Murat celebrated his 28th birthday yesterday. But today he is throwing a leaving party. In a few days’ time he will leave to do his military service. He has invited his close friends to a café on the Asian side of Istanbul. There are tea and cream cakes for everyone. Solidly built, Murat is also a person with a good mind. He graduated in political sciences from the university of Galatasaray, one of the best universities in Turkey. He will not miss his six-month stint of military service, which needs to be completed by all Turkish men before their 38th birthday.
A few days before departure, Murat still does not know which barracks he will be sent to in Turkey. To deceive anxiety and to play to the gallery, he takes a small piece of white paper from his pocket. It is the list of things to bring; the regulation pack. He has already ticked off almost all the boxes: ten underpants, thermal t-shirts, a bottle of shaving foam and even slippers. 'I only had to pay 200 lira (100 euros or £87),' he says. The owner of the specialist shop gave him a discount.
A father does not marry his daughter off to a 'Kuruk'
Like most young Turkish men, Murat could do without military service, which he considers to be a 'waste of time'. But he tries to take it in his stride. 'Military service is an opportunity to better understand the realities of my country,' he explains. 'It will make a change from Istanbul; there will be people from deepest Anatolia there. Some will learn to speak well and even to watch what they say! For those who don’t know how to read or write, the service is an opportunity.' Literacy classes are indeed offered.
There is nothing exciting on the itinerary, with intense military training, courses on theory and night watch. On the other hand, military service holds strategic importance for one of the best trained armies in the world. The Turkish armed forces (TSK) are sixth in the world in terms of strength. It has over 700, 000 active members for just under eighty million inhabitants. It played a key political role in history as the guardian of Kemalism, the ideology of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a Turkish army officer, revolutionary statesman, writer, and the first president of Turkey. He is credited with being the founder of the modern secular Turkish state. In 2003, the army’s political role was reduced, but it is still highly respected by the population. Military service remains a fundamental element of patriotism.
'Military service turns a man into a real Turk, a citizen,' confirms a friend of Murat. 'It is logical for parents to not marry their daughter off to a man who did not do military service.' As it is written on the CV, military service is often a condition for employment. Exemption is still a taboo subject: it makes you a Kuruk, or literally 'rotten'. Being 'certified rotten' is a stigma that never leaves you throughout life. There are not many ways to get exemption from military service. Those who work or study abroad for at least three years can reduce service to 28 days by paying a price of 5112 euros (£4, 441). For everyone else, only a physical or mental disability will allow you to escape the service. To be excused for obesity requires gaining more than 120 kilos in weight. 'I know a boy who gained tens and tens of kilos,' jokes another friend of Murat, 'but he missed the 120 kilo target by one kilo! He had to do his service in the end.'
Conscientious objection: a crime punishable by imprisonment
Homosexuals are also in the group of possible exemptees. Although homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey, it is considered to be a 'psychosexual disorder' which prevents homosexual men from going into the army. But they still need to bring proof of their sexual orientation. The official procedure is very vague. It consists of observations and psychological tests in hospital, which embarrasses doctors and causes all sorts of distractions. 28 witnesses reported that they had to submit explicit photos of their sexual activities to a military psychiatrist. The army outright denies this.
If the army cultivates such distrust, it is because pretending to be gay is a popular option for anti-militarists in order to gain exemption. Conscientious objection is considered to be a crime punishable by imprisonment on the grounds of refusing military orders. The Kurdish singer and homosexual Mehmet Tarhan is a symbolic case. In 2005, he was declared an anti-militarist and sentenced to four years imprisonment for refusing to take homosexuality tests. But he was released after two months because he was beaten by and received death threats from other prisoners.
Those who refuse to join the army on moral grounds must be crafty — just like Ahmet. He is 32 years old and aware of having already postponed his military service date for too long. 'But I do not want to go now,' he says. 'I would rather wait another six months.' Ahmet volunteers for an NGO that campaigns for the recognition of the right to conscientious objection in Turkey. 'In relation to all these people that I defend, it would feel wrong to do my service,' he explains. He therefore regularly calls upon a psychiatrist friend who provides him with prescriptions of antidepressants, which he does not take. Ahmet hates going to army medical visits and 'behaving like a madman among all these guys who have real mental problems.' His service has ultimately been pushed back another year for 'temporary psychological trouble.'
Images: main - Turkish soldier in Afghanistan (cc) isafmedia/ Flickr; Turkish soldier in Istanbul (cc) Liquid Oh/ Flickr; wedding image (cc) familymwr/ Flickr/ armymwr.com/; Murat ©Benoît Berthelot; Mehmet Tarhan poster (cc) davinca/ Flickr