Ladies and gentlemen,
I would first like to thank the M100 Sanssouci Colloquium for inviting me here today to deliver the encomium for Erdem Gündüz. I hope that those present are not too disappointed that the originally planned speaker, German Foreign Minister Dr. Guido Westerwelle, could not make it today. Perhaps he feared that a speech in praise of the “Standing Man” could be construed as a celebration of gridlock. That, of course, would have been fatal during campaign season.
I certainly do not possess the same diplomatic savvy as the foreign minister, which is why you may forgive me for beginning with a few general reflections on the freedom of speech and opinion, which necessarily relies also on a free press. It is ultimately a media prize that is being awarded here today, chosen by a jury consisting of the M100 advisory board, on which quite a few of Germany’s foremost journalists sit.
“A true democracy needs an independent press” wrote the great thinker Stéphane Hessel, who died this February, in his essay “Time for Outrage!”. It is presumably a truism, but like other accomplishments of the Resistance, Hessel could see exactly how this freedom of influence is threatened in today’s society, above all by the fact that the media is a part, as well as a driver, of a neoliberal system of competition that performs its ‘dance around the golden calf’ more frantically than ever.
As one of just a few, Hessel demanded a return to a value system where more than just exploitability is considered. What does freedom of opinion mean today?
We should keep in mind that a plurality is threatened not only by regimes and their dictatorial manifestations, but also by widespread tendencies like greed, blindness towards history and a lack of self-reflection. In light of the growing complexity of truths surrounding us, and in light of the systems also created by narration, objectivity is an illusion. Ever so important is a critical media that understands its role as a monitor of power, not as an entity with power. Ever so important is, above all, the media’s own critical awareness.
Democratic and legal principles are not set in stone. In order to bring this to mind, one need not reflect as far back as the monoculturalistic deterioration that our country, and then Europe, underwent in the 1930s. Successful attempts to limit freedoms of speech and press, and to intimidate unfavourable journalists, are an unfortunately more and more common occurrence today, as are journalists who willingly support islamophobic, fascistic and other retrograde movements.
Yet, standing up against the current of the majority requires a certain courage, which will be our theme for the evening.
“Reporters Without Borders” currently ranks Turkey 154 of 179 countries in terms of press freedom, behind even Iraq and Burma. So far in 2013, 38 journalists have been killed, in addition to 18 online activists and civilian journalists. 182 journalists and 161 online activists are currently imprisoned, not to mention a large number of female artists, writers, lawyers, doctors and citizens, many of them human rights activists focussed on the Kurdish movement, at the same time as the solution to the Kurdish question is being publicised. Whereas the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan proved to be a consistent friend to democracy in its first seven years, for the last seven years it has acted as an open enemy of democracy. A political culture of alternating informers and denunciations, has taken root, making clear to everyone the emergence of an authoritarian regime. This is certainly not cause for German politicians to avoid shaking the hand of Erdogan, no more so than that of Putin or Orban. As long as the actions of repressive governments or regimes do not interfere with the primacy of smooth economic relations – and the neoliberal Muslims of the Erdogan government are skilled at business – industrial peace remains secure.
It is worth contemplating when there is a prize awarded in Germany for a commitment to freedom of expression or to human rights. As we all remember, it was former German President Horst Köhler who, in speaking of the Bundeswehr’s deployment in Afghanistan, acknowledged that “military deployments are necessary in an emergency to protect our interests, when it comes to free trade routes, for example”.
“Hear the truth, whoever speaks it,” the philosopher Moses Maimonides once so aptly said.
At the beginning of June in front of a Turkish entrepreneurs association, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutgoglu posited that Turkey is striving for a democracy in line with European standards, and economic growth modelled on that of China. Indeed, Chinese-like circumstances arose in Turkey around the same time, however tragically. On June 4, a 22-year-old was shot in Hatay province – at that point the second protester to fall victim to police violence.
For me personally it was a shocking realisation that it was not a case of one single policeman losing his head and in the heat of the moment pulling the trigger on his own, but that there must have been an order behind it, or at least the absolute certainty that this behaviour would be tolerated. A prime minister who announces his desire to bring at least as many of his supporters onto the streets as there were protesters demonstrating against him is seeking civil war, not dialogue. That Erdogan and his ministers declared themselves to be victims of an attack by the foreign media on Turkey is only further evidence of the excessive paranoia that has been raging of late.
Over the course of the protests against the Erdogan government, many young people in Turkey underwent their politicisation – among them, Erdem Gündüz.
They exchanged information over social networks and political channels to compensate for the lack of reporting by television stations in Turkey, as well as by foreign stations such as the BBC and CNN. Without the postings on the happenings around Gezi Park, there would have been even more deaths among the demonstrators.
On June 16, Gezi Park was violently cleared by the police; on June 17, a city-wide ban on demonstrations was issued. At around 8 PM on the evening of the 17th, a young man appeared at Taksim Square. At his feet was a rucksack; he had head phones in his shirt, which was half tucked in to his slacks; his hands were in his pockets. He stood silently on the square, his gaze fixed on the Atatürk Cultural Centre – in jeopardy by the demolition – and on the portrait of the country’s founder. A quiet protest that would unleash its very own dynamic. The “duran adam” – the “standing man” – became a symbol of the non-violent resistance. Within a short time, the hashtag #”duranadam” dominated Twitter communication; hundreds aligned themselves with the man standing on Taksim Square; across Turkey people followed his example. The protests did not at all remain limited to Istanbul and Ankara, as the selective media reports in Turkey would lead viewers to believe. They had spread to 71 of the 81 cities in Turkey.
Three men silently positioned themselves on the square where in 2007 the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrank Dink had been shot. A group of women and men in Sivas stood in honour before the building of a former hotel, where in 1993 37 men, predominantly members of the Alawite minority, lost their lives in a fire that was started by Islamists protesting the presence inside of a translator of Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses”. In Hatay, a man with his hands in his pockets positioned himself beside an improvised memorial for Abdullah Comert, the murdered demonstrator.
Images of these actions were swiftly dispersed over social networks.
Perhaps you know the apt cartoon by Dan Perjovschi: In 1983, someone held a Molotov cocktail in his raised fist. In 2013, it’s an iPhone.
On the evening of June 17, the first information on the identity of the “Standing Man” was broadcast over Twitter. It quickly came to light that he is an artist, performer and choreographer. More is known today, but as we know, naked biographical facts are only of limited significance. Erdem Gündüz was born in 1979 in Ankara and, after studying in various locations, earned a Masters degree in performing arts from Istanbul’s Mimar Sinan University in 2008. He belongs to the artist group Cati (in English: roof) that until a short while ago ran a dance studio next to Taksim Square. After this building was demolished, the group moved to the waterfront quarter of Karaköy, where Gündüz offers dance classes and workshops. He himself took classes at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in New York and at Impulstanz in Vienna. Until recently, he was an inconspicuous, quiet artist. However, in their investigation of this activist, the Islamic-conservative media quickly seized upon a related symbolic action in the Standing Man’s CV: In 2004 as a student at the secular Yildiz University, where the wearing of headscarves was forbidden, he created a sensation by entering the main building, along with a few classmates, while wearing a headscarf. In this case, too, he aligned himself with those suffering repression by the state, albeit with less mass appeal than his courageous statement on Taksim Square, especially for us in Germany and Europe, where “Islamophobia” is raging and so-called critics of Islam are campaigning in the name of enlightenment against the existence and further intrusion of Muslim immigrants and their children.
In Turkey, as in other cultures, standing conveys a form of reverence. One stands up when the national anthem sounds, thus showing respect for those who have shed blood for the nation. One stands up when the dead are remembered and the siren wails. Erdem Gündüz succeeded in reinterpreting this culture of memory – one with Kemalist, military connotations – as an act of silent resistance for the nonpartisan protesters. Gündüz gave human form to his feeling of responsibility and his pain; he set self-empowerment against repression and thus overcame his powerlessness. Beyond the ideologies, camps and national contexts, he created a beacon for freedom of the individual.
And one footnote: Not only did the AKP send out a group of anti-protesters with t-shirts bearing the rather roundabout message: “Standing men standing against the standing man”, but as a reaction, the government deliberated the banning by law of all silent standing in public squares.
That those in power were intimidated by the stamina of one single individual is a message in itself.
From Gezi Park and Taksim Square, the images that have reached us have mainly been those of violence. In response to this violence, Erdem Gündüz employed his peaceful form of resistance. And he speaks of his action with great humility. In an interview with the BBC he said: “I am just one protester, I’m just one artist. There are many artists and many, many young people on the streets. I am nothing, but the idea is important, why people resist the government. But the government didn’t want to understand, didn’t try to understand why people are on the streets for 19 days.”
When today we award Erdem Gündüz the prize for his non-violent intervention for human rights and free expression, we should not also discredit those who have also risked their lives in street battles as the “Standing Man” has, not the gays, lesbians, autonomists and anarchists who, amidst the tear gas of police grenades, have fought their own battles, and who were not the terrorists Erdogan and his vassals would have us believe.
I am certain that Erdem Gündüz will receive his prize this evening in the name of all those who have defended themselves against injustice, oppression and tyranny.
The protest movement in Turkey has led to a series of iconographic images of resistance. Not only has “Duran Adam” become a symbol. Let us not forget “Kirmizili Kadin”, the woman in red, an assistant at the Istanbul Technical University by the name of Ceyda Sungur, who in her summer dress was sprayed with tear gas so fiercely by a policeman, and at such close range, that her hair stood on end as if in a heavy gale. We remember “Ciplak Adam”, the nameless, naked man who faced the water guns of the police as defencelessly as possible, walking along as if strolling on the beach.
They all show the courage that is the basis for resistance. And resistance in turn is the basis for change.
During the protests, I myself was in Istanbul with a group of friends from Berlin. For us, the movement was more impressive than I am able to convey here this evening. Not only because the love and solidarity was palpable, despite reports that the protesters were being scoffed at. But above all because an exuberant creativity was on display.
I had never before experienced anything comparable: a protest camp in which, on the second day, a library was setup; on the third day, a radio station; and on the fourth a live-stream feed. Astonishingly practical and usefully implemented culture and media. There were performances, workshops, an installation of measures to withstand gas attacks by the police. It was – and please forgive my use of such a big word – a utopia.
One that, as we know, was brutally broken apart.
But the image that sent Erdem Gündüz out into the world will live on, as will others. It acquiesces into a series of symbolic iconographies, reproduced thousand fold, as was the so-called “Tank Man”, who alone confronted the convoy of tanks during the Massacre at Tiananmen Square. There are pictures that publicly and irrevocably showed Erdogan’s image as untouchable and invincible to the entire world ad absurdum. Gündüz’ generation will remember the gross injustice of the five dead and countless wounded.
There was no revolution. The fall of Erdogan is not imminent. Thus, one could ask: What did the movement achieve? The answer must be: It achieved much. The comparisons to 68 are piling up – back then as well, the visible coup failed to materialise. Reactionary minds would surely formulate that more pointedly. In those days, however, a political culture changed indisputably and sustainably; a generation confronted its parents and became more democratic.
That is also my hope for Turkey.
A young generation, reputed to be hedonistic, undergoes its politicisation.
We are speaking of a generation that, although not united in a collective utopia – how would this look in light of the global simultaneities that are growing more and more complex? – it is already equipped with a political consciousness that has never perhaps communicated primarily in the realm of politics. Those who want to live ecologically, as vegetarians, those who protest that kissing and drinking alcohol in the street is forbidden. This generation has experienced a meaningful upheaval, whose spirit will not dissipate. And that means a lot in a country where 70 percent of the people are under 30 years of age.
But it is of course not only the young who have demonstrated. Just as valid are the mothers and grandmothers, who banged on pots and pans to protest that their children can be murdered in the street, who no longer fear their neighbours that are members of the AKP and could denounce them to the tax authorities whenever they like. They have all shown the courage for which Erdem Gündüz is being honoured today, as a representative of an idea that is bigger than he is, as the stoic front man for a silent majority of decent citizens. As a model and inspirations for others. This is worthy of honour and gratitude.
As Stéphane Hessel wrote: “To create is to resist, to resist is to create”.
Please welcome … Erdem Gündüz.