In May 15, I stood at the stage in Hotel President Wilson in Geneva, to receive an award that left me with a great sense of humility and pride. It was the human rights NGO, UN Watch which had decided to hand over its highest distinction, the Morris B. Abram Human Rights Award. The award declaration said that I was chosen for bravery, in being “a leading voice against the authoritarianism of the Erdogan regime, and a fearless voice of truth on the world stage.”
The award commemorates the legacy of UN Watch’s founder, the late Ambassador Morris Abram, a pioneering civil rights advocate, diplomat and UN delegate, who in 1963, helped win the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that granted equality to the votes of African-Americans.
Previous winners of the prestigious prize include Chinese dissident Yang Jianli; Russian dissident and world chess champion Garry Kasparov; Dr. Massouda Jalal, Afghanistan’s first Minister for Women’s Affairs; and Esther Mujawayo, an activist for victims of the genocide in Rwanda.
Mixed feelings. Humility, bitterness and pride…
Here is how I shared those sentiments with the audience – around 300 people – that night:
”As I stand here, tonight, my emotions are a peculiar blend. While humbled, I must add I am also eclipsed by bitterness, disappointment, and concern.
I wish that I would have felt more optimistic as someone who over four decades has observed the speactacular adventures of his homeland.
My limited sense of hope was that, a month ago, the people of Turkey would have rejected, with an overwhelming majority, the accelerated slide to tyranny.
Exposing us observers as driven by illusion, they did not issue a loud and clear ‘no’.
It is not the 49 percent who said no to such a willful push which interests me, but rather, the 51 percent who said yes. I would have accepted if it were, say, up to some 20 percent.
After 15 years of struggle for human dignity in a country, where Pandora’a Box was kept open, such level of suicidal willingness is dragging with it the entire Asia Minor, a cradle of civilisations; a ground for coexistence, however tense, to the abyss of cruelty.
Yet, throughout history we have all known that, once the power is handed over to a single man, it only bodes for ill times.
Every word coming out of his lips, which is instantly perceived as a verdict, only deepens the nightmare for all those who cherish freedom, individuality, civilian courage, integrity and compassion, ending more often than not, in disaster.
I remember Germany, of 1934, and shiver.
I’ve wanted to hope that our memories after two world wars and a destructive cold one, would be so fresh that history would repeat itself much less.
Thus, my disappointment.
Many of us intellectuals in Turkey, those of us with different colours but with honesty in common, had known all along that as the millennium began, our country had also come to a critical, existential threshold.
With a new breed of politicians, which was represented by a new political party, then, our hope was that Turkey at last would be able to shake off dark parts of its shaky past, and would deliver equality, dignity and justice to its citizens, who were deceived by its elite.
The rotten state of management had come to a watershed, and the question was whether or not the country would be able to take that leap.
Pandora’s Box, which kept the ghosts of the past, such as atrocities against the folks in Asia Minor, and human suffering caused by a rurthless social and political engineering, was opened just so that this experiment, which we called normalisation, would be successful.
But, it required that:
- A culture of consensus be encouraged,
- Well educated secular elite would wise up and learn from its past mistakes and develop new political alternatives
- The party which took over, the AKP, would be a coordinator of democratisation in which they would be seen as the ones that raised the quality of the rebublican order, in a sense that it redistributed, not accumulated, power.
In all three, we failed.
Thus, my bitterness; that not only is directed at those in power who deliberately blocked it from happening but also to its opponents, who now to a large part either submissive to authoritarianism being cemented or, busy, building a new coalition to be part of the rotten system simply, paradoxically, refreshed.
I am only one of those who saw his duty to stop this repeat of history from happening.
In my lifetime I have witnessed more suffering in Turkey than my share.
And also, my memory is strong enough to remind others on how vast the torment of a few German intellectuals who saw the storm clouds gathering when Reichstag fire started spreading to the streets and homes of entire Germany.
Uthopian, humanist Russian intellectuals whose efforts to stop Stalin ended when the murder of Kirov was the final blow to open the gates of hell…
Or many Iranian intellectuals, whose warnings were lost in the void as teocratic fascism rose before their eyes, wiping everything diverse on its way.
The battle for the human rights was the backbone of my journalism and I am, after 15 years of a vicious cycle, left only with gloom, once more.
Pessimistic about the deepening crisis in Turkey as I am, nevertheless do I feel the same obligation to do my best as a witness of my time, to keep a focus on the freedoms and rights, but this time as a victim myself, forced to exile.
I turn often, these days, to the great Austrian author, Stefan Zweig, whose memories, Die Welt von Gestern, which I believe everyone concerned about the world these days should read, and who said:
”Only the misfortune of exile can provide the in-depth understanding and the overview into the realities of the world.”
He also said:
‘Only the person who has experienced light and darkness, war and peace, rise and fall, only that person has truly experienced life.’
So true, for all of us.
Despite being torn apart from my homeland, I still feel lucky, in comparison with many intellectuals, who due to their strong sense of ethics and honesty, were killed, jailed; fired; living under constant threat.
I dedicate this award to the memory of Hrant Dink, Tahir Elçi and all the others, many of them so young, who lost their lives; and all the colleagues of mine thrown into jail, simply because of their staunch defence of our noble profession.
It goes to all those in Turkey, who resent and fight against despotism.