Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Proving Employment Discrimination - by Richard Peres

This was published December 7, 2010, in Today's Zaman, in anticipation of a new law in Turkey prohibiting discrimination law,

How do you prove employment discrimination?
The challenge of a new law


Richard Peres*

I welcome the report that the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government will soon create an Equality and Anti-Discrimination Board, subject to Parliament’s approval.

The new board is intended to “make sure that all people are treated equally regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation and political choices.” (Today’s Zaman, Dec. 1, 2010) It is a bold and noble first step in the recognition of a problem that may be obvious to many, but which many employers would rather not discuss. The most recent Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) study on the treatment of headscarved women in employment, Turkey’s very low employment rate for women and a myriad of other studies, surveys, and anecdotal evidence all point to the need for a solution. Moreover, there is a pervasive practice of discrimination against those who are perceived as minorities, the powerless and the ones who are different in terms of their beliefs and lifestyles from the mainstream.

One of the first issues that investigators and the courts will need to address is how discrimination is proved. The answer is tricky. Discrimination is not something that people will readily admit. At least that has been the American experience after more than 50 years of investigating millions of complaints and deciding thousands of cases in state and federal courts. The fact that discrimination is often subtle and by nature hidden has directly affected the development of a judicial approach to proving your case in court in America. How this works might surprise you! Why? Admissions of guilt are not expected and circumstantial evidence is admissible.

Burden of proof

The first issue addressed by the US courts was, who has to prove what? In other words, who has the burden of proof? The courts agreed that the plaintiff does not have to prove intent to discriminate on the part of an employer. The initial burden on the plaintiff is the need to prove that initially – “prima facie” (meaning “first face” in Latin) – discrimination occurred. Then the burden shifts to the employer to provide a valid or “bona fide” reason for what occurred.

For example, let’s assume that a headscarved woman, named Esra, sends in her resume to an employer in response to a job posting. The job requires a college degree and two years of sales experience, which the woman has. Esra receives an initial screening interview phone call by the employer, which she passes. The employer sounds positive and a personal interview is then scheduled.

However, when Esra shows up for the scheduled personal interview, she is shown a different attitude by the employer. She is asked only a few perfunctory questions and is told that the employer still has many applicants to interview and that she will be contacted for any job offers. Suspicious, Esra asks the interviewer if her wearing a headscarf is a problem. The employer’s response is, “Of course not.” Esra waits for several weeks and is eventually told that someone else was hired for the position. She finds out through a male friend who works at the company that the person hired is a man named Burak.

Has Esra made a “prima facie” case of discrimination against the employer?

The answer is yes.

The reasons for this are:

1. She applied for an available position.

2. She met the initial qualification standards

3. The employer’s attitude appeared to change when he saw Esra.

4. Esra is protected by the anti-discrimination law because she is a woman and she wears a headscarf. She is basing her claim on her gender and religious beliefs, two areas covered by the law.

5. A person not of her category (protected class) was given the position. The key point here is the existence of a special category of persons named and formalized in law as “protected class.” If Esra does not fall into this category, there is nothing she can do.

The burden shifts

This is all circumstantial evidence, but it is enough to shift the burden of proof. Now the employer must explain why he did not hire Esra and why he hired Burak. The employer’s explanation needs to be reasonable, that is, valid and objective.

In answering the complaint, the employer states that Esra did not make a good impression during the personal interview. Although this is subjective, the employer argues that it is valid because salespeople need to personable and likeable to succeed with customers. The person hired, Burak, was well liked by his past employer, who said that he got along wonderfully with customers.

Let’s carry on with this imaginary scenario. An investigation by a state anti-discrimination agency finds that the employer has never hired a headscarved woman in the sales department, although two worked in the accounting office away from customers. Also, it is revealed that the employer did not check Esra’s references. It was found that Burak’s references were only checked after he was hired when Esra filed her complaint. An investigation would typically also look at the requirements for the job and whether they are valid, that is, are they really necessary to performing the job’s duties. An analysis would also be done of the employer’s past hiring practices, how job openings are posted and communicated, all the other applications for the position and all those applicants who were interviewed.

Based on the investigation, the agency will make a finding of “probable cause” and try to settle the case with a suitable remedy and without the time and expense of a court hearing. Typical remedies would include a job offer to Esra and payment for the lost wages that she would have earned had she been hired.

The important point to note here is that fines are rarely imposed. This is because some employers would rather pay a fine and keep discriminating. More importantly, fines do not help those who are discriminated against. A person discriminated against in hiring has a right to the job in question, or lost wages, or both.

Employers who do settle these types of cases always stipulate that the settlement is not an admission of guilt. They settle at this stage because they will likely lose their case in court, or a court case would be bad publicity for the company. Should the case not settle in Esra’s favor, the agency might take the case to court for Esra, a big advantage for her, saving her the need to get her own lawyer.

There are many types of employment discrimination cases, relating to hiring, promotions, firing and working conditions. In all such cases the investigator will look for “differential treatment,” that is, whether the plaintiff was treated differently compared to others not in her “protected class” or grouping. It is assumed that this differential treatment is because of her being in that group. In the case of Esra, that she is a woman or because of her religion.

Change is a long process

Many employers in the US structure their hiring practices to avoid committing discrimination. This is because subjective hiring and firing criteria make employers vulnerable to complaints. Also, employers are responsible for the decisions of their managers, whether they approve of them or not.

Despite a myriad of anti-discrimination laws and agencies in all 50 US states, and in several federal agencies, such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, complaints are still filed and many multi-million dollar class action lawsuits are handled by the courts. Ending discrimination is a long process.

Turkey is just beginning on this path with few court precedents, regulations and guidelines, and little investigative experience. Nevertheless, it is a major step that deserves our admiration and support. Only by handling complaints one at a time can a discrimination-free environment be achieved, a key ingredient to a functioning economy and educational system. Getting started is half the battle. Turkey will find its own way in handling such cases, establishing proofs and alleviating the pain of those treated unfairly for reasons unrelated to their performing a job.


*Richard Peres spent several years handling discrimination cases in the US and is the author of two books on discrimination law, its proofs and how to prevent complaints. He is a writer living in İstanbul and a contributor to Today’s Zaman. Rich.peres@gmail.com


Muhabir: Richard Peres*

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Richard Peres on Russia Today television

I was asked to comment on Michael Bloomberg's statement about how the US should not blame their economic problems on the Chinese.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gVyPUQFm33Q

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Merve Kavakci Islam Interview - by Richard Peres

This interview was published on the front page of Today's Zaman, October 31, 2010.




Dr. Merve Kavakci Islam is currently a Lecturer in International Affairs at George Washington University.. She was elected to the Turkish Parliament on April 18, 1999 but was subsequently not allowed to take her oath of office due to protests over her wearing of a headscarf. She holds a Ph.D in political science from Howard University, an MPA from Harvard University and a B.S. in software engineering from the University of Texas at Dallas. Her areas of expertise are the democratization of the Muslim world, contemporary Turkish politics, women in Islam, and Muslim women in politics. She spoke with me by phone on October 26, 2010 from her office in Washington, DC.

I see your name has changed. Congratulations on your marriage, Dr. Kavakci

Thank you. Yes, it is Dr. Merve Kavakci Islam and I am very happy, married to Nazir Cihangir Islam MD, orthopedic and spine surgeon in Istanbul.

And I also understand you have a book coming out?

Yes, in fact today. It’s published by Palgrave-Macmillan and it’s called, “Headscarf Politics in Turkey: A Post-Colonial Reading.”

Sounds like an academic book?

Yes, in fact it was my PhD thesis with some modifications.

Can you tell us what the book is about and how it relates to your experience in the Parliament?

It analyzes Turkey’s role model status within the context of Turkey’s treatment of headscarved women, and tries to shed a personal light on the rights of these women and how their lives are affected over the decades.

What does that mean, a “post-colonial reading”?

It basically looks at the Orientalist assumptions within the Turkish context and brings a critique to those Orientalist ideals that are entrenched within the Turkish Republic, and how these Orientalist assumptions were used to marginalize headscarved women from public life. At the end I argue that is a disservice to the republic politically, socially, and economically as well.

So the West was Orientalist and felt itself superior towards its colonies, and in the post-colonial era Turkey followed this although it had no colonial experience in the past?

Yes. The Turkish Republic found its way to modernization at the outset and embraced the Westernization project in a fervent and adamant manner. It also internalized the very Orientalist assumptions itself, that the West was much better than the East and therefore the Turkish people needed to keep up with Western civilization and this process led to the “indigenous-ation” of Orientalist assumptions by the regime. So I name these people Orientalized Orientals and I shed light on how they treated headscarved women and argue that they are actually neither part of the Orient nor Occident – they are caught in-between. They look up to the West and thus legitimize marginalization of headscarved women from society. Of course it is also a misreading by Turkey of the West as well. Here our own Orientalized Orientals, rather than taking in and internalizing the concept of liberties and freedom from the West, import an attitude of bans which is antithetical to what the West really stands for. As a result for an Orientalized Oriental to be “uncovered” supersedes to be educated.

What are some of your feelings about what is happening now in Turkey with renewed public discussions regarding headscarf prohibitions?

The headscarf ban is a cancerous wound that needs immediate attention. It is finally sitting on the national agenda with national coverage and hopefully an in-depth discussion because this is a matter that has been affecting Turkish women’s lives for over 30 years. It’s unfortunate we women fail to attract much attention in the political arena. It’s often been a matter that no one wanted to think about or talk about and try to resolve. Now we are finally addressing what we really want to do with this large population of women who are in a way ostracized from society. They are here, they are not going away, and they are maybe growing in number and they want to participate in public life.

But most articles in the paper say the ban has been in effect since 1997. You are saying it’s really been much longer?

Yes, many of the women who are affected by the ban are not aware of its history. This is not a new thing. It started in 1981 right after the military coup. Prior to that, individual cases were raised. Of course, afterwards, depending on the political environment, and administrators in the universities, the ban was loosened up here and there but it has been part and parcel of Turkish women’s history for the past 30 years.

You are well known in Turkish political history but wasn’t your first goal in life to be a doctor?

Yes, well I suppose you could call me a person who believes in destiny and I am a person who goes with the flow with the terms of her life. I never thought that I would end up in political life. Politics was not one of my passions early on. I come for an academically established family so my parents always wanted to see me in academia and I wanted originally to be a medical doctor and so I entered Ankara University Medical School, one of the top medical schools in the country. However the headscarf ban hit me right there, right then, as a freshman in 1986 and it was really impossible to go to school and sneak into classes in and out with my headscarf so by my second year I had to choose between my convictions and my profession.

And this coincided with your family being subject to the ban as well?

Yes, this is a very sad fact about the headscarf ban in Turkey. It affects generations. It’s not just one small group of people whom you could overlook and tend to ignore. It affects not just one generation but so far in the last 30 years we are talking about three generations. I am a living example of that very fact. My mother had to leave the university when she taught German literature right after the ban was implemented by the coup government and right when I was in medical school I ran into the same problem. I was the second generation. But my parents took this very bold step of leaving everything behind and moving to another country so that I and my two younger sisters could have an education without having to compromise our religious values. And now I look at my daughters who have already graduated from college, two young women with a headscarf , and unfortunately three generations have already been affected.

And yet you decided to come back to Turkey in the 1990’s. Why?

It was important for me to be in my country and to expose my children at an early age to Turkish culture and language and to the rest of our larger extended family. We were also homesick. You cannot stay too long away from where your loved ones are and we came back to Turkey only to find out that I would find my new niche in life, that was politics. Because I was coming back to Turkey with a software engineering degree and in those years I thought what can I do? I am a woman with a headscarf? And therefore the only thing I could do was rear my children and meanwhile with the power of destiny I was asked to volunteer for a political party which I felt was my niche.

When you started working for the Refah Party, what was the role of women?

The Refah Party was one of the first to organize women in large numbers. We hadn’t seen that in the political Islamic tradition and those preceding the party, including the National Salvation Party, but the Refah was different. It was more comprehensive, more embracing and it wanted to utilize women’s effort, half the population of Turkey, and bring them into the political realm. So what was interesting to see was how women, who only had an agency in the family as mothers, wives and sisters, were brought out to the public realm and rendered political agency. I was one of the women who were working at the headquarters. I was overseeing this whole project and was responsible for International Affairs.

When was this?

In 1993, 1994. We were going into the municipality elections.

Did Tayyip Erdogan benefit from women’s involvement in the party?

Yes, definitely. In fact Tayyip Erdogan, who was head of the Istanbul branch of the party and got elected mayor, was one of the front liners who encouraged women’s participation in political life and he worked very closely with the women’s commission and of course benefited by their involvement.

Did this participation by women continued in the Fazilet Party?

Yes. What happened was at the end of the general elections in 1995 everyone conceded that it was the women of Refah who helped bring it to power, and other parties emulated what Refah had done with women involved in one to one interaction with constituents. They took this as a model so it became a focus of study if you will because women’s power was for the first time wielded to bring a party to power. We are talking of about 200,000 women across the country who were responsible, from the headquarters down to the street level, who covered every apartment to get out the message for Refah. So when the Refah went down, Fazilet continued in the same tradition.

Refah Party was very much criticized for not nominating women, for utilizing women’s efforts but not letting them represent themselves in parliament. Ironically, this criticism came from outside, from the Kemalists, who used this to bash the Refah movement. It also came from liberals, it came from women’s groups, it came from leftist groups too, and was a topic of discourse within the party as well. So, when Refah was closed down and Fazilet was established, the question of including women at higher representative places was raised. Fazilet became more of an open party, more democratic. And women from secular life styles came into the party, women like Nazli Ilicak and for the first time in a political Islamic movement women were included in the General Executive Board. But I continued with heading the Foreign Affairs Division of the Women’s Commission. When the early election time came there were pressures from within and outside the party regarding headscarved women on the question of nominations. They had played an indispensable role in the success of the movement. The nomination of women who were secular would be embarrassing without nominations of women with headscarves. After all, this is the Turkish nation and, like it or not, at the time it seventy-three percent of Turkish women wore a headscarf. This is part of our culture, tradition, history, but most importantly part of our religion. The Fazilet Party had a healthy discourse and made the right decision by involving women.

But many writers in the West described your nomination as something that simply came from Erbakan. How do you respond to that?

Well, it is unfortunate. The reality is actually a lot more complicated. Erbakan always had a sway over the Islamic political movement. However at this time he was banned from politics. He had an indirect role in the decision-making body as well, still, nonetheless, the nomination of a headscarved women was discussed at the General Executive Board time after time, people put out their views, the advantages and disadvantages, and a list of the ones who were brought in. I was only one of the 17 women, covered and uncovered who were nominated. It was almost a guarantee that two women with, and two without headscarves were going to be elected but it turned out that I was the only one who got elected, so it is a wrong reading of history to put this on one person. When they started discussing the nomination of Nazli Ilicak and other secular women the hardcore workers who put their lives in this 24/7 over the years started raising their voices that they wanted to be represented. I know this because I worked with these women. We know that we carried the party to power in 1997, and therefore it was very important that we have some sort of representation. So there was a pressure from bottom up, not just at the decision-making body of the party.

Is Islamic women’s support part of AK Party’s support today?

Well, I am just speaking as an outsider now and I am not too familiar with how the Women’s Commission under the AK Party is working currently but by personal experience I know that some of my friends who worked for Fazilet are now working for AKP and still women hold an important, influential part of the party. However, I do not understand the AKP’s position of just wanting to lift the ban at the universities and of course CHP coming from the Kemalist tradition they are even having trouble with that. I do not feel rights can be partially granted. Lifting the ban just for the universities would be similar to eradicating the cancer halfway. Once we are there in the operating theater let’s complete the job and free the body of this cancer.

Do you think there is now a bottom-up movement to bring about headscarved women candidates today, given how some women are speaking out now?

I think it is a similar one. The AKP embraces and values women participation. The prime minister has talked about it as well, including in the political realm, where women’s representation is very low. Unfortunately, the reality on the ground is very grim and therefore to include the number of women in the parliament and decision-making bodies is critical and therefore women with headscarves also need more representation.

What are your plans for running for office? Would you consider doing it again?

Women must be represented in higher numbers in all facets of the political machinery. Therefore I believe that more women including women with headscarves must run for office in the next election. After all, all concur that Turkey must democratize itself, and this is one way of doing it. As far as my case is concerned, I have a court decree in hand, that of the European Court of Human Rights that states that Turkey violated free elections in the Kavakci Affair. I was ready to do my job but was never permitted to complete it. Not only was I precluded from carrying the responsibility of representing people of Istanbul but they were also stripped of their right to representation. Because the due process never took place, my seat remained vacant, leaving the constituents deprived of their representation. There is a suspended duty that needs completion.

When you walked into the Parliament in 1999 were you expecting the almost violent response? How did you manage to deal with all that you went through?

Well, I usually know what to expect because I am a woman with a headscarf, and a daughter of a woman with a headscarf. Very early on in the 1970’s when I was a child I had seen my mother being verbally harassed when she was driving a car in Ankara where we lived, where there were very few women who could have a car and drive. This was unfathomable from a Kemalist point of view, and I also had seen many times belittling remarks made at my mother. When I grew up I faced the same thing walking in the streets of Ankara, people shouting at me, “You are too young to cover,” “Why are you covering?” “Are you getting paid from Iran or somewhere?” while I was trying to go about my life. So yes, I was expecting some sort of protest from people who cannot even accept our right to existence on this earth, very intolerant. Looking back I was probably too naive to think that democracy would win, that even if they do not like me they will have to put up tolerating me, but of course that didn’t occur. I don’t think I saw it coming at this very level. I don’t think anyone who was in the Parliament including the protesters knew what was coming. So not only I was shocked but they must have been shocked from the show they put together.

What was it like to campaign, win, and then face what happened in the Parliament?

I was running after my life, my life was ahead of me if you will. I had to deal with all the tabloid’s so-called news about me and my family and attacks from the media while I tried to keep my composure and focus on my campaign as well. I had to make sure that people got to know me and explain what I wanted to do for Turkey so I could receive their votes. It was quite a difficult time. On the one hand I felt very proud to be nominated and elected, as both a woman and a covered woman, because that group needed to be represented. So I had to handle the attacks. I received my credentials from the state, based on that I ran for office, got elected to Parliament and then we had the trouble of taking my oath of office because people in the Parliament chose to protest and unfortunately the presiding president that day, the speaker, couldn’t placate their anger and their wrath towards me. He had to cut the session off. Of 550 people there were around 110 or so, we’re talking about one fifth of the Parliament, protesting against an officially elected member.

When President Demirel later that evening called you an “agent provocateur” how did you feel?

I was shocked and disappointed. I was trying to make sense of what was going on in the Parliament and outside as well. Seeing women on the front lines of that protest was unexplainable for me and the President of Turkey, who very much knew my family, calling me an “agent provocateur” without any knowledge was very disappointing.

The President knew your family?

Of course. His family is from Isparta and my mother’s family is from Isparta. He knows my uncle, calls him by his first name.

So how could he make these statements? Was it coming from the military?

Actually two years later I was informed by a member of the Parliament from my party that actually Demirel carried the message from the military to my party and that this would end up in a military intervention if I were to take my oath of office.

So with the president, prime minister, the press and the military, opposed to you, it was impossible for your party to do anything?

Well, they chose not to do anything.

Getting back to Turkey today, what are your feelings about those who still oppose lifting the ban in the universities?

The surveys are very clear that the majority of Turkish people in large numbers favor lifting the ban, almost 90%, and almost 60% have no problem with a headscarved woman being elected to the Parliament. On the ground, at the people’s level, on the street, we have no problem living together, hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder, neighbor to neighbor, women with headscarves and women without headscarves. The trouble is up above in institutions. The matter must be approached from the perspective of freedom of expression. If we claim that we are a democracy we must live up to the standards of human rights and liberties with freedom of expression, freedom of religion and equal opportunity in education and at work. At this time and age it is unexplainable to live in a country where you cannot live with your dignity and you cannot have access to education or work because of your religious convictions; particularly in a Muslim country this is unexplainable. And if you look at the opposition, I suppose it has very much to do with the sharing of the public pie if you will. When you look at the rhetoric against lifting the ban, the pretexts, you find remarks belittling Islam and the religion or not respecting peoples’ choice, or you find insinuations of the threat these women will cause to the sharing of the public life and I suppose one can try to understand the mentality when a certain group of people assumed the public sphere for over eighty years. They need to know that there is no other way but to respect and tolerate one another. If we claim we are a democracy we can’t keep ignoring the majority of the female population who lack agency.

*Richard Peres is a writer living in Istanbul and contributor to Today’s Zaman. He is completing a book on Merve Kavakci. http://richperes.blogspot.com rich.peres@gmail.com

Friday, October 29, 2010

18,000,000 Individuals by Richard Peres

This article appeared in the October 29, 2010 issue of Today's Zaman.

Eighteen Million Individuals

By Richard Peres*

The other night I watched several vociferous headscarf debates on television. Two of them included Merve Kavakci Islam, an individual who was prevented from taking her oath of office in the Turkish Parliament on May 2, 1999.

Yes, an individual. She is also a mother of two young women, holder of a PhD in Political Science, licensed driver in the State of Virginia, graduate of Harvard University, fan of the Dallas Cowboys (American) football team, person who puts three sugars in her Turkish cay, and a devout Muslim who wears a headscarf.

First night of Ramazan, near Istanbul University, 2010
That last characteristic places her in a category that, for some, eliminates her individuality. One of my readers, in response to my last article, wrote that “This ‘sack’ (‘cuval’ in Turkish, referring to a headscarf) is a call for fundamentalism. It fades the future of society and destroys the rights that were gained.” Another wrote that wearing the headscarf “is not a result of a ‘free choice,’ but of a social pressure to conform with the conservative norms promoted by the AKP and its Islamist allies... ... it is neither a sign of sincere piety nor conviction. And on top of it all, it is not even mandated in Islam.”

These comments fall into a deep, dark area, one that cannot be penetrated by laws and regulations, where letters from YOK and even a new constitution would likely have little effect on their perceptions. Not even meeting a woman wearing a headscarf, or having a conversation with one over cay, would make much difference, I know. At the heart of what these people think is the eradication of free will, the marginalization of an entire group of people, and the effort to delegitimize their beliefs, feelings and motives.

Incredible Mind Reading Capabilities

It’s amazing how some people can read the minds of others and know their motives. It appears that this ability exists in spite of the old assumption that the 6.5 billion of us on earth are unique, from finger prints and DNA to personalities and character; that we are influenced by infinite combinations of parents and friends, advertisements and movies, events, accidents and strokes of luck, and more of that unique DNA derived from a multitude of previous generations. All that stuff is simply not true, apparently

And that’s not all.

They seem to actually be telepathic and can detect when your motives aren’t what they seem. They know, for example, when you are not telling the truth, when you have a “hidden agenda.” The AK Party is often accused of having a “hidden agenda.” The most recent accusation was made a couple of days ago by the head of the CHP. He is not alone. Journalists, generals, presidents, American think tanks, and countless others seem to have the ability to know the motives of others, and those whose motives they know are almost always devout Muslims. In fact, these particular mind readers also know more about the Quran and “what is mandated in Islam.” For example, when General Evren banned the wearing of headscarves for students in 1981 via a decree by the National Security Council, he said, “There is no such thing in the religion anyway.” It doesn’t matter that they are neither religious nor academically trained in religion, Islamic Studies, or related fields. What is more important, It doesn’t matter that 18 million women in Turkey seem to disagree with them. They know what these women do not. There are thousands of books on Islam to consult I suppose, but that is not the point. Isn’t it enough to see that a majority of Muslims in Turkey are devout in their beliefs and can interpret the teachings of their religion for themselves?

A Mind of One’s Own

Mind reading is particularly easy if you assume that a person does not have a mind of one’s own. In academic terms this is called “lack of agency.” Because they lack “agency,” there is no need to pay attention to these people because they have all been brainwashed and indoctrinated. This argument was expressed even against educated and accomplished covered women, who managed to become doctors, lawyers and academics by getting their education outside of Turkey. It has been espoused by so many people and cited so many times it is no wonder that my critic assumes it as fact. In her new book, just published by Palgrave-Macmillan, “Headscarf Politics in Turkey: A Postcolonial Reading,” Merve Kavakci Islam refers to those who marginalize others in this way as “Orientalized Orientals” who do not believe in democracy if it means “the other” coming to power.

Merve Kavakci Islam has an intimate knowledge of what it is like to be placed in a category regardless of who you really are, regardless of your individuality. President Demirel labeled her an “agent provocateur” on May 2, 1999, a few hours after she walked into the Turkish Grand National Assembly to take her oath of office after being elected by the people of Istanbul’s 1st Electoral District. She was similarly prevented from entering Ankara University Medical School in 1988. Her mother was harassed because of her headscarf, ending her teaching career at Ataturk University in Erzurum six years earlier, after the bans imposed by the 1980 coup. Her father had also been forced to resign as dean of the religious faculty shortly after her mother. With all three Kavakci family members unable to pursue their education or careers, the family emigrated to America. After Merve Kavakci got her degree at the University of Texas she returned to her country so that her children would be raised in Turkey.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Last Thursday, October 21,2010, Merve Kavakci Islam appeared on CNN Turk and answered questions about what happened eleven years ago, what she thinks about the headscarf discussions that have recently emerged in Turkey, and whether she would want to run for office again. It was a far cry from the way she was treated on the Ali Kirca program on May 3, 1999. Perhaps Turkey really is ready for change.

Who Is Pressured?

Facing educational barriers, marginalization and discrimination in employment and public places, the real pressures on covered women are to “uncover.” As Merve Kavakci Islam noted in her interview, some of these women were horribly subjected to persuasion rooms at Istanbul University and others. They suffered immeasurably because of their faith and most were not able to do what she did and get their education outside of Turkey.

In a study done by TESEV in 2006 the following question was asked of covered women: “What would you do if your social circle took off their scarves?” 87.7% of respondents answered “I would still keep my scarf on” and 3.6% said “I would take my scarf off.” Another study done a year later found that 98.6% of women with headscarves said that they have the right to choose their marital spouse, 85.6% said that women should work to be economically independent and 87.5% believe that men and women have equal rights and responsibilities in the family. (“The Covered Reality of Turkey – Turkiyenin ortulu gercegi,” Istanbul, 2007).

In spite of all the pressures against covered women, the data show that they do indeed have a mind of their own. They simply want to get an education, or practice their profession, or represent their constituents – all their constituents – while practicing their faith.

The individuals of the 1st District in Istanbul made up their own minds about who should represent them in Parliament on April 18, 1999.

When individuality is respected and rights are recognized, the headscarf “issue” -- in universities, employment, and even in the Parliament – will finally be resolved.


* Richard Peres is a contributor to Today’s Zaman and a writer living in Istanbul. He is currently writing a book about Merve Kavakci, to be published in the Spring. http://richperes.blogspot.com rich.peres@gmail.com

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Next Challenge for Headscarved Women: Getting A Job, by Richard Peres*

[This article was published in Today's Zaman on October 11, 2010]

The recent signs that all of Turkey’s universities may open their gates and class rooms to headscarved women are welcome and worthy of celebration. Their struggle began more than a generation ago, before the February 1997 coup process, and before the enactment of restrictions after the 1980 coup. The unwritten practice of preventing covered women from studying in undergraduate and graduate institutions across Turkey was first publicized with an incident at Ankara Divinity School involving Hatice Babacan but many non-publicized incidents occurred before then. Before any regulations or “dress codes,” unwritten customs and practices bred fear and discrimination, keeping covered women out of the university gates.

As this struggle plays out over the coming months or even years – we can assume that the issue of taking the university entrance exam will also be addressed -- and covered women start getting an education, a more challenging one will quickly surface. What will these new covered graduates do with their diplomas? Where will they be able to work? How will they apply their skills to increase their income and thereby add to Turkey’s economic growth? How will they gain employment in medical, academic and legal professions to provide needed services to the people of Turkey? They face a number of barriers to employment, many times more difficult to overcome than the university ban.

Difficult Employment Barriers

First, covered women are unable to work as civil servants, which accounts for about two and a half million jobs, according to a 2008 report prepared by Fatma Benli, attorney for AKDER. According to her report, this barrier would have to be addressed legally. Article 70 of the Constitution and Article 48 of the State Civil Servants’ Law sets out the requirements for civil servants without mentioning dress, but in the regulation on personnel dress in the Official Gazette of 25.10.1982 it is stated that “heads shall be uncovered at all times.” Between 1998 and 2002 15,000 women were dismissed or forced to resign because of the enforcement of this policy, and after 1999 covered women were not permitted to take the civil servant entry exam. Moreover, there is no sign from the opposition parties, including CHP, that removal of this restriction would be acceptable.

Second, there is evidence to support the notion that women generally (covered and uncovered) face discrimination in Turkey. Their participation in the workforce was 24.9% in 2006, the lowest in the EU, whose average is 49%. In addition, these women tend to have lower-paying, low status traditional women’s jobs. Half of them do piece or day work, often working part-time and without social security. Keeping such large numbers of women out of the workplace hurts the economy. They make less money and therefore spend less money, lessening their support for businesses and weakening the economy.

Third, private employment sectors raise additional barriers to covered women. Doctors, lawyers, dentists, pharmacists, academics and other professionals are prevented from working due to restrictions of their professional chambers and associations. Headscarved lawyers, including Fatma Benli, are not allowed in court, a legal restriction supported by the Council of State. In addition to the suffering of these professionals, the people of Turkey end up with less services, less doctors, and, once again, a weakening of the economy.

In addition to professionals, covered women face perhaps the largest and most difficult barrier in white collar jobs. Preference is given to uncovered women for good positions in private industry, such as office and information workers, as well as sales positions. The reasons vary from simple prejudice against covered women to organizations not wanting to be viewed as fundamentalist. “Even in sectors for production of commercial goods and services, the employment level of the women who wear the headscarf is low.” (AKDER, November, 2008). A covered friend of mine who had to go to Cyprus for her college degree and is bilingual – she helped me interview Turks for a book I am writing – has been unable for over a year to find a white collar job. As soon as she shows up for the interview, she finds that the position has been mysteriously filled or is no longer available. She has little recourse but to keep trying or emigrate to another country.

The American Example

In America the most important legislation to fight discrimination was signed into law in 1964, approximately 350 years after the first slave ship landed on American shores. The battle to provide civil rights to African Americans was long, violent and almost without end. The Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery. It was America’s bloodiest war, resulting in 700,000 deaths, or three percent of the total population of the country. But even after that war, which resulted in African Americans being given their civil rights, African Americans still faced a horror story of prejudice and subjugation. Once Northern troops left the South after Reconstruction, anti-black laws and practices blocked African Americans from succeeding for 90 more years, years of blatant segregation, inequality, wholesale discrimination, lynching, and violation of voting rights. It was only after a sustained, non-violent, and integrated civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King Jr., that laws against discrimination, with real enforcement power behind them, were enacted. Even then, riots broke out across America in city after city in 1967. This resulted in increased funding for anti-discrimination administrative agencies at both the state and federal level. Anyone can easily file a discrimination complaint in the US today based on race, religion, gender, national origin, sexual preference and other attributes.

In the 1970’s I spent many years as a civil rights worker investigating such complaints of discrimination for a state agency. If a person filing a complaint could show that there was differential treatment compared to another person who was not a minority – or a male in the case of a sex discrimination complaint – the employer had to prove that uniform, non-discriminatory treatment occurred or face the consequences of fines, reinstatement, and changes in personnel policies. Proving discrimination is different from other legal proofs and I even wrote two books about it to help employers end discrimination at work.

The goal of anti-discrimination laws in the US was not to change attitudes against African-Americans nor prejudices against women. Instead, the objective was to change behaviors in the workplace. In the last 50 years tens of thousands of cases have been filed and litigated. The result today is that employers do all they can to avoid preferential treatment of one group or the other. The laws worked and they worked because of tough and free enforcement by administrative agencies. Making discrimination against the law without enforcement, like the laws passed after the Civil War in America, did nothing to end discrimination on its own. It took about another one hundred years for real anti-discrimination laws to be passed and enforced, after a long civil rights movement

Are Headscarved Women Ready?

Is Turkey ready to implement a remedy for discrimination against covered women like the American experience? I doubt it. The reason: the American civil rights movement was the result of a long political struggle that mobilized millions of people throughout the country to bring about change. African Americans and women did not sit back and wait for one political party or another to affect change, or for an agency like YOK to send a letter. They got organized, influenced elections directly, exposed discrimination, fought cases in court, ran for elections, and put real political pressure on state legislatures and the US Congress. Waiting for the government to act was not enough to bring about landmark legislation with real enforcement power and supportive agencies to handle and investigate complaints, and go to court on the behalf of complainants if necessary.

According to Tarhan Erdem there are now 17.9 million covered women in Turkey, an increase from 16.8 million in 2007 and 14.8 million in 2003. The number of uncovered women has decreased from 8.1 million in 2003 to 7.4 million in 2007 to 7.6 million in 2010. (Article in Radikal, October 5, 2010). Think of it: 18 million covered women. That is potentially a very significant political force but one that is not yet fully organized or led. Covered women should consider getting better organized and involved, perhaps even forming their own political party, to influence the passage of anti-discrimination laws. If this force were ever to get organized, on the model of the US civil rights movement, it could bring about the landmark legislation and sweeping changes necessary to enable covered women to work in a non-discriminatory workplace environment. It could bring about “behavior change” in the workplace, compelled not by changing attitudes only but by the law. That type of change would also bring about more integration of covered women into the mainstream of employment and would support non-covered women as well, providing Turkey with a richer and more productive economy and society as a whole.

However, covered women must take their struggle into their own hands and get involved in the political process. Waiting for uncovered women, or men, regardless of political affiliation, to bring about real change, to truly reward their attainment of a university education, will unfortunately not be enough.

* Richard Peres is the author two books on discrimination law published by McGraw-Hill, Inc. and a writer living in Istanbul. http://richperes.blogspot.com, rich.peres@gmail.com

Thursday, September 23, 2010

US & Turkish Opposition Parties - Just Say NO

This article was published in Today's Zaman on September 23, 2010

Turkey and the US have one big thing in common when it comes to politics: there is no YES on the lips of its opposition parties.

In the US two years ago Obama ran a fantastic, grass-roots, new media-driven campaign. But the essence of that campaign was an emphatic NO to George Bush’s policies rather than a big legislative plan. This worked exceedingly well because, well, by 2008 practically everyone disliked Bush. His “popularity,” if you could call it that, was under 30 percent. Attempting in the beginning to run a positive campaign, Obama eventually joined the negative forays against poor George and was elected. He’s kept most of his promises and pushed through a massive health care bill, consumer protection, financial reforms, and economic bail-outs, however.

During these last two years the Republicans, on the other hand, voted uniformly NO for every piece of legislation Obama proposed, aligning with the belligerent Tea Party movement defined as anti-OBAMA. But what, exactly, are the Republicans for? It’s difficult to say these days. They have been the party of NO for the last two years. While Obama’s popularity has fallen, the Republican’s popularity ratings are even worse. Trying to take advantage of a continually stagnant economy, the Republicans are for replacing the Democratic majorities in Congress in the upcoming mid-term elections but are, as usual, staying away from specifics. Opposition? Yes. An alternative, NO.

The situation in Turkey is achingly similar to the states. In fact I feel quite at home living here in Istanbul compared to my permanent home in Florida. The Turkish cuisine is healthier and the politics are pretty much the same. But, with the referendum finally over, it’s amusing to watch CHP (Republican People’s Party) and MHP (Nationalist Movement Party ) argue over who delivered the most NO votes. Both have launched accusations about who worked harder in opposition to the changes to the Constitution that Parliament recently approved, who put on more rallies and who visited more cities. Interesting in-fighting, but what, exactly, are CHP and MHP for? What are their platforms for Turkey? Are there alternative programs, ideologies, proposals to counter what the Parliament approved and what the referendum was about? What is their direction for political, economic and social change in Turkey or is everything just fine the way it is?

Since they were opposed to the referendum, what are their proposals to increase protection for women, children and seniors with disabilities? Should children not have the right to communicate with their parents? What should public servants be able to bargain for if not for improved financial benefits? Should citizens not be able to solve conflicts with state institutions? Should there be more travel bans rather than less? Should people not be granted privacy of their personal data? The goals of these measures seem clear and are hardly controversial in Western countries. During all those rallies for voting NO, I missed the reason that these parts of the referendum should not be supported.

The AKP has been in power for eight years. Perhaps it might occur to the” opposition” parties to become “alternative” parties with positive agendas to provide a real choice for Turkish citizens. It’s reminiscent of the behavior of opposition parties that do not really want to take power one day.

I sat back from afar and watched with dismay the year long debates about Obama’s moderate, insurance-based health care proposals. Tens of millions of US dollars were spent on a massive, disinformation campaign against them. The proposed laws were attacked as “socialism” and warnings were propagated that “death panels” would decide which elderly people would be denied healthcare if they were too sick. Not one Republican in Congress voted for the proposals, as if there were no need for improvement in one of the world’s most expensive and disproportionate health care systems in which 40 million Americans are unprotected.

A number of the provisions in the Turkish referendum related to increased democracy via the rights of individuals and the ability of elected officials to have more influence on the courts. In the US, Congress has to approve all Federal judges proposed by the administration in power (and all appointments of military generals, by the way). There is no such thing as an “independent” court system or, for that matter, independent presidency or congress. A system of “checks and balances” insures that no one branch of government gets too powerful and violates the rights of individuals. CHP and MHP were very much opposed to violating the “ independence” of the courts and prosecutors but in Western democracies the courts are rarely that independent.

I assume that the opposition of these opposition parties may be something else all together, like wanting the Constitutional Courts to overrule what the majority of Parliament favors, such as pass constitutional amendments, or lift the headscarf ban. Fine, I understand that. But what, exactly, is proposed by CHP and MHP to provide more balance to the court system, or are no changes needed?

I agree with Lale Kemal’s recent assertion for the “need for the emergence of a progressive party due to the absence of such a mentality within existing opposition parties” for a new constitution. There is certainly room for a new party that takes a positive approach, that favors new programs moving Turkey forward, that supports a progressive coalition and is not stuck in the same old NO syndrome. However, it’s less likely in the US, which has been locked into a two party system for two centuries. Whereas it may still be possible for Turkey given the weaknesses of its opposition parties. That may be the only difference between Turkish and US politics.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Islamic Center Controversy in America - II - Richard Peres

This article was published in Today's Zaman, a Turkish newspaper, on August 30, 2010, also available online at http://www.todayszaman.com/

It took only three months or so to get American public opinion opposed to the planned Islamic community center a few blocks from the World Trade Center site in New York City.

It took only three months to have most Republican senators, representatives, governors and candidates for office join in, and even some key Democratic politicians to oppose their own president of the United States. All you need is a blog, an emotional issue and lots of misinformation. Facts? Not necessary.

Enter Pamela Geller, a woman who lives in the upper West Side of New York City. She started a blog in 2005 called Atlas Shrugs.com. Prior to May of this year her blog got little attention, except by the extreme right wing in America, who loved her. Perhaps it was because of her crazy stories and allegations, including that Obama is the illegitimate son of Malcolm X; that he changed his name to Barack Obama after visiting Pakistan in the 1980s because of jihad, that Obama is really a Muslim with a hidden agenda, that “everything he has done so far is to foster America’s submission to Islam,” that the “Nazis adopted jihad,” that Israel should nuke Tehran, Mecca and Medina and even Europe, and the promotion of other allegations that are too vicious, vile and disgusting to mention here in Turkey or anywhere for that matter.

Well, you get the picture. (By the way, Barack Obama was always his real name).

This person, with no background in Middle Eastern politics or history, and no credibility, wrote a blog on May 6, 2010, with the following title, “Monster Mosque Pushes Ahead in the Shadow of World Trade Center Islamic Death and Destruction.” Here is an excerpt from this article: “This best demonstrates the territorial nature of Islam. This is Islamic domination and expansionism. The location is no accident … And what about the Hagia Sophia, the ancient cathedral of the church of Constantinople, one of the great buildings of the world, the grandest church in Christendom at that time and for 1,000 years thereafter -- and now a mosque? The Aya Sofya mosque -- they didn’t change the name, just Islamified it.”

A mind-boggling comparison

This is quite the historical comparison: converting an empty old building on Park Place into a community center, providing daycare services, meeting rooms and community facilities much needed in lower Manhattan with Mehmet II’s defeat of the Byzantines (who deserves credit for not destroying the Hagia Sophia). Later on a TV show, she claimed that the imam of the mosque had help fund the “jihad genocidal flotilla.”

A week later, Andrea Peyser, a columnist for the NY Post -- a paper expert at getting people excited -- picked up on Pamela’s blog and wrote a column, “Mosque Madness at Ground Zero,” in which she stated: “A mosque rises over Ground Zero. And fed-up New Yorkers are crying, ‘No!’ A chorus of critics -- from neighbors to those who lost loved ones on 9/11 to me -- feel as if they’ve received a swift kick in the teeth.” A few days after that yet another columnist, Diane West, of the right-wing Washington Examiner, wrote yet another fiery article, this one entitled “A Mosque to Mock 9/11’s Victims and Families” -- an unfounded accusation if ever there was one.

The mainstream media then picked up on the “Ground Zero mosque,” which has a certain deceiving ring to it. They labeled it a controversy, facilitating a media explosion, although it was not a controversy during its planning phase. “Ground Zero mosque” is certainly easier to write than the “Islamic community center two blocks from the WTC site in what is now an abandoned building.” The proposition was simple and clear: The people who attacked the WTC now want a mosque rising “over ground zero.” CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News, the NY Times, LA Times, etc., all brought in opposing sides to discuss the “controversy.”

Oppostion to the ‘Ground Zero mosque’

Then the CNN poll came out showing most Americans opposed the “Ground Zero mosque.”

Where there is a poll, you will find a politician, not taking the lead, but following, with a few exceptions, one being Barack Obama. On Aug. 13 the president said: “This is America. Our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.” And then Michael Bloomberg, NYC’s mayor, with the Statue of Liberty in the background, reminding his audience about bigotry against Jews and Catholics in the past, said, “But we would be untrue to the best parts of ourselves -- and who we as New Yorkers and Americans -- if we said no to a mosque in Lower Manhattan.”

Obama’s statement, in a Congressional election year, unleashed a torrent of opposition, following the polls, exploiting emotions and trying to gain an advantage. Three days later, Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House and possibly a Republican candidate for president in 2012, compared the supporters of the proposed mosque, whom he referred to as “radical Islamists,” to Nazis when interviewed by Fox News. Republicans across the nation followed suit, leading demonstrations, giving speeches, although trying not to be viewed as against religious freedom, but just “against the mosque at ground zero.”

Congressmen implored Speaker Nancy Pelosi to investigate the funding of the mosque.

Moreover, even some Democratic politicians switched sides, including the top Democrat in the US Senate, Harry Reid. Facing a tough re-election race in Nevada this Fall, he stated that he was opposed to the center and urged “all parties to work with local community leaders to find a more appropriate site.” His Republican opponent, Sharron Angle, said that Obama’s support of the building “ignored the wishes of the American people, this time at the expense of victims of 9/11 and their families.”

Of course, the issue has grown in complexity, with various NGO’s taking sides, with demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, and with even an organization that includes victims of 9/11 supporting the center.

But when we step back, we can see how the damage was done. One blogger, with a track record of hatred against Muslims, was able to easily equate the attacks on 9/11 with all of Islam, and also attribute to them a deplorable insensitivity to the feelings of Americans. It was extraordinarily easy to do, to rally most Americans against the project with the [distorted] image of the “mosque rising above ground zero.”

And once the polls kicked in, most politicians followed, a perfect issue to exploit a US president with a Muslim name in a congressional election year. It does not bode well for the need to educate Americans on the world that resides outside my İstanbul window.


*Richard Peres is an American writer living in İstanbul.

30 August 2010, Monday

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Mosque Controversy in America - Part I - Today's Zaman

Today's Zaman, one of Turkey's largest newspapers, published my article on 8/27/2010.               

I recently asked my wife’s niece, who is Turkish, “What do you think of the mosque controversy in New York City?” She replied, “What controversy?” Most people in Turkey seem unaware of this front-page story regarding Islam in the US.

The plan to build an Islamic community center in a building a few blocks from the World Trade Center site in New York City created a firestorm in the US more than a week ago. The mayor of New York, who is Jewish, supports the project, as does President Barack Obama, in the name of religious freedom. But a CNN poll found that 68 percent of Americans opposed the center, which will include a mosque, so close to the target of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

It is a $100 million project that will have a multicultural and religious board of directors, and will support the entire community in that part of lower Manhattan. The center will add 15 stories to a non-descript building not at the World Trade Center site, but two to three blocks away.

Obama said, at the White House’s annual iftar dinner, “I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country.” However, his view is in the minority, based on the CNN poll and the loud opposition of many Republicans and other conservative leaders.

Many Americans understand that the Sept. 11 attacks, although carried out in the name of Islam by its participants, were not representative of the one-and-a-half billion Muslims in the world. But that level of understanding and awareness seems to be a minority view, unfortunately. Last year when Barack Obama toured the Middle East, a poll found that 46 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of Muslim countries, compared to 20 percent who viewed them favorably. Certainly unfamiliarity is partially to blame. Six in 10 Americans do not personally know a practicing Muslim, and those who do have a more favorable view than those who do not. Three in four Americans do not have a passport, making personal familiarity with any foreign country problematic.

I came to Turkey at the beginning of 2010 to teach (at Bilkent University) and write a book relating to Turkey. I found that people who consider themselves Muslim are hardly monolithic: some are more secular than others; some are observant, while others are not; some women want to wear headscarves, while others are uncovered; some are Sunni, or Shiite, or Alevi, all with different religious viewpoints. And Muslims also support a variety of political parties and ideologies, from the Republican People’s Party (CHP) to the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), from the left to the right and everywhere in between.

Last June I returned to the US for a month and was anxious to share with my friends and relatives my experiences in Turkey and what it was like to live in a country in which everyone was Muslim and did not fit the American stereotype. But Americans I spoke to seemed oblivious to any diversity in the Muslim world. It was a concept they had a hard time grasping, perhaps because the news that dominates the airways regarding Islamists relates to the insurgents in Iraq, finding Osama bin Laden, repressive policies of the Taliban and the latest suicide attack somewhere in the world.

I was asked, however, about the Mavi Marmara incident. I suggested that the people on the ship meant well, that they were not the aggressive ones and that the Israelis caused the incident by taking a militaristic stance. No one agreed. The standard response was: “Israel represents the only hope in the Middle East. They are simply protecting themselves from terrorists and rocket attacks.” One person wondered what had happened to me while I was in Turkey.

Criticism of Israel is almost nonexistent in the US and has been politically incorrect for as long as I can remember. In fact, Republicans and Democrats will criticize each other for failing to support Israel enough. When Israel seems to be too aggressive, too zealous in its foreign policy and acting with a “besieged mentality,” it is given the benefit of the doubt and politicians tread lightly on any negative comments. Or they qualify their criticisms with, “It’s for Israel’s own good.” Even Barack Obama -- a liberal, enlightened and intelligent US president if there ever was one -- did not condemn the Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara and only questioned the continuation of the Gaza blockade in response to global outcries over the incident.

Perhaps it is that lack of familiarity mentioned earlier. America is very much an isolated country, separated by the world’s two largest oceans. It is a big island. I lived all my life in America, taught International Politics and International Marketing at American universities, as recently as two years ago, and found this lack of familiarity with the world in young people as well, I am sorry to say. For each class I handed out blank maps of the world and asked students to fill in the names of the countries. The average number of countries correctly identified was less than 10, just 5 percent of the world. And no student ever located Turkey correctly.

During my visit to the States I sent a package to Turkey and, as a joke, tried paying with a Turkish TL 10 note. The woman at the UPS store counter looked at it and asked, “What’s this?” I replied that it’s from Turkey. “Oh,” she said, “I didn’t know Turkey had its own money.”

I am not sure exactly what, if anything, was inside the brain of that young woman, but I can admit to you that I too was fairly ignorant of Turkey before arriving here last January. I had been to Europe dozens of times, for pleasure and work, and was very familiar with Asia and Latin America. But Turkey? Yes, I figured Turkey had its own money. But I knew little of its history, of the birth of modern Turkey in 1923, the story of Atatürk, its political and cultural history, its imperial past, its rapid modernization in the last couple of decades and the push and pull of its secularism/Islamism conflicts over the years.

Perhaps there is an invisible wall when you reach the Bosporus coming from the West. For academics and foreign policy creators, Turkey may be the bridge to the Middle East, a “model” of Middle Eastern democracy. Perhaps. But it is part of another very different part of the world, one that gets thrown into the same category as Iraq and Afghanistan, the topics for 90 percent of the news coming from the Middle East for Americans. When they hear that Turkey is 99 percent Muslim that is all they need to hear. The monolithic view of the Muslim world automatically switches on and there is not much else to say.

That wall exists for academics as well. When I get together with my academic friends in the US they seem to know very little about Turkey -- “They’re against Israel, aren’t they?” -- and the interest to learn more is simply not there. The subject changes fast. I get asked little about the country where I now live and what is happening here. On the other hand, Americans love Turkey as tourists: the food, the people, the hospitality, the ancient sites and the magnificent, unequaled skyline of İstanbul. They may even realize that Turkey does have its own money.

So it is not surprising that a few neoconservative writers in America can make an Islamic center three blocks from the World Trade Center into an incendiary issue, causing American Islamophobia to explode in frenzy and rear its ugly head. The media can light this fuse with incredible ease and raise passions without thinking, without careful thought, without accurate information and without regard to the truth. Fueled by ignorance, the truth has no chance of winning out.

Next in Part II -- the politicians get involved …


*Richard Peres is an American writer living in İstanbul.
27 August 2010, Friday

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Fishy Day on Sakarya Caddesi

Let's Escape!

I awoke last Saturday and begged Umit to let me escape from the protected enclave of Bilkent University campus and travel to downtown Ankara. "Let's tour the fish stands in Sakarya and have a great lunch," she responded. So...... we took a Bilkent bus (it was free) downtown, then boarded the Metro for a 15 minute ride. We emerged to the bustling neighborhood of Sakarya.

Some of the unhappy fish in Sakarya

This Could Be New York

                                                                                      Simmitz are so good!

Immediately I heard the sound of street vendors and shop owners shouting, trying to attract customers. The fish stands were the flashiest, with a myriad of unhappy fish lined up like little soldiers for the crowds. I  pressed my camera into action, a relatively small Olympus DSLR. Another man handled little pieces of pistrami, heard me speaking English, and yelled "Come taste, come taste." Another was selling simmitz, Turkey's version of sesame covered bagels, which looked delicious. This could easily have been Delancey Street in NYC, complete with the selling of bagels and yelling vendors, except that the "bagels" in Turkey are much better -- sorry New York!

Karanfil Sokak

We also walked around Karanfil Sokak, which is nearby, an area of many book stores and students sitting out in cafes, smoking and drinking coffee, or arguing about politics. Every once in a while a small demonstration would take place, people starting to yell slogans in small groups.  Some looked on, others ignored what was happening. I also could not help noticing a gathering of police dressed in riot gear standing nearby.  (It was at this point that I decided to put my camera away). However, the atmosphere was  relaxed.  Umit pointed out that this area is a favorite for demonstrations.  None of this seemed to stop anyone from shopping, eating and having a good time.

Are You Looking at Me??   Kumsal Restaurant

 Kumsal Restaurant, a second-floor restaurant in Sakarya, is a well-known place.  Inside the atmosphere is fairly simple but the food is spectacular.  In Turkey often the waiter will bring you the fish before it is cooked for your approval, which our waiter did.  Turkey enjoys fresh fish from the Black Sea and Sakarya orders it every afternoon for delivery by truck the next day.  And of course, no Turkish meal would be complete without small dishes (messa) including salad.

Turkish food is so healthy

Stay tuned for our next excursion.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Return of Puffy

Puffy, also known around Ankara cat circles as the "boss of bosses" and "the blob," made her triumphal return to our flat (apartment) at Bilkent University. Gone for two years, thanks to Umit's extended trip to the United States -- Binghamton University, Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson Center -- she needed about five minutes to get used to her old place.

Inbetween eating, Puffy spends her time sleeping on various window sills and occasionally, during rare moments when she is awake, checking out the black and white crows that mockingly fly by. Then a little stretch, a yawn, and it's back to sleep. All in a day's hard work!

The students in my Communication's class are brightening my life here. They have all created their own blogs, and are indeed quite "creative." Their blogs are where they post their assignments, for all to see and comment on. I think the best way to learn about new media is to jump in and start, and they all have.

Thanks to the Internet, I don't miss the states at all. I stayed up to 5 a.m. and watched the Super Bowl online on nfl.com (for a fee) and Skype is letting me call anywhere in the states for practically nothing (.017 euros per minute!). My complaints are minor: no large drug stores (Europe has only tiny pharmacies), commercials in the middle of movies (intermission), and no objective, non-opinionated newspaper (but there are several in English). Apart from those items, it's hard to tell that I am not on a college campus in Akron, Ohio. My students seem just like students everywhere, except perhaps here in Turkey they dress up more.

A bird just flew by my desk window and Puffy almost fell off her perch. Poor thing, she's probably exhausted now.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Settled Finally in Turkey

Turkey is an amazingly interesting country located at the crossroads of the Middle East and Europe. After three weeks of living here, the stereotypes us Americans adhere to about other countries fade rapidly. Turkey is decidedly, almost fanatically, modern, as can be seen in its shopping malls and apartment towers, prevalence of stylish Western-dressed population, universities, transportation systems and outlook on the world. It also has its own highly distinct culture of traditions, including hospitality, food and music, a language like no other and a thousand years of history visible especially in Istanbul and the anceint ruins that dot the country.

Thanks to the Internet -- and particularly Skype, Facebook, Blogger, Email, nytimes.com, nfl.com . etc - I am completely in touch with the states, just 7 to 10 hours ahead. Last night I yelled "Sawyer" while on Skype and saw my daughter's Golden Retriever perk up his ears and turn his head 8000 miles away in California. Skype also has incredibly cheap rates to phones.

The food is wonderfully healthy and delicious. Typical breakfast is olives, tomatoes, cucumbers and cheese. Salads (contents cut into small pieces) are prevalent with every meal. Pastries stuffed with vegetables or cheese, and the best "bagels" in the world, called Simits, add interest and enjoyment. Olives, lemons, burger wheat, kebabs are everywhere. Turks are also highly fond of fish from the Black Sea.

Upon arrival I became ill with severe bronchitis, in spite of which we spent 5 days in Istanbul so I could interview people for the book I am writing. I coughed my way through my birthday, looking out on a snow storm in Taksim Square, and opening one present after another from dear Umit. Arriving back in Ankara on a Sunday I went to a private hospital, where I received fast and thorough treatment: xray, blood test, throat culture and diagnosis in less than a half hour. A follow-up visit was similarly excellent and I am feeling fine now.

Tomorrow I teach my first class and the online systems here for managing your course and handling student records are the same as when I was teaching at St. Joe's University.

In summary, we are well settled in and except for the fact that no one here has heard of the NY Giants, I could be anywhere in the states and feel "at home." Cheers, Rich