Harry Sterling: Turkish protests hint at something bigger

What began as a small peaceful sit-in protest against the bulldozing of a popular park in Istanbul, suddenly erupted into massive nationwide demonstrations against Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamic-based government.

It all started when riot police used force to arrest a small group trying to block a government-backed plan to raze trees in Gezi Park across from Istanbul’s famous Taksim Square in order to build a shopping mall in the 240-hectare park, Istanbul’s sole remaining park of any significant size.

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The riot police, notorious for their violence, used water cannons, tear gas and batons against protestors. But while such tactics in the past were usually successful, on this occasion they unexpectedly unleashed a massive outpouring of support for the original protesters with thousands flocking to Taksim Square to confront the riot police.

As one bystander put it: “This is about something much bigger than the destruction of a park.”

For many Turks, that something is the long-simmering animosity of a large segment of Turkey’s populace towards Erdogan and his alleged moves to Islamize Turkish society.

One protester explained that the large anti-government demonstrations were because of Erdogan’s authoritarian rule and his policies to “control the lives of Turks.”

Still others insist Erdogan simply is not prepared to tolerate opposition and have called for his resignation.

As evidence of his intransigence, Erdogan announced nothing will stop the razing of Gevi Park. He also said a major new mosque would be built at Taksim Square, considered an important site for Turkey’s secular system. Such a provocative action would enrage many secular-minded Turks with totally unpredictable consequences for Turkey’s stability.

Paradoxically, some Western political leaders have described the Islamic-leaning government of Erdogan as proof that such supposedly “moderate” Islamic-based governments can have the same commitment to democracy and human-rights concepts cherished in Western democracies.

Many such Western governments have praised the economic progress made in Turkey since Erdogan took power in 2002.

However, notwithstanding Turkey’s increased prosperity, many Turks, particularly those supporting the secular system established by Kemal Ataturk after 1923, claim Erdogan has taken various steps to undermine the secular system, especially measures introducing greater emphasis on the Muslim religion within society, including within the educational sector.

There also has been growing anger over Erdogan’s measures to place restrictions on the sale of alcohol. One issue that has created even greater animosity are his actions to muzzle the media, including imprisoning journalists under dubious security laws.

In December, the respected Reporters Without Borders released its finding concerning journalists imprisoned in Turkey. According to its report “With a total of 72 media personnel currently detained … Turkey is now the world’s biggest prison for journalists — a sad paradox for a country that portrays itself a regional democratic model.”

In an interview with Germany’s Deutsche Welle during International Press Freedom Day on May 3, a prominent Turkish journalist, Ragip Duran, accused the Erdogan government of imprisoning journalists without actual sentences being levied.

When asked to compare the advances achieved by Turkey in the economic sphere, Duran said, “It’s a completely different picture. According to the Turkish government, we’re ranked at 17 on the list of the world’s biggest economies. But when it comes to journalists in prison, we’re No. 1. There are more journalists in prison in Turkey than there are in China or in Iran.”

The fact Turkey has the dubious record of being the country with the most journalists imprisoned is cited as a continuing danger not just for freedom of expression in Turkey but also for fundamental human rights being fully respected for all members of society, including Turkey’s minorities, particularly its Kurdish population.

Paradoxically, Erdogan justified his support for overthrowing Syrian President Boshar Assad because he wouldn’t exercise restraint against opponents demanding more human rights.

Ottawa-based commentator Harry Sterling is a former diplomat who has served in Turkey.

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