In Turkey, Silence Speaks

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A prime minister once jailed for dissent can’t tolerate those who won’t sacrifice a park for ‘development’

Once, a man, the mayor of a city, recited a poem in public praising his religion. That man was arrested because the law of the land interpreted his reading of the poem as religious incitement and hatred. A semi-professional soccer player turned politician, the man spent four months in prison.

Four years later, he led his party to a landslide victory in the country’s election. He could not become the leader of the country immediately as the old laws still barred him from assuming any public office because of his earlier conviction. The following year, lawmakers of his party changed the rules for him to become prime minister.

Now the same man, as prime minister, is faced with a major crisis. Citizens of his country are standing in silence out in the streets to protest his intolerant and brash ways of governance. In response, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoan is sending his police force to arrest the protestors who dare challenge his authority.

The protests were sparked by the proposed development of Taksim Square, the only green space in that part of Istanbul, Turkey’s biggest, most vibrant city. The government planned to destroy it and replace it with a shopping mall. Locals protested by camping in the park and attempting to stop bulldozers coming in to uproot trees. Calling the protestors ‘anti-development’, the government sent in a large police contingent armed with tear gas, pepper spray, water cannons and batons. The protestors stayed put.

The local media, either out of loyalty to the government or fear of persecution, chose not to report the high-handed police action on unarmed civilians; CNN Turk broadcast a documentary on penguins while the police action was taking place. But social media was abuzz with reports, photos and videos of the excessive use of force by the police. And like a torrent, sympathisers from all walks of life started pouring into Taksim Square to stand against the government’s actions.

“How can he say this?” a young Turkish friend of mine screamed as Prime Minister Erdoan was delivering a televised speech, threatening the protestors. The gist of what he said is: “I’ve decided, and I’ll build this shopping mall in spite of all your protests.” My friend was livid and loud: “Isn’t that the language of a dictator?” While translating every line of the speech for me, she vented her anger at the arrogance of the leader of her country.

This friend of mine, in her late twenties, is steeped in the ideas of civil rights and personal choice that go with being a citizen of a modern society. There are tens of thousands of young Turks like her who are vocal, articulate and well aware of their rights. They are the ones who first swarmed into the streets and were then joined by an unprecedented number of citizens from everywhere in the city. Tens of thousands of residents from the Asian side of the city came marching over the massive Bosphorus Bridge in solidarity with the Taksim protestors. Artists, musicians and performers came round to add a carnival feel to the protests. Housewives banged pots and pans from their rooftops and balconies to register their disapproval of police action.

Taksim Square is perhaps the most interesting and vibrant space in Istanbul, dotted with hotels, cafes and restaurants. The residents and businesses around Taksim not only extended moral support, they opened their doors to protestors fleeing the tear gas and pepper spray, and let doctors and medics use their lounges as makeshift medical rooms.

While this wave of sympathy and active support was being watched by the world, the prime minister, in his usual aggressive manner, was saying he too could rally his supporters to prove he had a mandate to implement the project.

Within days, ripples of the Taksim protest reached the capital Ankara and other major cities like Izmer and Antalya.

Professionals, trade unions, teachers, students and housewives came out in droves to protest against the government. For the first time, the government relented and withdrew the police from Taksim—only to send the force back after a couple of weeks to clear the square.

The ‘moderate Islamist’ AK Party led by Prime Minister Erdoan has been in power for a little over a decade. It has won three consecutive elections; another is due next year. During this past decade, Turkey has registered impressive growth. Massive infrastructure projects have been undertaken and many have been completed. Its per capita income has risen significantly. So what explains the anger against the government?

Following the demise of the old Ottoman Empire during World War I, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded modern Turkey in the 1920s by expelling occupying European powers. Secular democracy became the cornerstone of the new constitution. The constitution ensured total separation of Islam and the State in a Muslim majority country. In his project of modernising Turkey, Atatürk had the full support of a well-formed military, which continued to retain huge influence in the country in the decades after. The powerful military became the self-appointed keeper of the secular constitution and continued to interfere in the country’s democratic process, carrying out four coups between 1960 and 1997. That was a period of great repression, with no voices of dissent allowed. Various centrist secular parties often worked hand-in-glove with the military—they were the ones who jailed Erdoan for reciting the poem praising the ‘sword of Islam’.

These regimes created a vacuum. Erdoan, an able administrator with ambition, filled the void by bringing together Islamist parties of various shades together to form the AK Party in 2001, and swept the 2002 election.

Erdoan’s model of development is clearly based on a free market economy and private enterprise, yet he and his party also harbour ambitions of turning Turkey into a socially conservative society. As a Muslim majority country with a secular democratic foundation, Turkey has always been an interesting case study compared to other Muslim states that have endured deep conservatism and dictatorships. But in the last decade, a project of Islamisation has progressed under the aegis of the AK Party.

One week before the police crackdown on Taksim, the government issued new restrictions on the sale of alcohol. A bill seeking to declare abortion illegal is in parliament. Restrictions are also being brought in to limit physical closeness between men and women in public.

Erdoan is said to see himself as a restorer of the old glories of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, an idea that alarms Turkey’s secular citizens. He wants to rebuild the old Ottoman military barracks in Taksim by demolishing a cultural centre named after Atatürk. He has also named the new third bridge over the Bosphorus channel after the Ottoman Emperor Salim said to have inflicted gross atrocities on such minority groups as Alevis.

Even though Erdoan has benefitted from the system of secular democracy, he has not shied away from using the most draconian terrorism laws put in place by previous regimes to gag any voice of dissent. It is said that Turkey is Europe’s biggest prison for journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, close to 400 journalists are in prison—many of them minority Kurds. The publisher Ragep Zarakolou, my friend, has lost count of how many times he has been to prison for publishing books on the Armenian genocide or Kurdish issues that are taboo subjects in Turkey.

Educated urban Turkish youth like my friend are connected with the outside world and have a developed sense of personal choice and civil rights. They do not want the State or prime minister to decide how they live their lives. They have posed a huge challenge to Erdoan, and he is yet to grasp the causes of their resentment. Hence, he is still talking tough. He and his party leaders are spitting venom against social media avenues, and threatening to shut them down. He thinks his constituency—the rural poor—will keep him in power. But 15 million of Turkey’s population of 80 million live in Istanbul. So events in the city are bound to have a ripple effect on the rest of the country.

Another important shift Erdoan has failed to notice is that educated urban Turks have crossed their old line of fear. After police flushed protestors out of Taksim with tear gas and water cannons, renowned performance artist Erdem Gündüz began a standing man protest. What began as a lone man standing silently, is now an iconic countrywide movement, piling ever more pressure on the man who once went to prison for reciting a poem in public.