Conceptions of honor and honorable behavior in Turkey clearly don’t include attitudes toward disabled people. This has been witnessed incessantly in the media and in daily life by the experiences of disabled people and their treatment by society, by their government, and now by a notorious tweet. (For a laundry list of despicable behaviors, see the posts under the category ‘Disabled’ on this blog.)
The shameful tweet was sent to member of parliament Safak Pavey, an accomplished young woman who gave up a top position at the UN to return to Turkey and run for parliament to better serve her country. Last year she was awarded the US State Department’s International Women of Courage Award. She is also disabled, having lost an arm and a leg in a train accident, and wears prostheses. The tweet was sent out of the blue last month by Melik Birgin, a member of the Malatya AKP Youth Wing Executive Management Committee. (click here) The two had never met.
The tweet: “God has taken one of your legs and you still haven’t woken up from the sleep of blasphemy. What obstinacy!”
Pavey wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, asking for Birgin to be removed from his post, and from which I quote:
…The boldness with which this person, whom I have never met, could claim that I am blasphemous and that God has punished me with my disability, can only be due to the social acceptance that he believes this idea receives. Only social support could allow Mr. Birgin to be so arrogant as to threaten imagined divine sins with bodily punishments…
I learned from your public announcements that you are planning to apply to the UN for a ban on hate speech against Islam and Islamophobia. But if you do not act upon the hate-filled discriminatory tweet of a local member of your party, you will have failed your moral duty for the most vulnerable and silent majority, the 12,5 million disabled citizens of Turkey, many of whom have been victimised in myriad ways by crimes against their humanity. I will be led to believe that you are only sensitive toward victims of hate crimes whose identities reflect the interests of you and your followers, and not hate crimes against anyone else.
According to Pavey, the tweet was sent not only to her but was also posted on Birgin’s website for a couple of weeks. Pavey believes this to be an act of hatred and prejudice that Birgin believed would bring no consequences and no push-back because such values are widespread in Turkish society. Who would care if he bullied a disabled woman?
By evening of the day Pavey’s letter was made public on December 21, Birgin was described by the AKP as “just an ordinary member”. News reports to the contrary disappeared from the Internet cache and, according to Pavey, media outlets were reportedly “warned” by “government-related people” not to publish her letter. Pavey never received the apology the AKP claimed in the press to have rendered her. Instead, the government went into defensive mode, insisting that Birgin had nothing to do with the AKP, instead — as Pavey had wished — of using this opportunity to take a stand on the issue of discrimination against the disabled and their easy, continual debasement in Turkish society. She was vilified in the Islamic press, which insisted that the real victims of hate speech were women in headscarves. Pavey, on the other hand, was portrayed as a “master of blasphemy”.
Despite the distorted news accounts, the dispute became widely known and seems to have sparked a debate in Turkey about hate speech against the disabled. Pavey said she sometimes felt like the hobbit ringbearer in “Lords of the Ring”, trying to reach Mount Mordor to throw in the ever-heavier ring, bare-foot against all the giant evil forces.
Pavey has been trying to change Turkish perceptions of disability, which is seen as a charity issue, to a matter of human rights. Charity is based on individual good will (or not) and implies patronage and control. For instance, charity more often takes the form of distributing Pampers to disabled people at home instead of acknowledging and supporting their rights as human beings to get an education and work. It also fosters a patronizing attitude. And just as support is conceived as an individual matter, rather than a humanitarian principle, abuse too remains an individual matter. Thus the disabled are not seen as a disadvantaged group, so they cannot claim that actions against them are the result of hatred against a particular group (hate speech or hate crimes).
This points to an important issue that is presently under debate in the writing of the new constitution: should group rights be protected as well, or is it enough to guarantee individual rights? Should the rights of Kurds as a distinct group be protected? Of disabled people?