Turkey Political Background

Turkey Background


I debated whether to put Turkey with the Middle East because of its mostly Muslim population of 79 million people or with Europe because it’s in NATO and aims to be part of the EU. Turkey is Muslim but not Arab. I asked a Turkish friend who said, “Either would be correct. Geographically and culturally it’s in between two worlds.” Literally Istanbul is divided by the Bosporus Strait into the European side with the old city and the Asian side where I stayed. Turkish women walk on the streets in jeans with uncovered hair, so I chose Europe. Erdoğan told an Egyptian TV audience not to be afraid of secular government, but devout Sunni Muslim Prime Minister and then President (similar to Putin in Russia who courts the Russian Orthodox Church for support) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is supported by religious conservatives in rural areas who comprise about half of the voters. He also build the infrastructure, fueling high economic growth as I saw taking the bus from Antalya in the south to Istanbul in the north with **excellent highways and many new apartment complexes. The AKP party funded education, leading to more than 2.5 million graduates since 2008, although aiming to shift public education to Islamic schools.

Islamists regard him as a hero after decades of repression by secular military regimes. He led a decade of economic boom and expansion of social services including health care. But Turkey is regressing after the protests and the detention of thousands of activists, censorship of the Internet and newspapers, corruption scandals, and the falling value of the lira starting in 2014. Turks I talked with were afraid of being identified in my book or photos because rebels get jailed. When I visited a middle-school, a parent asked if I was a spy, just as I was asked in Tahrir Square in Cairo.

Turkey’s secular modern state developed in the 1920s under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The decline of the huge Ottoman Empire enabled the head of a revolutionary group to gain power in Turkey. Called the most successful revolutionary of the 20th century, army officer Atatürk initiated modernization and secularization to attempt to make Turkey European. Graduate student Balca Arda read this section, adding, “The modernization period of Turkey started earlier than the foundation of republic even in the Ottoman era, but the secularization of the state emerged with the republican period.” Some accuse Erdoğan of “neo-Ottomanism” in his desire to empower Turkey, again similar to Putin. School children chant every morning, “I am Turkish, I am right, I work hard.”

Becoming president of the new republic in 1923, Atatürk eliminated the caliphate as head of Muslims and of Islamic courts, enforced wearing western clothes, established civil education, instituted a new alphabet based on the Latin alphabet rather than Arabic letters, and insured women’s legal rights. Early in his presidency he stated, “If henceforward the women do not share in the social life of the nation, we shall never attain to our full development. We shall remain irremediably backward, incapable of treating on equal terms with the civilizations of the West.” He died in 1938 but his Kemalist party stayed in power until 1945.

The army continued to favor secular governments and ousted ones that they considered to be veering towards Islamic rule. Turkey became a EU candidate in 1999, leading to an increase in human rights reforms including rights for women and for the Kurdish minority. The Kurds fought a guerilla war for their rights from 1984 until a cease-fire in 2013 after about 40,000 Kurds were killed—it only lasted two years when the Turkish military devastated Kurdish areas in the southeast.

Economic difficulties led to IMF loans and the concomitant austerity measures in 2002, the year when Prime Minister Erdoğan was elected on the Islamist AKP ticket. Balca Arda commented, “AKP’s coming to power was also conditioned by the reaction against the closing of the former Islamist party, Fazilet Party in 2001, by the Turkish constitutional court.” The economy grew stronger and Turkey was regarded as a model of a Muslim democracy. However, Erdoğan, known as a kabadayi (bully) and Machiavellian, ruthlessly eliminated any challenges to his power, overcoming the “White Turks” from the western urban region, the “Green Turks” from the rural central areas who were originally his allies along with Islamist Fethullah Gulen, the military establishment, President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, and independent media.[i] He also aimed to rewrite the constitution to give the president more power and stepped up his war on the Kurds in the southeast.

At the end of the summer of 2013, people got cold and tired so the numbers participating in assemblies decreased. Taksim solidarity called for a million people to protest corruption on December 27, but the few hundreds who reached the square were dispersed by police. Protesters organized to free imprisoned demonstrators. Building a third bridge over the Bosporus along with a new six-lane highway north of Istanbul also sparked environmental protests in 2013 and 2014 because two million trees would have to be removed. Some protested from a para-glider and some dressed as trees walking down the street with tapes of birds singing. A video of a 2014 protest in the northeast against hydroelectric projects shows protesters singing “let the rivers run to the sea” and dancing.[ii] Students at the technical university in Ankara protested the construction of a street through a nearby forest, facing tear gas and water cannons. Students planted trees the next day under the watchful eyes of policemen. Overall, Cubukcu said existing struggles by students and workers were strengthened and got more visibility and empowerment.

Demonstrations flared around the country after 22-year-old university student Ahmet Atakan was killed during a protest in Ankara in September. Protesters burned barricades and threw fireworks and rocks at the police with the familiar masks and banners.[iii] Protests flared up again the end of December 2013 demanding “Catch the thief,” in regards to corruption and bribery scandals in the relationship between the construction industry and three cabinet ministers and their sons. Taped phone conversations revealed money was hidden in shoeboxes in their homes so protesters piled shoeboxes in front of the Halk Bank, whose director was arrested on corruption charges. The marchers threw eggs and bricks at the bank and some football club fans lit flares. Slogans included “Don’t be a slave to the system,” and “Everyday I’m Capulling.” A young man, 25, commented from Istanbul, “It’s almost a state of numbness. As a society, we are going backward, big time.”

The corruption probe was instigated by national police against the AKP leaders. Erdoğan retaliated with a purge of the police and prosecutors and restricted the independence of the judiciary. Police again responded to demonstrators with water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets and the Prime Minister called The Dictator again blamed foreign conspiracies against his administration. He told a group in a conservative town called Konya, “Some people have guns and weapons, tricks and traps, but we have our God and that is enough for us.”

The largest demonstrations since Gezi were triggered in March 2014 by the death of a 15-year-old boy named Berkin Elvan after 269 days in a coma. He was hit in the head by a teargas canister on his way to get bread for his mother. When he died, Erdoğan accused him of being a member of a terrorist organization. The Turkish Doctors’ Association released a press statement saying they were deeply concerned with the prime minister’s “mental state.” Social media profile pictures were changed to photos of Berkin or plain black. Artists portrayed him as an angel or the Little Prince from the French children’s book by Saint-Exupery.

The night Elvan died hundreds of thousands demonstrated on the streets around the country—especially in Ankara and Istanbul, chanting “murderer Erdoğan.” They formed barricades and graffiti showed the prime minister on a police poster labeled “Wanted.” One of the top tweets was, “Their children steal billions, our children are killed getting bread.” People who stayed home banged pots and pans and the police responded with the usual water cannons and tear gas. Activist Binnaz Saktanber concluded, “It looks like the Gezi spirit is as fresh as a day in June.”[iv] However, a March 2014 local election was interpreted by Erdoğan as “a victory day for a new Turkey!” The reason for his party’s victory is support from rural voters who get their news from television, which he controls. TV portrays demonstrators as anarchists led by troublemakers, similar to Putin’s tactics to discredit demonstrators in Russia.

The death of 301 coal miners in Soma in May 2104 sparked more demonstrations against poor safety conditions to cut costs, heightened by Erdoğan’s comment that workplace accidents are “ordinary things” that occur in many countries. The youngest mine victim was only 15-years-old. Protesters chanted “murderers” in front of the mining office in Istanbul and lay on the ground in Taksim Square and the metro station to represent the dead miners. Thousands gathered in support in the evening in an anti-government protest attacked by hundreds of riot police. Crowds gathered on the Gezi anniversary in various cities (around 25,000 in Istanbul), resulting in injuries in clashes with police. More than 5,600 protesters were prosecuted, according to the Federation for Human Rights. Erdoğan warned Turks, “This is not an innocent environmental action.[v] He told a crowd of around 1,000 young people in Istanbul not to demonstrate; “These terrorist organizations manipulated our morally and financially weak youth to attack our unity and put our economy under threat.”

Some argued that in order to progress the Gezi movement should link with an existing opposition party, perhaps the Kemalist Republican People’s Party.[vi] Others suggested forming a new leftist party like SYRIZA in Greece or Podemos in Spain and a small Gezi Party was organized. Others rejected any political party or hierarchical organization as violating the Gezi Spirit whose core is horizontal self-organizing, a politics of fluid movement in the streets, parks, neighborhoods and campuses to build a counter-power from the ground up. The rebels’ victory was that Gezi Park was not bulldozed and covered with concrete—the Sultan backed down. He had to take back his May 29, 2013, statement that, “We have made our decision and we will implement it; you cannot do anything about it.” To compensate for his humiliations, posters appeared around Istanbul in 2014 with a photo of Erdoğan with the slogan “Iron Will” (Saglam Irade). Rebels rewrote the slogan to read, “Iron Fascist,” “Iron Corruption,” and “Iron Enemy of the People.” Erdoğan called the critics losers and intends to go ahead with his plans to build in the park. The legacy of Gezi was a new form of politics.[vii]

TV host Anthony Bourdain talked to both sides in Istanbul in June 2015. An AKP voter, a young businessman, told him in the next 50 years Turkey will turn to the East because the West is losing power.[viii] He said freedom of the press is a Western concept and he doesn’t miss the old neighborhoods and trees taken down in the name of progress. He votes for AKP because they improved the economy. Meeting with Gezi activists in one of the few parks, they told Bourdain that hope is the revolution in a democratic country. When you are gassed together by police, it creates an emotional connection. One woman told him she was raised not to interact with people different from her; “I never had a Kurdish friend, but thanks to Gezi I saw everybody as the same.”

Basak Tanulku explained the main supporters of AKP were immigrants living in large cities who the government provides with economic subsidies, as well as people who wanted to join the EU and reduce the power of the military in government.[ix] AKP received less than majority control of parliament with 41% of the votes, which inhibited Erdoğan’s plan to change the constitution to a strong presidency with himself in mind. The pro-Kurdish Democratic Party of the People (HDP) won 13% of the vote, permitting it to enter parliament for the first time. Many of its members of parliament are women (40%) and minorities. One co-chair is a woman and the other co-chair, Selahattin Demirtas, is 42 and Kurdish. Erdoğan referred to him as a “pretty boy” and “pop star.” Erdoğan struggled with the fallout of the Syrian civil war, the Kurdish military successes against ISIS, and charges that his government aided ISIS extremists.[x]

Turkey’s 9-11 occurred in July 2015 when young people were traveling to help rebuild the Rojova city of Kobane. A young suicide bomber affiliated with ISIS blew up 32 young people, leading to demonstrators chanting “Erdoğan the killer.” Kurds blamed the Turkish government for tacit support of ISIS as part of their opposition to Kurds and Syria’s Assad. Nationalist mobs attacked Kurdish People’s Democratic Party offices; the conflict led the US government to issue a travel warning for Turkey in September 2015.

The most deadly bombings occurred during a “Labor, Peace and Democracy” rally in Ankara in October 2015, organized by trade unions with help from the HDP for peace between the state and PKK. The attack is described in an article by witnesses, similar to suspected ISIS bombings in Suruc and Kiyarbakir the previous June and July [xi] Over 100 people were killed and almost 200 injured in Ankara, the worst terrorist attack. Although the government tried to blame ISIS or the PKK, protesters blamed Erdoğan who they called murderer and thief because of the absence of security forces in a rally with a 100,000 demonstrators. Then the police arrived and tossed tear gas at the crowd and blocked the road preventing ambulance passage. Erdoğan used fear of such conflicts to insure his party won elections in November 2015.

On October 12, workers, teachers, students, lawyers and others went on strike. Hundreds of thousands all over Turkey chanted, “Shoulder to shoulder against fascism.” (Photos are on the photographer’s Facebook page.[xii]) A predictive Gezi slogan was, “This is only the beginning, our struggle will continue.” A young Kurdish woman advocated, “If we want justice, we have to change the entire system.”            To protest the sieges and assaults on Kurdish cities in Turkey aimed at young militants in YDG-H, over 1,000 academics signed a letter against the massacres joining “Academics for Peace.” Erdoğan called them vile, dark traitors, had them arrested and jailed some of them for “terrorist propoganda,” raided some of their homes, urged right-wing students in groups like Grey Wolves to threaten the professors, and put pressure on their universities to fire them. The president said years before, “Democracy is like a bus; when you arrive at your destination [ending military rule], you step off. Solidarity demonstrations were held in support of the academics around the world. He said in 2016 that the fight against PKK overrules democracy and freedom of speech, “This issue has no relation to human rights, freedom of thought, freedom of press and democracy. Those who use these concepts along with ‘terror’ and ‘terrorist’ should know that they have been making our nation’s conscience bleed.”[xiii]

Erdoğan also shut down critical media despite the constitutional guarantee of free speech. For example, In March 2016, two newspapers and two TV channels were taken over by the state, generating protests. The front page of the last issue of Zaman, the largest Turkish newspaper, read “The Constitution is suspended.” Police broke up a protest of about 500 supporters of free speech with tear gas and rubber bullets, but the protests continued. The editor of the Zaman, Sevgi Akarcesme continued online after the first issue under government control featured the president’s smiling face on the front page, but Akarcesme had to go into exile to Brussels where his passport was revoked by the Turkish government, along with about 50,000 other Turks. He believes the president want to be a dictator, faults intellectuals for not standing up to the purges, and recommends the website Turkey Purge for latest data about the crackdown.[xiv] Erdoğan told the parliament that he wanted to expand the anti-extremism law to include academics, journalists and politicians. Around this time he also fired Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu for his gentle efforts to restrain Erdoğan.

[i] Giran Ozcan, “The Bully’s Rise to Power: Erdogan’s Conquest of Turkey,” ROAR Magazine, May 18, 2016.


[ii] http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=596762063739532

[iii] http://vimeo.com/71704435

[iv] Binnaz Saktaber, “Death of Turkish Teenager Awakens Dormant Gezi Spirit,” ROAR Magazine, March 12, 2014.


[v] Fulya Ozerkan, “Turkish Police Fire Tear Gas at Defiant Protesters,” Yahoo! News, June 1, 2014.


[vi] ROAR Collective, “Beyond Gezi,” ROAR Magazine, January 16, 2014.


[vii] Ece Canli and Fatma Umul, “Bodies on the Street: Gender Resistance and Collectivity in the Gezi Revolts,” Interface Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1, May 2015, pp. 19-39.


[viii] http://www.cnn.com/videos/tv/2015/11/05/istanbul-development-bourdain-parts-unknown.cnn/video/playlists/bourdain/

[ix] Basak Tanulku, “Gezi Park Events: Various Shades of the Opposition Against the Authoritarian Rule,” Urban Cultural Studies, September 20, 2013.

[x] Robert Parry, “A Blind Eye Toward Turkey’s Crimes,” Common Dreams, December 16, 2015.


[xi] Guney Işıkara, Alp Kayserilioğlu, and Max Zirngast, “Continuing the Struggle,” Jacobin Magazine, October 12, 2015.


[xii] https://www.facebook.com/senay.ozden.54/media_set?set=a.10154059766164123.1073741830.703079122&type=3

‘Democracy, Freedom and the Rule of Law’ have no Value, Erdogan Says,” RI Question More, March 18, 2016.


[xiv] http://turkeypurge.com/

Sevgi Akarcesme, “Turkey’s Intelligentia Kneels to Erdogan,” New York Times, September 14, 2016.


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