History of Conscientious Objection in Turkey

by Ercan Aktaş

(15.05.2021) The struggle for conscientious objection in Turkey started with Tayfun Gönül’s declaration on 6th of December 1989 and Vedat Zencir’s declaration on 6th of February 1990, both publıshed in Sokak (a magazine called ‘Street’).1 These actions – of two Turkish individuals coming out and declaring “I will not join the military”, and standing against all policies of violence, conflict and war – were extremely important. During this period massacres, deployment of unknown assailants, and torture were common means of a state policy carried out within a “homeland-nation” discourse.

There was a difference when compared to the western conscientious objection. In the west, conscientious objection was understood as accepting civil service as an alternative to the compulsory military service. But in Turkey there is no alternative offered, so the process began with the total refusals. To be a conscientious objector in a ‘soldier nation’ society like Turkey meant abandoning all ‘normie’ male roles of the system and the society – founder of the family, pillar/man of the house, core of the society, reliable citizen. In fact, in Turkey, a man completing his compulsory military service is seen as ‘completing his masculinity cycle’ and taking a step towards his assured position in society. Those who did not do their compulsory military service, would be seen as ‘an incomplete man’, or rotten, or crippled.

Becoming a conscientious objector meant transcending all these social norms, abandoning the heteronormativity that was built/imposed by the system/society, and to build yourself again with your own values. On the other hand, there was always an anti-war stance to conscientious objection statements in Turkey. Probably for this reason, their first collective outbursts went by the name “War Resisters’ Group”, under which the conscientious objectors started their fight against violence and militarism in Turkey and in Northern Kurdistan.2

In a society where everyone has been identified as a Turk and soldier from birth, these objections started to write another story. Three years later, on January 16, 1993, the first collective conscientious objection statement was made by Erkan Çalpur, Atilla Akar and Yusuf Doğan. Even if they originated in small anarchist communities, these conscientious objections gave rise to an anti-militarist, anti-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian discourse, and political line started to develop for the first time, distinct from both the democratic/opposing left groups and the male/military system. With the conscientious objections of Uğur Yorulmaz, Timuçin Kızılay and Hasan Çimen on 15th of May in 2000, May 15 is now noted for collective conscientious objections. Along with the struggle for conscientious objection, the trials of “alienating people from the army” have also started. Tayfun Gönül and Vedat Zencir were the first to be tried and sentenced. However, conscientious objectors in Turkey did not step back thereafter. We may even say that certain opposition groups and organizations outside the anarchist/left circles were informed about conscientious objection in Turkey via these trials.3

Conscientious objectors both expressed themselves via their objections, by actions, organizations, campaigns, street protests, performances, to which they started to add another space of struggle, another line. They carried out their campaigns within consensus-based, horizontal organizations, without returning to a hierarchical structure. Their presence on the streets was often of a festive appearance, quite unlike the approach of opposition groups before them.

From the very first moment, the antimilitarist movement has been linked with feminist and LGBTI+ groups and organisations. This situation was a serious factor that prevented the formation of another “manly”4 field against military service, which is a “masculine” field in itself. Conscientious objection has become a contested zone that constantly questions the state of “being male” and “masculinity” and has (re)created itself for many years on the basis of horizontal organization and network structure, thus protecting itself from hierarchical and centralized groups and organizations.

Osman Murat Ülke, Mehmet Tarhan, Halil Savda, İnan Süver, Enver Aydemir turned their trials into campaigns to promote conscientious objection in Turkey and have conducted campaigns for its recognition in society. With all of these actions and studies collective conscientious objections were organized in more powerful ways. On 15th of May in 2004, ten people, including six women (Ferda Ülker, İnci Ağlagül, Ebru Topal, Method Yurtsever, Nazan Askeran, Hürriyet Şener), declared their conscientious objection at a press conference.

Collective conscientious objections organised in the form of press conferences became the rule as a massive campaign every 15th of May. On May 15, 2010, 29 people declared their conscientious objection through a campaign of the Conscientious Objection Platform for Peace which was composed by various left/opposition groups and organisations. Declaring his/her/their conscientious objection during a campaign or a demonstration of solidarity with conscientious objectors became habitual.5

Every year, dozens of people announced their conscientious objection by reading in front of the press members the texts they wrote according to their political tendencies. In a society that has been taken hostage by male-dominated, militarised policies, each of these texts of conscientious objection takes the form of a detailed “manifesto of freedom”. These rejections, which staged in the streets, in protests at festivals and campaigns in front of hundreds of people and dozens of media outlets, suddenly stopped. In July 2016, some military officers attempted an unsuccessful coup on the 15th of July, which was completed politically on the 20th of July by the government party AKP and its ally MHP, we may call it “a new coup model”. This started a new era in Turkey. Since 20th of July 2016, the streets have almost been closed to life. Many opposition groups and democratic organisations and progressivist individuals have been oppressed, even more severely than at the time of the military coup of the 1980.6

Many websites, radio stations, television channels and newspapers that do not obey the AKP/MHP’s racist/military policy were closed by presidential decrees. While many conscientious objection activists were leaving Turkey, the ones who stayed were affected by all of this pressure and policy of violence.

Once we leave 2016 behind, we see that in 2017 twenty people declared their conscientious objection. Twelve of these objections are put forward out via email; three of them via personal social media accounts of the objectors; one of them declared in Italy, two in Germany and three in France. When we look at the last two years (2018-2019), we observe that the number of conscientious objections declared from European countries has increased.

In 2018, 13 people from Turkey declare their objection from Europe: one from Italy, one from the Netherlands, three from Germany and eight from France. This gives us a panorama of the situation of Turkey’s con­scientious objectors. There is a one-day long symbolic training for 16-year-olds as there is no conscription in France. But especially for the last four years, we have had a new situation in the context of conscientious objection in France, as Turkish conscientious objectors declare their objections here in France. Because of the anti-democratic and authoritarian system, living in Turkey has become quite difficult for those who are against compulsory military service, so that they declare their objection once they arrive in a European country.7

Twelve people have declared their conscientious objection since 2020; Mehmet Şaban Değirmenci, Ömer Tüzün, Mahsum Duman, Osman Yılmaz, Mustafa Doğan, Resul Güler and Halil Göktaş live in France; Murat Kızılay lives in the Netherlands; Resul Dündar and Mertcan Güler live in Germany. Only two people declared their objection in Turkey, because declaring his/her/their conscientious objection in Turkey right now means ‘civil death’.8

We should thus consider the need to open a new chapter on the situation of conscientious objectors (originally from Turkey) especially in France and in Germany.

Even if the Republic of Turkey is out to maintain the pressure on conscientious objectors inside its frontiers via racist/militarist nation-state policies, as it does for all the opponents and democratic groups, these people, the opposition, the objectors will continue their fight elsewhere and keep fighting by using other means of resistance.

Conscientious objectors who have to live in Europe continue their fight together with anti-war groups and individuals such as War Resisters’ International, European Bureau for Conscientious Objection, Connection e.V., Peace House and Maison de la Paix.9


1 Tayfun Gönül: Haki Veya Beyaz, Üniforma Üniformadır – https://bianet.org/bianet/ifade-ozgurlugu/140036-tayfun-gonul-haki-veya-beyaz-uniforma-uniformadir

2 Dünyada ve Türkiye’de Savaş Karşıtı Hareket ve Antimilitarizm Üzerine: Kültür ve Siyasette FEMİNİST YAKLAŞIMLAR (http://www.feministyaklasimlar.org/sayi-02-subat-2007/dunyada-ve-turkiyede-savas-karsiti-hareket-ve-antimilitarizm-uzerine/)

3 AİHM’in Vicdani Retçi Osman Murat Ülke kararı | Açık Radyo 95.0 (https://acikradyo.com.tr/arsiv-icerigi/aihmin-vicdani-retci-osman-murat-ulke-karari)

4 Erkeklik means virility and or masculinity in Turkish, and the first three letters erk mean “power”, without an etymological link between two words. Yet, in the original text the writer chooses to underline the semantic brotherhood between these words (man and power) by writing erk’eklik.

5 29 Kişi Daha Katıldı, Vicdani Retçilerin Sayısı 118 Oldu - Tolga Korkut – https://m.bianet.org/bianet/insan-haklari/122019-29-kisi-daha-katildi-vicdani-retcilerin-sayisi-118-oldu

6 Ercan Aktaş: OHAL ve Bir Vicdani Retçinin Hikâyesi | Biz Varız! | We Exist! (https://kopuntu.org/2017/09/30/ercan-aktas-ohal-ve-bir-vicdani-retcinin-hikayesi/)

7 Mehmet Şaban Değir-menci (https://vicdaniret.org/mehmet-saban-degirmenci/)

8 Vicdani reddin bedeli: 26 bin TL ceza, üç yıl hapis, medeni haklardan men – https://www.diken.com.tr/vicdani-reddin-bedeli-26-bin-tl-ceza-uc-yil-hapis-medeni-haklardan-men/

9 Avrupa Vicdani Ret Bürosu’ndan Türkiye’ye eleştiri | ALMANYA | DW | 14.05.2019, https://www.dw.com/tr/avrupa-vicdani-ret-b%C3%BCrosundan-t%C3%BCrkiyeye-ele%C5%9Ftiri/a-48737484

Ercan Aktaş: History of Conscientious Objection in Turkey. May 15, 2021. Published in the booklet "Conscientious Objection in Turkey", May 2021. Editors: Connection e.V., War Resisters International and Union Pacifiste de France

Keywords:    ⇒ Conscientious Objection   ⇒ Ercan Aktas   ⇒ Europe   ⇒ Turkey