Today I went to an LA demonstration in solidarity with the Turkish protestors in Istanbul and across the country. What started out as a protest against the destruction of a city park has spiraled into a larger movement against authoritarianism, a problem which is certainly not new to Turkey. There is a perception that the government, under the leadership of Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP, is becoming increasingly bullheaded and indifferent to building consensus across the wide political spectrum. The decision to raze the park was controversial for many reasons (the removal of trees, the destruction of a space for public gathering, and the influence of big corporations and developers in wanting to replace the park with shops and condominiums), and the government’s decision to move ahead “no matter what” was viewed as tyrannical.
The rough handling of the Occupy Gezi protestors seemed to confirm these suspicions. The indiscriminate use of tear gas and water cannons against peaceful protestors immediately sparked an outcry against police brutality, and the protest movement swelled and spread to other cities. This movement has also been supported by an increasing antagonism among many Turks against the ruling party. While Erdogan and his party were popular enough to continue to win elections, one could say that there is a large contingent of the population that is highly suspicious of the party’s Islamist tilt. In the last few years there has been a steady increase in government legislation against alcohol (huge increases in tax and a recent prohibition of selling alcohol during late night hours), which has fueled many Turks suspicions that the AKP is working to slowly chip away at the country’s staunchly protected secularism. This sentiment is certainly playing a role in the protest movement, although I think the demonstrations reflect much more than just this aspect.
For me, it isn’t about Islamization or secularism. It isn’t even about the AKP or Erdogan in particular. It is about authoritarianism and the struggle for a more inclusive government. Anyone who knows anything about Turkey’s history should find it amusing that protestors call Erdogan a dictator while holding up a sign praising Ataturk, the “father” of the modern Turkish state. While there are undoubtedly many things for which one could praise Mustafa Kemal for, inclusive and democratic governance is not among them. For most of its history, the biggest enemy of Turkish democracy has not been the Islamists, but rather the secular nationalists and the coup-prone military. The election of the AKP (and the absence of military interference) was actually viewed as a step forward for Turkish democracy, as it signaled an opening of the political space and a bridling of the military under civilian control. However, the recent events in Taksim have made it clear that the nascent democracy is once again under attack. Erdogan’s ridiculous statement that “all attempts apart from the ballot box are not democratic” is not only patently false but also frightening in its implications for how he and his party view governance. Peaceful protest is absolutely an important part of the democratic process. Citizens have a right to communicate their views with the government that is supposed to represent them. Governments should initiate a dialogue with protestors, not attempt to bully them into silence with tear gas and water cannons. I stand with Taksim because free speech is truly the foundation of any open and democratic society. And that is something that both Islamist and secular Turkish governments need to respect.
For more on the protests and government response, see this Jadiliyya article