Suleiman is a young Turkish man who waits at restaurants, is a singer in a band and came to Istanbul from Bodrum in southern Turkey in search for economic opportunities. This evening he is our server. But what he is giving us tourists – mesmerised by Istanbul – is food for thought. The protests, the problems, the anger and the solutions. The restaurant is empty because most of the people are out there protesting against Erdogan, the Prime Minister. He too plans to join them after the joint closes for the day.
We start talking about him. His name suggests he is Muslim. But Suleiman insists he is ‘nothing.’ He says he was born Muslim but doesn’t believe he must be told to follow a religion. In his identity card he left the section empty. One of the big frustrations of this new uprising in Turkey has to do with curbs on freedom. Freedom that people have enjoyed traditionally. Suleiman questions the government, and criticises the PM’s role. “He tells us who we are, he spells out what we must do and believe, he wants to determine whether we should have babies or whether we shouldn’t. He calls this democracy but it’s not because he thinks he is god,” he shares.
I am moved by some of his stories. “Why should women be forced to bear children if they get pregnant by mistake? When a woman goes to a hospital for a pregnancy test, the hospital authorities call her family or her husband to update them. Why must a hospital do that?”
What started out as activism against the demolishing of a municipal park to erect a glitzy mall has rolled out into the nationwide protests on a range of anti-government issues. People – both the new, young, working professionals along with some traditional folk – are frustrated with a one sided approach of the government trying to push through laws that interfere with the social fabric and impinge on personal free. In a surprise move recently, the Turkish parliament rushed through legislation thats curbs alcohol sales and drinking in Turkey between 10 pm and 6 am. This was not only a blow to young bar goers but the old folk who have had this as part of their tradition. Alcohol consumption has always been part of food culture in Turkey, a country whose population is 99% Muslim. This is only one example of the cultural resistance. Issues have been simmer in the under-layer of the society including how media ‘is fed’ to many because some key stations are owned by the government. Members of Erdogan’s party ‘believe’ in gassing the public.
From the prism of the Western countries, Erdogan is the man responsible for the ‘arrival’ of Turkey. But there has been a sense of disgust among the locals with the country’s scorching growth, the ‘predatory development’ (described as rampant construction), the tourism boom. People who once admired Erdogan’s move to democratise Turkey are criticising his obsessive demigod image as someone surged by his own power and the realisation that the country has little choice in determining an alternate leadership.
It’s an easy assumption that Taksim is the Tahrir moment for Turkey given how many youth are participating at emblematic spots of the country. One wonders if these protests can prove to that revolutionary yet and if the cause they are fighting for is going to determine that significant a change? Protestors at Taksim would perhaps get pacified by Erdogan’s apology. Not everyone wants him to resign but they do want the government to know. Even then undoubtedly a seed of deeper resistance may be being sown.
Bessma Momani of the Brookings Institution says, “Secular resentment of the AKP [Erdogan's party] is bubbling up, especially among the urban elite who view the Islamists as ‘backward’ countryside folk, an inferior noveau-riche who cannot be trusted to run the country.” The protests, interestingly are a combination of people who are not just open minded secularists but also Islamists who disagree with the PM’s political approach. As I walked through the famous and busy Istikal Caddesi that leads up to Taksim, it’s been hard to miss the energy and the strength of this movement. People in droves just move like a single mass with a single purpose.
Will this movement prove to the government that people power remains supreme? Will Erdogan’s men think before they tear gas shells through peaceful democratic protests? Will the voting public rethink the notion of democracy given how complex a relationship its been with the government? Will civil society’s surge soon shift the focus from rampant construction to all in all development for the people? Will Turkey promise to have more schools than mosques?
Many questions await both sides. People of Turkey and its PM have plenty to think about.
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