Dear friends and family,
I have gotten relatively few emails and fb messages from you all and I only assume that it's because the media is underreporting the events unfolding in Turkey. Since many of you have visited me or have planned to visit me in the future, I thought I would give you an explanation on what is happening.
Since I arrived 9 months ago and even much earlier than that, the AKP government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been passing a series of laws that are Islamic in nature. The AKP is an Islamist party with slightly over 50% of the vote, but Turkey is historically and constitutionally secular, so this has stirred some feathers (to put it mildly). The most recent law passed was a sweeping regulation that would drastically limit the sale and marketing of alcohol. It seems to me that the AKP has been pushing these types of laws more aggressively in the last few months. In addition, AKP has been accused of crony capitalism, whereby development in the country goes unchecked with big contracts going to companies that are AKP supporters. Well, the list of complaints doesn't end there but I don't want this email to turn into a book.
About a week ago a small group of protesters gathered in Gezi Park which is in Taksim Square. If you've been to Istanbul you've probably seen it. The protesters opposed a government plan to cut down trees and build a shopping mall at the site of the park. Let me say now, Istanbul/Constantinople is a really old city and its green spaces are few and far between. However, the number of shopping malls is currently at 87 with 25 more under construction (including the biggest in the world supposedly). This is what makes Istanbul such a popular tourist destination for Iranians and Arabs, but it's a bit much, even for a city this size. No other large city comes close in shopping malls per capita (this is me ranting, I can never find a park to picnic at here!)
Police reacted fairly harshly to the group of protesters who initially were a scattering of environmentalist types. As the news spread on twitter, the protest increased in number over the course of 3 days, until tens of thousands had gathered on Friday. By that point, the protest was no longer just about Gezi Park but what the park represents: AKP's abuse of power and the suffocating level of development in the city.
Police have been bombarding protests with tear gas and shooting canisters directly at people instead of at the ground. They have beaten people with batons and have shot water mixed with pepper spray from cannons. Over one thousand people have been arrested and hundreds injured (more than 400 injuries in Ankara alone). Amnesty reports 2 deaths. The media outlets here are probably on a gag order with only one station seeming to be reporting what's happening in full, but they have a CHP slant (the opposition party), so their coverage is CHP focused. Since international media have cut back on their foreign correspondents, it feels like twitter is the only place to get good information on what's happening throughout the day.
On Saturday the police withdrew from Taksim on President Gul's request, and so far Taksim has been peaceful. I am cynical and think that this is because the government realized that too many tourists and foreign journalists were around the Taksim area. However, police brutality continued in other areas of Istanbul and other cities of Turkey. The worst hit seems to be Ankara where I have some friends involved in the protests giving me updates. It's bad. They say the main parks and squares look like war zones.
Despite what some protesters are saying, Erdoğan is not a dictator. His government has been voted into power legitimately due to his charisma and ability to force Turkey through some really tough problems. And Turkey has gone through dramatic changes, both good and bad, under his leadership. The problem is not him being a dictator, but what his view on democracy is. He calls the protests anti-democratic because he thinks that once the people have voted him into power, he can do as he likes. According to him, any and all opposition needs to be expressed solely at the polls. His view means that his government is writing a new constitution behind closed doors, the AKP passed the alcohol bill in the middle of the night to avoid controversy, and he is agreeing to this brutality in order to silence opposition.
I am telling you this because Turkey is a regional power with close ties to US and European countries. Also, Turkey's economy is based on tourism. Please spread the news about what is happening on twitter and facebook. This is a huge turning point in Turkey's democracy. This can't be called a Turkish Spring or whatever else reporters have been saying, but it 1. exposes Erdoğan's tactics in dealing with opposition (which is to jail or sue) and 2. shows that people can try to change the policies of their government without the possibility of a military coup (ironically enough because Erdoğan neutered the military's ability to do so). So many groups that normally hate each other (including rival football clubs) have joined forces. I'm not a Turkey expert but according to my Turkish friends here, they have never seen or heard of anything like this before happening in their country.
Erdoğan's twitter handle is @RT_Erdogan. Send him a message if you'd like. Maybe even tell him you won't support tourism in Turkey unless he listens to the demands of his people instead of allowing blood to be spilled.
Thank you for reading through this email. Please don't worry about me, I am far from the centers of protest. And I won't go join the protesters because this isn't my fight, so this is the least I thought I could do to help my friends and students here.