The Tweet That Dishonored Turkey

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?

13 Responses to “The Tweet That Dishonored Turkey”

  1. Oh well, what do you expect from Islamists?

  2. AFAIR Pavey set out to get that guy in trouble using the press and by writing to the PM for what he said on twitter and she succeeded. Here:
    Nihat, note her stance about speech (“küresel olarak nefret suçu olarak tanımlanmış tutumlar”) and how she casually asserts that certain stances are globally deemed criminal. Lovely stuff, further aiding the intellectual atmosphere against freedom of expression here by feeding people confused nonsense about ‘crimes.’

  3. Bulent, yeah, I noticed that. Actually, the whole episode reminded me the local street preachers here who stand on an upside-down bucket at a busy street corner and spew hate on passers-by. I am not sure if they are Westboro Church people, but similar…

  4. Of course, shouting hate indiscriminately at people and targeting a given person are different things. So, I sympathize with Pavey a lot, but she could’ve stayed on the handle perhaps.

  5. Yeah, in this case the ‘hate,’ as it were, isn’t really about the disability either. It is, rather, the same form of ‘hate’ that manifested itself in the “7.4 yetmedi mi?” controversy (google-able if you don’t remember it). Pavey’s disability is incidental here, the guy’s reacting against what he perceives to be ‘kufr’ (‘unbelief’ or ‘lack of faith’ might be closer in this case than blasphemy) and her disability is merely handy — just like Turkan Saylan’s cancer was when she was subjected to this kind of bile. The polarization isn’t about disabilities (either hers or Saylan’s) it’s about overt religiosity, faith etc.
    The local equivalents of those bucket guys tend to use “hala akletmeyecek misiniz?” (googleable and has scriptural basis) and perhaps this guy had something like that in mind. The idea is there are enough sings etc. to form the basis of faith, but of course in the rabidly polarized atmosphere you get quakes, disabilities and other hurtful stuff mentioned as signs.
    Anyway, the truly offensive and outright disgraceful stuff is what she does not fuss about (but we should):
    “Hatta defalarca makamınıza başvurmuş olmama rağmen, meclisin erkeklerle aynı tuvaleti kullanmaya devam eden tek engelli kadın milletvekili unvanını taşımaya bile teslim oldum.”

  6. If we will blame an entire ideology for one person’s fault, Kemalists and Ultra-Nationalists are not that different from Islamists.

    Look at Levent Kirca’s recent statements. Is it different? Is the problem Kemalism or Levent Kirca?

    Blind followers of which ideology do not express their hate in public in Turkey?

    Are “Communists” different from “Kemalists” or “Islamists” ?

    I see that Turks really learn from their American experience. I remember once someone told me that he was against female students with hijab/turban , let alone professors, in his university in Turkey. He went to the USA for his graduate studies and took a class with a professor with hijab. He said he learned a lot from his experience.

    Many things that we (Kemalists, Leftists, Nationalists, Ultra-Nationalists, Islamists etc.) think and express freely in Turkey are called hate speech in the USA.

  7. Many things that we […] think and express freely in Turkey are called hate speech in the USA.
    So, you agree with Pavey’s drive and it’s a good thing the guy got nixed? (Not such a big deal really, he didn’t lose his job or something, he lost his position in the party, I figure. I could be wrong.)

  8. Anka, ‘hate speech’ is NOT criminalized in the US — just characterized. The point is that over here in Turkey ‘hate crime’ and ‘hate speech’ is used interchangeably, and people claim (Pavey in this case) offensive speech or even stances (‘tutum’) are crimes globally — which is just false. They can, of course, wish it it were so here. Certainly enough speech is already criminalized here that the idea isn’t alien, but to claim that it is so globally is just misinforming people. In fact, in the case of the US, the Civil Rights Movement (and Act) happened there w/o criminalizing speech (or even the n-word) and in fact it expanded protections for speech (NYT vs. Sullivan etc.).
    Anyway, I looked into what may have prompted the exchange. I couldn’t find it, but I did find out she said: “Ben AB 2012 İlerleme Raporu’nu hep yanımda taşıyorum. Benim kıblem o rapordur.” I’m fairly comfortable on secular ground, I think, but that made me cringe too. I don’t know if it was that utterance that prompted that guy in Malatya to fly off the handle, tho.

  9. Nihat, FWIW, I do agree with Pavey’s drive but wish she’d done it to someone more evenly matched and not to some young guy from Malatya. It is indeed appropriate for people to catch grief for what they said and be disowned by the political parties. I’m fine with it. Would have been better if folks who saw the tweet shamed the guy and his party w/o Pavey needing to get involved at all.
    Criminalizing speech, or civil lawsuits is where it gets iffy (no to first, be very careful for the second, ideally). Not that we disagree, of course.

  10. If you are human being not enslaved by an ideology ( Kemalism, Ultra-Nationalism, Islamism etc. ), you should be with Safak Pavey, not with the hater.

    I am with anyone who are being discriminated against because of her/his ethnicity, color of skin, religious beliefs, disability, cloths (hijab or miniskirt), political ideas etc.

    Ironically, in Turkey, Sunni Muslims, Alevi Muslims, Kurds, Armenians, Christians, Secular People, all people are suffering or at some point suffered from discrimination. But, they complain only when they are discriminated against, and turn a blind eye to and sometimes support discrimination against others.

  11. Bulent, I like and respect Pavey a lot, but I disliked her letter of appeal to Erdogan. A lot of emotional convolution and even prejudging/categorizing of Erdogan, which is totally inappropriate if the appeal were to be taken as sincere. I’d say, she could’ve just tweeted outrage back and called it a day.

    (Actually, limiting all political speech to short bursts of 140-byte tweets and banning –u figure how– chain tweets on any given thought might eliminate a good deal of insincerity and unclear thinking. My new bright idea, forget about conscripting girls.)

  12. Nihat, I agree about the letter. She could have just said ‘ayip’ in twitter and be done with it, or leave it to the others but she is a politician and her constituency might go for the kind of stuff she attempted in the letter (you can see how this would play to a polarized crowd, as in they think like this etc.). That’s the game these people are in, and I don’t see either the visible intelligentsia or the polarized voters caring about the kind of stuff we both [it appears] saw in it and disliked. I also see no evidence that she understands the pattern of thinking/talking that got corrupted into that tweet, where it comes from and what kufr really is. It is, of course, her business what she believes but given that the faith and behaviour in question is rather common here, it would have been wise for someone in politics (which we hope will get saner) to try to understand it.
    That said, the real outrage that I wouldn’t have found out about if I hadn’t read the letter is about the facilities in the parliament. Surely, getting everything to be accessible is at best a long term process but if she actually petitioned the parliament for an accessible ladies’ room and got nowhere I can’t think of any excuse for it.

  13. Should the rights of Kurds as a distinct group be protected?
    No. The rights of Greeks, Armenians, Jews as distinct groups were protected at one time.
    Just have a good, well-rounded body of secular laws before which every person can stand equally.

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