Saturday, June 08, 2013

What's Happening in Turkey

Turkey: A Demonstration of Tradition

çapulcu : looter. vurguncu : profiteer.

Outside the street’s on fire in a real death waltz
Between flesh and what's fantasy
And the poets down here don't write nothin’ at all
They just stand back and let it all be
And in the quick of the night they reach for their moment
And try to make an honest stand
But they wind up wounded, not even dead
Tonight in Jungleland ..
~ Bruce ‘ The Boss’ Springsteen ~

At exactly 9pm on Monday night I was enjoying a pistachio milkshake on the upstairs terrace while a parade complete with banners and trumpets was passing on the next street. Housewives and working mothers started flashing their apartment lights on and off, coming onto their balconies and terraces banging pots with wooden spoons, children were waving flags, motorbikes and cars started tooting their horns and even a couple songs were being sung - this has happened each night this week, lasting for 30 minutes or so, as ordinary people show support for the 'protestors', the çapulcu or ‘looters’ as Prime Minister Erdogan has named them; a title many now flaunt as pseudonym for advocate of truth, the ordinary citizens of Turkey who have decided too much is finally enough.

What began as a peaceful demonstration of environmental concerns over the razing of one of the few remaining small parks in the city of Istanbul, on Taksim Square – a popular shopping and cultural area, has become a national movement against the restrictive policies of the ruling AK party. The demonstrators, on the first couple days mostly students and young people, sat in front of the bulldozers, which stopped after felling a couple of trees. With heavy-handed, and possibly unwarranted intervention by the metropolitan police some of the protestors retaliated in the usual way these things go and soon got out of control, with some frightening running battles in the streets.

The next day the dedicated activists cleaned up the park and continued their public protest. Although the Turkish and international media had been all but silent on this event, social networks came alive through the internet, disseminating information worldwide, prompting the Prime Minister to state that social media was the ‘greatest threat to society’. Soon people in other cities in Turkey, and all around the world, also took to their parks and public squares to show solidarity with the protestors in Istanbul and their ecological noble cause. So, a couple nights ago I thought I’d head into the city centre here in Antalya to see the demonstrations for myself.

What I found was thousands of ordinary people of all ages gathered in a public square in this beautiful Mediterranean coastal city. The atmosphere was celebratory rather than aggressive, and unusually, there wasn't a police officer to be seen in the city. Some of the organisers had the foresight to create wonderful holographic projections of Ataturk and other uniquely Turkish symbols of freedom that were aimed into the dancing waters of the fountain; one of the special qualities of this city is its amazing variety of fountains and water displays and this was an excellent use of public space to excite unity among the growing assembly. People cheered, waved flags embroidered with pictures of Ataturk, sang songs and held placards calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Erdogan.

There's no doubt the AKP have won elections, as did George W Bush, and the apparent economic success of recent years has often been attributed to his policies. However one of the current concerns is that the PM is trying to change the constitution to allow him another 10 years, at a point when he's become somewhat dictatorial in his agenda, making decisions based on pure profit. He’s been accused of 'selling out' to foreign nuclear power companies (Turkey had been non-nuclear until very recently, with the second plant opening near Alanya within a year), property developers, who have littered Istanbul with exclusive apartment complexes and shopping centres, 93 until this one in Taksim goes ahead, and GMOs, a particular worry for many of the agricultural engineers I encounter in Antalya.

Although Erdogan has tried to step onto the world stage, intervening along with Brazil in attempting to secure discussions over nuclear proliferation in Iran, his home policies are contrary to his perceived negotiating skills. On his return from Tunisia last night he gave a speech restating his objectives and claiming to represent all 74 million Turks regardless of creed. As I write this Prime Minister Erdogan has said there won't be anymore police intervention at the park protests until Monday, though what lies beyond that is at this point anyone's guess.

There has already been concern over the government's lack of public consultation on proposed laws such as noise curfews for nightclubs in tourist resorts, a ban on sales of alcohol after 10pm, warnings for ‘public displays of affection’ and his favouring the religious right on issues such as the educational curriculum – with the far reaching implications of those policies, all politically contrary to the secular wisdom of the heralded founder of the modern state Kemal Ataturk.

This family's shirts, in reference to Erdogan's denunciation of the protestors as çapulcu or looters, read in English as: 'father looter' 'mother looter' 'young looter' and 'mini looter'.

This current standoff, and there have been a couple of coups in Turkey over the past 20 or 30 years, has particular implications for women. There have recently been regulations against access to ‘the morning after pill’ and there is talk of outlawing the right to abortion. The PM has come out recently saying women should stay at home and ‘have three babies’. It is well known that his own wife wears the long buttoned coat and full head covering of the strict sect of Islam that is gaining influence here, though whether because others agree with his purported religious stance or they are raking in the cash by aligning themselves with his policies is debatable – or, it is open to debate in a society with free speech; as many of the journalists who have questioned him on this are now languishing in prison without trial.

Most women here don't wear a headscarf or other religious covering. 'Turkish' women are generally opposed to the headscarf and see the increasing popularity of wearing the hijab amongst the elite (wealthy women who wear a headscarf and paradoxically wear designer clothes, shoes, jewellery and watches, wear make-up and drive in the back of BMW 4x4s) as a threat to their own civil liberty with many I've spoken to expressing concern over the closeness the AKP has with Iran.

Most Turkish women don’t want to be told to cover their hair, they want choice over their own bodies, and they’ve called on history to defend their rights; the historical legend that is the founder of the modern state, Kemal Ataturk whose name is emblazoned on the rear window or bumper of every other car and whose influence is so prevalent his picture, like George Washington, hangs in every classroom.

Ataturk was a nationalist, and he was responsible for things that still scar the relationship between Turks and some other ethnic groups, such as the Kurds and Armenians. There is still animosity and conflict due to bombings and killings on either side of the divide. On a day-to-day basis most Kurds and Turks get on fine, though they generally don’t mingle socially. Kurdish people tend to have the lowest paid jobs and expectations for advancement and feel anger over being denied the right to use their own language in schools and other public institutions. Many Kurdish women wear scarves, but they aren’t the ones worrying the average ‘Turkish’ woman, that fear comes from the power of the ‘elite’ wealthy designer headscarf-wearing Islamists who support the current government’s ambitions.

Ataturk was nationalist at a time of rising state conflict throughout Europe and it was a tactic he employed to secure this country’s position in the modern world; he used his version of nationalism to help the newly emerging Turkey develop an identity that was uniquely modern and secular and equality-driven in an age before women in England and America had the vote. He stood for the youth and a better future for men and women, he dressed in Western suits, banning the headscarf as outmoded, and he liked a drink, much to the displeasure of the current regime.


Erdogan recently said some of the laws on the books were written ‘by alcoholics’ and anyone who drank alcohol was ‘alcoholic’. So much for his respect for the founder of this nation, an error of judgement along with sending tear gas into the crowds in Gezi Park, that may come back to haunt him.

All around the world we’ve been seeing the rise of similarly despotic conservative fundamentalists who would reshape society in their stone-age image of divided gender roles and superstitious beliefs curiously mixed with resource exploitation and capitalist consumption.

In Turkey, people from almost every walk of life have joined together to remind the government they are servants of the people, not only the influential far-right Islamists. I’ve seen and spoken to teachers, doctors, engineers, scientists, students and secretaries who marched into the streets to voice their disapproval and demand the right to be heard; these are not ‘looters’ and this is NOT a riot, these are professionals and hard-working ordinary citizens who want the government to recognise their primary right to liberty and self determination.

Turkey is a vast state and, although Ataturk united the nation under one flag and language, regional differences, as in any large region, are evident when travelling around the country. Urban, metropolitan centres are obviously more cosmopolitan and teeming with contemporary lifestyles that people in Western nations would recognise as their own, whereas village life is still more 'traditional' - and the Turkish respect tradition.

However, the 'tradition' those on the front lines of the park gatherings are drawing on is that of the greatly admired and revered Ataturk, who was secular and modern in his views, with a far-reaching vision, opening avenues of trade to the West, and releasing people from the yoke of religion, rather than the analogy of the Ottoman hierarchical structure that the current government seems to favour.

Most people in Turkey that I've spoken to want a forward-thinking, secular government, equality in living standards, a life free from interference and an open and tolerant society with economic opportunity for all .. oh, and a nice park to gather in on sunny summer days.

People have the power
The power to dream / to rule
To wrestle the world from fools
It's decreed the people rule, Listen
I believe everything we dream
Can come to pass through our union
We can turn the world around
We can turn the earth's revolution
We have the power
People have the power ...
~ Patti Smith ~

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