The Turkish government’s plan to demolish the Ottoman barracks on Taksim Gezi Park and build a shopping mall, destroying one of the few left areas of green space Istanbul, caused widespread anger amongst many Istanbullus and environmentalists, leading them to begin a sit-in protest, in the same manner as the Occupy Wall Street movement. The decision to move the protesters in a brutal fashion brought widespread condemnation of the government. The plight of Gezi Park has become the focal point through which grievances against the government have been voiced. Starting in Istanbul, protests have since spread to the capital, Ankara and other major cities across Turkey.
The root of modern Turkish politics is founded in the principles established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, in which he founded a secular republic, based upon western principles and the removal of the politics of Islam from public life. However, the election of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2002 has resulted in Islam re-entering Turkish politics. The Justice and Development (AK) Party openly describe themselves as ‘Muslim-Democrat’ and caused concern among many secularist ‘White Turks’ when they came to power. The term ‘White Turks’ and ‘Black Turks’ are used, not in relation to race, but to describe the secular and the religious sectors of Turkish society. On coming to power, Erdoğan openly labelled himself a ‘Black Turk’, and his policies and rhetoric show signs of religion re-entering Turkish politics. Despite this, Erdoğan’s votes have consistently increased in the 2002, 2007 and 2011 elections, most recently winning over 50% of the popular vote.
During his Prime Ministership, Erdoğan has been seen as growing increasingly authoritarian and his suggestion to change the political system to a presidential system has only added credence to this. Erdoğan’s authoritarian style of rule is particularly disliked by many Turks and his inability to face criticism, seeing it as a direct attack on himself personally has contributed to the reluctance of many Turks to see an increase in Erdoğan’s personal power. Furthermore, an increase in his own power could lead to a further increase in Islamic politics. Of particular grievance to many ‘White Turks’ has been the recent law restricting the sale and advertisement of alcoholic drinks in Turkey. Although the Government has stated that it is in similar line to laws in the USA and other western countries, it is seen as government intervention in people’s lifestyle. Furthermore, in justifying the law, Erdoğan stated that ‘the commandments of religion cannot be disputed’, just one example of religious language being used by the AKP government. The demographic of the protesters has led some to see the protests as a result of the split in Turkish society between the ‘White’ and ‘Black’ Turks, however, on evaluation of the demands and social composition of the protesters, the root of the protests seem to be deeper.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has stated his belief that the protests are part of a foreign plot against his government; he insists that the young people, that he has labelled ‘bums’, are being manipulated by international terrorists. The protesters primarily comprise of the young, urban middle-class. According to a survey conducted by Bilgi University Istanbul, 39% of the protesters are between 19-25 and 14% between 26-30. Furthermore, an overwhelming 80% of the protesters described themselves as ‘secular.’ However, since the original protests against the destruction of Gezi Park, the police repression against the non-violent tactics of the protesters has fostered wide-spread support across Turkey and the world. But to what degree do these protesters represent the rest of Turkey?
The student contingent in the protests is far higher than the national level of students in Turkey, with 37% of the protesters students, while students only make-up 7% of Turkey’s population. Despite the protesters’ demographic being particularly youthful, many groups have joined the protesters from a wide spectrum of society. The unity between the usually hostile fans of the rival football teams Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe and Bestikas in Istanbul in joining together in the protests, demonstrates how deep concerns and discontent with Erdoğan run throughout the country. Furthermore, the involvement of LGBT organisations and workers’ unions demonstrates that the protesters are not a narrow portion of society and that there is much support across the Turkish population for the protest. The initial protest by the environmentalists in Gezi Park is now merely the spark and the torch from which a wider range of opposition is voiced. The officially stated demands of the group, Taksim Solidarity, demonstrate how numerous other grievances have contributed to the size of the entire protest movement:
- Any ban or physical restriction on meetings, gatherings or demonstrations effecting Taksim and Kizilay squares, as well as all other squares and public areas as well as restrictions on the right to free speech be lifted.
- All those responsible for commanding, enforcing and perpetrating the repression of the democratic rights of the people to demonstrate, starting with those who stood up to the destruction of Taksim Gezi Park, and the violent crack down that followed which resulted in the death of five and the injuring of thousands, should be unseated and brought to justice. Starting particularly with the governors and Police chiefs of İstanbul, Ankara, Hatay and Adana.
- The use of agents such as tear-gas be prohibited.
- That those who have been taken into custody due to their participation in the protests across the country be immediately released and that an official statement be made to state that they will not be charged.
- That parks where we gather in moments of disaster be opened to the public immediately.
Source: Taksim Dayanismasi
It is clear from AK party rallies, since the start of the protests, that Prime Minister Erdoğan is not without support, but are the protests showing a divide within society? The inflammatory discourse by the government towards the protesters is certainly not helping matters. Recently Erdoğan described Gezi Park as smelling of ‘urine’. Along with being called ‘bums’, and ‘traitors’, it is clear that Erdoğan is confident in his support base. Despite continuing to polarise Turkish society, the protesters are continuing to call for change within the framework of Turkey’s system. With chants of ‘Resign Erdoğan’ and ‘We are all soldiers of Mustafa Kemal’, the protesters are asserting their Turkish credentials appealing to the memory of the founder of modern Turkey.
The press coverage of the protests in Turkey have led some to question the level of press freedom within Turkey. The graffiti image of a penguin in a gas-mask has become a symbol of the media censorship across Turkey. At the peak of the protests in Turkey, CNN Turk broadcast a documentary about penguins rather than covering the protests. The gas-mask is also a direct reference to the high levels of tear-gas used by the police force. With fears for the protection of both foreign and domestic journalists, after the jailing of 70 and reports of beatings, Erdoğan is seen increasingly as anti-democratic. The International Federation of Journalists are currently placing pressure upon the Erdoğan government to respect freedom of the press. After the police raids on the residences of journalists working for Atilim daily newspaper, Ozgur Radio and Etkin News Agency on Tuesday, 18th June the government’s response is still as hard-line. Indeed, threats and accusations of being an ‘agent’ by the Mayor of Ankara, Ibrahim Melih Gokcek, have been sent to BBC journalist, Selin Girit, as a direct result of her reporting on the protests. With such censorship and fear for journalists, many have taken to Twitter to report and discuss the events happening, through hashtags such as #occupygezi and #direngeziparki. Such has been the level of usage of Twitter that the Prime Minister has mentioned the possibility of passing a new law to regulate social-media. The domestic reporting of the protests, and the government backlash against foreign journalists, has led to questioning of Turkey’s democratic credentials.
In a move to highlight the police brutality, protests have taken the form of standing, silently in opposition. Erdem Gunduz, the ‘standing man’, began this trend by standing for 8-hours in Taksim Square on the evening of Monday, 17th June. After standing for several hours the ‘standing man’, or ‘duran adam’, had started trending on Twitter and people began joining him. After being joined by hundreds of others standing in protest, the police dispersed the protesters at 2am Tuesday morning. This form of protest has since spread across the country and the world. As it spread, cases of protesters being arrested for ‘standing’ were being reported resulting in the Minister of Interior, Muammer Güler, being provocatively asked whether standing was a crime.
The government reaction to the protests has not only alarmed the Turkish people, but has caused concern among human-rights organisations and is threatening the possibility of Turkey achieving full EU membership, with talks having being postponed. Of particular concern has been the police’s use of tear-gas. Tear-gas is commonly used in response to large crowds of protesters, but the Turkish police have been using the gas in the manner and quantity of a weapon. Video footage has shown examples of police using tear-gas in confined spaces, in which it is extremely hazardous to health, to a level which has injured thousands and resulted in the death of seven. Since the first clashes between the protesters and the police, the Turkish government has placed an order for 100,000 new gas-bomb cartridges after having used 130,000 canisters in 20 days of protests. The quantity of cartridges used is evidence of the manner in which tear-gas is being used by riot-police. Further concern has been raised about the use of water cannons after reports of police adding chemicals to the water in the cannons. The reports stated that the water was orange in colour and had caused burns to the protesters who had been hit. Alongside the order for more gas canisters, is an order for 60 more water-cannon vehicles. Clearly the Turkish government is ensuring that they are prepared if the protests continue and committed to the use of force in response to such protests.
The fears over human-rights abuses by the Turkish police have been raised by organisations such as Amnesty International, and indeed these concerns have threatened Turkey’s membership to the EU. With talks first opening 18 years ago, Turkey still has not completed accession to full EU membership. The response to the protests across Turkey has led Angela Merkel to condemn the actions of the Turkish government and led to talks being postponed for four months while a report by the European Commission on Human Rights is compiled.
The Turkish government has insisted that the protests are not part of a ‘Turkish Spring.’ Indeed, the protesters themselves, while calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Erdoğan, are not calling for revolution and want to work within current democratic systems. The protesters’ support for their demands is high and from a wide-social base, however, the protests show signs of two ‘Turkeys’, one of the secular ‘White Turks’, and the other religious ‘Black Turks.’ The protests are demonstrating that these sectors are becoming increasingly polarised. With the government reaction being strong, Turkey’s democratic and humanitarian credentials are being called into question, threatening their international position.
The case of the ‘standing man’ on Gezi Park has captured the world’s imagination. Stood in front of an image of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Erdem Gunduz is not part of an international plot against the government, he is protesting to continue modern Turkey in the principle of the man in whose image he is stood: he is a Duran Adam.
BY: Richard Harrison.