Since my visit to Istanbul in September 2013, when I witnessed the democracy movement in Gezi Park and Taksim Square, I have taken a keen interest in the protest movements in Turkey. In this guest blog academic colleague Kadir Beycioglu offers a personal insight into life in the country. At the start of 2014 these protests were continuing, and these blog entries represent, in a modest way, a display of solidarity with those who are organising for democracy in Turkey today.
I live in Izmir, a city in the western part of Turkey, on the Aegean seaside. Known as Smyrna in ancient times, through history the city has been governed by Lydian, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman and Turkish rulers. Not only Izmir, but also nearly all parts of Anatolia have witnessed many civilizations. In terms of debates on democracy, Anatolia could be respected as one of the vibrant lands since it was very close to the birthplace of the concept of dēmokratía. As an individual living in Minor Asia, I have been reminded of the central meaning of democracy on two specific occasions.
The first was on September 12, 1980. It was the morning of the military coup. I was aged 12 and I was living with my grandparents during the summer holiday. For a 12 year-old boy it was funny to see soldiers, guns, and military tanks on the streets. Military bands and anthems were on state TV. It was like a fair, or even a game. One thing that surprised me on that day was my grandfather’s reaction to the coup. Every time he watched the news, he cursed and said ‘they would hang young people, and they would hang the leftists too’. I could not make sense of what he was trying to say. But it was not long before I realised – they did what my grandpa had foreseen. We got back to school just a few days after the coup. We were forced to sing anthems and patriotic songs in classes. I remember that lots of our teachers were being ‘redeployed’. We did not see them again. Many artists, politicians, and scientists were jailed after being tried by kangaroo courts. Then I realized that the coup was not a ‘game’.
The second occasion in my life when I have been sharply reminded of the meaning of democracy was in relation to #occupyGezi. It started on May 28, 2013. On that morning I was aged 45 and I was having a short holiday in Bodrum with my wife and two children. While walking on the streets of Bodrum or Halicarnassus, I saw an information notice about the old city. It said: Halicarnassus was a Greek-Carian city that belonged to the empire of the Persians. The Persian authorities liked their cities to be ruled by one man, and not by an uncontrollable oligarchy or democracy, and preferred Lygdamis, the tyrant of Naxos, as king of Halicarnassus.
‘One man’, I told myself, ‘rules a country’. Surely this is tyranny? But unfortunately this perception of rule by one man is not far away from today’s concerns in the Anatolian context because there are many critical debates on how the current Prime Minister of Turkey wants to rule the country. Winning the 2002, 2007 and 2011 elections, The Justice and Development Party (AKP) has governed the country for 12 years. However, more recently, it has been criticized for becoming increasingly Islamist and authoritarian. Erdoğan, the PM, has specifically said that he wants to raise a new generation of Turks devoted to Islam. Immediately after this the parliament approved an education “reform”(!) strengthening specific religious courses in public schools. This directly challenges all that is best in Turkey’s secularist tradition.
People who dissent from the government’s opinions have been accused of being members of terrorist organisations or marginal groups. However this was challenged by the occupation of Gezi Park which must be considered as a mass social reaction to what the government has been doing to try to control the common people. The Gezi Park protests were ‘initially against a redevelopment plan in Istanbul before spreading across the country. The attempt to save the last green area in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square developed into the country’s largest source of turmoil in recent history, resulting in the deaths of five protesters and one police officer, leaving thousands injured’ (Hurriyet Daily News).
After we got back home from our short holiday in Halicarnassus we all returned to our schools. As an educational researcher working for a state university, I have tried to examine the protests carefully and make sense of their significance. However this was made very personal to me when one morning my wife, a teacher, phoned me and told me that she found a letter left on her car window. The letter was put there by my 15 year-old daughter. She wrote that she wanted to participate in the protests instead of going to school, because she felt she had to say something for her future. I immediately returned home from the office and together we decided we must join in the protests with our daughter.
On that same day, one of the teachers’ unions issued a call to its members to join the demonstrations. Thousands of people were there. Singing their songs for freedom, thousands of students and teachers made their calls for democracy heard.
During this time I had to rely on social media for news, especially twitter, because none of the TV channels dared to broadcast any news about the Gezi protests against the government.
- This time I was a middle-aged man caring and living with/for a family.
- This time the police were shooting tear gas at the protesters on the streets.
- This time there were no courts, not even ‘kangaroo courts’. The police were free to judge and execute people on the streets.
- This time it was the beginning of a long hot summer.
- This time I immediately realised that it was not ‘a game’.
Follow Kadir on twitter at @kadirbeyciolglu
The song below (performed by @YeniTurku) was banned in 1980 by the Military Coup in Turkey. The song remained ‘illegal’ for 32 years. The lyrics use Pablo Neruda’s poetry.