Early Friday morning, a friend e-mailed me from Istanbul in despair. Police were firing tear gas through the streets, she said, shooting water cannons at peaceful protesters in the area of Taksim, men and women who opposed a government plan to raze a city park and build a shopping center in its place.
“Help us,” she urged. “He is killing us.”
What she hoped for, by contacting me, was media attention. Thanks to demands by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, local television had covered none of it, fearing, in part, Erdo?an’s tendency to imprison journalists who write or broadcast anything he doesn’t like.
Consequently, my friend feared, most Turkish citizens knew nothing of what was going on, either of the sit-in at Gezi Park or the violence that was now raging through the city. But if the world knew, she believed, international pressure would bring the gassing of civilians to an end.
I told her I would do what I could.
But to some extent, the world was already beginning to discover; for what Erdo?an could not stop – or hadn’t yet, in any case — was social media and YouTube. There I found information spread across the Twitterverse (hashtag “occupygezi”), and images in locally-posted photographs and videos – horrifying images that showed hundreds of people fleeing from the attacks, chased by gas canisters and policemen up and down the popular Istiklal Caddesi in Taksim, the hottest part of town.
(One photo of a man shot in the face has circulated widely on Twitter. http://occupygezipics.tumblr.com ) More than 100 people were reported injured; and as the day wore on, at least two people were killed in the clashes with police.
Video: Turkish police kicking and stomping on protester
Three days later, the world now knows. In the interim, at least four people have been reported dead and several hundred more injured. Four protesters in Istanbul alone have been blinded.
And still the clashes not only continue, but are growing, first across the vast expanse of Istanbul, and then extending to the country’s capital in Ankara and Izmir. Some call it the “turning point” for the administration of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an. Some say it will make no difference; his power has grown too strong. But has it?
For the duration of his10 years in office, Erdo?an has systematically sought to undermine much of the secularization of the country that has defined it since the founding of the Turkish Republic by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923. While vastly popular among the country’s more religious population, he is loathed by the so-called secular elite: the intellectuals and educated urbanites, largely, who call him a “sultan” and see him as a dictator-in-the-making.
And while they decry his authoritarianism, it is his campaign to Islamize the country they fear the most – or his efforts, as , Cem Uçan, a social media executive who has been active in the demonstrations, put it, to create “a religion-based, more and more conservative Turkey, who will play a leading role for other Muslim powers in the region.”
It is this, in fact, that has really set off the protests, which, while touched off by the threats to raze a city park, in fact are fueled by some of Erdo?an’s most recent efforts to impose his religious values on his people.
Just last week, for instance, his AKP government approved a bill prohibiting the sales of alcohol between the hours of 10 pm and 6 am — a bill introduced under the guise of “health concerns,” but clearly aimed at the gradual complete ban of alcohol in Turkey.
And (until the Gezi Park protests began, at least), plans have been in the works for a “kiss-in” to protest the recent arrest of a couple cited for kissing in public, as if Istanbul had become Teheran.
Indeed, even the shopping mall is not purely about commerce and a burgeoning economy: the plans have included rebuilding a former Ottoman barracks, which would be restored into a shopping arcade. In classic Erdo?an style, this, too, is being represented as benign, however, evidencing a “respect for the history of Turkey”; that it also is about restoring elements of the Ottoman empire that modern Turkey was created to overcome is not something he is willing to admit to a public still largely devoted to the secular vision of its founder.
Yet clearly Erdo?an is working to outdo the father of the Turkish Republic, with hopes to build the largest mosque in the world, along, as Reuters has noted, with “a slew of multi-billion dollar projects which he sees as embodying Turkey's emergence as a major power. They include a shipping canal designed to rival Panama or Suez […] and a third Istanbul airport billed to be one of the world's biggest.”
But don’t be fooled by mere appearances. Hidden within each of these are the subtle efforts and underlying motives that drive Erdo?an’s entire rule: to make Turkey strong enough to be independent of Europe, and thereby free to Islamize without the fear of recrimination from necessary strategic and financial partners.
With much of this, in fact, he has already been successful, solidifying a strong economy even as Europe’s is collapsing, based on investments that, not coincidentally, have particularly affected the lifestyles of those in Eastern Turkey – those, that is, who conveniently are also among the most religiously conservative.
Simultaneously, he has, with political aplomb, also helped to weaken his secular opposition: he has effectively emasculated Turkey’s standing (secular) military, jailing top generals on trumped-up and paranoid false charges of planning to stage a coup; and his restructuring of the country’s Constitution has privileged him with powers unknown by previous Turkish Prime Ministers since the revolution took place 90 years ago.
Now, standing defiant against the protesters whom he has referred to in speeches as “terrorists” and “provocateurs,” and insisting, Nixon-like, that “I am not a dictator,” he has gone even further: in place of a shopping center in Gezi Park, he stated in an address to his people Sunday afternoon, he will place something there non-commercial, something he is certain all of his supporters will approve of: a giant mosque. And, said Erdo?an, "people who vote for us gave us the permission to build a mosque there. I will not ask other people's permission for that.”
Of course, given the media blackout he has imposed, he may not have to; in the Erdo?an State, increasingly it seems he simply does what he wants before anyone even knows he’s doing it. (As Uçan reports, during the heat of the uprisings and clashes over the past three days, not only were mainstream media kept silent – including CNN Turk, which reportedly broadcast a program about penguins while police chased men and women down the streets of the upscale district of Besiktas — but mobile phone providers were also pressured to reduce service.)
Moreover, Erdo?an, who called Twitter a “menace, to society,” has come to rule over not only what the media doesn’t report, but what they do: while TV stations ignored the uprisings, Ucan points out, they did broadcast Erdo?an’s speech on Sunday, “so the public only knows his distorted version.” And this, he adds, “is another big problem in terms of freedom of speech, democracy and justice.”
It is also much of how Erdo?an has sealed his power over the years, manipulating the truth to his citizens, and relying on a religious base to protect and defend his agenda, while he increasingly cripples his opponents. Already, says Uçan – and inevitably – his supporters are coming to his defense, and they, too, appear to be becoming violent.
“The demonstrations have given me a little bit of hope ,” Uçan says, “but when I follow Erdo?an's comments and see the violence of the police in other cities I think things will get worse. His comments encourage some conservative radicals to hit the streets and participate in acts of violence with the police.”
Some images from Izmir, says Uçan, “show civilians with sticks united with police on a man hunt. And I think in the next steps, the clash with those people will be inevitable.”
Still, others I’ve spoken to are hopeful. There is a sense, at least in some quarters that the Gezi Park events, coupled with the potential economic damage from the alcohol ban, may indeed have helped bring the country to a breaking point. There is, after all, one thing the Turkish people worship far beyond their religion: freedom. And if the Turkish spring, as some are calling it, has really now begun, this can be the one place, the one time, that a secular democracy in the Middle East finally finds its summer.
Abigail R. Esman, an award-winning writer based in New York and the Netherlands, is the author, most recently, of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West
Pictures from occupygezipics.tumblr.com