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Talking Turkey: Gezi Park, Sevan Nišanyan and Old Armenian Ladies

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It seems that the people of Turkey are finally realizing that if there is anything more dispiriting than a Kemalist, it's an Islamist. As the recent demonstrations in Gezi Park demonstrate, Turks are finally beginning to realize the true face of Prime minister Rayyip Erdogan and what his small but consistent changes will mean for the Republic of Turkey. Like the anti-Islamist coup in Cairo, the decidedly secular bent of the demonstrators and the democratic nature of their demonstrations seems to have taken Prime Minister Erdogan by surprise. And they should. Erdogan is a blatant despot: someone who arbitrarily has decided when and where his people can drink alcohol for example; and someone who continues to try to keep his people ignorant bout their own past -- an Armenian Genocide denier of the worst type. Turkey has recently taken two steps forward and he would take it three steps back into religious intolerance and obscurantism. It's time for Erdogan to go, if you ask me, just the was it was time for Morsi to take a hike as well.

Several months ago I wrote a column about the attacks perpetrated against old Armenian ladies in Istanbul. Not surprisingly a few nationalist and racist bozos wrote in comments attacking me for my views -- especially since the police apparently arrested an Armenian from Istanbul for the arrests. Not much has been heard of him or the attack since, at least in the Western press. It is of course entirely possible that an Armenian committed these deplorable acts -- there are lunatics in every community. Given Turkish history from 1896 down through the bombing of Dersim, the Wealth Tax episodes and most recently Hrant's Dink's murder, this however seems almost besides the point. You would think these Turkish commentators would at least acknowledge why such acts terrorized Armenians throughout Turkey and, yes throughout the diaspora as well. Once again, we felt helpless as Armenians were being attacked--by whom we did not know. Recently, some steps in the right direction have taken place. In the mostly Kurdish Southeast, the municipality of Diyarbakir is opening an Armenian Museum in Sur Guiragos Church. Mayor Baydemir's repeated apologies to Armenians for the Kurds' complicity with the Ottoman government in 1915 and the rebuilding of Sourp Guiragos, as well as the city's in principle agreement to return some 190 stolen properties to individual Armenians or the Armenian community as a whole-are welcome by all. It is time for the rest of Turkey to do the same. Reparations can start by returning the Turkish White House, known as Çankaya Köşkü, to the Kassabian family from whom it was stolen after the Kassabian's fled the Armenian genocide to Constantinople and eventually Canada.

These two topics bring me naturally to one of Turkey's bravest and most outspoken intellectuals and businessmen, Sevan Nisanyan, an atheist ethnic Armenia singularly responsible for the renovation of his entire native village of Evleri as well as a rare voice of liberalism and lay tolerance for all in modern-day Turkey. The Turkish courts have condemned him to 13 months of jail. His crime: "publicly insulting the religious values of part of the population" i.e., insulting the Prophet Mohammed. Here is a piece of advice, a plea and a warning all at once: leave Sevan Nišanyan alone!! There are far too few talented original thinkers in the world -- particularly in conformist places like Turkey and Nišanyan is one of these. Furthermore, Turks should be ashamed to be prosecuting an ethnic Armenian less than 100 years after the Armenian Genocide of 1915-23 for something as flimsy as what he actually said. First of all, Nišanyan never insulted Mohammed -- he simply said that if people wanted to believe in fairy tales -- i.e., religion, he could do nothing to stop them nor did he feel the necessity of doing so. In a true democracy one should be able to say what one wants about anyone -- Jesus Christ, Mohammed, or Buddha. That is the definition of democracy. You can look it up.

So here is a message for Prime Minister Erdogan and the Turkish courts: Leave Gezi Park alone! Leave democracy alone! And for heaven's sake, leave Sevan Nišanyan alone!