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Turning a true Turkish hero into a commodity

Since the July 15 coup attempt, opportunists have been exploiting emotions and cashing in on others' memories.
ÖmerHalisdemir.jpg

Apparently nothing is safe from the clutches of commercialism, even the cherished memory of a military hero.

One of the most critical moments that led to the collapse of the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey involved Senior Master Sgt. Omer Halisdemir, who was killed in the line of duty that night.

Brig. Gen. Semih Terzi, consequently found to be a key coup plotter, accompanied by some 30 special forces personnel, attempted to take over the operations center of the Special Forces Command at Golbasi just outside Ankara. If Terzi had succeeded, he could have issued orders as if he were operating in the chain of command. He could have mobilized special forces units in various parts of the country, ordered the arrests of political leaders and senior commanders and seized critical buildings.

Terzi, who flew in on a helicopter with his unit from Bingol, was just about to enter the headquarters when someone came from behind and shot him twice in the head.

The shots came from Halisdemir, who became the most talked-about name and an instant folk hero in Turkey, revered by millions of Turks as the man "who stopped the coup and saved the country."

Back in 1999, Halisdemir and I were in the same special forces training group and we later served together for a year. He was a true patriot and a courageous soldier. On the night of the coup attempt, as the duty noncommissioned officer for the night, he carried out a direct order from Maj. Gen. Sezai Aksakalli, the Special Forces commander, who called and told him to stop Terzi whatever the consequences. Halisdemir carried out the order without hesitation and then stood alone against the coup plotters.

By the end of July, the entire country was talking about the bravery and saga of Halisdemir, who had put himself through school with the money he made from shepherding. Adding to his legend are the modest lives of his wife and children in an Ankara suburb and the dignified bearings of his farmer father and mother living in central Anatolia. Hundreds of thousands of people displayed his photo on their Twitter and Facebook accounts. Hashtags opened in his name broke all rating records for days on end. More than 300,000 people visited his grave.

More than 20 schools have been named after the hero in different parts of the country, as well as hundreds of streets, libraries, sports facilities and parks. Many municipalities run by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) erected statues of him. The name of Nigde University in the brave soldier's province was changed to Omer Halisdemir University.

There was even a proposal to print his name and photo on Turkish currency. Approximately 1,000 babies born after July 1 were named after him and photos of these babies with their national ID cards were among the most popular photos on social media.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in early October visited the residence of Halisdemir's family, further enhancing the late soldier's reputation.

But eventually, the inevitable happened. The saga of this brave man triggered a new wave of nationalism in the country and led to his discovery by political and economic opportunists.

Halisdemir became the banner of a new "patriotic capitalism" in Turkey when various companies started using his memory to market their products. The ever-watchful construction sector was the first to catch on. Ironically, some construction firms in Istanbul, Izmir and Sakarya advertised fancy residential projects under Halisdemir's name.

For example, a construction firm in Sakarya advertised its latest luxury residence project under the slogans, "A new address for a comfortable life: the Martyr Omer Halisdemir Compound" and "We should keep his name alive with our project." This greedy plan was scrapped after strong negative public reactions.

An Istanbul-based company that organizes events told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that it has staged Halisdemir observances for many municipalities in Istanbul and the demand is still strong. AKP-controlled municipalities in general prefer events with religious themes, while the opposition MHP mayors prefer nationalist themes adorned with appropriate music and poetry.

Film producers are competing to make documentaries about Halisdemir's life and even a feature film. Mesut Sengec, who attracted much praise with his documentary "I, Omer" at the Antalya Film Festival in mid-October said: "I want to advance this project. Our martyr is a brave son of Anatolia. Everybody should know where he was born, grew up, his school years, how he joined the army and its aftermath."

Travel companies say tours they organize to visit Halisdemir's grave are in big demand.

It was inevitable that political spin doctors also would also discover his advertising potential. He is now an almost permanent feature in newspaper articles and political speeches as the revered "soldier who sacrificed himself for this country without question."

Banal nationalism and patriotic capitalism intersect and fill the market with key chains, clocks, lighters, T-shirts and car decals with Halisdemir's name and photo.

But family members are trying to end this abuse of their loved one's memory. Their lawyer obtained a court injunction that stated: "We do not permit the use of Omer Halisdemir's name and photos in films, in advertisements, by profit-seeking companies and enterprises and also by foundations, associations and civil society organizations. Legal proceedings will be initiated against violators."

We will now see how well his family will succeed in protecting Halisdemir's memory from opportunists. In a country frothing with patriotic capitalism and banal nationalism since the failed coup, that's not going to be easy.

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