I love Istanbul. It’s a city without comparison. A city spread across two continents, a grandeur that is fitting of its culture, history and mega metropolis geography.
I also love Turkey despite growing up with Armenians. It’s a fascinating and unique country, one that is difficult to simplify and deconstruct into neat categories, and declare that they’re just like someone else. If I had to, Turkey ends up resembling Russia the most, despite their glaring superficial contrasts.
And there’s the segue into the Turkish protests: journalists concur that the protests that started in Gezi Park on May 28 resemble not what the uninitiated observer might quickly conclude by looking towards their southern neighbours and the Arab Spring – but by taking the Bosphorus that cuts through Istanbul separating Europe from Anatolia, and sailing north-east across the Black Sea and into the Russian Caucuses: Turkey’s ongoing protests, for the comparative politics student, share similarities with the Russian protests of 2011.
Here’s why: Turkey is a young, secular democracy with a growing economy. The reason why people from all backgrounds of society with varying political views are taking to the streets across Turkey is due to Erdoğan’s growing authoritarian strangle hold on power (à la Putin, Vladimir).
In February, I had written of the whispers that the Sultan is back in town. Those whispers have grown louder since then, growling and rumbling inside the heads of independent minded Turks at odds with the growing desperation and defeatist sentiment of what can possibly be done.
These protesters are people, global citizens connected with the world, multi-lingual and educated, who until recently didn’t necessarily have a strong political stance. Years of growing suffocation and prying into their personal lives, having the government target them in rhetoric about Islamic values – they’ve been victimized for free thinking.
Then Erdoğan, in all his arrogance, acted as if his power is indeed absolute. The paradoxes which make Turkey such an interesting country were on display when Erdoğan went ahead with plans to demolish Gezi Park, and reconstruct an Ottoman military barracks into a shopping center and mosque. More capitalism and more Islam imposed on a city without consulting the local government.
Gezi Park is a small green space in the sprawl of central Istanbul near Taksim, its main square, and the very western shopping street called İstiklal Caddesi (unintended irony, it means Independence Avenue).
On May 28 about 50 protestors went to Gezi Park to voice their objection to this project. Two days later, they were attacked and raided with teargas at 5 AM while sleeping in their tents. This information wasn’t made available in the mainstream media. Erdoğan’s 90 percent stake in it explains why.
Social media, however, isn’t part of his portfolio. Facebook and Twitter did what they do best and news of the attack on the protesters quickly went viral. This is far from being a new phenomenon. Communication held by those in power feed information to the mass media they control, where social media remains a vehicle of free expression and a means to stream news as it happens.
What is equally predictable to Erdoğan’s condemnation of social media as a menace was the international media’s (i.e. Western outlets) reaction as they were quick to eat up the stories. Namely, that the Turkish Government attacks protestors with teargas and water cannons. They like to pretend that their governments handle these things differently.
The difference is that Erdoğan did it to a small group of protesters. And within days a protest of 50 people trying to save a green space went viral: thousands took the street demonstrating against a democratically elected government that was taking away their civil rights.
For those who couldn’t make it down to the protests, they would participate in a domestic demonstration of solidarity: at 9 PM they would hang from their windows banging pots. The elders also prepared anti-teargas solution for the youth on the front lines.
In one of my favourite quotes, Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gul, defended the right of citizens to protest when he said, "Democracy does not mean elections alone."
The brutal crackdown of the protests has been spun by the government as action against rioting. Erdoğan called the protesters looters, “çapulcu.” Now, this word has a new meaning as a verb, chapulling: fighting for your rights.
Arresting doctors that were giving aid to those injured, lawyers for helping those detained, journalists, not for what they write but for anti-government activities – this is how opposition is met by Erdoğan’s AKP party (justice and development party indeed). Amnesty International has exposed the worst kept secret; the police have been detaining protestors without processing them.
Then half way through the month of protesting one citizen emerged and showed a display of pacifist resistance to the violence. He is known as Standing Man, and has his own twitter hash tag: #duranadam. The symbolism can’t be detained. One man stands silently in a square, seemingly alone, without signs or chants. Just standing there. He represents the movement and how uncomfortable the confrontation has been for Turkish society. Six hours passed before he was forcefully removed.
I wish that I could be in Istanbul now, to feel the energy, to show my support. Taksim square wasn’t my favourite place – it is congested with all things commerce, and for me served only as a transit point to catch a Dolmuş (shared taxi van) over the bridge.
My friends there tell me it’s special now. The people are reinvigorated. There is humour as there is hope. The Gezi Park development plans are stalled and will be put to a vote that will surely put it to rest. It’s a small victory in what begun as the principle point.
It has inspired people not only in Turkey, but the world. Would the Brazilian politicians have conceded as quickly as they did if it weren’t for the backlash to how the Turkish protests were handled?
With how small and well-connected the modern world has become, I don’t have to be in Turkey to feel the injustice, as I don’t have to be standing in Taksim to display my solidarity.