Protesters have created a space where long-silenced ideas and beliefs now can be discussed in the open.
For a social movement identifying itself as inclusive and non-ideological, many political analysts have been especially quick to reduce the demonstrations in Turkey to a variety of common denominators and binaries: secularism versus Islamism, democracy versus tyranny, left versus right.
But as the protests in Istanbul and across Turkey continue against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling AK party, other, more complicated grievances have begun to emerge from behind the wall of censorship and what protesters say is state-imposed fear.
One issue frequently raised by demonstrators but sometimes lost in the media’s echo chamber is the role of Turkey in the ongoing Syrian civil war. Erdogan is a U.S. ally who continues to provide support for the violent overthrow of the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Turkey’s southern neighbor. “Do not worry. All these bad days will come to an end. The opposition forces in Syria will topple [Assad]. God will help them [do so] very soon,” Erdoğan stated.
The Syrian conflict has led to the deaths of at least 92,000 people, according to the most recent UN estimates, as well as a refugee crisis as millions flee the ongoing violence.
It’s an issue that hits close to home for the Alawite community in Turkey, who number around 750,000 and practice the same minority sect of Shi’a Islam that Assad and his inner circle follow (Erdoğan and the Turkish mainstream, by contrast, are Sunni). Some experts believe that the larger Turkish-Syrian conflict could influence the trajectory of the current protests.
Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011, Assad, himself a secular Alawite who has ruled Syria autocratically since 2000, has accused Erdoğan of fomenting terror against his government.
“With his desire from the beginning to interfere in our internal affairs he has made Turkey a party to all the bloody acts in Syria,” Assad said to Turkish reporters in 2012. “Turkey has given all kinds of logistical support to the terrorists killing our people.”
It has become an immediate concern in border regions like Hatay, where roughly half of the 1.5 million residents are Alawites. Cross-border violence peaked last month with a bomb attack that killed 43 people and injured 100 in southern Turkey. Although no group has taken credit for the car bombings, Turkish Deputy PM Besir Atala later said that attackers had links to “Syrian regime and intelligence.”
This type of instability and violence along the Syrian border could provide the pretext for an even stronger response for Erdoğan if minority groups continue to act in a way Turkish authorities deem destabilizing. “If the Alawite minority in Turkey starts to behave in a way that’s unacceptable, this could provide an opportunity for Erdoğan to establish his authority,” Edward A. Turzinski, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told Mint Press News.
The spreading violence has worried many Turkish citizens who feel Erdoğan has become too involved in Syrian affairs. “People are very upset with what is going on over there [in Syria]. It’s a mess. The people in Turkey obviously don’t want to see the attacks but people are upset that [Erdoğan] dragged us into Syria. He took such a strong stance and we don’t want to be involved with this thing,” Can Guneri, a Turkish resident living in the U.S., told Mint Press News.
For many of the Alawite and other minority communities living just across the border in Turkey, Erdoğan’s hardline support for the overthrow of Assad represents sectarian intolerance and undemocratic oppression.
“The Turkish government is not supporting a democratic transition in Syria, it’s supporting armed groups,” said Selim Matkap, a Turkish Alawite. “We believe the Syrian regime is not democratic, but using weapons and the tactic of war is not a legitimate method to oppose it.”
Indeed, a recent poll published in the English-language daily Today’s Zaman showed that a majority of Turks reject their government’s stance on the Syrian conflict. Of those polled, 54.2% said they opposed the government’s Syria policy, while only 27.4% said they supported it.
Main opposition groups, including the Free Syria Army, have bases in southern Turkey and have used the area to launch attacks against Assad’s forces. Meanwhile, more than 400,000 Syrian refugees now live in Turkey and thousands more are petitioning the government for entry.
After a harsh police response that led to the death of at least two protesters and injuries to dozens of others, the protest movement has grown considerably, with some even hoping to bring down Erdoğan’s government.
It isn’t game over just yet for the prime minister, however, who still enjoys support from broad strata of Turkish society. As protests rage on, 62 percent of the Turkish public still view his government favorably, according to the latest public opinion polling conducted by the Pew Research Center.
Turks living in Istanbul, the most populous city and site of the Taksim Square protests, view him less favorably. Only 46 percent of Turks who live in Istanbul have a positive view of Erdoğan, while 54 percent see him negatively.
Since taking office in 2002, crackdowns on the free press have become a calling card of the Erdoğan government. “Over the years, people have been feeling less and less democratic. There are journalists in jail. The number of the [jailed] journalists are among the highest in the world,” said Guneri.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 49 Turkish journalists are in jail, many because they write for Kurdish or leftist publications.
Allegations of political handouts and power grabs have upset Turks who believe that the country has become less democratic under Erdoğan’s rule.
“Since 2002, they have gained so much power, giving deals to their people, putting their people in […] every department, gaining more and more power,” Guneri said. “He will give poor people food, [and] poor people will vote for him because of that support: there are some good things that have happened. But they have put more generals and high soldiers in jail, claiming they are part of a possible military coup. They are in jail without any evidence that is known by the public.”
How it all began
A handful of individuals began protesting the demolition of green space at Taksim Square in Istanbul after the government announced plans to uproot trees and build a shopping mall. It turned out to be the spark that set off a revolutionary fervor across Turkey, drawing thousands across 48 cities in opposition to Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party.
Of course, the situation is much more complicated than the uprooting of a few trees. Grievances are as diverse as the protesters themselves, and represent an array of political, religious and ethnic backgrounds.
The formal political opposition is participating, including followers of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey who promoted staunch secularism. Members of the Kemalist Republican People’s Party are present, but are only one of many groups taking part in what appears to be a decentralized, nationwide movement.
“There is no party: we all are citizens, independent from any party or organization. Of course there are some people supporting some parties, but this is not a protest that a party or organisation started,” said a protester in Taksim Square named Senem, who requested that Mint Press News not use her full name out of fear of retribution.
“We are fed up with the government’s policies toward the citizens. The government has been acting like they can do whatever they want. It’s like only people who voted for them are living in this country,” she explained. “People are in Taksim because they want to speak out loud what they want to say, without any fear of anything.”
Caroline Gold, an American living in Istanbul, told Mint Press News that many disparate segments of society are represented in the protests:
There are older people, college students, high school students, religious, secular, Alevi [another minority Muslim sect within Turkey], gay and straight. If people are not coming out to protest in Taksim or Besiktas, they are at home protesting from their windows banging pots with spoons and flicking their lights on and off. This resistance to the harsh police force against the peaceful protestors from the beginning made the whole city speak up.
The police crackdown was swift against peaceful protesters, who tore a page out of the Occupy Wall Street playbook by occupying the park on May 28 to protest government policies and, more broadly, to create a space where long-silenced ideas and beliefs could openly be discussed. “I have friends who went there,” Guneri told Mint Press News. “These are very peaceful people. People reading books, putting up tents — not any people considered vandals. The police kicked everyone out, burned down the tents and tear-gassed the protesters.”