Erdal Redjep's Blog

The Turkey Riots: A London Perspective

Posted in Uncategorized by erdalredjep on June 11, 2013

When I first learnt of the riots that have swept across Turkey, my reaction was one of surprise – not at the discontent that exists towards Prime Minister Erdogan and his current government, but at the sheer scale and speed at which the crowds have poured out to express their anger. What began as an objection to the demolition of Gezi Park, a small green space in Istanbul, quickly turned into a symbol of something much bigger – Turkey’s people versus a force they believe is trying to strip them of their democratic rights and deep-rooted cultural habits.

The government’s reaction to the initial objections about the park seemed to justify and support the very reasons for people objecting in the first place – the police force seems to have been authoritarian, aggressive and disrespectful. As a result, the deep brewing frustration quickly surfaced and has multiplied across major cities into a huge statement from Turkish society against unfair rule. Most recently, the non-violent, peaceful protestors in Istanbul’s Taksim Square have been confronted again with physical force in the form of water cannons, tear gas and pepper spray in order to make them disperse.   

As a Londoner, I’ve observed the reaction from people in my home city echoing and supporting the wave of opposition in Turkey against a government that is not working for its people. Londoners with an interest seem to be doing their bit through whichever channels they see fit – Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn (to name a few) have been bubbling with posts of protest. When I walk through Dalston or Stoke Newington in East London, I see pictures of Kemal Ataturk proudly hung on the walls of barber shops and cafes alike. The same is true in every major city in Turkey; support for Ataturk’s ideas and values is unquestionable among vast numbers of the nation’s people. When Turkey’s Republic was formed in 1923, Ataturk crafted a state founded on progressive values of education, cultural modernisation and the liberty of people – regardless of gender. While his vision was for a predominantly secular state, he respected religion but felt that it should not interfere with government affairs.

Today, Kemal Ataturk’s legacy exists in much more than the name of an airport or a stadium – it’s in people’s hearts, minds and values. My view is that, despite his passing away almost seventy-five years ago, there’s no single figure more influential or more revered in Turkey today. Indeed, so many of the short video clips online show demonstrators on the streets declaring themselves as ‘Kemalists’. It’s the clearest and most concise shorthand explanation they can provide for why they oppose current rule. But there are also tens of thousands protesting who do not give themselves this label; they too simply want to live with dignity in a healthy democratic environment where their rights and views are respected.

Looking at the current situation through this social-historical lens seems to bring into much sharper focus the reasons why Erdogan’s conservative AK Party have been met with fierce opposition and have lost the trust of the people. The bulldozing of the hundred-year-old trees in Istanbul’s Gezi Park became a metaphor for the bulldozing of almost a hundred years of democratic values, culture and national identity. It also happened to be in a city that is arguably one of the most cosmopolitan, creative and cultural in the world.

The state response to the riots with pepper spray, tear gas, water cannons, batons, internet cut-off, tight media control, injuries and even deaths has not stopped people. On the contrary, it seems to have shone a brighter light on the government’s oppressive decision-making concerning such practices as abortion and the use of alcohol – decisions entangled with a strong religious influence. Many people are also angered by the recent mass privatisation where state-owned assets are being sold to big corporations. The heavy-handedness of the state seems to have made protestors more determined to stand strong, with people finding ways of using social media and alerting news agencies of the events unfolding. With Turkey’s military sector and now the trade unions also strongly backing the people, the Prime Minister’s domineering approach seems to have actually brought together the rest of Turkey. A friend of mine currently staying in Istanbul has told me that the solidarity he has seen among different groups (young and old, secular and religious) has given him strong hope for what may come. For what, surely now, has to come.


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