Days of Rage – in Turkey

I get angry sometimes. I try not to, but occasionally I can’t help it. It’s a natural human emotion. Mostly I get angry about things I can’t control – which is stupid, I know, but again, I think, quite normal. I hate it when I see people in power abusing their positions of responsibility. I get angry when I see the powerful oppressing and exploiting the weak. I feel frustrated when I see weak people kowtowing to those in authority in order to advance their own careers.
Years ago in New Zealand I stood as a candidate for parliament. I tried to work through the system to bring about meaningful economic and social change for the benefit of the country. I saw close up the dirty tricks of the wealthy elite determined to hold on to power no matter the cost. I saw smear campaigns, electoral gerrymandering and control of the media. I saw the government of the day deliberately stir up an issuewhich polarised the nation and provoked violent street demonstrations leading to a crackdown by the forces of law and order. The result infuriated me. If I hadn’t had a wife, three young children and a mortgage, I might have been tempted to violence myself.  Gradually the fury gave way to sadness, and eventually to resignation.
Well, donkeys live a long time, as a former colleague used to observe (thanks Alan). On Sunday morning I took my bicycle over to Taksim, the main centre of Istanbul’s entertainment industry, five-star hotels and foreign diplomats. My plan had been to take part in a ride across the Bosporus Bridge, organised by environmentalist groups. I knew it would be cancelled, but I went anyway. Partly I was psyched up for a good bike ride, and partly I was curious. I wanted to see for myself the situation in the square after the previous day’s demonstrations.
Demolished buses by Taksim Square
Taksim Square and the surrounding streets looked a little like the pictures we saw from the recent tornado in Oklahoma: footpaths torn up, bricks and stones lying thick all around; makeshift barricades, shells of buses, overturned cars and minibuses, burnt out police vehicles, everywhere graffiti (much of it obscene), bottles, beer cans, vast quantities of rubbish, and one or two small bands of determined protesters – a few supporters of the Kurdish BDP, a larger group of Marxist Leninists around the flag-draped Statue of the Republic in the centre of the square, homeless sleeping off the excitement or sitting around fires still burning in the disputed park.
I saw a couple of young students picking up rubbish around the statue, and I joined them with plastic bags purchased from a nearby supermarket. In the store, my eyes and throat were burning from traces of the pepper spray or tear gas employed by police the night before. As I filled my bags with the detritus of democracy, I was approached by a young man who identified himself as a reporter from ‘Foreign Policy’. I guess he was happy to find someone he could interview in English. ‘Do you think Turkey has become increasingly polarized?’ he asked.  ‘Do you think this event has united all the disparate opposition groups in Turkey?’ No, and no again – and I’ll tell you why.
Cleaning up after the party
Since I came to Turkey, in fact, pretty much since the beginning of the Republic, Taksim Square has been off-limits for large political gatherings. Apparently there was a brief experiment in the mid-1970s. On 1 May 1977 there was a huge gathering known to history as the Taksim Square Massacre. Forty people were killed and 120 badly injured. Some, including the Leader of the Opposition, Bülent Ecevit, claimed links to the undercover Gladio organisation. Prime Minister at the time was Süleyman Demirel, later removed from office by the military takeover of 1980. He remained, or perhaps became, a staunch Kemalist and republican, returning to office in 1991, before resigning in 1993 in favour of his protégé, Turkey’s first woman PM. In gratitude, Tansu Çiller had him appointed to the Presidency, a role he filled for the next seven years.
In 2009, the Turkey’s AK Party government made 1 May an official holiday. However, there was anger in some circles this year when they refused to allow a commemoration of the 1977 incident to be held in the square. Good call or bad? Who knows? A government may not feel that large political demonstrations under the noses of well-heeled foreign tourists are good for the country’s image.
To be fair, the AKP government has achieved much since taking office in 2003. They curbed Turkey’s banana republic hyperinflation and have presided over a period of unprecedented economic growth, evidenced by a rapid increase in the proportion of citizens in the middle classes. They have provided the longest period of political stability Turkey has seen since free elections began. They kept the country out of the Iraq invasion while staying friends with the USA, and more recently have applied some much-needed pressure to the Israeli government over its intransigent attitude to the Palestinian question. Internally, they have opened up discussions addressing the country’s problems with its large Kurdish and Alevi minorities. They have maintained interest in European Union membership while making it clear that Turkey is not desperate to join. I could go on, but you get the picture.
Getting back to the build up of rage. Turkey’s (Istanbul’s) secular Kemalist elite have had things their own way pretty much since Day One of the modern Republic. Atatürk himself managed fifteen years as President without troubling himself to hold an election. His successor, Ismet İnönü held two – the first in 1946, more for show than anything else – the second, in 1950 leading to the election of a new governing party, the Democrats, and Turkey’s first popularly elected Prime Minister, Adnan Menderes.
Saying unkind words
about the Prime minister
There was a bit of a roller-coaster ride in the country’s politics for the next fifty years. Menderes himself was ousted by a military coup in 1960 and subsequently hanged along with two of his ministers. Elected governments were again removed by direct military intervention in 1970 and 1980; and once less violently when the generals had a quiet word in PM Necmettin Erbakan’s ear in 1997, following which he quietly left of his own accord.
One of PM Erdoğan’s more controversial achievements in his ten-year stewardship has been the trial in civilian courts of senior military personnel accused of plotting another coup to remove him – and overseeing amendments to the constitution allowing the courts to try officers involved in the brutal 1980 coup. Undoubtedly Tayyip Bey has made a few powerful enemies.
Again, from pretty much the first day of taking office, Erdoğan upset the secular Kemalists by appearing in public with his headscarved wife Emine Hanım. A good number of his ministers committed the same offence, arousing the fury of the Istanbul urban elite. To make matters worse, his government lifted the ban on the wearing of headscarves by female university students. Tayyip Erdoğan is a devout, practising Muslim – a fact which, in a country where ninety-nine percent of the population are of that faith, certainly helped him to become the first Turkish PM in living memory to lead a government with a parliamentary majority.
Ironically, their parliamentary ascendancy is perhaps one of AKP’s major disadvantages. Turkey’s biggest problem in the last ten years has been the lack of a credible parliamentary opposition. Underlining the dearth of ideas in the secular urban elite camp, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) returned from the political wilderness in 1992 (whither it had been sent by the generals after the 1980 coup). With little going for them other than their claim to be the direct descendants of Atatürk’s very own party, they became the second-largest group in parliament after the 2002 elections. Since then they have distinguished themselves by saying ‘NO’ to pretty much everything proposed by the government, and doing their best to stir up popular unrest, while, at the same time, failing to come up with a single positive idea of their own.
This is just the beginning, it says
Predictably, this seems to have led to a growing arrogance by the Prime Minister and his party. As English politician and historian Lord Acton famously said, ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ No doubt this arrogance has been encouraged by the fact that Turks actually like (and perhaps need) a strongman. Nevertheless, the number of Turks getting p—d off with the government has undoubtedly been increased by a feeling that self-righteous religiosity has begun to replace reasoned public debate.
Who would ever have thought that Turks could be stopped from smoking a cigarette whenever and wherever they chose? Now smokers are under threat of extinction and, even as a non-smoker, I am starting to feel sympathy for them. While I agree that smokers, alcohol-drinkers and drivers of huge SUVs should contribute to the environmental and health costs associated with their addictions, it does seem unfair that Turks, with an average income at the lower end of the OECD spectrum, should have to pay the highest petrol prices in the world. A little study of US history would show that banning alcohol will inevitably have undesirable social consequences – and driving prices sky-high with exorbitant taxation will stimulate a black-market whose main beneficiaries will be organized crime syndicates and political dissidents.
Personally I have no problem with the building of two or three symbolic mosques in high profile locations on the Asian side of Istanbul – but I’m not happy to be woken every morning before sunrise by five minutes or more of highly amplified Arabic chant summoning to prayer a public, large numbers of whom intend exercising their democratic right not to go.
Artillery barracks demolished
in 1940 – to be reincarnated
as a shopping centre,
museum, arts centre . . .
However, I apologise for straying from the main point of this post, which was, I admit, to address the matter of the protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square and in dozens of other cities around Atatürk’s Republic. Ostensibly, the protests were triggered by the plan to rebuild an Ottoman military barracks on a not-very-large park adjacent to the iconic meeting place. Now if you know Istanbul you will be aware that Taksim Square is a singularly stark and barren concrete space whose most interesting feature is a large sculpture representing Mustafa Kemal Atatürk himself. On one side is the 1960s soviet-style Atatürk Culture Centre, adjacent to another relic of the tasteless 60s, a 20-storey hotel from the glass-box school of architecture, thankfully known as the Marmara. Opposite the culture centre is a windowless brick structure that I think is a reservoir, and on the fourth side a kind of bus terminal behind which, and largely invisible unless you are in it, a small park generally occupied by homeless individuals and itinerant alcoholics. In the middle of the square is a large island where you can access a major line of the city’s underground Metro system – if you can reach it, given that the island is isolated by a circular speedway around which hurtles an unbroken torrent of buses, yellow taxis, minibuses and private cars.
As far as I can understand it, the plan was to divert traffic underground and turn the whole area into a vehicle-free zone which would then be landscaped. The bus terminal and little-used park area would be redeveloped by building a replica of the architecturally striking 19thcentury artillery barracks demolished in 1940. The intention was to utilize the rebuilt structure as hotel accommodation, shopping, a museum, cultural centre, whatever. Not such a bad thing, you might think.
The problem seems to be that the cutting of trees in the park became a focus for the pent-up rage that has clearly been building up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities for several years. To return to the questions posed by Justin, the reporter from ‘Foreign Policy’: ‘Has Turkish society become polarised in recent years? And has this event united the political opposition? In the sense that opposition to the present government has brought together a host of unlikely bed-mates, from residents of Istanbul’s plushest districts to the most radical of communist ideologues, yes. But if you are asking whether this ‘unity’ will translate into anything resembling a credible political party with a serious alternative political agenda, I fear not. As the 16th century Protestant reformer, Martin Luther said, ‘The mad mob does not ask how it could be better, only that it be different. And when it then becomes worse, it must change again. Thus they get bees for flies, and at last hornets for bees.’
Nevertheless, citizens of Turkey have ample grounds for dissatisfaction. Workplace rights, conditions, wages and salaries are substandard, especially in the private sector where collective bargaining is a no-no. The education system is in a sad state with little chance of fulfilling Atatürk’s dream of producing a modern educated populace. There is an appalling gulf between the extremes of rich and poor. I am currently reading ‘The Histories’ of Herodotus, and I came across a delightful solution for this last problem: The Egyptian Pharaoh ‘Amasis,’ he says, ‘established an admirable custom which Solon borrowed and introduced at Athens . . . this was that every man once a year should declare before the provincial governor, the source of his livelihood; failure to do this, or inability to prove that the source was an honest one, was punishable by death.’
On the other hand, conditions for the majority in Turkey have improved out of sight since I first came to the country. What worries me now, in fact scares me would be a better word, is that the country may descend into a chaos from which only another period of martial law will save it. Sadly, I also fear that there are forces outside of Turkey who would welcome that, and have been working behind the scenes to make it happen.


3 thoughts on “Days of Rage – in Turkey

  1. I'll be surprised if you see my views written up on the 'Foreign Policy' site. I suspect they are not at all what the foreign media want to hear. Interestingly the protesters here are all talking about local media shutdown, social media blackouts etc. Absolute nonsense. Local newspapers are full of anti-government photos and articles; Facebook etc are up and running. The only thing that is not clear is what the protesters actually want.

  2. As I expected. I've just visited There is a 3-page article by Justin Vela, the reporter who spoke to me for at least 10 minutes. Check it out. He couldn't even find a brief sound-byte to quote out of context to support the angle his bosses want to use.

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