Prior to 2008, I had visited Turkey only twice, and both times for business events in Istanbul – the kind of events where sleeping, eating, partying… and of course a little business too… is all conducted within the walls of the same opulent yet generically international hotel.
Then in 2008, I met the woman who was to become my wife, and so began a love-affair (well, two I suppose) and a certain fascination with the city and country in which she had been born and raised.
As an Englishman of a certain age, I’m ashamed to admit that prior to this, one of the most enduring associations I had with Turkey was that of Turkish Delight – and not even the real stuff – the sickly sweet, chocolate covered version sold and advertised in the UK with beguiling yet grossly misleading TV ads such as this one from the early eighties.
Over the last five years however, I have come to know and love Turkey as a country teetering on a knife-edge between tradition and modernity. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Istanbul, a vibrant, colourful, yet chaotic city, heaving with over 15 million inhabitants, many of whom spend hours each day commuting between the continents of Asia and Europe across the mighty Bosphorus which, like a glistening scimitar, cleaves the populous in two.
Istanbul is a city for which my wife feels both pride and frustration, and if the events of the last few days are anything to go by, it would seem these feelings are shared by many. Although still beautiful in its own way, the pace of new construction, combined with what seems an almost total lack of planning and building regulations, has been steadily eroding that beauty.
The latest example of this – the proposed construction of a shopping mall in place of one of Istanbul’s last remaining parks – Gezi Park in Taxim Square (see image below) – might just be the last straw in the people’s cumulative frustration.
What started as a peaceful protest by local inhabitants angry at the prime-minister’s refusal to even listen to the arguments against the project, has turned into what many are now calling “The Turkish Spring”.
As with the recent Arab versions, coverage of the protest and the insensitive, heavy-handed counter-reaction of the government, has fallen to social media. Whereas in the past, such administrations could always rely on a combination of brutal anti-riot tactics and media censorship, Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, has found himself completely wrong-footed by the enormous strength of opposition, garnered to a large extent, via Twitter and Facebook.
What seems even more surprising is the arrogance and stubbornness with which the prime minister continues to maintain his stance, defiantly proclaiming that no matter what happens, this project will go ahead. As in the story (most-likely apocryphal) of Denmark’s King Canute, Erdogan seems to think that just by willing it, he can stop the inevitable tide of truth and information from ever reaching the masses. That simply by turning off the CCTV cameras around the park and having the state-controlled media outlets ignore, or underplay the scale of the protest (estimated by some at 10,000 strong), the world would not learn that he was responding to peaceful tree-huggers with tanks, tear-gas and water cannons. But not only is word getting out, the protesters are using social media to organise themselves. With characteristic resourcefulness (which won’t surprise anyone familiar with the Turks;) tips and recipes for dealing with tear-gas exposure as well as tactics for confounding the tanks (spray paint on the cameras and wet towels in the exhaust, apparently) abound via twitter.
Of course, this is not just about a single park or the handful of trees that grow within it. It is the most recent in a long series of self-serving actions by an increasingly strict, religious-right government riding rough-shod over their countrymen’s civil rights. The selling off of public land for the erection of malls and mosques has been happening for a long time. In fact my wife still can’t quite get her head around the way, here in Britain, we are routinely invited to challenge various local applications for planning permission, or the way builders generally keep within the regulations on things such as maximum-building-height within a given neighbourhood. “In Istanbul,” she says, pointing to a patch of grassland in our former home of Edgbaston, “someone would build a five-storey apartment building in that gap.”
Ironically, Tayyip Erdogan was elected partly on assurances that he would bring an end to the suppression of civil rights of which he accused the previous administration. In fact, only recently, he was diplomatically urging President Assad of Syria to “listen to his people”. Although honesty, integrity, and consistency are qualities rarely found in the corridors of power, the contradictions of this government do seem more outrageous than most.
Even more disturbing however, has been the insidious encroachment of religious influence on public policy. Although predominantly a Muslim country, Turkey has, for some years now, been enjoying the welcome breeze of secularism, accompanied, not surprisingly, by advances in both education and economic prosperity. In fact, walking the streets of Istanbul, the number of women one sees wearing veils – let alone the full Burka – is noticeably less than in many UK cities today. But with virtually all cabinet positions for the last few years awarded to members of the strict religious right, that breeze is now being stifled. The effects of this range from the bizarre, such as the recent restriction on public images showing the female collarbone, to the widening bans on the sale and consumption of alcohol, all of which have contributed to a melting pot of public anger which is finally boiling over.
Where exactly all this will lead, we have no idea, but the effective death of censorship brought about by social media must be one of the most exciting developments of recent times, so please help to spread the word, and wherever you happen to be, show your support for the wonderful people of Turkey.