Live and let die: Are hunger strikes a cynical tool for ‘martyrdom politics’?

”If the power targets the very life, then the life itself becomes, per se, a resistance to power.” This motto often at display in strikes and social resistence in public spaces, has carved itself into memory.

In the past week or so, it was revived again, in turbulent Turkey, where decree after decree darkens the lives of the citizens of various professions, especially school teachers, academics and journalists, by making them jobless, eternally blacklisted for careers, punished for hunger, simply because they are in open disagreement with the power, solely represented by President Erdoğan. As the purge has intensified, a powerful debate has erupted among the intellectuals about the right to live, individual manipulation, flock mentality, and whether or not will to die for a cause is an act of high morality. At times it has turned so acrimonious that curses and cussword have flung about; but also so powerful that in involved Spinoza, Derrida, Marx, Kant, Sartre, Edward Said and many others. Overall it is so interesting that German reader should be made aware of its context and content.

At the epicenter of the debate are two activists, Ms Nuriye Gülmen and Mr Serdar Özakça, two teachers sacked arbitrarily from their jobs last autumn. It was first Gülmen who last November started to demonstrate individually, evey day, with a plakate, ‘I want my job back!’, only to be taken to custody routinely by the police, then to return to the same square with the same demand the following day.

She was later joined by Özakça, another fired teacher. Early last March their civil resistance evolved into hunger strike. Their demands were also enhanced: Lifting of the emergency rule, end to arbitrary sackings, job security for the public employees and – this one showed a broad partisan bias – reemployment of all ‘revolutionary democrats’ sacked (as if to say, ‘we don’t care about the others’).

Nearly two and the half months after, their action has great attention. While the pro-government columnists accuse them of being members of underground leftist networks, AKP supporters’ mockery in social media goes virile by questions why they don’t lose weight. Some sent meals to the square in Ankara where they sit.

Police visits the spot to disperse those who want to show solidarity.


But this is not what caused the debate. The action had enough contagious effect for the left to mobilize a campaign not only in signature campaigns praising those two, but also further hunger strikes nationwide. Some columns by leftist pundits were dedicated to mythbuilding that the couple were ‘multiplying a silent cry by defying death in waves, which meet other voices; with those who fear death at one side and these who love life but face death willingly…’

This campaign led to powerful objections by some intellectuals, led by the internationally renowned philosophy scholar, Zeynep Direk, with Koç University, who questioned the moral legitimacy of what they call ‘a mirror martyrdom culture’ – comparing to that of jihadists’.

When I was tipped by a scholar friend of its rapid follow-up, I found that the social media was a wrestling ground. At the firing line was Ms Direk, who apparently had started it all, and she had to endure a lot of slander from the activist left flanks. ‘Shut up!’ was the most polite expression directed at her, I found out.

She was extremely sturdy and defiant. ‘I will voice my conscience’ she kept writing, supported also by a group of concerned intellectuals.

Initially, she had asked a question. ”Yes, we know that the state decrees sentenced you to hunger” she wrote in facebook. ”But you have your friends, your solidarity circles. One can live together until one returns. Does the hunger strike to death not damage the confidence we must have in these relations?”

She took the issue further.

According to Direk, Gülmen’s initial action was a noble civilian stand.

She wrote:

”Yet we now witness an academician, who every day with a smile stood by herself in a street and was served tea and food by the shopkeepers and passers-by, to be turned into a suicide activist. Let’s not say her own will; because the will itself is under everything and everybody. Probably, we see a surrender to those forces who exert influence. Everybody who supports a process which in the name of defending life leads to a Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is responsible. Life is not defended this way. I take a distance from all those groups and structures who by being behind this action serve utilitarian mentalities. This is my moral stand.”

Finding herself under verbal lynching, she went on to say:

”I don’t address the state, because it is no longer. I address the individuals and groups. There is nothing defendible if one responds morally in a wrong way to maltreatment. The thing to do is to convince Nuriye and Semih that theitr action is wrong. This must be the stand of the academicians. We have to use our minds and tongues, and not inflict harm on ourselves. Let me quote Spinoza: We have to support joyful resistance; not sorrow and obstinacy to death…”

At this point some of those who joined hunger strikes in 1990’s in the prisons joined and many of them agreed with Direk; that there was a huge difference between a prisoner who was left with no choice in total isolation and those who demand a job back. One of them, a former far-leftist, wrote:

”Necrophilian politics obviously sees something shameful in ‘logos’ and ethical politics. It suggests that we should be ready for celebrating the next funeral. Necrophilian politics are aimed at silencing and h-ypnotising people, that’s why they are so hostile to intellectuals.”


”Resilience” wrote Direk to some who quoted Marx to her, ”is a will to build a new life. If the state looks like everything except a state, then all we should do is to fight so that it is ‘reset’ to its basics and to acknowledge human integrity. Resilience, survival, rational debate, solidarity, friendship and patience offered by time; these are the ways.Now you tell me, Kant again? Bourgois liberalism again? What about a little Marx? It can be hard but this is the time Kant may be ahead of Marx, don’t you think?”

”If we put aside intellectuals like Edward Said who stod by people resisting conditions alike a colony, should an intellectual defend the sacrifice of the lives of the children of her/his country? At the end, when the state crushes those children, how can you look into the faces of their mothers? Wouldn’t those peoples be cross with you? Look, the souls of the intellectuals who back violence rot sooner or later. They end up thoughtless under the weight of those deaths they have helped cause. We have so many minds suffering depression and enmity to the thinking itself. So, no matter what our conditions are, please try not to be one of those intellectuals who sublimate death and act like grave diggers.”


As much as Direk represents a minority in the current turbulence of crisis-ridden Turkey, the despair of the Marxian left is also a naked fact. It has no political correspondence with the rather submissive masses – be them pious or Kemalist-secular – which exposes the copy of a ‘death wish’ of those in other far end – of jihadists.

The danger, now looming, is a repetition of modern Turkish history.

The two hunger strikers approach death by every day, somewhat ‘captives’ of the support campaign, and if a tragedy happens, the state certainly will not care a bit. Families and friends will suffer, and all those who favor (self) violence will only feel a victory that the hatred will enrich a mythology which is fed by a willful loss of human lives.



About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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