Turkish Protests of May 2013 for the Uninitiated

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AKP, the current ruling party, came into force 2002 following a disastrous market crash in 2001. While they were a newly formed party at the time, its founders have been politically active for years and have their roots in radical Islam; many of the founders of the party have come from previously banned political parties for threatening the secular order and the PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself has spent several months in jail for reciting a poem which was claimed to incite religious hatred.

While Turkish economy made great strides between 2002 and now, AKP has essentially switched Turkey’s course from being part of the modern western world to being the regional leader in the middle east and the Islamic world while socially engineering a conservative, heavily Islamist society.

It’s hard to describe the current situation without going too much into the past, but, in a nutshell, Republic of Turkey has been founded as an aggressively secular nation one of whose core principles was to “advance to the level of modern societies” where modern is really “western”. I’m not very sure as to why those ideals didn’t stick with the populace as a whole or how we unfortunately regressed; theories range from being modern, secular people just not being in our blood to religion being reintroduced to Turkish politics as a distraction from the looming threat of communism.

For a long time, there was this untold (being liberal with this word here) war between the seculars and the religious conservatives. The secular bureaucracy always considered themselves the rightful owners of the country and were relatively harsh on maintaing that secular status quo which wasn’t a popular proposition for the Islamic minded. So there’s a lot of pent up anger there.

I’ve glossed over like decades of Turkish political history here (mostly because I know most of what I know by the way of osmosis instead of studying it formally and you probably don’t care) but so when AKP came into power in 2002, they somewhat straightened the economy out by heavy liberalization (I’m kind of for this) and ridiculous and reckless privatization (not so much for this). And since Turkish economy was in such shambles, it didn’t take much for people to like them a bit more and they straightened their stronghold in the parliament in the further elections.

But going back to the pent up anger and these guys just being religiously motivated, they have systematically started to not only take revenge for their past oppression (they surely were oppressed, no doubt) but also steer the direction of Turkey to a more Islamic state. I could count tens of things; from tens of journalists being jail on farcical charges to world-renowned artists being on probation for essentially being a fervently militant but overall harmless atheist.

Come to think of it, it’s pretty fascinating how systematic and determined they have been in this. For example, not only they jailed journalists left and right, they also essentially waged a legal war on couple of the media conglomerates and couple of millions-of-dollars worth of fines later, they have reduced the most of mainstream media to their propaganda tools. And of course, he who controls the information, controls the universe.

And more seriously, there has been an increasing lack of tolerance to alternate lifestyles and outright social retardation of the populace during the reign of AKP. While there has been always been who didn’t like how others dressed and acted and all that but it was always within limits; today it definitely feels more dangerous for, say, a young woman to be herself on the street late at night not because she might get assaulted (which she might) but actually she might get harassed as to how on earth she could do such a thing in a Muslim country, shame on her. Utterly sad stuff all around.

So, now, the conservative lawmaking has gained serious momentum in the last couple of years and especially the last couple months and it finally started to grate on the more socially liberal types like yours truly. Recent debacles include proposing a new ban on abortion (seriously?), reinstating capital punishment (this is more of a nationalistic play since there’s a Turkish terrorist org leader in jail who a lot of people want dead), ban on retail sales of alcohol, calling kids to be “act more appropriately in public” and such.

And surely, it’s not just the interference into the secular lifestyle that has started to get on people’s nerves but the reckless attitude AKP has been approaching not just law-making but also privatization, which include selling off culturally and economically important assets that belong to Turkish public (by the way of Turkish government).

Of course, there’s also Turkish foreign policy that has recently become another pain point for the government. For all its booming economy and charismatic leader, Turkey is now in a weird spot with all its neighbors and close allies. US and Turkey were (and still are) strategic allies but then Turkey is one of the countries with the highest anti-American sentiment. Turkey’s relationship with Israel, one of the few countries in the region with a functioning democracy, has never been that rosy (aside from military cooperation) but that relationship has essentially been severed when Israel saw Turkey’s highly provocative bluff and 9 Turkish citizens.

Of course, what’s been on everyone’s mind recently is Syria and AKP certainly played the wrong cards there. While Syrian and Turkish leaders were on good terms for a while, once Essad lost control of the country and went berserk against his people, AKP decided to take a pretty active stance against him and started supporting the rebels. There are a lot of reasons why AKP did that, actively interfere with Syrian internal affairs; ranging from being altruistically interested in overthrowing a killer to being involved in rebuilding Syria. And of course, there’s that undeniable religious tension; while Syria is mostly of the Sunni sect, the same Islamic sect most Turkish people are, the ruling class is mostly Alawites, which the ruling Turkish religious figures aren’t a big fan of.

Why is Syria issue significant in this context? The biggest reason is big part of Turkish public consider AKP’s actions as Turkey interfering with another country’s internal affairs and especially Turkey supporting the armed rebels just bring up way too many bad memories to Turkish people who have fought years on end against Kurdish separatist organizations. Essentially, for a lot of Turkish people, Turkey is doing exactly the same thing that it has been complaining about for years. Things got pretty tense when Syria downed a Turkish reconnaissance jet flying too close to Syria (or in its airspace, not sure) but the real blow came two weeks ago. In Hatay, a city that Syria always historically considers a part of Syria, not Turkey, two simultaneous car bombings killed 51 Turkish citizens and many signs seem to point to Syria as the culprit. The Turkish government, in its regular ways, tried to downplay the event by forcing the media to self-censor (irony of that statement isn’t lost on me) which only made the people blaming AKP for those deaths angrier and made people even warier of the growing authoritarian attitude of AKP.

And speaking of the Kurdish issue; this is one area I can give some credit to AKP. For most of 90s, Turkey has been in a war with the Kurdish minority in its eastern region which cost the country tens of thousand lives on both sides, took a huge toll on the economy and made Turkey an unnecessarily “militaristic” state, for my liking at least. It was only during AKP’s that the Turkish government meaningfully acknowledged the issue officially and restored some of their rights to the Kurdish minority living in Turkey. That being said, they have certainly been somewhat tactless at it at times and since a lot of the wounds from years of fighting are still fresh, it’s not something a lot of the Turkish populace is taking too well or internalizing properly. Hence cue the rise of nationalism and MHP, the nationalist party.

Lastly, during all this, it’s been interesting to watch the actions (or the lack thereof, depending on who you ask) of the major opposition party, CHP. CHP considers itself the founder of modern Turkey, a dubious but technically correct claim. Ironically, while a leftist party (their name translates to Republican People’s Party but the word they picked for “People” has some socialist connotations) CHP is really seen as the party of the educated, somewhat better off, “white” Turkish elite. It’s not clear to me (or anyone, really) what their stance has been the past 10 years; For example, there have been times where they sided with the rising nationalism and scared a some chunk of its original voter base away, not surprising considering the previous violent tensions between leftists and nationalists have resulted in martial law in Turkey for years.

I mention this opposition party because now, for progressive, socially liberal yet globally minded Turks are really left without much choice; you either vote for one of the fringe political parties and see your vote go to waste (since there’s a barrier to entry to parliament) or vote for a leftists party who refuses to take a proper stance on anything and fail to represent the progressive Turkish values. I’d comfortably say that a lot of CHPs votes not really come as people want to vote for them but they just consider them the only viable alternative to a increasingly conservative ruling party.

So, those Turkish people, or most of the relatively well-educated, left-leaning slice of it, got more and more frustrated with AKP, they would occasionally take it to the streets; mostly during one of the surprisingly many of the national Turkish holidays, a remnant from the founding days of the Republic. In fact, most of those holidays for the past couple years have lost all their meaning has become a nationally agreed upon days to protest the government and get tear gassed in return.

And now, we come to what has happened in Gezi Parki (Promenade Park). Back in the day (like Ottoman back), there used to be a military barracks there and at some point it got demolished and now it’s a green park (admittedly, not the nicest of parks). And now, the government wanted to actually rebuild the old barracks building back as a backhanded historical gesture but they have also admitted that they envision building a shopping mall and a residence building as part of the complex.

It’s kind of a perfect storm for many reasons: a lot of Turkish people see these malls popping up left and right as a symptom of some unsustainable, reckless and thoughtless economic growth that will come bite back at us. Moreover, Gezi Park is right in Taksim, which is akin to Times Square but is also the “cultural” heart of Istanbul and Turkey, even. It used to be (and mostly still is) home to a lot of artists, foreigners, religious figures, embassies, bars, Raki places, galleries, foreign schools and such. It’s the place where I take my hot foreign dates to show off the Turkish coolness to seal the deal; it’s that cool.

So now you have tons of people who dearly hate you, (sadly less than those who like them) and you say you want to build a mall, which people hate (or they say they do but then I’ve yet to see an empty mall in Turkey), and you want do that right in Taksim which is like a slap in the face because nothing is lamer than building a mall in a hot cultural district.

And the rest is what you have been seeing on TV. People tried to prevent construction crew from uprooting the trees in the park, police wanted to kick them out and police and a couple hundred people started fighting in Taksim, which is the protest central and shit kind of hit the fan. As police reacted with disproportionate force, the protests became more fierce. And things have been escalating since then with people actually walking across the Bosphorus bridge that is normally closed to foot traffic, a lot of celebrities lending their influence to the protestors which is ballsy for a lot of them because AKP does tend to retaliate to that stuff a lot.

While mainstream media has been uncharacteristically (even for them) nonchalant about the entire thing, apparently showing cooking shows instead of, say, couple hundred thousand people gathering on the streets, people have been organizing and distributing news on social media sites like Twitter and Tumblr. In fact, at least based on what I hear from Turkish and foreign journalists, Twitter is the main source of news for a lot of people, which of course is a mixed blessing.

While this sounds all great, by some generous interoperation of the word “great”, and an atmosphere ripe for revolution, that would be kind of far fetched, at least at this point. For better or worse, the current political party is a democratically elected one that had almost half the people’s support in the last election. Of course the legitimacy of the elections are always in question (AKP seems to overplay their incumbent card at times and there are tons of creative things you can do when you are running both the government and election organizations) and even in the case of an legitimate election, you have a populace that is greatly misinformed because you have a mainstream media that is reduced to churning out soap opera after soap opera and press that is anything but free.