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Resisting militarism in Turkey

Related peace activists: 
Serdar Tekin of ISKD (Izmir War Resisters) reflects on the impact that Osman Murat Ülke's well-publicised conscientious objection has had in Turkey.

In Turkey, all men over 20 are required to do 18 months of what the Constitution euphemistically calls "Fatherland service". Despite our country's strong militarist tradition, for years there has been widespread avoidance of conscription: by buying oneself out; by taking advantage of deferments; by evading the draft; or by deserting.

In 1990, however, for the first time a conscientious objector publicly announced he was refusing the draft. His friends and supporters followed his case anxiously. More objectors publicly followed suit. Most of them were not draft evaders, and they continued their political activities openly. They were judged in military courts, sentenced and imprisoned, but never officially on charges of conscientious objection. They were not even ordered to report to the military after serving their sentence and we started to think that it was the state's policy to ignore conscientious objectors, since it is well known that prisoners can become all too famous.

More than a year ago, however, Osman Murat Ülke ("Ossi") was arrested and the real examination of conscientious objection began. In ISKD (Izmir War Resisters), we became aware that the prison and military authorities - those responsible for oppressing him and attempting to break his resistance - also felt some respect towards him. Rather than simply criticising his opponents, Ossi was successful in explaining clearly the reasons for his action. His honest, decisive, and rational attitude made his time in prison a lot less difficult than we had expected, as did his high level of consciousness as a war resister - even in times of duress he knew what he could or could not accept.

CO and the Turkish left

For us, outside the prison, the first days were incredibly tiring and tense. We were concerned for his life, but discovered, with some surprise, that many people supported us. Even some leftist groups - which have traditionally been involved in violent and conspiratorial struggles - were impressed by his action and concerned about his fate.

But still they did not take up conscientious objection as one of their own struggles - for three essential reasons: firstly, we are against all wars; secondly, we advocate nonviolence (and for them, this means we are against revolutionary violence as well); and thirdly, they tend to misunderstand the concept of conscientious objection - viewing it as an individual resistance, rather than as an avenue for social change.

We believe that conscientious objection is not only a matter of nonviolent revolution", or a so-called "utopian idea", but also a matter of human rights, especially in a country where a war - against the Kurdish people - is still going on. So, we try to explain to other groups that we do not need to have identical political views to work together against the army - the institution most responsible for the militarisation of society and the violation of human rights. The development of conscientious objection and anti-militarism in Turkey will not just depend on the efforts of pacifists - it will also depend on the evolution of the left in general.

The general public

Ossi's case has had two main effects on the public: it has raised and explained the notion of conscientious objection; and it has made CO a practical option, something possible and marlageable. It is not a heroic act from the past, but something that is going on now. And the actor is just one of us.

International solidarity

The support we have received from outside Turkey has been even stronger than we expected. This did not come entirely as a surprise, since we had been involved in international work for years. We were able to count on the support of the Alert Network in Germany and of the War Resisters' International (both from its groups and the central office). There were also the international or European CO meetings and long speaking tours in several European countries. After one year it is still difficult to assess the full extent of international concern, but it obviously took the authorities by surprise. It certainly threw the director of the Mamak military prison into a right state of panic at the time of Ossi's hunger strike, shortly after his first arrest.

In the future each new arrest of conscientious objectors will necessitate the launch of new campaigns. But there are also other forms of international co-operation, covering other areas of the anti-militarist struggle, which could advance the CO movement here. For our part, we believe that the promotion of nonviolence for example through trainings and the publication of written material - will have a decisive impact on the future of anti-militarism in Turkey.

Contact: ISKD, 1438 Sok No 1213, Alsancak, Izmir, Turkey {+90 232 464 2492; fax 464 0842; email ossi@info-ist.comIink.de).