It is not the park, it is you

by DC, a Brown student from Turkey

A leader does not pass judgment on his people. On the contrary, a leader respects the uniqueness of each individual. It took me a long time to start writing this article. Every time I wanted to write something, I felt like it would not be enough to describe the atrocities that have been taking place in Turkey since May 31.

Right now, I am watching the one and only news channel that has live streaming of the protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, at the heart of the resistance. I see people being pepper-sprayed, being ambushed by water cannons and forcefully pushed back by the police. The crackdown is unacceptable and shows the lack of democracy and freedom in my country. I cannot help but wonder: How has Turkey come to this point?

The AKP, or the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice and Development Party), first came into power 11 years ago after a democratic election. In the general elections of 2011, they even took 49 percent of the vote. The party has been known to promote Islamist conservative thought as well as capitalist economic order. Although one might question how Islamist conservatism could have so much in common with capitalism, Turkey appears to be an example for their compatibility. Essentially, Turkey has become more and more open to the international market through recent laws that promote international investments in the Turkish economy. For example, the sky over Istanbul is home to Istanbul Trump Towers 1 and 2, as well as luxurious residences that are increasingly being built in affiliation with international investors. Moreover, international stockholders currently own or have more than 50 percent of the shares of the most reputable Turkish companies — companies that used to be owned by either Turkish investors or the Turkish government.

Istanbul has always been one of the most important cities throughout world history. It was the capital of four empires: the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Latin Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. It has beautiful architecture, influenced by various cultures and traditions. During these last 22 years, however, architectural development has taken a direction that stopped acknowledging the historical texture of Istanbul. Skyscrapers started to fill the skies; historical buildings are being bought for transformation into hotels or residences.

On May 30, a couple of young people wanted to protest the demolition of Gezi Park, a park at the center of the city at Taksim Square. A few months earlier, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the demolition of the park and of some parts of Taksim Square, in order to build a shopping mall. The protestors brought tents to carry on the protests at night. On May 31, police entered the park at 5 a.m. and set the tents on fire as they pepper-sprayed the protestors.

And then, something very interesting happened. Millions of people were outraged, especially those of the generation born in the 1990s. They flowed onto the streets in order to stand up for all the injustices of the past 11 years. Hundreds of thousands gathered at Taksim Square and Gezi Park. As the reaction grew, the police crackdown became increasingly violent.

As more people came to believe that their rights were being abused, the public reaction turned into a nationwide movement that became less about the park and more about the Erdogan’s failures. Recently, he neglected an attack by the Syrian border that killed hundreds of Turkish people. He changed the alcohol laws and told the press that he wanted to limit the use of birth control because it is “murder.” All of these actions served to amplify the resistance, and the 51 percent that did not vote for the AKP (Erdogan’s party) wanted their voices to be heard. The Park just served as a catalyst.

Unfortunately, Erdogan has showed his lack of sympathy in dealing with the protests. He made various speeches in which he implied that his party is the party that has the majority of the votes, and as the prime minister, he does not owe anything to the 51 percent that did not vote for him.

As of now, four people have died at the protests, one of whom was a policeman. Later, Erdogan said that he sent his condolences to the families of the three young people who died, but personally felt more sympathetic to the policeman who died. Interestingly, he forgot to mention that the policeman died of an accident: He fell off a bridge at a construction area while trying to reach the protests, whereas the three young people were the victims of police intervention.

Exhibiting many traits of a fascist leader, Erdogan has clearly separated his electorate from the rest of society by invoking values based on religion and conservatism. During one of the protests, a group of people had to shelter in a mosque as the police used excessive pepper spray. Erdogan blamed the group for being disrespectful to God by walking into the mosque with their shoes on. A conservative newspaper even made an allegation that these people participated in group sex in the mosque. Although these accusations seem unbelievable, there are many people in Turkey who buy into these stories. Through the exploitation of religious values, the prime minister has succeeded in creating two different poles. Many worry that he will ignite a civil war.

Personally, I can say that since May 31, the government has been lying in order to hide another lie. There is misunderstanding about democracy, because democracy is built through trust, not through lies. If a leader chooses to lie consecutively, then he is insecure about his abilities to serve his country. The police crackdown not only damages the Turkish people — it also damages the image of Turkey in the eyes of the international community. Even though many European leaders have stated that the call for democracy could bring Turkey closer to the European Union, Turkey’s credibility is at stake because its leader cannot even understand his own people and their beliefs.

Democracy calls for variety in beliefs. Erdogan does not seem to acknowledge this. He may have won the Turkish elections, but it is necessary that he, as prime minister, acknowledge the needs of the entire country. Thus, he cannot deem the protestors “looters,” or “chapulcu,” and then change the meaning of “looter” in the Turkish dictionary. He cannot verbally attack people who do not vote for him. He cannot say that he would not like to see girls sitting on their boyfriends’ laps. He has to step outside of his shoes as Recep Tayyip Erdogan and wear the shoes of a prime minister.

Erdogan must stop the brutal police violence immediately and, instead of listening to himself, listen to what his people have to tell him.


photo of Turkey protests by Alan Hilditch