The Choices Blog

History and Current Issues for the Classroom

Author: Susannah Bechtel

A Vote on Turkey’s Future

On April 16, Turkish citizens will go to the polls to vote on a package of constitutional amendments. The package proposes fundamental changes to Turkey’s parliamentary system of government—it would expand the powers of the presidency and dissolve the position of prime minister, among other changes. Public opinion is split on the referendum, and many pollsters hesitate to predict the outcome. Much of the debate surrounding the referendum draws on the country’s divisive leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Many see the referendum as not simply a vote on Turkey’s system of government, but on the future of Erdoğan’s position as Turkey’s leader.

Erdoğan has been a central figure in Turkish politics for the past two decades. He was the mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998 and a founder of the current ruling party, the AKP.  Erdoğan served three terms as prime minister, from 2003 to 2014. After reaching his term limit, he won the presidency in 2014. Many believe that he is the most influential Turkish politician in since Atatürk.

While Erdoğan is currently eligible for one more term as president, a “yes” vote at the polls on the April 19 referendum could pave the way for Erdogan to remain the country’s president for an additional term, through 2029.

The vote comes during a period of great change and uncertainty in Turkey. A recent string of terrorist attacks has claimed the lives of hundreds of Turkish citizens. The Syrian Civil War continues to unfold on Turkey’s doorstep. In the midst of the global refugee crisis, Turkey has accepted roughly half of the five million Syrians who have fled their home country. The decades-long conflict between government officials and Turkey’s Kurdish population continues.

Though Erdoğan has a loyal base of supporters, in recent years many Turkish citizens have challenged his government in a range of ways, from political organizing to widespread protests. Concerns about government corruption and growing authoritarianism sparked massive protests in Gezi Park in 2013. Last summer, an attempted military coup failed to oust Erdoğan. In its wake, while some citizens have rallied around the government and rejected the military’s attempt to intervene in politics, others have expressed concern that Erdoğan and his ruling party are seizing the opportunity to crush dissent and further consolidate their power. Individual’s views on these recent development may shape decisions at the ballot box on the 16th. In the video below, Brown University professor Stephen Kinzer describes how the Turkish government responded to the 2016 coup attempt.

 

Turkish Students Weigh In

In a recent interview in Taksim Square, Istanbul, New York Times correspondent Patrick Kingsley discussed the upcoming referendum with two students at Bagazici University—Mert Nacakgedigi and Dilara Arslan. Though they are good friends, the two students have starkly different interpretations about what the proposed constitutional changes would mean for their country’s future. While Dilara plans to vote in favor of the amendments, Mert will vote against them.

Interview by Patrick Kingsley of the New York Times.

Dilara

Dilara is double major in political science and sociology. She believes that the current parliamentary system has failed Turkey and hopes that a shift to a presidential system will bring stability to a country that has experienced political upheaval and tenuous parliamentary coalitions for decades. Dilara reminds viewers that, since the country’s founding less that one hundred years ago, Turkey has had more than sixty governments. She’s confident that the constitutional amendments will not only bring stability, but will also facilitate the consolidation of democracy in Turkey.

“I see it as a step towards democracy. Considering what the current government has done in favor of democracy in my opinion from the 2004 package of women’s rights to the economic liberalism over the past ten, fifteen years, I see this as just another step towards democracy.”

Dilara Arslan, Bagazici University student, March 24, 2017

Dilara applauds the ruling party’s efforts to expand freedoms for women that wear headscarves by lifting restrictions that had long kept kept veiled women out of public institutions like universities and government offices. She believes the constitutional changes will bring Turkey’s government more in line with many Western governments. She is concerned that foreign governments and international media sources have been encouraging people in Turkey to vote “no.”

Mert

Mert Nacakgedigi is a double major in political science and history. He expresses concern about the future of Turkey’s democracy and he warns that the amendments will demolish Turkey’s system of checks and balances. Mert says that people don’t feel free to openly oppose the proposed constitutional change, particularly those who work for or interact closely with the government. He’s unconvinced that the proposed changes will help address the challenges facing his country or offer any improvements to Turkey’s government.

“When I see the referendum…I only have one question. Do we need this referendum? Do we have a constitutional problem? [Is] our first problem a constitutional problem? I don’t think so.”

—Mert Nacakgedigi, Bagazici University student, March 24, 2017

Dilara and Mert emphasize that despite a climate of political polarization in their country, they’re able to respectfully disagree and remain friends. In many ways, they share a similar vision for their country—a desire for expanded rights and opportunities, a commitment to strengthening their democracy, and a hope that that Turkey will successfully address security concerns and the problem of terrorism. How a “yes” or ”no” vote on the referendum will shape the country’s future remains to be seen.

Interested in Teaching about Turkey?

Empire, Republic, Democracy: Turkey’s Past and Future traces the final years of the Ottoman Empire, the struggle for independence, and Turkish resistance against European imperialism. Students explore recent developments, such as the Syrian Civil War, the emergence of ISIS, the global refugee crisis, and the attempted military coup of 2016. In a culminating simulation, students grapple with the questions and challenges facing people in Turkey today.

  • What should Turkey’s democracy look like?
  • What role should religion play in Turkey’s government and society?
  • Should Turkey expand human rights and freedoms?
  • What role should Turkey play in the region and the world?

Banner image: Kristine Riskaer (CC BY 2.0).

Refugee Stories—Mapping a Crisis

“I was just a mother taking care of her children and living in Homs…. I enjoyed life. One day I’d spend an evening with my friends, another day I’d go to a birthday party. That was our life…. Now it’s all gone.”
—Umm Ala’a, Syrian refugee in Lebanon

What does a ten-year-old boy, working alongside his father in a busy restaurant kitchen, think of the friends he left behind in Syria? How does a young man, who took up arms against the Assad regime at age seventeen, adjust to life with his injuries? How does a medical resident, facing repeated arrests for protesting, finally decide to flee? How does a mother and widow, caring for her children, volunteer to help others in her new community in Lebanon?

Choices’ free online lesson, Refugee Stories—Mapping a Crisis, gives students the opportunity to explore the human face of the global refugee crisis. Why do refugees leave their homes? What do they leave behind? What obstacles do they confront on their journey abroad? What is it like to build a life in a new country?

“I can’t describe what I felt. No one can…. We are people, not numbers. These 5,000 people waiting at the border wanting to cross, they didn’t come of their own free will. No one chooses to leave their home. Everyone has a reason.”
—Haifa, Syrian refugee in Lebanon

There are more displaced people today than at any time since World War II. As of 2014, nearly sixty million people had been forcibly displaced from their homes, about twenty million of them refugees. To introduce students to this topic, the lesson begins with foundational information—defining key terms and exploring data on the global crisis.

RefugeeDatasheet

Excerpt from the lesson handout, “Refugee and IDP Data Sheet.” See lesson for full data sheet.

The main activity allows students to read or watch individuals’ stories and creatively map their experiences. We’ve recently updated the lesson and incorporated a collection of video interviews by Al Jazeera—Life on Hold—featuring Syrian refugees living in Lebanon. Syrians now make up a quarter of the population in Lebanon. These interviews are a powerful way to introduce students to the human dimension of the refugee crisis. We hope the lesson plan will help you address this topic in your classroom and help prepare your students to participate in the global discussion about responses to the crisis.

“I want my children to get an education…. I imagine Mashael and Mariam will achieve great things. Of course I have dreams. If you don’t have hope then life isn’t worth living.”
—Umm Ala’a, Syrian refugee in Lebanon

A sample of the student mapping activity.

A sample of the student mapping activity.

The Armenian Genocide: 100 Years Later

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide—a tragedy that took place against the backdrop of World War I, the effects of which are still being felt today. Choices provides a range of resources that offer students historical context to understand the circumstances in which the Armenian Genocide, and other genocides, were carried out. These resources help students wrestle with the very difficult and confusing question of how such horrific events could ever take place, and consider how past genocides have long lasting effects that exist to this day.

What was the Armenian Genocide?

The following video could serve as an excellent introduction for high school students to learn about the Armenian Genocide.  Barbara Petzen answers the question, “What was the Armenian Genocide?”

ArmenianGenocideWeb

A Contested History

“The great trouble with the Armenians is that they are separatists.… Because they have relied upon the friendship of the Russians, they have helped them in this war.… We have therefore deliberately adopted the plan of scattering them so that they can do us no harm.”  

—Ottoman leader Ismail Enver Pasha, as recounted by Henry Morgenthau, U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire

To this day, the Turkish government denies that these deaths were a genocide and claims that the Armenians were among the many people displaced and killed in the violent chaos of World War I. In 2014, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—who was prime minister at the time and is currently president—opened a new chapter for the two countries by acknowledging the widespread suffering of Armenians during World War I. Although he did not call the events of 1915 genocide, it marked an important acknowledgement of the past.

“The incidents of the First World War are our shared pain. It is our hope and belief that the peoples of an ancient and unique geography, who share similar customs and manners will be able to talk to each other about the past with maturity and to remember together their losses in a decent manner. … And it is with this hope and belief that we wish that the Armenians who lost their lives in the context of the early twentieth century rest in peace, and we convey our condolences to their grandchildren.”  

—Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, April 23, 2014

Despite the slight softening of Erdoğan’s position last year, Turkey’s leader has taken a sharper stance recently in the weeks leading up to this year’s anniversary, explicitly refuting the designation of the events as a genocide. After Pope Francis referred to the events as “the first genocide of the 20th century” this month, Turkey withdrew its ambassador to the Vatican. When the European Parliament adopted a resolution to commemorate the centennial of the genocide, Erdoğan responded,

“Whatever decision the European Parliament takes on Armenian genocide claims, it will go in one ear and out the other…. It is out of the question for there to be a stain or a shadow called genocide on Turkey.”

—Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, April 2015

Teaching Resources

Choices’ curriculum unit Confronting Genocide: Never Again? explores the Armenian Genocide, as well as four other case studies (the Holocaust, the Cambodian Genocide, the Bosnian Genocide, and the Rwandan Genocide). It includes a lesson that challenges students to assess The New York Times coverage of the Armenian genocide and to consider the impact of media reporting on policy decisions and international opinion. The curriculum also includes a lesson that has students build a genocide memorial and consider the complex decision making that goes into this process.

Choices’ curriculum unit Empire, Republic, Democracy: A History of Turkey explores the social and political environment within the Ottoman Empire in the years leading up to and during World War I and the Armenian Genocide. It briefly explores modern relations between Turkey and Armenia and the tension between the two countries over the designation of the events as a genocide.

 

 

Nukes Over North Carolina—Were We Lucky?

A road marker in Eureka, NC.

A road marker in Eureka, NC.

On January 24, 1961, two hydrogen bombs crashed to the ground outside Goldsboro, North Carolina. One hit a field at 700 miles per hour and shattered without detonating. The other remained intact after its parachute was snared by the branches of a tree.

The plane carrying the bombs was a U.S. B-52 bomber. After taking off from a nearby air force base, the plane malfunctioned and broke to pieces as it plummeted from the sky. One of the bombs had completed much of its arming sequence, which led to the deployment of its parachute. All of the levers of the ignition device tripped, except for a single one. In 2013, declassified government documents revealed that the single switch prevented the bomb from exploding, averting what would likely have been millions of deaths and the formation of a crater on the eastern seaboard to be swallowed up by the Atlantic.

Our friends at the Armageddon Letters produced this short video to engage viewers in the complex discussion of nuclear weapons. The video uses the almost-unbelievable Goldsboro B-52 crash as an entry point into a debate about the dangers of nuclear weapons and the Cuban missile crisis. Professor Jim Blight asks, were we lucky? Or, considering that the bomb didn’t detonate, are we sufficiently safe in a world with nuclear weapons? The video could serve as a great hook for high school classes.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WN4VRqEo0r4

The following video of Joseph Cirincione also explores the Goldsboro scare and other nuclear close-calls, including the Cuban missile crisis:Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 4.01.05 PM

Explore more from Choices on these topics:

The Cuban Missile Crisis: Considering its Place in Cold War History

The Challenge of Nuclear Weapons

Photo by Arthunter (CC BY-SA 3.0).

 

Free Speech: From Skokie to Paris

FreeSpeech

On January 7, 2015, two gunmen attacked the Paris headquarters of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and killed twelve people. The attacks are presumed to be in response to several controversial cartoons that the magazine published depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The events have ignited a global debate on the topic of freedom of speech, explored in Choices’ free online lesson, The Struggle to Define Free Speech: From Skokie to Paris.

Days after the attack, millions of people marched in rallies across France. Many carried posters and banners inscribed with the phrase “Je suis Charlie” (French for “I am Charlie”) to show solidarity with the magazine. Sales of Voltaire’s Treatise on Tolerance have skyrocketed in recent weeks in France, and much of the nation’s population has rallied around his, and their own, staunch belief in freedom of thought and condemnation of censorship.flag copy

Yet the magazine has also drawn criticism from individuals and leaders around the world who contend that the cartoons went too far. Critics point to the magazine’s long history of publishing content that, in their opinion, stokes Islamophobia and racism. They question why cartoonists have used their pens to further fracture a country and world already fraught with tension and intolerance.

Turkey, Morocco, and other countries have banned the distribution of Charlie Hebdo. Violent demonstrations have broken out in several places, including Pakistan, where parliament has even passed resolutions condemning the publication, stating that, “This is an attempt to divide peoples and civilisations. There is a need to promote harmony among people and communities instead of reinforcing stereotypes and making people alienated in their own countries.” Pope Francis has chimed in, declaring that insults against the faith of others are beyond the limits of acceptable free speech.

Still others, including many who disapprove of the content of the cartoons, caution against government interference in the free flow of ideas. They stand by the belief that the irreverence of cartoonists, journalists, and artists is a transformative and essential force in a healthy society. Teju Cole writes, “[I]t is possible to defend the right to obscene and racist speech without promoting or sponsoring the content of that speech. It is possible to approve of sacrilege without endorsing racism. And it is possible to consider Islamophobia immoral without wishing it illegal. Moments of grief neither rob us of our complexity nor absolve us of the responsibility of making distinctions.”

“But drawing the line between speech that is disgusting and speech that is dangerous is inherently difficult and risky,” states a recent New York Times editorial. France has been quick to arrest and prosecute those who have uttered words of support for the attacks, even when defendants have not threatened violence. Some have criticized French authorities for having a double standard when it comes to expression.

Despite many important distinctions, much of the current discourse on France echoes a debate that shook the United States almost forty years ago—In 1977, a Neo-Nazi group proposed marching through the streets of Skokie, Illinois, a small city that was home to many Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. The ACLU defended the Nazi’s right to march, the Anti-Defamation League sued in an attempt to prevent it, and people throughout the United States wrestled with the question of how to interpret the First Amendment.

Are there limits to freedom of expression? What should they be? And what can we gather from the cases of Skokie and Paris to help us decide? Challenge your students to explore these questions with the Teaching with the News lesson, The Struggle to Define Free Speech: From Skokie to Paris.

Photos by photograpix (CC BY 2.0) and Tim (CC BY-SA 2.0).

On the 100th Anniversary of World War I

By Leah Elliott, Choices Program Associate

The upcoming year presents a special opportunity for classrooms to reflect on the history and impacts of World War I. While mainstream media coverage has granted attention to the war’s famous battles and grave sites dotting Europe and the United States, we encourage you to also explore with your students the narratives of those societies that fell within the colonial and/or imperial boundaries of the Central and Allied Powers.

Over the past ten months, Choices has produced three new curriculum units that speak to “other” perspectives from World War I: Indian Independence and the Question of Partition, Colonization and Independence in Africa, and Empire, Republic, Democracy: A History of Turkey (just released this summer!). Below are a few excerpts and images from these curricula.

“Britain forced its colonies to contribute vast sums of money, raw materials, soldiers, and other resources to support the war effort. Tens of thousands of Indian troops fighting for Britain in Europe and the Middle East lost their lives.” —Indian Independence and the Question of Partition

 

Africa 1914 color

“Africans who participated in the war efforts thought they would be rewarded with additional social, political, and economic rights when the war was over…. It soon became clear that Europe and the United States did not believe that Africans deserved this right…. Germany’s former colonies became mandates—administered by foreign countries on behalf of the League…. Criticism of colonialism grew louder in Africa around the world after World War I. Four conferences between 1919 and 1927 helped bring international attention and support to anticolonial movements in Africa.” —Colonization and Independence in Africa

 

"In 1915, Russia made substantial gains into Ottoman territory in Eastern Anatolia. The Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) government feared that minority groups in the region, especially the Armenians, planned to revolt against the empire with the help of Russian forces.… April 24, 1915 marked the start of the Armenian Genocide. The Ottoman government ordered the arrest and deportation or execution of over two  hundred Armenian politicians, religious leaders, and businessmen in Istanbul.… CUP officials claimed that the Armenians planned to revolt and destroy the Ottoman Empire. This accusation produced widespread public support for the government’s actions. By 1923, 1.5 million Armenians—over two-thirds of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire—had been killed, deported, or forced into the desert where they starved to death." —Empire, Republic, Democracy: A History of Turkey

“In 1915, Russia made substantial gains into Ottoman territory in Eastern Anatolia. The Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) government feared that minority groups in the region, especially the Armenians, planned to revolt against the empire with the help of Russian forces.… April 24, 1915 marked the start of the Armenian Genocide. The Ottoman government ordered the arrest and deportation or execution of over two hundred Armenian politicians, religious leaders, and businessmen in Istanbul.… CUP officials claimed that the Armenians planned to revolt and destroy the Ottoman Empire. This accusation produced widespread public support for the government’s actions. By 1923, 1.5 million Armenians—over two-thirds of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire—had been killed, deported, or forced into the desert where they starved to death.”Empire, Republic, Democracy: A History of Turkey

These pieces draw attention to just a few of the narratives that are often lost when sole focus for the 100th anniversary of World War I is given to people who identified with, instead of were subjugated by, the world powers of the time. In addition to widespread death and economic upheaval, World War I was also an event that turned the world’s attention to the fight for self-determination. For people living under colonial rule in Africa and South Asia, as well as the diverse ethnic groups within the Ottoman Empire, World War I fueled efforts for self-determination that would drastically shape the course of the twentieth century.

 

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