October 5, 2014

The flaying of civil society in Turkey

Mümtazer Türköne

One of the most chronically over-discussed topics at Bayram time in Turkey is that of what gets done with the hides of sacrificed animals. Since actually putting certain parts of the animals -- like their hides and their intestines -- to good use is so difficult, these parts often get donated to charitable organizations.

And In fact, the charitable organizations that gather the hides and sell them off to leather merchants every year wind up making significant profits.

The state, however, never leaves the normal citizens and charitable organizations alone with one another.

In fact, in previous years it was made mandatory to donate animal hides to the organization operating under the name the “Turkish Aviation Foundation,” which works to develop aviation activities in Turkey. There is something definitely strange about seeing the words “donation” and “mandatory” side by side, no question about that. And since these mandatory donations in the past had turned into very clear forms of societal oppression during military coup eras in Turkey, Kurban Bayram, or the sacrifice holiday, was always marked by debates over which organization's hides would be donated.

The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) cadres were no different from any democratic, freedom-loving political party on this matter -- that is, before they came to power. But their rise to power changed everything for them on this front. In fact, for days now, dark gossip reminiscent of the military coup eras in Turkey has been circulating. The gossip, centering around the fact that the authority to gather up animal hides has once more been given to the Turkish Aviation Foundation, does not disguise the fact that this is a blow aimed at civil society.

It has once again become clear that the tools of oppression used against civil society by the state -- and the issues that trigger interest in the state -- have simply not changed. And so it is that once again, the issue of animal hide donations rears its head. A government decision thus has retracted the authority previously given to the Kimse Yok Mu (Is Anybody There) foundation -- a Gülen-associated group -- turning it over again to the Turkish Aviation Foundation. The situation is strange enough to attract the attention of even those who don't normally follow politics that closely.

The real goal of all of this is to subject civil society to the will and power of the state.

When one compares the Kimse Yok Mu foundation to the Foundation of Youth and Education in Turkey (TÜRGEV), the real situation becomes crystal clear. TÜRGEV is a foundation that has become enriched through public profits; it is a “GONGO,” or government organized non-governmental organization.

And it is at the same time one of this government's most important tools when it comes to the expropriation of civil society. For example, businessmen who win important bidding tenders are obliged to make donations to this foundation. AK Party-run municipalities have also been making donations of some very valuable plots of land to TÜRGEV. And of course, this foundation is headed by Bilal Erdoğan, the son of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

It is quite likely that municipalities will gather up animal hides to give to this foundation.

The entire raison d'etre for this foundation is to encourage religious education. And not just any religious education, but the religious education offered in state schools throughout Turkey.

In short, the situation we face is this: TÜRGEV represents the state, while the Kimse Yok Mu foundation represents civil society.

While one of these organizations is financed with public funds, the other is left out in the cold via a direct government decision from on high. What has happened, then, is that the state and civil society have been brought face to face.

It is perhaps helpful to compare the Turkish charity organizations Kimse Yok Mu and Deniz Feneri; these are two groups working in the same field, but the latter, the Deniz Feneri group, gathered money in Germany in an illegal manner, channeling it into AK Party coffers when the party was still in its formative years. This foundation was found guilty in court, but it is still a working foundation. The ban on Kimse Yok Mu is ultimately an attempt at making the strongest competitor to Deniz Feneri as weak as possible.

The Deniz Feneri group was accused of helping finance the AK Party by supporting media using ill-gained money. It was a scandal widely covered in the media at the time the accusations first emerged. But since the government's media pool is now directly financed by state profits, the Deniz Feneri organization is used as another GONGO, as a way for the state to expropriate civil society.

In the end, animal hides have always been a cause of debate and argument in Turkey around Kurban Bayram time. But this time around, the AK Party, using powerful tools it has gained via its leadership role, is quite openly flaying civil society in its quest for more power.

Published on Today's Zaman, 04 October 2014, Saturday