Turning away from Erdogan: Turkey protests seek to throw off repression

This uprising is a response to decades of increasingly hard-line policies

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Protesting against the redevelopment of a park to build yet another shopping centre is pretty noble. But the issue with reporting this – and largely only this – as the cause for Turkey's uprising is that doing so overlooks a decade of high-handed and harmful politics.

Turkey has traditionally maintained a socio-political balance between the Middle East and Europe with – what has been for the most part – progressive policies and a behaviour determined by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s secular founding father.

Education was paramount and open to all. Religion was asked to take a backseat; your relationship with it was between you, and your God.  When “the established religion of Turkey is Islam” was removed from the constitution in 1937, it worked to ensure a state that neither praised, nor condemned, individuals for their religious beliefs, and so Turkey became both politically and socially a religiously neutral state.

Though controversial, women were banned from wearing headscarves in public – certainly not in universities – in what was nothing short of a powerful feminist movement that freed the women who did not choose to cover up, but were bound to by their husbands.

Freedoms

Women were offered opportunities and equality in 1930s Turkey that, quite frankly, puts some of the modern-day West to shame. Little known fact: Sabiha Gokcen became the world’s first female fighter pilot at the age of 23. This was in 1936. She was also the daughter of Kemal Ataturk, one of his eight adopted children.

What has been key to the preservation of a Kemalist state has been, perhaps oddly, the army. Turkey, a state not unfamiliar with the odd military-coup, has been kept grounded by a military that has stood up to – and expelled - leaders who have lingered too close to dictatorship. It is fair to say, as a Turk, if you’re not a Kemalist, then you’re doing it wrong.

And so we meet Turkey’s Prime Minister since 2003, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Let’s call it as it is; Erdogan has been pushing for a more theocratic state since he was elected to power.

Some time in 2005, when in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, I remember watching the Cypriot President, Mehmet Ali Talat and his wife meet with Erdogan at a national parade. The Generals did not shake hands with Erdogan or his wife who, as always, was present in her religious clothing. Talat and his wife, in fact, sat with their backs to the visiting and more powerful leader of their sister nation.

The hostility was glaringly apparent, but this was not some form of religious prejudice or discrimination (North Cyprus is traditionally, albeit casually, an Islamic country). But Erdogan’s wife - head covered tightly and in plain, long clothing - was not being rejected for choosing to dress in such a way, but rather for her discrimination against those who did not.

I called an uprising in Turkey then, and quite frankly I’m a little surprised it has taken so long. 

For a decade Erdogan’s government has put in place laws that are moving Turkey away from secularism, and into an autocracy governed by outdated and oppressive beliefs. Turkish TV started to censor images of alcohol. A simple pixelated blur amusingly moves up, and down, and around the screen whenever a character lights a cigarette. Even more worryingly, Erdogan is openly against abortion, as women are being pushed towards dressing and behaving in a “modest” fashion. The colour of air-stewardess’ lipstick has been a recent government interest. Recently even a couple kissing on a train were reprimanded, as passengers were asked to restrain from public displays of affection and to “act in accordance with moral rules.”  There has even been an attempt to make alcohol illegal altogether.

In a similar vein, Erdogan has also pushed to ban celebrations of national holidays. Buildings or bridges named after Ataturk, or figures representing secularism, are being renamed or demolished in a symbolic assault on a democratic landscape. In essence he has slowly been trying to eradicate a Turkish national identity, overwriting history and denouncing anything that may remind the public of their rights.

Crushing Kemalism

And so we arrive at Taksim Gezi Park. A national landmark, once a military barrack that has survived as a space for the people. It is not merely a shopping centre Erdogan wants to build here, but a big up yours to Kemalism, or secularism, which he is removing quite literally from history.

There is at times a “street-party” tone to the reporting of the protests, comedic details of pop-up Kebab stalls, and conga lines through Taksim Square. We are, perhaps, keen in the West to disassociate Turkey from “Middle East” and “Islamist” and preserve it as our one modern counterpart from “over there”.

Yet this is not just a protest defending a park, but rather a rebellion against what is a worryingly encroachment on democracy, which ought to be reported as such.  In a pre-emptive move, Erdogan for many years has been imprisoning Generals in the army. Some have even been locked away for decades on matters of “tax-evasion”. Alongside them are writers, poets and journalists who spoke against Erdogan’s government.

“If you bring 100,000, I will bring a million,” he said as protests grew. Here he seems to forget the Turkish national character. Londoners may remember how the Turkish community reacted to 2011’s riots: told to stay inside, they took to the streets en masse. Cigarettes still lit, eyes on the street, they protected their areas. “Just try it,” they were saying, “and see what happens.”

 And so, it is clear that Erdogan does not know the Turkish people; he forgets that if he brought his million, they would  fight ten times harder; that an Islamic state is not in their nature, alongside oppression, no whiskey, or taking someone’s personal freedoms. What is Turkish - and emblematically so -  are the reports of people being sprayed with tear-gas by tyrannical police and offering these same police food because, after all, they are tired and hungry too. And if you are Turkish, you must always offer food.

A longer version of this post was originally published on 05.06.2013 on Poejazzi.

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