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When Turkey Is Halal, Kosher, Regular and Haram: A Thanksgiving Memoir by a Turk in America

For a great majority of Americans, the word “turkey” stands for companionship, family, generosity, and many other virtues that are rekindled at the Thanksgiving table and throughout the holiday season. The country “Turkey” is rarely, if at all, a part of this uniquely American culture. This Turkey, which happens to be my homeland, was at the Thanksgiving table I and my family were invited to.

Our hosts, a generous American family, offered us a sprawling table with three types of turkey: halal for Muslim guests, kosher for Jewish guests, and a regular one for non-observant guests. Haram, unlawful, was unfortunately the only category left for the country Turkey at the table, for even talking about it was regretful. The country’s current sad state is even worse when one remembers how halal, lawful, Turkey once was, or was believed to be, as a reliable NATO member and source of democratic hope for the wider Middle East.

It was not always this way. Turkey was once halal, lawful. Confidently situated between East and West, Turkey is led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP, a party founded on Islamist principles but that embraced democratic principles and human rights when it came to power in 2002. The AKP has always been representative of Turkey’s majority-Muslim populace, but for many years the country remained a welcoming destination for Westerners.

Sadly, after the AKP’s third general election triumph, in 2011, the government turned its back on their ideals, infected by the poison of unrivaled power. Since 2011, Turkey has been beset by problems and internal strife, with Erdogan turning towards ever more authoritarian measures to consolidate his power. Recently, the country stopped offering visas to visitors from the United States.

Here in America, folks are curious about Turkey’s tragic, sharp downfall. People ask if anything happens to me if I can return to Turkey (I can’t – in fact almost all of my former colleagues at ISIK publications, now shut down, in Istanbul – editors, graphic designers, authors, etc. – and no one is even aware of it) are behind bars, standing for trial this week, and nobody is even aware of it). They ask if we feel safe and if our families are doing OK. They say they have heard about the cleric in Pennsylvania. They grin when they remember the disgraceful palace-with-a-thousand-rooms in Ankara. They say that what happened on July 15 did not look like a real coup. They also ask about the hundreds of babies and young children who are behind bars with their parents, who were rounded up during the crackdown on dissidents after the “coup.”

Those following Turkey also remember the gold trader Reza Zarrab’s trial in New York, and how Zarrab’s confessions revealed how he fouled Turkey, making it haram.

Zarrab said he worked with Turkish banks under the auspices of the government ministers. Zarrab was splitting the profits with the ministers, 50-50. The gold trader’s dirty business violated UN sanctions against Iran; he money-laundered in return for huge amounts of bribes shoveled into ministers’ pockets.

News of this wide-scale corruption first erupted five years ago, in Turkey. Now firmly recorded in Turkish history as the December 17-25 process, Zarrab was arrested, along with a number of his partners involved in the scheme, some of them family members tied to AKP ministers. However, Erdogan used all his political influence and popularity to overrule the indictment by literally overhauling the entire state structure. He destroyed the separation of powers and checks and balances by shuffling and jailing prosecutors, judges, and police detectives. He changed laws and appointed friendly judges to judiciary committees. Zarrab and his accomplices were released, and the members of the police force and the prosecutors who brought charges against the government and Zarrab have now been in jail for more than three years.

When Zarrab’s partner, Babak Zanjani, was sentenced to death in Iran for the same crimes, he sought a plea deal in the United States. He cooperated with the prosecutor, explaining the hierarchy of individuals who were running the business with him, much to the shame of the Turkish government.

Or at least one would hope. But the reaction to Zarrab’s revelations in Turkey vividly – and disappointingly – showed during the course of the trial how Turks still manage to remain split, even in the face of this humiliation that has consequences not for the corrupt government members only but for the entire nation. There are many groups of Turkish media whose reporting of the trial best illustrates this split.

The first group, which comprises an overwhelming majority of the Turkish press today, is entirely under the control of the government – some are directly owned by Erdogan’s family members. These outlets reported about this trial as an American conspiracy against Turkey. They serve the government’s anti-Western and isolationist propaganda, simply because they are paid to do so.

The second group are journalists working for one of the media corporations not directly owned by Erdogan’s family, but which act like one out of fear of an imminent government takeover or because their bosses have other businesses that need government funding or approval. Under this pressure, and to not lose their jobs, these journalists worked hard to report on the trial in a way that does not offend the Turkish government. Theirs was a praiseworthy theatrical performance, and history has recorded them with full credit for their ability to hide their inner feelings and act as if on Broadway (the courtroom was not too far!). Anyone with some common sense who watched them felt nothing but pity for their embarrassing improvisations filled with palaver not to displease Ankara. One may add to this group self-claimed liberals for whom justice and freedoms in the present Turkish context can be “preemptively” limited for certain individuals and groups.

A third group of journalists represented the elitist establishment, and they fully benefit – rather undeservedly – from this fouled Turkey. For them, the revelations by Reza Zarrab proved their century-long radical opposition to – and oppression of – any individual or group that may have had any religious leaning. They categorically reject the AKP government, just as they reject anything remotely religious, which for them is antithetical to the founding principles of the Republic. The Zarrab trial for them was not an opportunity to reach justice, but a point they scored against their “constitutive other,” the conservative majority of Turks, which, in its broadest definition, includes the Gülen Movement, even if Erdogan considers this last group his number one enemy. Despite their enthusiastic support of the Zarrab trial, they completely ignored the prosecutors and police officers who broke this story of monumental corruption five years ago.

The fourth group of so-called journalists were a much smaller group of individuals whose constitutive other is no one but the cleric in Pennsylvania, Fethullah Gülen. These individuals have established careers based on their assumed research on Gülen and the social movement built around his ideas. Their mindsets are so fixated on the cleric that whatever happens in Turkey, and now in the United States, happens somehow in relation to this man, who is nearly 80. While some of these individuals hold views in accordance with the Turkish government, almost all of them continue to blame Gülen and his group for all Turkey’s troubles, including this trial.


It is disappointing to see my homeland, Turkey, still suffering from a set of deeply ingrained biases that do not allow the nation to gather together around common interests and values. Under an authoritarian, one-man rule, these biases have turned into hatred. Such hatred has destroyed the rule of law and undermined basic human rights and values.

Under Erdogan’s fist, the country has lost its way and confused its priorities. During Thanksgiving week last year, imams in Turkish mosques advised business owners not to observe Black Friday, for Friday is Muslims’ holiday; declaring it “Black” is a conspiracy devised by Western Crusaders (I don’t know if they are doing the same this year too). “Black Friday discounts” are not categorized as haram anywhere in Islamic literature (this does not mean extreme consumerism is endorsed, either). It is ironic that for the last five years, Turkish mosque-goers have not heard anything from the pulpit about how it is forbidden to engage in bribery or to dishonor oneself with corruption, even though the religious unlawfulness of both are emphasized as powerfully as any other grave sin in Islam.

On the other side of the ocean, the American family served us and other Muslim guests halal turkey to make us feel at home. It was a reminder of what our homeland, halal Turkey, once was, not so long ago.

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Hakan Yesilova
Hakan Yesilova
Hakan Yesilova is the editor of The Fountain Magazine.

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