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The Turkish governement does not wish to destroy a park, but rather a democracy

Saturday 15 June 2013, by siawi3

by Chimene Suleyman - June 5th, 2013 -

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 what now has the potential to become Turkey’s own Arab Spring, is a decade of high-handed and harmful politics are being overlooked.

Turkey have 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 public backseat; your relationship with it was between you, and your God (headscarves, uber-beards and promotional packs away please, because no one likes a show-off). 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 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. Women were offered opportunities and equality in 1930s Turkey that, quite frankly, puts some of a modern-day West to shame. Little known fact: Sabiha Gokcen became in 1936 the world’s first female fighter pilot at the age of 23. She was also the daughter of Kemal Ataturk, one of his eight adopted children.

What has been key to the preservation of a Kemalist society has been, perhaps oddly, the army. It is fair to say that Turkey are not unfamiliar with the odd military-coup, or five. Whilst generally the involvement of an army in government matters may be detrimental to maintaining autonomy, in Turkey it has been central to the expulsion of leaders that have lingered too close to dictatorship, flirted a little too hard with theocracy. So in they come, government overthrown, and the vote is handed back to the people; the happy democracy dance may resume. It is safe 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, in what is drafting itself to be a sequel to Iran’s bestseller: How To Ruin Your Country And Alienate People. He’s like the smarter, older brother to Ahmadinejad’s awkward uncle-at-a-wedding-arriving-on-a-donkey bit that he plays so well.

Let’s call it as it is; Erdogan has been pushing for a theocratic state since he was elected to power.

Some time in 2005, when in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (yes, guess what, it does exist), I remember watching then 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. (My grandmother covered her hair for most, if not all, of her life. Women in bottom-skimming shorts and heels will visit graveyards in headscarves, or mosques on religious days.) 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. “It’s been brewing, brother,” an Istanbul cab driver told my father in 2007, “We’re meeting underground and planning how we’ll get rid of this bastard. It will happen.”

For a decade Erdogan’s government has put in place laws that are moving Turkey away from secularism, and into a dictatorship governed by outdated and oppressive beliefs. Turkish TV started to censor images of alcohol. A simple pixelated blur amusingly moved up, and down, and around the screen whenever a character lit a cigarette. Smoking, in fact, has been banned in public altogether in most places since 2008. Even more worryingly, Erdogan is openly against abortion, as women are being pushed towards dressing and behaving in a “modest” manner; the colour of air-stewardess’ lipstick has been a recent government interest. A couple recently seen by security footage 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 (ha ha ha. Sure). Failing this, a restriction on drinking in public was put into place.

In a clever but similarly worrying tactic, Erdogan has pushed to ban celebrations of national holidays. He has prevented public marches, and limited celebratory activity. 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.

And so we arrive at Taksim Gezi Park. A national landmark, it was once a military barrack and has survived as a space for the people since the 1940s. It is not a shopping centre Erdogan wants to build here, but a big “fuck you” to Kemalism, or secularism, which he is removing quite literally from history. And so it is important to know that this is not just a protest about wanting to protect a park against the corporate-machine: There is a “street-party” tone to the reporting of it, comedic details of pop-up Kebab stalls, and conga lines trough 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 close abolishment of democracy. 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 have spoken against Erdogan’s government.

“If you bring 20,000, I will bring 200,000,” he has publicly warned the protesters, alongside a series of heavy-handed and violent government-driven police tactics. We have been made aware of the media blackout, and thankfully a few blogs have made it into the public domain recounting details of tanks that have driven over people killing them and, more heartwarmingly, of a public that have been offering food to the tyrannical police.

“If you bring 100,000, I will bring a million,” he says, as though he is unfamiliar with his own people. This was probably most clear when he thought he might stop Turks from drinking. And there is only the smallest reminder needed of the London riots and how the Turkish community will react to maltreatment; or that Green Lanes was one of a few London areas that remained open to business during those three days of unrest: Turkish arms pushed out of vest tops outside greengrocers, cigarettes still lit, eating, one eye on the street.“Just try it,” they were saying, “and see what happens.”

And so, it is clear that Erdogan does not know the Turkish people; as though if he brought his million, they would not fight ten times harder; that an Islamic state is not in their nature, alongside oppression, no whiskey, or taking someone’s autocratic shit. What is Turkish is to be sprayed with tear-gas by police and to offer them food because, afterall, they are tired and hungry too. And if you are Turkish, you must always offer food.

Good luck.