It must have been slightly surprising for many Western countries to see Turkey in the headlines in the last couple of weeks for the widespread protests that have been affecting the country. At first sight it might look a bit like the revolts that touched off the Arab Spring, but fundamentally, it is a completely different story. Turkey has a long democratic tradition, and has cherished it for many years. So, what made people (including myself) so furious in the past fortnight?
It all started with the government’s new plan to demolish Taksim Gezi Park, replace it with an Ottoman-style military barracks, and use the lower tier as a shopping mall. In the last 10 years, so many shopping malls have been constructed in and around İstanbul that people have started getting sick of it. On top of that, numerous green spaces in the city center have been destroyed in favor of huge residences and apartment blocks, which have mostly been built by construction companies close to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). A similar issue had come up when AKP tried to build a giant mosque in the middle of Göztepe Park on the Asian side of the city. Thanks to protests and court rulings, that project was cancelled.
To be honest, I never really liked Gezi Park myself. Every time I went there, it looked like an unsafe, dodgy place that you would probably be better off avoiding. I honestly wouldn’t shed a tear if the park was redeveloped, but when I read the plans of what was to replace it, I was very annoyed. It is hard enough just to speak out against the AKP (ask the many journalists who are imprisoned just for speaking their minds). So I thought, “Well, they are going to get away with this yet again.” But I went mad when I saw the images of police abuse coming from out of the park a few weeks ago. As I stated , I wasn’t particularly angry about the fate of the park: it was the police action and Erdoğan’s dismissive statements that filled me with fury.
Sometimes, when you are in an angry discussion with your significant other, all the minor (or major) things that happened in the past resurface, and it can get ugly. That’s what happened to me. I realized I had been afraid of possible arrest or some other form of punishment if I protested. So, I got out of work, met my friends and took to Taksim. On the way, I came up with various personal reasons as to why I was going there. It was mainly related to how I was branded each and every day by the very Prime Minister whose job it is to serve the whole country, including me. Despite being briefly sympathetic to AKP’s politics in 2004 when they actually tried to speed Turkey’s accession to the European Union, I have been driven away by everything they have done since.
Erdoğan uses the psychology of victimhood for political gain—he was imprisoned in 1998 for reading a religiously provocative poem. Even though he has been in power for more than ten years, and claims a majority, he consistently caters to the conservative minority and shows increasingly authoritarian tendencies. He has gone so far as to suggest how many children people should have! Here are some of the things that have accumulated over the years (and particularly in the past few months) that made me go to Taksim Square to support the protests:
- I’m an atheist: Every time the PM speaks, he refers to Islam as his backbone for making decisions that affect my life. I pay taxes to support the religious agenda of the Prime Minister. As a secularist in a supposedly secular country, I don’t want to pay taxes to support religious services that are only attended by some of the Sunni Muslim population. (My family are also Sunni.) Erdoğan has repeatedly said that he wants to father a devout Muslim generation. “Do you expect us to raise an atheist generation?” is what he asked in one speech last year. I took that as a personal insult. He also insulted the Alevi community by drawing attention to the opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s Alevi background, and encouraged people to boo him after presenting that information during an election speech. This is a deliberate hate crime, yet Erdoğan is so powerful that this didn’t even appear in many of the newspapers the following day. Can you imagine David Cameron at a party gathering, saying “As you know, Ed Miliband is of Jewish background?”
- I support minority rights: I felt insulted once again when Erdoğan said people were sometimes accusing him of being Armenian. As if that is something to be ashamed of. His sidekick, Abdullah Gül, also claimed Turkish citizens of Armenian background were “foreigners.” I felt sick hearing that and was sorry for my Armenian friends who have always tried to do their best for this country that we share.
- I enjoy drinking beer: Erdoğan has raised taxes and restricted the sale of alcohol at every opportunity, despite low per capita consumption in Turkey. He also branded everyone, including me, as alcoholics in a Haber Turk interview a few days after the protests. “Anyone who drinks alcohol is an alcoholic,” he claimed. When he was pressed by the interviewer, and reminded that some people who drink also vote for him, he said “They are not alcoholics.” This is another slur directed at me and people like me who have never been in alcohol-related trouble, and enjoy drinks socially from time to time.
- I voted “no” in the 2010 constitutional referendum: It involved many changes and while I agreed with the changes regarding abolishing the protection for former coup leaders, all the other changes were designed to give Erdoğan more power. As a result, I was branded by Erdoğan as being on the same side as the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) terrorists. I’m Turkish and loathe the PKK. Even though I am for Kurdish rights and would even support a Czech-Slovak style peaceful separation, I find the PKK’s terrorism and history of drug dealing to finance militant activity disgusting.
- I support green politics: Erdoğan has unveiled two major construction plans that will deplete Istanbul’s underground water resources and damage native wildlife. One of these was his “crazy project” as he called it: a new canal project in Istanbul and a third bridge over the Bosphorus. Of course, the connecting roads would require thousands of trees to be cut down. His highway project connecting Istanbul and Izmir with a huge bridge across the Izmit Bay is also damaging fertile farming lands near my hometown, and will certainly cause an increase in air pollution near Lake Iznik, where my family currently live. He asked nobody’s opinion on this, and did not even respond to the concerns expressed by the local population.
- I want peace in my country: by officially supporting the Free Syrian Army, and allowing them to have bases in Turkish territory, Erdoğan has put my country in a position where it can no longer even protect citizens within its borders. Some FSA members are paid by the government, with taxpayer funds, and just about a month ago 50 Turkish citizens died in a car bomb attack on a border village. This is spillover from Erdoğan's support of the opposition forces in Syria's bloody civil war. What did Erdoğan do following the attack? He placed a gag order on the matter, keeping the public uninformed. He also went to meet Barack Obama instead of attending the funerals of the victims. This hurt. A lot. The public doesn’t want a war with Syria. But to get the war he craves, Erdoğan has gone so far as to change the pronunciation of Bashar al-Assad’s surname in Turkish to create an antagonist. al-Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad’s surname had always been translated into Turkish as "Esad," which is also a common first name. But when the Syrian protests started, and Erdoğan changed his opinion about al-Assad and the media was instructed to pronounce the surname differently. To rid the name of al-Assad of any of the positive connotations it carried with the Turkish public, Erdoğan mandated that "Esad" be replaced by the Turkish "Esed": from friend to enemy. Just two short years ago these two were vacationing together. There is no consistency. I want a man of his word to be my Prime Minister.
This list could go on for a lot longer. If my father was alive and he treated me the way the Prime Minister does my generation, I would renounce him too. Because I am against Erdoğan’s oppressive rule, and his despicable “I can do whatever I want because I got 50% of the votes” attitude, I went to Taksim to protest, and to remind him that a democratically elected government has to listen to all the people, even when it doesn’t like what they’re saying. What did I get in return? I was branded as "riff-raff," a looter (Çapulcu), an alcoholic, a terrorist, a dictator (no joke), a member of marginal groups (I haven’t been in a protest in years, I’m a Fenerbahçe fan and I’m a teacher—how marginal am I?), and a fascist in Erdoğan’s speeches following the beginning of the protest movement. I was simply walking down to Taksim to make my voice heard when I was tear-gassed by “his” police, as he likes to call them.
Erdoğan keeps saying the protesters are provocateurs. Now, who is the one that provoked me to get in the streets and protest?
Gezi Park, Istanbul, Turkey