Politics of Truth-Seeking and the Saturday Mothers of Turkey
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Politics of Truth-Seeking and the Saturday Mothers of Turkey
When the truth is monopolised, suppressed and distorted by political powers, societies develop their own forms of resistance to subvert it. Truth-seeking as a practice is one of these, which, in this context, does not only mean an institutional investigation of past wrongdoings, but also a political struggle in the face of state denial. As a form of resistance, truth-seeking challenges the [state’s] truth regime and the power relations operating behind it. By narrating their own story, truth-seekers generate a counter-discourse to delegitimise the monopoly over truth.
This paper discusses the political significance of ‘truth’ as well as the forms of resistance to challenge and subvert it through a case study of the Saturday Mothers of Turkey; a group of women who have been holding vigils in pursuit of truth for twenty years. They demand truth about their children, husbands and siblings who were disappeared under detention throughout the 1990s. The state has concealed the whereabouts of those forcibly disappeared. As a response to this state policy; the Saturday Mothers have been gathering for peaceful sit-ins every Saturday in the most crowded street of Istanbul as a form of protest, demanding ‘truth and justice’ for their forcibly disappeared relatives. By looking at this example of truth-seeking and as an act of resistance, the paper contends that where truth is suppressed or distorted by the political power, truth-seeking becomes a subversive and transformative way of resistance and of challenging repressive regimes. Lastly the paper argues that the Saturday Mothers, as truth-seekers, not only aim at transforming the public sphere as the sphere in which dominant truth regime is produced, circulated and sustained, but also engender a new terrain of political struggle in the face of hegemonic constructions of truth.
Fragments are those elements of social life that cannot easily be assimilated into dominant discourse or structures –minority cultures, dissident tracts, oppositional gestures. Fragments are thus part of social life. Social theory does violence to them when it ignores them, pretending that all that is worthy of analysis is the mainstream or the powerful, and also when it recognises them but refusing to acknowledge their particularity, instead folding them into the mainstream (Vivek Chibber, Post-colonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, p. 19).
“Galatasaray has been a common tombstone for us.” This is what Hanım Tosun, one of the Saturday Mothers, said to a journalist in November 2012 (Adalı, 2012). She has neither seen nor heard from her husband, Fehmi Tosun, since October 19, 1995, when he was kidnapped by undercover police officers in front of her eyes. The last thing she heard from her husband was “they will kill me” (Adalı, 2012). Since then she has been participating in Saturday Mothers of Turkey in Galatasaray Square to seek truth, not only for herself, but also for the others whose beloved ones have been disappeared under detention. As reported by Adalı, (2012) Hanım Tosun comes not only to demand truth but also because Galatasaray Square has become a tombstone for the lost body of her husband. In the interview, she continues, “Every Saturday, when we (she and her five children) go there [Galatasaray Square], we feel like we are visiting his grave.”
All the Saturday Mothers- the mothers, sisters and wives of disappeared Kurdish political activists– have similar stories. They have not heard from their loved ones, and have no idea of their whereabouts. They demand that whatever remained of their relatives have proper graves. However, throughout the last 20 years, the Turkish state has not responded to their demands; it has denied, neglected and tried to silence them by way of violence, but none of this has been able to dissuade the Saturday Mothers from their struggle. They keep telling the state, and everyone else, that “if there were democracy in Turkey, we would not be sitting here” (Adalı, 2012).
What can be viewed is that largely, in transitional justice literature, truth-seeking has been one of the main pillars of transition to democracy. However, what has been hardly touched upon is the resistant character of truth-seeking. Truth-seeking has mostly been seen as an institutional attempt that has been undertaken by truth commissions or courts. In this article, I intend to focus on mostly neglected aspects of truth-seeking with a case study from Turkey. What I contend is that beyond institutional mechanisms for truth-seeking, the practice of truth-seeking is a subversive and transformative attempt of resistance.
The first part of the article gives a brief backdrop to the Kurdish question in Turkey, and outlines the legal, political and discursive structure of the Turkish state. The second part delves into the phenomenon of forced disappearances in Turkey and accounts for the struggle of the Saturday Mother. The third part explores the theoretical investigations regarding truth and truth seeking: firstly, the meaning and roles of truth seeking in transitional justice literature will be outlined; secondly, the transformative potential of truth in transitional societies will be explored with reference to Foucault’s analysis of truth; finally, the fourth part will elaborate on the politics of truth-seeking as a subversive practice. The final part interprets attempts for transitional justice in Turkey and the implications of truth seeking by the Saturday Mothers in the light of the theoretical investigations discussed in the third part.
Political and Historical Backdrop
Extra-legal as well as anti-democratic ways of dealing with the democratic opposition have always been a part of Turkish politics. This situation worsened after the 1980 coup d’état. The political and institutional legacy of the coup was “militarism and military tutelage” protected by a new constitution; oppression of democratic opposition; and even further consolidation of Turkish nationalism by the state (Göral, Isık &Kaya, 2013, p.15). The coup d’état affected Kurds dramatically and the further centralisation of the state power had worse repercussions. But the drastic escalation of the Kurdish question started after the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK hereafter) began its armed struggle in 1984, which led to an open war between the armed organisation of Kurdish movement and the Turkish Armed Forces for more than 30 years. For the purposes of this article, I will give a brief account of the Kurdish question and the three-decade-long war including the oppression and violence against civilians.
Kurdish Question and the 30-year Struggle
When the Turkish Armed Forces took over the government on September 12, 1980, the official cause for the coup d’état was presented as “to avert possible civil war and fratricide” and to “re-establish the authority and existence of the state” (Demirel, 2010, p.129). This temporary stability in the country was welcomed by many; however, it turned out to be the politically most oppressive period of the Republic. The parliament was dissolved, all the political parties as well as trade unions were closed down; their leaders were arrested and a state of emergency was declared. Not only politicians but also university professors and students, lawyers, leaders of political organisations, and almost everyone who was deemed to be in the opposition was arrested. By September 1982, 80,000 people had been imprisoned (Zürcher, 2004, p.278).
The oppression against the Kurds was no less. Between 1980 and 1983 the military resorted to deportations, arrest and torture, as well as state-sponsored killings (Klein, 2010, p.84). The military regime managed to decrease the political violence in the country, albeit at the price of “the consolidation of a political approach based on the permanent control of society by the state” and even more, the centralisation of the state on the basis of Turkish nationalism (Göral, et.al., 2013, p.15). In 1983, the military regime ended and the first democratic elections were held. Although Turkey has transitioned to a ‘democracy,’ the suppression of the Kurds continues. In fact, with the new constitution enacted in 1982, Turkey was marked by an even stronger emphasis on Turkish nationalism. Every expression of Kurdish identity, including giving children Kurdish names, singing Kurdish songs, and speaking Kurdish, was perceived as a threat to the indivisible unity of the Turkish state (Marcus, 2007, p.85; Gürbey, 1996, p.13; Gunter, 1988, p.399).
Despite all these attempts to ensure the homogeneity of the Turkish nation, the Kurdish movement continued its political activities. In August 1984, the PKK launched its first armed attack leading to an open war that would intermittently continue throughout most of the 1990s and until today. The Turkish state justified its measures, which amounted to the killing of civilians, under the guise of the struggle against terror. Therefore, the 1990s were marked by the gross human rights violations.
The 1990s: The Decade of State of Emergency, Denial and Overlord State
According to official statistics, between 1984 and 2012, the death toll of the conflict was 35,576, of which 5,557 were civilians. According to unofficial data however, the death toll of the 30-year long conflict is 55,000. (Alpkaya, Altıntaş, Sevdiren and Ataktürk Sevimli, 2014, p.15) Unresolved killings are estimated between 2000 and 17,000. As of 2012, 386360 people were internally displaced and the economic burden of the struggle is innumerable (Işık, 2013).
The Turkish state has implemented a number of measures ranging from armed conflict to declaring a state of emergency in the region. However, the war waged against the Kurdish movement was not confined to the PKK. Civilian political activists and intellectuals- Kurdish and Turkish, university students, practically everyone who supported the democratic rights of the Kurdish population was stigmatised as an ‘enemy of the state.’ These people were subjected to inhuman treatment including vetting and deposal, imprisoning, exile, kidnapping, torture and even extrajudicial execution (Göral, et.al., 2013, p.16). The escalation of violence on both sides brought about civilian casualties as well as gross human rights violations (Gürbey, 1996, p.9).
The law of state of emergency was enacted in order to legislate all illegal and anti-democratic activities of the state (Göral, et.al., 2013, p.16). State officers who had worked in the region were not accountable to any of the democratic institutions; in fact, the decree laws guaranteed the impunity. In such a context, where every Kurdish citizen is the ‘usual suspect’ of being terrorist, security measures were extended to the civilian Kurdish population, in particular, to students, Kurdish intellectuals and political activists who struggled for the democratic rights of Kurdish minority, as well as to Kurdish villagers and even to children.
In 1991, in order to silence the civilian Kurdish opposition, the Turkish state issued the Anti-Terror Law. This law further restricted political rights such as the rights to freedom of expression, association and movement of the Kurds (Muller, 1996, p.180). This law was presented as a necessary measure to counter violent PKK attacks. However, as it is stated in the report by Amnesty International (1992, p.2), the law became the pretext for suppression of non-violent opposition. The rest of the 1990s passed under the shadow of measures taken against the civilian population. Some of them can be summarised as evacuation and burning of the Kurdish villages and other settlements, “unresolved murders,” summary execution of civilians, torture, ill-treatment, displacement, forced migration, arbitrary detention and arrest and, of course, forced disappearances under custody (Kocabıçak, 2003, p.124). These systematic human rights abuses have yielded different forms of resistance, including the Saturday Mothers; a group of women have been gathering together and demanding truth and justice about the forced disappearances since May 27, 1995.
Forced Disappearances in Turkey
Forced disappearances can be defined as the “state act of rendering those it perceives as the enemy legally and physically non-existent” (Interview with Gökçen Alpkaya on Disappearances under Custody/Forced Disappearances, 2014). As one of the gravest violations of human rights, if not crime against humanity, forced disappearances are different from the other violations in two respects: firstly, acts of forced disappearance render the lost person non-existent before the law. Since the person cannot be found, their legal personality is nullified. This, in turn, becomes the pretext of violation of their rights to freedom and security and the right to due process (Alpkaya, 1995, p. 31). Secondly, since the evidence of the crime in the case of forced disappearances is the body, the claims cannot be proved, thereby, the responsible cannot be charged (Alpkaya, 1995, p.31).
These aspects of the forced disappearances have been very effectively used by the Turkish state. Moreover, it has been one of the tools that the Turkish state has systematically used under the name of ‘struggle against terror.’ This strategy was used not only to punish Kurdish political activists and their families, but also to create fear among the Kurdish population and to discourage Kurdish people from becoming involved in political activism (İvegen, 2004, p. 23).
According to tentative numbers, the number of forced disappearances between 1980 and 2000 is 1353. However, the vast majority of these took place between 1990 and 2000 (Göral, et. al., 2013, p.24) Almost all of the incidents occurred in Kurdish provinces, with the exception of Istanbul. Many people appealed to the state authorities to find their relatives but most cases went unanswered. The “bodies of 67% of the forcibly disappeared have still not been found, in 7% of the cases the bodies have been found but not delivered to their families” (Bozkurt and Kaya, 2014, p.64). The Human Rights Association, as reported by the UN Economic and Social Council Commission on Human Rights (December 1998, p.12) believes that among all the forced disappearances, 90% are Kurds; the remaining 10% are considered to be left-wing activists.
The Saturday Mothers of Turkey
As a result of these atrocities, in 1995, the Saturday Mothers came into being. The Saturday Mothers are a group of women who “have been holding regular vigils in Istanbul, Turkey” (Arifcan, 1997, p.265). Two cases, in particular, moved them to action. On March 21, 1995, Hasan Ocak was taken by the police and disappeared under custody. İnsan Hakları Derneği (Human Rights Association) (İHD), his family and other human rights organisations were mobilised to find him. 55 days after his detention, his dead body was found in a destitute cemetery; tortured and ill-treated. The second incident was that of Rıdvan Karakoç, whose dead body was found just like Ocak’s (Ivegen, 2004, p.24). After these events, mothers of the disappeared who had been silent thus far took action against the forced disappearances.
On May 27, 1995, the mothers came together on İstiklal Street with photographs of their beloved ones, sitting silently in Galatasaray Square. They gave speeches about what happened to their beloved ones. In the beginning, there were around 30 people asking for justice for the disappeared. Back in the day, it was a movement which nobody was interested in (Ivegen, 2004, p.25), including the police. However, after a while, these protests started to attract people’s attention. Hüsniye Ocak, mother of Hasan Ocak, recalls that people started to come and sit with these women, listened to them and shared their demands. (Kocabıçak, 2003, p.101) The movement drew international attention as well. In the 169th week, on May 30, 1998, Mothers of Plaza de Mayo of Argentine came to Istanbul and sat with the Saturday Mothers (Ivegen, 2004, p.25).
With the 170th week, police violence against the Saturday Mothers started and increased over time. The state and police were bothered by the increased visibility and political resistance of the Saturday Mothers. The more the Mothers attracted attention, the more state violence they were exposed to. Along with the police violence, the movement turned into a powerful, well-supported political resistance. As Kocabıçak (2003, p.112) reports, police violence continued for 7 months. During these 7 months, “[a] total [of] 431 people were taken under custody, beaten up, assaulted, dragged on ground and insulted.” As a result of this violence, in the 200th week of the protests, on March 13, 1999, the Mothers decided to take a break because of beating, abuse and mistreatment (Ivegen, 2004, p.26).
These protests were not the only forms of struggle. The Saturday Mothers continued their struggle in the legal field with their demands to ‘find the disappeared, and prosecute the perpetrators.’ However, judicial institutions have not fulfilled their duty to conduct effective, fast and independent investigations (Altıntaş, et. al., 2013, p.29). Cases usually ended up with verdict of non-prosecution. Other cases were dismissed based on the statute of limitation. The prolongation of proceedings has been perceived as a strategy of the Turkish state to avoid prosecutions (Altıntaş, et. al., 2013, p.32). Consequently, many relatives of the victims have concluded that the judiciary is on the side of the state and prevents or ignores the right to fair trial and due process for their cases. (Göral, et. al., 2013, p. 41; Altıntaş, et. al., 2013, p.32) This mistrust in the Turkish state and especially in the independence and impartiality of the judiciary has become widespread among victims.
All things considered, the struggle of the Saturday Mothers has become very well-known, well-organised and the longest lasting social movement in Turkey. Their attempts and struggle still goes on and their demands have not been answered by the state. Nevertheless, their struggle is never futile; they have been resisting the clandestine nature of the state by seeking truth. Throughout the years, the movement has grown and reached thousands of people. Even though they are still named as ‘Mothers’ there are many other people from all sectors of the society supporting and participating in the movement. Theoretically, too, their resistance should be accounted for vis-à-vis institutionalised forms of truth-seeking and transitional justice. In the next section, I will discuss truth and truth-seeking in the transitional justice literature.
Theoretical Backdrop: Truth-Seeking in and out of Transitional Justice
Ruti Teitel (2004, p.69) defines transitional justice as “the conception of justice associated with periods of political change, characterised by legal responses to confront the wrongdoings of repressive predecessor regimes.” As such, transitional justice, as the term suggests, refers to a period in which certain society faces a discontinuity, a break in the course of normality. It can imply wars, revolutions or the demise of a repressive regime. Transitions are periods in which the foundational aspects of societies are re-defined, and in which a society responds to evil legacies that have been allowed, if not emboldened, by the previous regime.
In transitional justice literature, truth revelation stands as one of the building blocks of justice (Teitel, 2004, p. 69). Without discovering the truth about what happened, confronting the past remains incomplete. Truth-seeking as a transitional practice signifies uncovering the facts of past abuses that have been unknown, concealed, or denied. This practice changes understandings and challenges the previous perceptions of culpability and responsibility (Smyth, 2007, p.10). Especially in the case of disappearances, truth-seeking practice becomes all the more significant. As Zalaquett (1995, p.6) argues, since the method of repression is based upon secrecy; crime “perpetuates its pernicious effects as long as truth remains hidden.” Unveiling truth about the repressive or violent past of the society paves the way for further democratisation since it uncovers the concealed atrocities of the old regime, thus drawing the line between an oppressive past and the desired democratic future. In this respect, uncovering atrocities means challenging the political structure of societies “where truth has been repressed and distorted for a protracted period” (Smyth, 2007, p.35).
Truth has numerous functions. Briefly summarised, it serves the purposes of acknowledgment and reconciliation. It helps ending denial (Cohen, 2001 p. 1); it names the names of victims and perpetrators (Smyth, 2007, p. 7); it challenges the alleged moral superiority of perpetrators and aims at recovering the moral status of victims (Dyzenhaus, 2000, p.471). Furthermore, it assumes a reconciliatory potential between conflicting parties by providing access to the discourse of the “others;” (Smyth, 2007, p.7) and by playing an educational role for the future generations (Dyzenhaus, 2000, p.484).
In transitional justice literature, two main ways through which truth is sought are emphasised: truth commissions and criminal justice. However, these mechanisms are by and large institutional and mostly established by the subsequent regime. Therefore, analysis of truth-seeking mechanisms remains incomplete. Moreover, such an approach to truth-seeking detaches it from its political significance and constrains it into a legal-institutional framework. What we should rather delve into is the ways in which truth is constructed and the political significance of truth as it is constructed. Truth seeking is a political struggle, if not resistance, in the face of a regime of denial. Truth in divided societies is a contested field for revelation of which truth-seekers strive. Especially in societies where official and dominant cultural denial of truth prevails, the monopoly of truth construction is enjoyed by the political power. In these cases, attempts to challenge this authority of truth-making have been repressed. Therefore, the power of providing the official interpretation of what, why and how things happened remains the monopoly of political power. Truth seeking becomes a subversive practice which stands up against the hegemonic, oppressive power relations.
Truth-Seeking as a Subversive Practice
The character of truth or the way we see and understand truth has changed in the course of time. With the interpretative turn, truth is perceived and operationalised as a social construct. Michel Foucault in particular elaborated on the problem of how truth operates in society and he triggered many questions concerning the nature of truth. For Foucault, truth cannot be seen as the truth which is infallible and absolute. It is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution and operation of statements (Foucault, 1980, p.133). These procedures are attained through power relations in a society without which the meaning of truth does not exist.
For Foucault, truth has never been outside of power. Neither has it lacked power (Rabinow, 1984, p.73). That is to say, truth has never been the truth which is unique, absolute, universal and discoverable. Truth, in this respect, should be grasped “as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution and operation of statements” (Foucault, 1980, p.133). It is produced, disseminated, sustained and made true. It is a constructed phenomenon which cannot be grasped as independent from social, economic and political power relations.
Truth, in this respect, needs to be seen as a meta-narrative, as an ethos, as “shared information among the societal actors” (Dyzenhaus, 2000, p.484). This character of truth as a meta-narrative is achieved through what Foucault (1980, p.131) calls “truth regime,” that is, “the types of discourse which it [society] accepts and makes function as true.” A regime of truth, according to Foucault, is central to the functioning of the society. It is essential because through a truth regime, one is enabled “to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true” (Foucault, 1984, p.73). Therefore, collective memory is informed by the truth regime. However, Foucault reminds us that truth, as well as collective memory, is never free from the power relations through which it is constructed and reproduced.
Despite its unquestionable contribution, Foucault’s approach to truth remains incomplete in understanding transitional societies as well as repressive regimes. In transitional societies, i.e., in societies which have undergone a divisive conflict either as a result of civil strife or repressive regimes, truth does not manifest itself in its unified form. It rather loses its character as meta-narrative. It becomes shattered and divided into parts to be upheld by the conflicting groups. Once the “epistemic consensus” that a truth regime sustains is disintegrated, shared notions of collective memory and truth go missing (Teitel, 2000, p.71). Moreover, the power relations differ from what Foucault accounts for in Western democracies and they are less subtle and more in the form of repression and overt violence. In such a context, truth manifests itself as a field of struggle and opens up new spaces for resistance in the form of truth-seeking. In this respect, truth revelation plays all the more important role: exposing, challenging, subverting, and transforming the truth regime and the power relations operating behind it. This role can be achieved through what I call politics of truth-seeking which exceeds the boundaries of institutional politics and extends to activism.
Especially in a repressive regime where truth is monopolised by the political authority, where truth is suppressed or distorted, truth-seeking becomes a subversive and transformative practice. It challenges not only the truth made true and functioning by the repressive regime but also repressive power relations which produce, disseminate and sustain the truth regime both in the political arena and at the societal level. In repressive regimes, such as military dictatorships, truth has been appropriated by the regime itself. A repressive regime either distorts or manipulates truth, producing yet another truth regime and using it to transform public discourse. Human rights violations are justified as ‘war against terrorism,’ ‘for the unity of the country’ or the repressive regime engages in a state of denial and hides what has happened. What is hidden are the “massive systemic atrocities,” and gross violations of human rights and repression by the modern state (Teitel, 2000, p.75). However, on the side of the repressed, things are known and remembered differently. Therefore, collective memories contradict and clash with each other.
Politics of Truth-seeking
In societies where the former truth regime is still prevalent and where transitional terms are not negotiated, truth-seeking as a practice turns out to be more of an activist movement seeking to reshape society. In such a situation, institutional frameworks do not suffice to address transitional justice. As Gomez (2010, p.1) points out, “behind the institutional processes and the enactment of legal frames, there are collective actions and practices of various actors who make possible the emergence of resistance to oppression and the construction of new paths of justice.”
The practice of truth-seeking in a transitional context is a political process targeting and challenging existing truth and truth regime. Truth-seeking is an act of resistance. Resistance against the truth regime does not necessarily mean resistance against institutional politics; it is, at the same time, resistance to everyday life “in which power is experienced and negotiated outside the formal contexts, to the effects of power on identities and bodies” (Alonso, 1996, p.417). This act of subversion is attained at two interdependent levels in the context of repression: by publicly challenging the dominant truth regime in a context of organised lying and by narrating their ‘own’ stories that repressive political authority has silenced.
Firstly, truth-seeking is a public declaration that the dominant ‘truth’ which has been told and imposed by the political power is actually a deception. It publicly denounces what the dominant truth regime tells us to believe, it seeks that which has been suppressed or distorted. As Smyth (2007, p. 35) draws on Arendt, “the impact of truth seeking (…) depends on the extent to which truth was suppressed or distorted.” The more suppressed the truth, the more subversive truth seeking becomes. Accordingly, in oppressive regimes where the dominant discourse is unchallengeable, asking for truth in the public sphere becomes shocking, challenging and subversive.
Secondly, narrating their own version of the story, truth-seekers generate a counter-discourse. This counter-discourse is articulated publicly. The public sphere, in this respect, should be seen in two respects: firstly, as Arendt points out, it is the sphere of visibility; where a person can appear and confirm her existence within the ‘others’ presence (d’Entreves, 2014). Therefore, the articulation of demands for truth and stories in the public sphere makes one visible in the eyes of others. Secondly, the public sphere is a discursive sphere within which dominant discourse is produced, circulated and sustained. In the public sphere of a repressive regime, the meta-narrative which reproduces power relations does not leave any room for the others. Expressing the alternative narrative that bears on other truths creates a rupture in the boundaries of the established public sphere. It incorporates the unheard into the sphere of circulation of discourses.
Consequently, this narrative assumes a political status as standing up against the dominant narrative in the public sphere. It reshapes the public sphere and opens up new possibilities for new discourses to enter. In the following chapter, I will discuss the case study of the Saturday Mothers, a group of women who have been holding vigils of truth seeking and who have been articulated their own narratives for almost 20 years now, through which we can explore the meaning of truth seeking as a means of political and historical transformation.
The Saturday Mothers: A 20-year Long Quest for Truth
The Saturday Mothers have been gathering to ask for the truth about their loved ones for 20 years now. I will argue that they have developed a subversive practice that challenges the truth regime of the Turkish state. I will discuss this point under two main headings: first, the attempt at shaking the ground upon which the official truth is based; second, the attempt at transforming the public sphere and the collective memory prevalent in the public sphere.
The overt aim of the Saturday Mothers is to force the state to inform them about the fate of their beloved ones, and to accept responsibility for crimes (Bozkurt & Kaya, 2014, p.69). As the state’s inaction continues, their movement has become even more determined. They have become more engaged into other societal sufferings, expressing solidarity with other movements. However, they have never deviated from their own cause of revealing the truth. I will focus on the political and societal significance of these demands, and on what they mean in the broader context of Turkey. I argue that the Saturday Mothers have been contributing to the truth revealing process firstly by challenging the dominant discourse in Turkey, and secondly, by providing an alternative account of truth.
First, since the beginning of the movement, the Saturday Mothers have asked for the truth in the face of long-lasting denial and concealment from the Turkish state. Asking for truth from the state means that ‘state is lying’ or at least, it is hiding the truth. This, in turn, amounts to a challenge to the monopoly of the state over truth. Moreover, since every truth regime is constructed through power mechanisms ruling in society, challenging the truth implies challenging the dominant power relations and their agents. This challenge opens up new questions regarding the nature of official truth to the wider public, and unmasks the power relations based on repression and denial. Especially in the case of forced disappearances, this becomes all the more important since the state not only denies the act but it also obscures the evidence; the bodies of the disappeared. The lack of transparency and accountability of the state become exposed, and the wider public starts discussing about the nature of repressive regimes.
Second, since the state held on to its own truth and made it function among the non-Kurdish population, the majority was convinced either that those who disappeared deserved their fate as ‘terrorists,’ or that those who stand up against the state have the aim of defaming the state and destroying the indivisible unity of the Turkish nation. These perceptions penetrated into, and pervaded, the public discourse of the non-Kurdish population with the help of underlying nationalist values. Moreover, not only mainstream Turkish media but also the judiciary, education system and institutional politics have played an essential role in reproducing this discourse and stigmatising the Kurds (Zeydanlıoğlu, 2008, p.166). In this respect, calls for the revelation of truth by the Saturday Mothers has sought to subvert hegemonic power mechanisms; including institutional politics, media, education and judicial systems.
In addition to demanding truth revelation, the Saturday Mothers have been demanding that the state “recognise its responsibility and culpability specifically for enforced disappearances” (Bozkurt & Kaya, 2014, p.69). This demand goes beyond its primary request for the prosecution of the perpetrators, but also requires that state abandon its moral righteousness and acknowledge wrongdoing. Insisting upon the culpability and liability of the state signifies the demand for a new political structure that would be built not upon the state’s monopoly over what is known and remembered but on the principle of accountability to citizens. This demand for state responsibility challenges not only the dominant discourse but also the socio-political and ethnic foundation of the Turkish state. In this respect, the Turkish state needs to reorganise its own political foundation so that it re-defines citizenship as well as political, social and cultural rights to be recognised. The political, legal and institutional legacies of the repressive regime against the Kurds and the perception of the state in the eyes of the public must also change. That is to say, not only the state but also society needs to revise its perceptions about the Kurds. They should be seen no longer as ‘terrorists’ or ‘violent and backwards’ who do not appreciate the modernity of the Turkish state, but rather as fellow citizens who ask for their own cultural rights. Moreover, by prosecuting the perpetrators, it ensures its accountability and responsibility in protecting its citizens’ lives.
In addition to appearing in the most crowded street of Istanbul, hence Turkey, the Saturday Mothers claim a certain publicity, thus reclaiming the public sphere which has been closed to opposing views. Efforts to transform the public sphere can be discussed in two respects: first, by becoming visible, and second, by challenging the collective memory which is circulated and reproduced in the public sphere.
By public sphere, I mean both meanings of it: the sphere of visibility and the platform through and by which the dominant discourse is circulated and reproduced. The Saturday Mothers’ choice of Galatasaray Square was by no means coincidental. As Ivegen (2006, p.36) points out:
One of the reasons is that the street houses a variety of cultures, commercial areas, activities, historical places, etc. so that a diverse range of people can be there and the diversity is reflected in the daily life of the street. (…) Moreover, a large number of people who are coming from and going to Taksim Square, the heart of Istanbul, pass from there. More importantly, many intellectuals pass from there because a significant publishing house Yapı Kredi is located on the street. Hence, the sit-ins would receive considerable attention from all walks of life. Since the publicity is the main goal of such protests, İstiklal Street provides an excellent location.
They chose the Galatasaray Square to be visible among the wider public. They state that they are well aware of the fact that if they had not forced themselves into the sphere of visibility, they would have never have been known or reported on by the mainstream media (Kocabıçak, 2003, p.78). As to the discursive character of the public sphere, it is argued that the public sphere is the discursive space where the truth regime is disseminated and strengthened. Moreover, the public sphere is marked by inter-subjectivity through which citizens share ideas, experiences and knowledge contributing to the creation of collective memory. The Saturday Mothers’ intrusion into the public sphere penetrates it with a new discourse which reclaims the truth. This invokes the need to revise what is known and what is remembered in the collective memory of the wider public.
All these efforts and effects I have discussed so far should be accompanied by the demands for justice. Since it is quite probable that revelation of truth may not amount to justice, a broader understanding of justice needs to be considered; an understanding which goes beyond criminal justice and institutional truth revelation and which extends to challenging the truth regime and hegemonic discourse, subverting the power relations which construct the truth and to reconstituting societal relations. In the final analysis, what I argue is that the relation between truth and justice can only be established with a broader framework of democratisation of the ground upon which the truth is constructed as well as democratisation of the power relations in the society. In the case of Turkey, the Saturday Mothers’ demand for truth and justice should be conceived in such a framework that the Turkish state as well as non-Kurdish citizens, while revealing the truth, should reconsider the repressive, unaccountable and culpable nature of the regime. While doing so, the foundational aspects, as well as discursive aspects of the regime should be opened up to question so that everyone, especially those who have been silenced so far, can have a say in the making of the new, democratic truth regime.
The analysis I presented here assumes that truth cannot be considered as monolithic, an absolute phenomenon that is unchallengeable; it is rather a constructed phenomenon, the construction of which is very much dependent on hegemonic power relations. Moreover, in transitional societies, the truth, as the meta-narrative of a country, is dispersed among the conflicting groups. Every party has its own understanding of truth and these different accounts of truth collide with each other. Moreover, in transitional societies, the truth, as the meta-narrative of a country, is dispersed among the conflicting groups. Every party has its own understanding of truth and these different accounts of truth collide with each other.
Especially in repressive regimes where truth is monopolised by the political authority, these relations become all the more important. Foucault argues that power as such should not be regarded as a negative phenomenon. It is the basis of societal relations and he argues that there is no space where power does not operate. These relations of power are not necessarily relations of domination. However, when they assume the character of domination as in the repressive regimes, the priority of political action becomes the challenge to these power relations. This challenge does not come to mean the ousting of existing power relations altogether. It is rather an attempt to reconfigure these power relations and end the domination of one sector over the other. There are various ways to achieve this. What I believe is that asking for truth in repressive regimes is a very effective way to do this.
In the case of Turkey, the repressive nature of state is a complicated issue. The transition after the 1980 coup marked the last transition to democracy in Turkey, at least there have been democratically elected governments. However, in the Kurdish region of the country, this democracy has not been satisfied. Further, anti-democratic measures, such as state of emergency and all the other measures explored in the first chapter, prevail in the region. Therefore, in the eyes of the Kurdish population; the Turkish state is a repressive state with all the anti-democratic and violent characteristics; strictly censoring and removing Kurds from the public sphere. Moreover, all these repressive measures were conducted in a clandestine way which reinforced impunity and unaccountability in society. Efforts to disclose these measures are an attempt to expose the clandestine and repressive regime of the Turkish state to the rest of the population.
The movement of the Saturday Mothers has challenged the truth regime in Turkey to a considerable extent. Though not at the state level, in some sectors of the non-Kurdish population, people sympathise with the Saturday Mothers; they keep wondering what state might have done; they wonder what else the state might have done and they criticise the clandestine nature of the Turkish state by sharing the demands of the Saturday Mothers. The more their voice comes to be heard, the more people will ask for truth in Turkey. Even though the demands of the Saturday Mothers remain unreciprocated on the part of the state, on the part of the society, their visibility increases each year. More people discuss the repressive nature of the state and more people criticise the monopolisation of truth by the state. Furthermore, as their demands for justice remain unfulfilled, more people question the judicial mechanisms and more people question and challenge the power mechanisms operating behind all state policies. Today, the Saturday Mothers occupy a place in many people’s memories and the collective memory which was shared by a very small part of society in the beginning has been reconstructed in many more people’s lives.
Eda Sevinin, Central European University, Budapest
Please cite this publication as follows:
Sevinin, E. (February, 2016), “Politics of Truth-Seeking and the Saturday Mothers of Turkey”, Vol. V, Issue 2, pp.13-33, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=10853)
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