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An American in Istanbul: Making Sense of the Protests in Turkey


I’m an American, born and raised in the US, but I’ve had close ties to Turkey since my childhood, studied the country as an undergraduate and have lived in Istanbul for most of my adult life. There is a great deal of disinformation being spread all around with regard to the current turmoil engulfing Turkey; I will attempt to provide some background to recent events which I hope will serve to clarify some aspects of a very convoluted situation — insha’Allah.

A few days ago, a group of Turkish civilians staged a sit-in protest to oppose the razing of a public park in Taksim, the Istanbul district that was home to a high concentration of minorities during the Ottoman Empire and has in more recent years served as the go-to location for protests of all kinds. There was nothing special about Gezi Park, environmentally or otherwise. This is the first point I’d like to make —these protests are not about a park, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. Sometimes we must look into the past to understand the present; allow me to take you back.

Looking Back

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan swept into power in 2002, and won an unprecedented re-election in 2007. Roughly 50 percent of the country supports this party. The win attracted attention worldwide due to the strong association of the party with practicing Muslims throughout Turkey, a nation where despite a past as a caliphate, a minority secular elite backed by an army had determined politics and policies for decades.

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In years prior to the AK Party, all Turks lived through corrupt government administrations, military coups, and poor infrastructure. Even today many elderly folks in Turkey still live in a mental police state, afraid of expressing any political beliefs for fear of the police and military. Religious Turks also faced systematic discrimination, with many forced to go ‘underground’ with their religious beliefs.

The AK Party won through building bridges; not all AK Party politicians or supporters are religious, and not all religious people support the AK Party. Modernization and economic reform were big points in their campaign platforms — as was the restoration of religious freedoms that the hyper-secular elite had long withheld.

The moment the AK Party won the elections, that minority “elite” began to grumble — Turkey was going to become like Iran, women in hjiab would take over all the government jobs, non-religious people would all face discrimination, AK Party administrators would start stoning people to death for fun… None of these things happened.

So What Happened in the past 10 years?

Infrastructure in the city improved greatly. The Turkish economy made incredible progress, even through the global financial crisis. Nobody was stoned to death. Many no longer felt the need to hide the fact that they prayed Jumuah from coworkers and employers. Life got better in Turkey in many ways. The hyper-secularists remained in a state of paranoid alert for the most part, screaming bloody murder anytime the AK Party did anything that could be considered vaguely religious (like banning smoking in taxis). The week before the protests, legislation was pushed through that would ban the sale of alcohol in liquor stores and other places after 10 pm; a standard in many developed nations. “The AK Party is banning alcohol!” the hyper-secular alarmists cried.

Back to Gezi Park

The police received orders to clear out the protesters. Some police officers set fire to the tents protesters had set up, which is obviously not what ‘clear out the park’ means. That was the first provocation; upsetting and unacceptable as it was, it didn’t come as a shock to anybody familiar with attitudes of many police officers in Turkey, many of whom have unfortunately been egotistical abusers of authority long before the AK Party came around. Nobody had been hurt at that point.

When the protesters refused to leave, the police resorted to tear gas and water cannons to clear them away – something that had happened many times before during protests in Istanbul and elsewhere. The protesters didn’t back down, and this time, others in the city came out to support them. Most were peaceful and some were not, hurling stones and insults at police officers. The clashes became violent, with police officers here and there taking it too far (throwing rocks at the windows of citizens shouting profanities at them, aiming tear gas canisters directly at protesters, kicking protesters, etc.). There were also many citizens taking it too far, blocking off sections of freeways to protest, vandalizing state and private property, and making attempts to storm buildings such as the Dolmabahçe palace.

According to latest reports, two people have been killed in Ankara and Antakya.

But what is it that got everyone so worked up in a city where protests rarely attract anyone other than a handful of leftists or communists? The not-new police brutality? The park? The most popular theme of these protests has been ‘Tayyip, Istifa!’ (Tayyip [Erdoğan], resign!). It would seem that with the tension over the recent news that they’d have to buy their beer before 10 pm if they wanted to drink later at night, and with no soccer games left this season to distract the masses, people had decided to take to the streets calling the most popular Turkish politician in decades a dictator and demanding he resign.

The Other Side of the Lira

But there are two sides to every story, and the issue isn’t as simple as AK Party opponents being sore losers. In the last couple years of his administration, anti- and pro- AK Party analysts alike have noted Erdoğan’s becoming increasingly careless, failing to act and speak with the decorum and tact a leader of a country with a public as easily polarized as that of Turkey. At times, he’s been as dismissive of the concerns of his opposition as the hyper-secularists were about ‘hijabis’ who wanted to wear their scarves to their university classes.

And that has taken a toll. Even many AK Party supporters cringe during some of his speeches, wishing he’d held his tongue or chosen his statements more carefully, choosing unity and reconciliation over division. And on the citizen level, there surely have been instances of a tit-for-tat approach, as if slighting others will make up for the oppression of the past.

It’s also impossible to deny the nature of government in the way all this has played out; when new administrations come into power, the balances of money and power are changed from the ministry level right down to the allocation of funds for districts and neighborhoods. The tables are turned, and with the AK Party’s entrance into power, all of this influence went from the hands of the old secular elite into that of the up-and-coming Muslim demographic for the first time.

As the turmoil in Turkey continues, the cause of the protesters is becoming less and less clear. Police withdrew from the park days ago, and a court stopped the demolition work, but people are still taking to the streets, with instances of vandalism increasing and unfounded rumors — one even accusing Erdogan using chemical weapons against his own people– spreading like wildfire. Some are harassing women in hijab, others dressing up in niqaab and staging photographs as if they were counter-protesting in support of police brutality against protesters and then posting these in secular Facebook groups, fueling the flames of potential civil conflict.

At the end of the day, the protesters that are still in the streets are there because they want to unseat a legitimate leader because they don’t like his attitude. They’re correct that two wrongs don’t make a right – but neither will three.

The writer was a journalist with the Turkish Daily Today’s Zaman from 2007 to 2010

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  1. Berserk Hijabi

    June 4, 2013 at 2:37 AM

    Thanks for clarifying the issue

  2. Scott Rickard

    June 4, 2013 at 2:38 AM

    You failed to mention that Erdogan is a NATO puppet.

  3. Halwah

    June 4, 2013 at 7:26 AM

    Salaam thank you. We need more balanced articles who can report without having an agenda.

  4. sdf

    June 4, 2013 at 10:13 AM

    “a city where protests rarely attract anyone other than a handful of leftists or communists?”

    i sense a negative bias towards anti-capitalists in your explanation here. i dont think they should be lumped in or disregarded as simply leftists or communists – as if being anticapitalist is not a impt movement globally.


      June 4, 2013 at 10:52 AM

      You’ve misunderstood me — in fact I wish I’d had the time and space to delve into how the capitalist system plays into all of this. I was referring specifically to activists of self-declared leftist and Communist parties, which are minority parties even among the minority parties here. The point is that they are few in number. The point is that the majority of citizens here have not been actively involved in a culture of protest (and are likely less well-informed than the aforementioned party adherents on a number of subjects). I wasn’t lumping in or disregarding anyone, please focus on my words and not your senses. Your assumption of a negative bias couldn’t be more incorrect.

  5. Kuba JJ (@tarzan_JJ)

    June 4, 2013 at 10:15 AM

    So the protests are against the government-led islamization, which is quite understandable given how proud Turks are of living in a secular country. The innocent kissing-protest a week ago (staged against the kissing ban in Ankara subway) was a very tiny prelude to what happens now. The government has been freely (and quite excessively) using censorship, naively forgetting how social networks work, no wonder a small spark was enough to get tens of thousands to the streets. It might be a small deal that Youtube has been banned for years now, everyone can use VPN or a proxy server to circumvent that. 3 weeks ago reporting on attacks in Reyhanlı, Hatay (May 11) was tightly censored (which was backed by Erdoğan). It gets really serious when virtually all the Turkish TV stations choose not to report on what’s happening in Taksim, showing silly pinguin documentaries instead, mobile networks shut down data connections, police uses signal jammers. It’s even worse when policemen put adhesive tape over the ID numbers on their helmets, and the MoBeSe survailence camera system is shut down in Taksim – when this happened, people felt very much what dictatorship is, and rebel seemed a natural reaction. Erdoğan has clearly mishandled the protest, but he himself pushed Turkish people into it by gradually limiting their freedom. Now he and AK Parti are paying for it – no matter what happens next, they’ve already lost. Whatever happens, photos and videos will be made, and virally spread around social networks for everyone to see. I’m just wondering how far AKP is willing to push it, and how many lives will be claimed in the process.

    • Al Mudaari

      June 4, 2013 at 6:06 PM

      May Allah(swt) raise amongst the Turks Ghazi’s who will humiliate, destroy and oppress all forms of Secularism and Kemalism.

      • salem

        November 9, 2013 at 4:46 AM

        Ameen Ya Rabbal ‘alameen

  6. sli

    June 4, 2013 at 12:19 PM

    Ardogan is in my country Algeria today with a huge delegation of businessmen in a business trip to Morocco and Tunisia also to bloom the turkey economy in the same time some communist ones destroyed belongs in Taksim square with sin desires background
    my god say who is useful to the people stay on the earth and what don t useful will vanish
    O Ardogan lover ; be a supporter and share to build your dream
    be careful for those want you to go back to the past time

  7. Fatima Ariadne

    June 4, 2013 at 6:10 PM

    Salaam. Thank you for giving the unbiased clarification. too many media out there will spice this thing up with their own agenda.

  8. Kaan Yılmaz

    June 4, 2013 at 8:01 PM

    “The writer was a journalist with the Turkish Daily Today’s Zaman from 2007 to 2010”

    this explain everything who you are…


      June 4, 2013 at 8:13 PM

      Not really, no. But the fact that you’re so sure it does says a lot about you. *shrug*

    • Halwah

      June 5, 2013 at 7:18 PM

      Not really.. I’ve read Today Zaman.. it’s a secularist dominated paper masquerading as an ultra neutralist. I’m quite surprised by this write up actually.

      • ZAI

        June 6, 2013 at 12:35 AM

        Today Zaman is the English language variant of Zaman. It is not secularist if that means Kemalist. It is staffed and run by people who align themselves with the Gulen movement either by being associated with the movement or agreeing with many aspects of their world view, though not directly owned by the Imam or the movement.

        I think we Muslims need to be careful throwing around the word “secular” as if it’s a swear word. It’s better to make clear we are talking about MILITANT secularists or Kemalists if we’re engaging in criticism. “Secularism” in and of itself does not have a bad connotation in Turkey, even among most religious Muslims. They simply see it as a form of neutral government that is ideal for dealing with a free, democratic and ethnically/religiously diverse population. Even Erdogan advocated secularism to the Muslim Brotherhood on a visit to Turkey and implored them not to institute a form of religious dictatorship.

        The MILITANT secularists and Kemalists are distinct. Their secularism is itself a type of religion and completely intolerant of any and all religion in the public sphere. Infact secularism is not even the correct word for it…it is more akin to a variety of militant French laicism.

        Returning to secularism, in it’s unadulterated extremist form it is simply neutral in regards to people’s personal lives, media, speech and thought. In the US we have a type of secularism that is a more ideal secularism where the government does not enshrine religious dogma as law, but neither does it interfere with independent religious practice. At this point many Muslims would say that’s not their ideal or good enough….but well, for most Turks it is, including the religious ones and highly revered scholars like Fethullah Gulen. Frankly, even most religious Turks are NOT interested in the politicized variants of Islamic theocracy advocated by many in the Arab world and South Asia…

        Frankly, I agree with them. I despise the Taliban and hope they never make a return in any way, shape or form in my homeland. I will take Fethullah Gulen over Mollah Omar any day.

        • Ceyda

          June 6, 2013 at 6:19 AM

          You missed the mark on Today’s Zaman. While Zaman is staffed primarily by the followers of the Gulen Movement, Today’s Zaman has a smaller, independent staff that includes Gulen followers (management) as well as foreigners from Western countries who are Muslim or non-Muslim but not Gulen followers, in addition to a handful of Turks who are openly and unabashedly atheists. There are Kemalists among them. The paper is secularist, with as much Kemalism as its staff can muster without management cracking down.

          • ZAI

            June 6, 2013 at 2:15 PM

            Yes Brother, I’m sure there are secularISTS writing for the paper, however the paper itself is not secuLAR….and what I mean is that it is not an outright propoganda paper DOMINATED by any one group. It is diverse and will have content from both Islamists, secularists, Kemalists, democrats, non-aligned Muslims and anyone else. So to find the sister writing a pro-government article for the paper is not surprising and neither is finding a Kemalist article….

            Regarding the rest of my comments from the 2nd paragraph on, they are unrelated to the subject and somewhat of a tangent…

  9. Beth

    June 4, 2013 at 11:44 PM

    Unbelievable. Total denial. Police are shooting tear gas canisters at their own countrymensmheads, gassing elderly women and teenagers, beating bystanders. This is not acceptable in a democratic society regardless of politics or religion……what can’t you see this?

    • Ahmed

      June 5, 2013 at 7:12 AM

      if is acceptable in US, qhy not in turkey olso..????

      • ZAI

        June 6, 2013 at 1:06 AM

        Two wrongs make a right brother?
        Whatever one thinks of the issues, sincerity or lack-thereof of either the government or protesters or even Islam/secularism…one thing everyone should agree on is that the behavior of the police has been absolutely atrocious.

        There is no justification or warrant for their use of brutal or excessive force…I don’t care WHAT any protester is saying. The vast majority of them have been peaceful, even if one disagrees with what they’re saying. There is no excuse for that brutality.

        At the very least an investigation must be carried out by the government and Erdogan must apologize about the police conduct and make amends. I do not wish for my Turkish brothers the brutal military police states we have in the rest of the Muslim world.

  10. Henry

    June 5, 2013 at 2:09 AM

    Wonderful explanation, thank you very very much. It’s such a shame when a relatively decent president, extremely respected and admired throughout the Arab and Muslim world and has served as a role model to governments of those nations, is subject to these secularists who just want to stir trouble. I hope the government quits responding to them with such force so that they are not successful in sparking tension. I hope this is over with within weeks, hopefully by everyone just ignoring the protesters. Turkey is so beautiful and uniquely modern, may God bless it and its people.

    Thanks again for clarifying the truth!

  11. Yusra

    June 5, 2013 at 6:01 AM

    “Erdoğan is destroying the country. But YOU can help us building it up. Yes, we need you as our tourists.” – one bloger writtes in his appeal to toursits who recently are changing their holiday destination to toher than Turkey. But it is the violent protesters who are destroying country not Erdogan, subhanallah!!!

  12. bintG

    June 5, 2013 at 1:31 PM

    As an American muslim residing in Istanbul, I don’t understand Ataturk bashing here…I know a lot of muslims don’t like him but really…if it wasn’t for him, Turkey would have been divided into pieces by Europe. Who cares if he drank? And Erdogan is a pious peaceful man? Really? He doesn’t take bribes from companies? As far as the protests go, I have several Turk friends who I know are practicing muslims who were out there protesting. To say that this is a secular anti-muslim agenda is going too far and is creating unnecessary divides.

    • ZAI

      June 6, 2013 at 12:41 AM

      I don’t love Ataturk, nor do I hate him…
      Frankly, Turkey is not my country…so not really my place to do either.
      I will say though, I find the hatred against him for “ending” the Caliphate bizarre and hypocritical in giving Arab nationalists a “get out of jail free” card. .

      Excuse me brothers and sisters, but didn’t the Arab nationalists end the caliphate by
      committing treason en masse and siding with the British during WWI? All Ataturk did in THAT
      regard was FORMALLY put an end to something that was already defacto dead…

    • one concerned Turkish citizen

      June 6, 2013 at 5:41 PM

      Thank You BintG, a very big Thank You! for giving such an opposite view to this article. I was beginning to think my corrupt Turkish government managed to buy / bribed all Americans. This article does not contain the whole picture, in fact had omitted all the most important concerns of Turkish citizens. This article sounds like a political propaganda, and it is a shame that MM has published it. I am Muslim Elhamdulillah and I completely disagree with the park been demolished so that fat cats become richer by building a shopping mall in its place. How much bribe did Erdogan get from such deal I wonder? And MM is allowing this publisher to say; oh the Turkish citizens are just trouble makers and bunch of idiots who doesn’t see as clearly he/she does. As a Journalist you are suppose to say what is been happening and what has happened truthfully, and shut up about your opinion! By the way: If you don’t want to go to Turkey for holidays, that is fine! Soon there won’t be much of Turkey affordable enough to go to anyway. Not even a free park to walk in.

      *This comment was edited by the MM Comments Team in order to comply with our Comments Policy*

  13. Pingback: Sit at the table with me. | A Not So Turkish Life

  14. robertadc

    June 6, 2013 at 1:36 PM

  15. ahsan arshad

    June 9, 2013 at 3:01 PM

    Thanks for the link detailing how the government curbed the sale, consumption of alcohol. After reading it. I dont understand whats the big deal about it. I am surprised at these protests.

    • one concerned Turkish citizen

      June 10, 2013 at 11:32 AM

      Although this protest is an explosion of the several conflicting issues amongst Turkish government and its citizens, but you have to understand the reason for the main protest.

      In England for eg, when the decision about smoking ban in public places, especially in restaurants first came about, who were disgruntled with the decision the most?; the smokers and the small businesses that were affected with the decision. And the rest couldn’t be happier for their loved ones in the hope that they might smoke less.

      It seems to me that the Turkish government with the help of organizations such as MM push such arguments forward (like; this protest is because we’re trying to enforce Muslim rules and our public doesn’t like it!) especially to other Muslim worlds in the hope of getting a sympathy vote. So don’t be fooled please. Turkish public need your understanding support. I was shocked to read couple of days ago that our Turkish Government issuing its protesting public with a vendetta. Using words such as “Them and Us”. A government is suppose to unite not separate. I am not after a government change at all. They all are the same at the end of the day. (Unless they kill and torture of course.)

      I would like the citizens of the world, to understand, and when they see an injustice they should support each other and keep the governments in check all around the world. Ataturk (RIP) must have been a great man (I didn’t know him and I wouldn’t like to take anyone from this decade’s word for whether he was great or not, also I fear God because you’re suppose to respect the deceased) he said; “Dunyada Sulh, Cihanda Sulh”; meaning “Aiming for “Peace in the World, Peace in the Universe””. He must have shared my philosophy; if you aim for the highest you might just about reach to become a mediocre!

  16. Visitor

    June 15, 2013 at 3:39 PM

    This article hardly clarifies the situation. Some points to consider:
    A few points on what is happening in Turkey:

    The AKP has 50% of the vote, that makes the opposition, however divided, 50% as well, which is hardly a “secular minority.” A serious problem is that all these parties come from the same authoritarian political culture [that was introduced by Ataturk.] This made the rest of the party fall in behind Erdogan when his charisma turned from a virtue into a liability. This is surprising from a party that came into being by challenging the previous conservative party and formed AKP.~~~~~ Protests have taken place across the country and there is a long list of steps taken in cities across the country, much of it in the name of “urban renewal.” I don’t think anyone claimed this was just about Gezi Park, but rather a whole set of issues that have been building for a long time. The park may have lit the fire, but the combustion was growing for quite some time. ~~~~ Moving crony capitalism from one party to another is not, as implied, the nature of things. Practicing Muslims have expressed disappointment that the ideals of social justice embedded in the early AKP have given way to a severe form of neo-liberal economics. As in other countries, this undiluted economic theory harms the nation’s poor; witness the slum dwellers who have banished to the peripheries of the cities for the sake of gentrification, areas which lack transport back to their jobs, basic services, and in some places even nearby schools.
    ~~~~~ One cannot just assign social goods to charities to pick up. Pious Muslims are among those against the huge mosque that will forever be a reminder of how money is wasted [where did build schools, not mosques, go?] in a city/country with so many poor. It is unlikely that it will be anything other that an imitation Ottoman structure, like so much of the fake and kitschy buildings that have taken the place of authentic historical structures in Beyoglu and elsewhere. Turkey has some of the world’s most wonderful examples of architecture, especially Ottoman, why create a bad imitation like the Gulf Arabs do. ~~~~~ In fact, it was the alliance between pious Muslims and secularists…academics, intellectuals, artists and most of all, architects, who saw the AKP as reformist…which it WAS. ~~~~~~ The “paranoia” of the secular parties is certainly misplaced if the issue is one of like liquor sales, but many people worry about social conservatism [or anything] imposed from above. Paranoia is the legacy of a once dictatorial and vicious system that the AKP has tamed. ~~~~~ Recep Tayyib Erdogan is the greatest/greatest leader republican Turkey ever had; with his AKP, he has transformed the country in wonderful ways. It would be tragic if he leaves office still trying to maintain political power. The events of the last couple of weeks, I believe, have put an end to his dreams of transforming the governing system and staying on, but as president, until 2024. Hopefully, the AKP can reset itself back into the moral values that made it the best thing Turkey had ever experienced.

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