem”. He told his people, Germany had no business in the East, “that was worth the healthy bones of a Pomeranian musketeer.” Adolph Hitler overruled him with bonfire that consumed his body as fuel. You don’t want to do that, do you? I say, pay heed to the proverb, joy and grief are cyclical in life, and act accordingly. Will you?
I have finally made it to the end of my letter. I wanted to say a few things about your wife, Emine, as well. I was very happy to see her picture with Laura Bush in the White House. I understand this was her first time at a state function. Please tell her she carried herself really well. When your president in Turkey rebuffed her from attending the most important day in your country’s history, the Republic Day, on October 29, 2003, I felt really sorry for her. When a reporter asked you how she felt, you said, “Put yourself in my wife’s place and decide for yourself.” It was a very good answer. She had been urged to take off her headscarf as a price of admission to the Presidential Palace; I think you call it, the Pink Palace. She, being a pious believer, had wanted to remain true to her religion, and had rejected the bait. Good for her. I like it when people stand up for a principle. She is faithful and modest. And you made me really proud when you stood by her. “This is a good pair”, I remember saying to myself, back then. During this trip, I wanted to actually test how it would feel to put myself in your wife’s place. So when the opportunity came, I rose to the challenge and tried to attend the Assembly of Turkish American Associations’ annual conference in which you were highlighted as the keynote speaker. I was finally going to see you. It was January 30, 2004. Like everyone else, I paid my conference fee, and joined the crowd of your fans in the large hall. I knew from past experience that your wife would be there as well. I wanted to see both of you from a distance. I did not intend to ask you questions. I was simply going to take some notes.
I sat towards the back of the room. Two Secret Service agents flashed me their badges and invited me out of the room for a brief chat — in Turkey, they would have blindfolded me from behind and tortured me till I said my father was a Turk. In America, I had no fear of following them out. They wanted to make sure I knew the ground rules. I was not going to be allowed to disrupt your talk. I should not think of walking towards you or your delegation. Their job was to protect a man who was the head of a state. It was not an issue of them taking sides here, they said. They added, I may be asked to leave by the patrons of the conference; if I refused, the regular police would come in to eject me by force. I told them, I had no plans of doing anything they cited. If I had wanted to protest, I would have been outside. We exchanged cards and went our ways. A few minutes later, a Turkish woman approached me and wanted to have a chat with me as well. Boy, was I in demand! I invited her to sit next to me and asked her for her name. She said, Ipek. She said she was one of the organizers of the conference. She said, she knew who I was, and she wanted to know if I could sit at the very last table in the back of the room. As I was debating her request, figuring it out if she was fair in her demand, she added, “I really want you to stay; but I have to follow the orders.” I complied.
The last table happened to be for the members of the press as well. A Turkish woman approached me and asked me if she knew me from somewhere. I told her who I was and then she said, “You were protesting our prime minister outside of AEI, right?” I said I was. She went on to say, “This prime minister has been in the office for less than a year. How could you accuse him of genocide?” There was an opening in her question for she had not excluded the other prime ministers from the charge. I debated whether I should engage her in an exchange; she made up my mind and began reading her paper. Then, a journalist with a CNN Turk badge sat next to me. When he noticed my nametag, he asked if I was “the Kurdish activist” from Turkey. I corrected him. I said I was from northern Kurdistan. It was his job to know these nuances, and I took the liberty of testing his loyalties. He was a curious chap and wanted to know more about me, and the work that I was doing in Washington, DC. He was deferential in tone and amusing besides. I let go of my brakes and talked to him freely. Then, Ipek showed up again, and this time said, “I am afraid, I am going to have to ask you to leave.” She wanted me to follow her so that I could get my conference fee back. I debated whether to follow her or stay put to make a scene for the police to arrive. Imagine four police officers hauling me out as you, Mr. Prime Minister, were escorted in. It would have made a perfect ending to your unforgettable journey of peace and love that excluded some of the children of God called Kurds. Instead, I looked at the CNN Turk fellow and told him this was his chance in news making. He should tell people in Turkey the ejection of a peaceful Kurdish activist from a conference hall just because he had non-violently criticized the prime minister the day before. He said, “Abi, gostermezler.” It translates, “Older brother, they will not show it.” He was right. It is not just you, Mr. Prime Minister that has to catch up with the times, the Turkish media has to do the same. And yet, Washington insists that both are role models and need to be emulated by the rest of the Islamic world!
Please tell Emine, unlike you, I put myself in her place and found the experience was quite searing. This business of rejecting people is just unbecoming of our times. It is high time for Turkey and the Middle East to change, to accommodate its Emines as well as Kanis. Otherwise, the Emines and the Kanis of Near East will opt for an alternative. It is called reclaiming one’s honor, health and joy. No one should be denied these most basic of human rights. I hope you will give it some thought. It would be nice to have freedom and then order in this world.