Monday, June 17, 2013

Big State or Big Discussion? The Fight for Turkey's Soul

I thought there was something to be hopeful about before the past weekend, but now I'm not so sure. It seemed that finally Recep Tayyip Erdogan had deigned to listen to some voice other than the one that echoes around the inside of his skull, and that a rapprochement was possible.

Then he went completely Fruit Loop.

The result? The Police re-take Gezi Park, rip it up, re-plant it with several hundred trees and thousands of flowers (in order to show that the AKP, unlike the protesters, is a truly Green party), plants that will have to be ripped up again once the shopping mall/'Ottoman-Style Barracks'/luxury flats/Spaceport for Turkey's first spaceship has been given the go-ahead, scatter protesters, arrest lawyers, doctors and the few independent journalists still working in Turkey, steal a man's piano, fire tear gas into buildings including hospitals and (allegedly) the Dutch Consulate, mix some chemical irritant with the water fired at protesters from the TOMA water cannons, and basically the whole world outside of AKP-land gets the blame.

All for the sake of a tree?

Well, that's how some would still have it. In fact, it's part of an ongoing debate that has been in Turkey for a long time, one that has two parts:
The emergence of democracy as a social construct;
and the role of government and religion in private lives.
This is nothing new. It could be argued that in the UK, much of our history since the Reformation has been about the same subject - for example, what the precise role of the monarch is, what is the relationship between Crown and commoner, what rights do we have to the enjoyment of privacy etc. The American Constitution is very much built on the notion of individual rights and the responsibility of the individual within society. Of course, whether it works in practice or not is a very different thing, but the principles are there. And again and again over the course of the last two hundred years, we have seen societies being united and/or riven by the possibilities and fragilities of democratic process.
What is fascinating is watching it happen in real time in Turkey, thanks to the heroes of Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and beyond. Gezi Park itself has been an incredible melting pot of possibilities, and what has been truly notable is the fact that people of so many political and religious persuasions, people who would not normally see eye to eye on a single thing, have found a commonality and a capability to work together. It may not be easy, it may not be quick, they may not be able to agree entirely, but they have sought to compromise and to work together - the very idea of what a community and a society is.They are living refutation of Erdogan's idea that democracy comes but once every election time.
The other issue that is important here is how closely should government interfere with personal liberties, rights, and responsibilities? Turkish people are quite rightly pissed off at Erdogan's incessant micro-management - you half expect him to turn up behind your shoulder while you're having breakfast, and he starts saying 'No, eat the EGG FIRST, then have THE HONEY. Hold your tea LIKE THIS...' - but he is hardly the first Turkish Leader to do this. As I said in an earlier post, Turkish politics is pretty paternalistic, and an awful lot of politicos hear love nothing better than the sound of their own voice, dispensing wisdom: Unfortunately, there are a lot of voters out there who love this sort of thing. Interestingly, an AKP politician today said that the more educated a person is, the less likely they are to vote AKP, or indeed vote at all.
Again, this is nothing new - look at any country's history, and you will see that people have protested and rioted for similar reasons - but the protests in Turkey are important because this must be the most widely-disseminated and witnessed protest, thanks to social media platforms, in history. And looking at it, the message is clear - these people love their country deeply and care deeply about what happens to it, but they also want the right to live without the government sticking their noses in where they don't belong. If someone wants to buy a beer after 10 pm, let him. If someone wants to wear a headscarf to university, let her. If two lovers want to kiss in public, whose business is it but their own?
This, however, is a debate for everybody in Turkey, not just the elected few - how much is private conscience a matter of public concern, and to what depth sould government be involved in the affiars of the individual?
For myself, I believe that issues of conscience and faith are essentially private matters, not state ones. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk wisely decreed that the Turkish Republic was a secular state, but of course a politician's personal concerns and outlook will always colour the interpretation of the meaning of 'secular' - you just have to look at the USA for examples of that.
The question is this - what kind of state will emerge from all this? A Republic full of parks, piano recitals and discussion, or a Republic patrolled by the iron hand of a man standing behind your shoulder, telling you how exactly you should brush your hair?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Play it again.

And still they stand, and still they protest, and yet still do they refuse to be bowed down. As I write, someone is playing the piano in Taksim Square; a human chain separates the encamped protesters from the ranks of the police, while all over Turkey people continue to voice their disenchantment.
And what does The Sultan do?
He meets a clapped-out 80's singer, purportedly a representative of the #OccupyGezi movement, but in truth someone who'd sell her own daughter for the sake of a bit of publicity. A 'referendum' has been suggested: It's the kind of referendum that you'd give (forgive the pun) turkeys: 'Do you want Christmas to happen now, or later?'
I just feel sickened that I can't do more to help. I tweet, I translate, I pass on news, I sign petitions, but I wish I could do something tangible, something palpable.
But there is this, always this - the power of words, of writing, of standing as witness to truth. So here is me, doing the only thing I really can in this situation - writing, letting my hands pass over the keyboard, stroking the letters into life, now andante, now allegro, sometimes agitato, occasionally lento. The piano player of Taksim square does what he can, bravely; I will do as I am able.
Even before this latest round of horror and vileness, I must say that I never had much time for Turkish  politicians. When I first arrived in Izmir back in 1993, it wasn't long before I had an experience of how much more in-your-face they were, and how clearly they were engaged in rotten practices. Corruption and nepotism were rife, and it was clear to anyone with sense that they were skimming all the wealth of the top. And behind it all lay the rotten corpse of the 1983 constitution, penned by the generals who took over the country in 1980, and who still lurked behind Parliament, ready to raise their hand at any time. Voter participation was relatively poor to apathetic - everyone knew that the likeliest outcome at any time was a hung parliament that would need replacing every couple of years, while the economy carried on out of control.
It was no wonder that the Justice and Development Party, aka the AKP, got in. For the first time, this was a party that a) listened to the poor out in the countryside and in the cities (and by poor, I mean REALLY poor) and b) had enough money to make changes, even if that meant effectively bribing swathes of the electorate. Coupled with this, the public was sick to the back teeth of the lying and corruption, and they thought - believed - that they were about to get a change.
And so it seemed. Credit where credit is due - the AKP made changes that, for a significant proportion of the country, made life much easier. Relatively simple measures, such as creating bus-only lanes in Istanbul, that transformed people's experience of the daily commute into something tolerable, instead of the hellish 3-hour slog it could be. More reliable taxation. A clear attempt to make Turkey a more open, democratic society. A willingness to take tough decisions, including the very brave one of seeking to engage in dialogue with the PKK.
And if they had stopped there, all would be well. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Why? Well, there are the huge capital building projects for starters - it has become increasingly obvious that the Turkish economy, one of the fastest-growing in the world, is based on a desperately overheated building sector, as well as on a very, very fragile service ecnomy. But mostly, the reason why the AKP shouln't be trusted is because it seems that one man has decided that he is the fount of all goodness, truth and everything that has happened in Turkey, ever. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister, has quite simply lost it. He doesn't seem to be capable of listening to anyone - everything has to be His Way or The Highway. His threats over the past few days have been horrendous - 'We will talk to you in language you'll understand', just before a horrific police assault in Taksim and Ankara; His order to the local governor of Istanbul to 'Finish this in 24 hours'; His casual racism - 'They think we don't understand arts and music. They think we're blacks' (he used the word Zenci here, which can be far more derogatory than how I've decided to translate it); his near-hysterical attacks on the protesters, saying first they're beggars and marginals, then looters, then terrorists, and now that they are clearly in the hand of foreign provocateurs, and, tonight, that the jews are to blame.
This is a man, and this is a government, who don't quite get the fact that democracy is not a one-way thing. It's not just some ballot box that you dust down every four years or so. It's something that you have to live with each day, every day, even though that can be so, so easily forgotten. When faced with protests, they've just reverted back to the 'Strong Leader' mentality of crushing dissent, rather thane seeking to engage with those who oppose them. They have chosen to see them as an enemy, rather than as an asset. And what, rather ironically, they have done is create something really quite wonderful - a generation of people who are prepared to fight for what they believe to be right, even if one person's idea of what is right is not exactly the same as someone else's. And that, in the long run, can only be beneficial to Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdogan cannot last forever; The AKP won't last a thousand years; But the willingness to stand for what you think to be the right thing can last forever.
A man plays a piano in a square. A people sing a new kind of song, and all the world is listening.

Monday, June 03, 2013 mighty forest.

And still it continues. I have watched on, somewhat amazed, by the wildfire of protest across the whole of Turkey. From Istanbul to Adana, from Izimir to Ankara, on it goes: thousand upon thousand on the streets, cheered on by the clatter and drum of tin pots, saucepans, kettles and anything that makes a clang from a million balconies. Galatasaryli and Besiktasli and Fenerbacheli, football fans normally at each others' throats, arm in arm, united in opposition to the police; housewives and grandmothers spitting curses at the baton-wielding thugs in uniforms, lawyers at the barricades, JCB drivers blocking roads to guard the protestors, doctors and nurses rushing to set up field hospitals; And everywhere, anyone who can has taken to social networking sites to witness and record what is happening, in marked contrast to a slumbering media. CNN Turk, purportedly a news channel, was showing a documentary about Dolphin Therapy at the height of the battle in Istanbul. Even the international media have been somewhat slow and circumspect in their reportage, although they are beginning to make up for it now.
And at the eye of the storm is Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister. At this time of crisis, you would expect him to be firmly at the helm, seeking to control and alleviate the situation.

He has decided to go on a four-day tour of some North African countries.

He has derided the protests, saying they are the work of 'extremists', 'marauders', 'terrorists', 'alcoholics'.

Where, oh where, did it all go so wrong for him?

Let's not forget that this is the man who was feted internationally for standing up to Israel over the Mavi Marmara episode in 2010. This is the man and government that has rounded on its neighbours when human rights abuses have happened there. This is the government that has started dialogue over the whole Kurdish issue, that has stabilised the whole economy and overseen almost unprecedented growth in the economy.

So why has it all gone wrong?

Simple, really. Erdogan thinks he can do no wrong. He's just a little too fond of moralistic finger-wagging, of seeing himself as a sultan dressed in a business suit, of being The Big Man. It is hubris, plain and simple, the same thing that eventually did for Margaret Thatcher here in the UK.

But it's also about all the acts of fear and deprivation that have been allowed to happen throughout Turkish society: The fear that your phone might be tapped or your tweet or Facebook entry scrutinised, that you are being spied on by the smiling neighbour across the road; It's the fear, for journalists, that one wrong word will see you imprisoned; It's the fear that if you don't dress the right way or say the right thing at the right time that you won't get the job you're after, and the apprehension that you won't get on in life because you don't belong to the right political party.

it's also the resentment -about alcohol prices being raised and raised and sales being restricted, ostensibly to stop public drunkenness (despite Turks having the lowest per capita alcohol consumption rates in Europe), about stopping people kissing in the street, while turning a blind eye to child marriages and honour killings, about the very visible few getting so much richer than the majority, while holding out a few crumbs to the socially disadvantaged.

And nowhere is this fear and resentment felt more than in the cities, where a young urban middle class is coming head to head with a gang of professional politicians who work with impunity, making decisions without consultation or advice, who blithely ignore the fact they are meant to be representatives, not of themselves, but of the people. To be fair, this is noting new: During my time in Turkey (during the 90s), it was clear that the majority of politicos were corrupt. what sticks in the craw with the AKP is that they dare to moralise and impose their own version of morality on the people, while all the time lining their own pockets.

This isn't, yet, a true nationwide revolt, despite appearances - for that to happen, you would need to hear the rustle and roar of the villages, coming forward to protest. Nor is it 'The Turkish Spring' - in fact, Turkey is a far more democratic country that Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria, nor are the protesters taking up arms. What it is, however, is bigger than any of the Occupy movements, more vital than anything that has happened in the streets and squares of Greece and Spain, and more inclusive than any, with every kind of person joined arm in arm against the sneering arrogance of The Sultan in Ankara, or whichever country he's jetted off to at the moment.

In short, it is democracy in action - demos + kratos, literally 'people rule'. democracy does not begin and end at the ballot box, it lives and breathes, moves, talks, protests, sings, laughs, cries, eats, sleeps, loves; and it should never, ever be allowed to die. It is a mighty forest, formed of every tree imaginable.

And it appears to my amazed and delighted eyes that one small tree in one small park in a great city, in my beloved Istanbul, in Constantinople, in Tsarigrad, in Byzantium, in the City of a thousand names, has given voice to the rushing roar of the forest in a fierce wind.