Learnings from the Sari Gelin Case

It was March 8, 2005 when BBC News reported how Turkey renamed “divisive” animal names on the ground that they were “contrary to Turkish unity.” The report said that Turkey “is changing the names of three animals found on its territory to remove references to Kurdistan or Armenia. … The red fox, known as Vulpes Vulpes Kurdistanica, will now be known as Vulpes Vulpes; wild sheep called Ovis Armeniana becomes Ovis Orientalis Anatolicus; and roe deer known as Capreolus Capreolus Armenus becomes Capreolus Cuprelus Capreolus. The ministry said the old names were contrary to Turkish unity. ‘Unfortunately there are many other species in Turkey which were named this way with ill intentions. This ill intent is so obvious that even species only found in our country were given names against Turkey’s unity,’ a ministry statement quoted by Reuters news agency said. Some Turkish officials say the names are being used to argue that Armenians or Kurds had lived in the areas where the animals were found.”

This is the reality of Turkey, mentioned in the 2005 Minority Rights Report of the Human Rights Association (IHD) Istanbul Branch to give an idea about the background of minority rights in the country. In the March 1, 2009 issue of the daily Taraf, Ayse Hur refers to this episode, fantastically mocking such endeavours and reminding us that the names were given by the International Commission on Zoolgical Nomenclature (ICZN) and that any change in this respect was subject to strict rules and procedures.

The change of “subversive” animal names is a striking evidence of the fact that official formulations of Turkey’s age-old, untouchable “national interests”—the way with which they are promoted and the attempts to fulfill these “interests” at all costs—are so vulgar that despite the aggression displayed and the fearful threats made, they are very easy to refute. However, the general public’s intellectual capabilities are deliberately suppressed generation after generation by a mechanism so powerful that the people who make it possible for the rulers to rule don’t even notice the vulgarity of the arguments made and the way they are being implemented. But this is changing, too. With more and more people feeling the need to be better informed masses are slowly but steadily ceasing to be a monolithic body of supporters.

The degree of coarseness in communicating the official Turkish thesis was such that the decision makers of this field had apparently decided to “refine” it a bit. As such, the “Sari Gelin,” when it was first publicized, had been promoted as an “objective,” “unbiased,” and “scientific” documentary featuring arguments from “both sides” and aiming at a “solution.” The language used in promoting the documentary indeed differed from that of the vulgar discourse the Turkish public had been used to. During the research phase, the manner in which the initial contacts were made with the prospective interviewees was also in line with this new strategy. It was for this reason that some, who would otherwise not even think of taking part in such a documentary, accepted to be interviewed by the production team and later saw that their statements were censored, distorted, or taken out of context.

However, on the documentary’s official website (www.sarigelinbelgeseli.com) which is also in English, it is proudly declared that unlike the Armenian side, this documentary includes the views of the “opponents” as well. The truth is that, contrary to the producers’ claims that they would be telling the audience the “true story” of what they deemed were Armenian allegations, the documentary depicts Armenians as those responsible for the “tragedy.”

Military telling what to teach students

It is explained on the website that the research phase for the project had started in 1999 and it lasted four years, followed by eight months of shooting and four months of editing.

This calendar coincides with the great counter-attack launched by Turkey against “Armenian allegations.” In 2002, a Coordinating Committee was set up by the council of ministers for the “Fight Against Unfounded Genocide Allegations” to be chaired by Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the ultra-nationalist National Movement Party and the then-vice premier. The committee, which included a department head from the General Staff as well, decided that the official Turkish thesis against these “allegations” should be integrated into school textbooks and the curriculum. The decision was introduced by Bahceli on May 1, 2002. “To ensure that young people are informed about the past, present, and future of unfounded allegations of genocide we’ve taken the decision to include this subject in classroom textbooks starting from the 2002-03 school year,” he declared. On April 14, 2003, a circular was issued to all schools demanding that, in line with the above-mentioned decision, conferences should be held at schools to inform the children of the “realities” of the period, and how the allegations made by Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians are unfounded. The circular also instructed schools to organize essay contests on the same topic.

The IHD Istanbul Branch immediately started to circulate, online and by fax, a protest letter to the minister to withdraw the circular and put an end to the policy. Shortly after, the association brought legal action at the Council of State demanding that the circular be cancelled as it constituted a gross violation of not only international conventions signed by Turkey, but also the Turkish Constitution and other national legislation prohibiting discrimination. The Council of State rejected the case on the grounds that the IHD was not the party to suffer as a result of the ministry’s circular.

Growing public reaction against hatred

The background of the question, as can be clearly seen, indicates that “Sari Gelin” and its use as an indoctrination tool is part of a state policy—and looking at the big picture, there is nothing new about it. However, looking more closely, one can see small changes. First, there is an effort to make the propaganda seem more “objective” by including the comments of the “opponents.” More important is the fact that the Turkish establishment is growing more responsive to criticisms raised within the country.

When news broke out that the “Sari Gelin” documentary was being shown to students at primary schools, the Turkish Armenian community was the quickest to protest and take action, issuing an open letter to the Prime Minister which appeared on  Feb. 11, 2009 on the Turkish Armenian website Hye-Tert (http://www.hyetert.com/yazi3.asp?s=0&Id=392&DilId=1). “Given the way in which the said documentary brings up the issue, it would definitely fuel hatred and animosity and thereby raise the already existing anti-Armenian sentiments in society, by instigating violent and discriminatory rhetoric instead of providing insight into historical facts,” the letter said. This was covered by several mainstream dailies.

Then came the protests from the other sectors of society. The History Foundation released a press statement urging the ministry “to immediately abandon this incorrect and dangerous practice.” Describing such practices as “at the first place, pedagogically incorrect,” the statement goes on to indicate that “dragging education into discussions of popular politics which are defiant event for adults, and considering primary education as a tool of indoctrination are indicators of a totalitarian regime which have long been outdated by contemporary education mindset.”

The Hrant Dink Foundation brought legal action at the Istanbul Administrative Court, demanding that the screening of the film be immediately stopped. “”Ruptured bodies, shattered bones, piles of skulls, mass graves shown in the movie would gravely harm the mental and psychological well-being of children. Frightening discourses included in the documentary like quoting old people saying Armenians burned and decapitated Turks, would result in further moral violence on non-Muslim children,” said the foundation’s lawyer, Fethiye Cetin.

The IHD Istanbul Branch organized a protest in front of the post office in Galatasary Square, sending letters to the ministry urging an end to policies that instill hatred in the minds of the younger generations.

Dr. Serdar Kaya, the father of a fifth-grade student, filed a criminal complaint with the Uskudar public prosecutor’s office. “On February 13, my daughter was shown the documentary ‘Sarı Gelin’ at her school without my knowledge or permission. My daughter was extremely disturbed and frightened by the film and she asked me questions like ‘Did the Armenians slaughter us?’ … The fact that my daughter was shown such a documentary which disturbs her psychologically and instills feelings of hatred by the school to which I entrusted my daughter is a direct attack on her rights and my rights as her parent.”

A joint press conference was held by the Peace Initiative (of Turkey), representatives from Armenian foundation schools, the Helsinki Citizens Assembly, the History Foundation, the Social Democracy Foundation, and the International Hrant Dink Foundation. The joint press statement they released declared that “Sari Gelin” was not a documentary but vulgar propaganda, which was not only biased and aggressive but also openly racist and provocative. The statement also called for the punishment of those who were responsible for this crime.

Halis Erdogan, a Kurdish deputy from the Democratic Turkey Party, asked in the parliament whether or not those who ordered the screening of the documentary would be tried for violating Article 216 of the Turkish Penal Code, which bans any act that would provoke people against others with different religious or ethnic origins.

Hundreds of articles appeared in the press, and TV channels covered the protests. CNN Turk, one of the most reputable news channels in Turkey, interviewed Dilara Kahyaoglu, a history teacher and a History Foundation volunteer who for years worked on the question of discrimination in school textbooks with the director of the film, Ismail Umac, who in turn argued that the documentary was an objective production aimed at promoting scientific knowledge about this controversial subject matter. Kahyaoglu refuted this assertion by saying that despite its scientific rhetoric, the film was clearly propaganda which could by no means be used as an educational tool in schools. Kahyaoglu was very impressive and sounded indisputably credible, unlike Umac who failed to provide any sound “scientific” or “unbiased” arguments.

In the midst of these protests and wide media coverage, the Ministry of National Education declared that it would stop the “distribution of the documentary to the schools,” noting that the documentary was intended for teachers as a “supplementary educational material” and not for students, and that “they also heard” that the documentary was “in some cases” used “outside its intended purpose.” The ministry also declared that contrary to “allegations,” the General Staff had nothing to do with the documentary.

The learning points

Turkey’s leaders are becoming more and more susceptible to public protests and bold attempts to change things. They are more responsive to the reactions they are receiving. They feel the need to make a move in some way or another. At least, they can no longer ignore the voices raised. It is seemingly paradoxical that this is a result of increasing contacts with the outside world, which raises the standards in every field. It will be the combined effect of international and local dynamics that will change things in Turkey. As regards the Turkish public’s perception of the Armenian “question,” the contacts between the Armenian Diaspora and the Turkish audience will, I believe, play an important part in raising awareness in Turkey. More and more, Armenian scholars and historians from all over the world are visiting Turkey, meeting Turkish intellectuals and human rights activists, and appearing in the Turkish media. Apart from those they meet in person, Turkish newspaper readers see their photographs, look at their faces, and read what they say—in a way, get to know them. What’s more, we have now reached a time when an Armenian scholar and writer will be teaching in a university in Istanbul as a visiting professor, which means Turkish students will listen to and learn from a diasporan Armenian!

Such contact is crucial in getting to know and understand one another. This is an important catalyst for change. We need contact. More contact.


Ayse Gunaysu

Ayse Gunaysu is a professional translator, human rights advocate, and feminist. She has been a member of the Committee Against Racism and Discrimination of the Human Rights Association of Turkey (Istanbul branch) since 1995, and is a columnist for Ozgur Gundem. Since 2008, she writes a column titled "Letters from Istanbul," for the Armenian Weekly.

1 Comment

  1. Wo,through all history,as we know today did not slaughter brother and sisters,father and moms,nations and familys-who in the name og god did not kill thousends ?????
    Please step forward and say ,my family-Nation never has -all through the history-If so

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