Thursday, June 01, 2006


Here's a quiz for a wet Sunday afternoon. This picture was taken no more than a couple of weeks ago. Where is it? Who are these people? Why are they congregating in such a vast number? One thing is sure: you didn't see this picture in your wet Sunday newspaper, broadsheet or tabloid. Nah, some things just ain't news.

One of my heroes is George Orwell. The issue was unambiguous for him: fascism was evil and had to be fought wherever it started to take root, first in Italy, then in Germany and Spain. Fascism: those choreographed parades, the passionate oratory and the sexy uniforms. Spain in the thirties: clearcut issues, clearcut causes, good guys and bad guys. The intelligensia of northern Europe was in a ferment, polarised by the seductive glamour of fascism, or the nobility of the heroic workers' struggle.

So, where is the same intelligensia today, these heirs of Guernica and the siege of Barcelona, now that another country is sinking under another kind of tyranny? Ah, but wait a minute. Look at the photograph again. These people are not the honest sons of toil with muscular forearms and grime-laced faces from years of toil under the harsh Anatolian sun. These are well-to-do people, toffs, academics.

Let me come clean. This is a picture of a recent gathering at the Anitkabir Mausoleum in Ankara, it shows a protest against the skullduggery that passes for governance in present-day Turkey. The protesters are, let's face it, representative of the people who have most to lose from the destruction of the secular state and its replacement by a fundamentalist islamic state modelled on Iran.

I love Turkey in too many ways to list. I am in awe of the achievements of Mustafa Kemal, called Ataturk, "father of the Turks". And I am also aware that Turkey, as Disraeli said of Victorian England, is two nations. It's a familiar story: the good life is in the cities, so the peasantry flock into the cities, don't find the good life, end up in bidonville and listen to those who provide simple panaceas for their ills. Because there is no coherent left-wing party in Turkey, just a mess of squabbling idealogues (George Orwell described the sectarian sickness that afflicts the Left), the fundamentalists have had a clear run, and they have swept to power on the votes of the disaffected - and sources of funding that would not stand up to scrutiny.
And, my goodness, there have been some improvements: lots of new buses in Ankara to replace those rumbling monsters belching diesel fumes; lots of treeplanting and other green initiatives; cheap fuel for the poor (well, this last is not good news because the cheap fuel is lignite, the stuff that created horrendous smogs in Ankara till natural gas was introduced in the nineties). All popular stuff, good for the citizenry.
Wait though. Under Hitler, Germany built the autobahns, produced the People's Car (the literal translation of "Volkswagen") and promoted health and strength programmes which created a nation of fit and healthy people. More than that, Nazism gave Germans back their self-respect and their self-belief. But Auschwitz and Belsen and the rest were too high a price to pay for these benefits. So, clean buses and trees are welcome, but they are not per se an argument for the benignity of the regime.

So, to come back to the demonstration at Anitkabir (which is the focal point for Atatrurkism), these are people who don't want an Iran-style system. They have everything to lose. So, which side of the barricades should we be on? For barricades there will be. In Britain, we have a nation which, give or take a few blips, has been stable for a thousand years. Turkey - like many other nations around the world - is less than a century old, born out of the dismemberment of the Ottoman empire which left a maelstrom of unresolved conflicts. So we should not be too quick to judge such a young nation. What were we like one hundred years after King Alfred?

As usual, I have more questions than answers. But if the day comes when you have to hunker down on one side of the barricades or the other, start thinking now past the detail - as Orwell did - and decide where you belong.

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