The Crisis in Turkey: How a History of Oppression Finally Boiled Over


The Crisis in Turkey: How a History of Oppression Finally Boiled Over


If you follow any news channel or social media platform, you must have seen the words “Turkey”, “protests”, and “police violence” in various combinations over the past few days. As a flood of tweets fills newsfeeds, it’s easy to realize that there was something going on in Turkey, although it was still hard to know what would’ve caused hundreds of thousands of people to protest with incredible resistance against the human rights invasive actions of the Turkish Prime Minister and the police against their citizens. As eye-catching as the hashtag #occupygezi is, it falls short of capturing the conflict in the country’s last eleven years, a turbulent period governed by the ruling AK Parti (Justice and Development Party) and its conflicted relationship with Islam, secularism, and democracy.

Having lived in United States and Turkey on and off since the mid-2000s, the country’s Muslim identity (based on the majority’s beliefs and secular by constitution) has always come up in my personal relationships. Somewhere between hanging out with someone for the second time and being close friends comes the question, “So, Turkey is a Muslim country, right?” or, “But you’re not Muslim, are you?” said with a wandering eye on my second Bloody Mary. The answer is that ever since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the early beginnings of the Republic, most Turkish citizens have come up with their own brand of cultural Islam.

I, a cultural Muslim, am too a variation and representation of that mindset, along with many others. One may believe in Allah, but drink in moderation (the key is to stay harmless). Some may not fast during Ramadan, but will sit down with those who have in the evening, and say grace. Another will not grow a beard or wear a headscarf, yet may murmur a short prayer for the dead while passing by a cemetery. For a lot of Turkish people, the doctrines of the Koran are interpreted on a more philosophical level than a literal one; the purity of one’s heart means more than the number of times they prayed or fasted that year. To those who are not native to this, it’s as different of a beast as ‘60s radical lesbian nuns, or China’s communist capitalism, yet this ‘ecosystem’ worked fairly well for secular Turks until recently, when AK Parti won a third term of elections with almost 50% of the votes.

The common Turkish understanding of a modernized, secular Islam goes back almost a century to the state’s top-down restrictions on Muslim life during the 1920s, when the modern state was established. Having seen the lingering power of the Ottoman Caliphate on Muslims overseas as late as World War I, Ataturk (an important founding-father figure to most secular Turks) took strict measurements to eliminate religion from the public sphere, in an effort to minimize the religious threats to the newly stabilizing state. Political and cultural life shaped around new, non-religious rules as Turks found a discrete Islam that flowed with the Apollonian ideals of the new republic. Islamic-rooted movements would not enter the Turkish political scene for a good quarter of a century —1950 to be exact—only to be thrown over by various coup d’états in 1960, 1971, and 1980 respectively.

At the age of 84, my grandmother has lived through the three aforementioned coups, along with one “balance adjustment to democracy” in 1997 (also called a post-modern coup d’état, a term coined by one of the high-ranking military officials of the time), and even one e-memorandum in 2007, where the Turkish Armed Forces published a statement online to voice their concerns over the well-being of the state. Having lived through that, my generation’s grandmothers know what to do if a government is about to fall. They will call you and make sure you’ve taken preventative measures, too. “Did you buy enough bread?” they’ll ask. “No, four loaves is not nearly enough. Buy five more, just put them in the freezer.”

However, with no coup in sight (my 10 unspent Eurovision points from last year go to my dear country here) despite the still-developing crisis, those past precautions have changed. Everyone—including the grandmothers—has taken to the streets, protesting, and/or taking care of those who protest. Still, the AK Parti remains the only right wing Islamic-rooted party that was not overthrown or forced to resign in the history of the Turkish Republic, but strong organic protests in Turkey move into their sixth day with supporters marching on the streets of not only Istanbul or Ankara, but in 67 cities across the country, demanding Prime Minister Erdogan to resign.

While AKP did first come to power with undeniable support from its non-secular base in 2002, Erdogan’s government oversaw “a wide range of democratic reforms“, including development of minority rights for Kurds and non-Muslims, and diminishing the military’s political immunity. Ironically enough, further emphasis was put onto human rights issues as AK Parti won a second term in 2007, only to be sprinkled with a “strengthened” economy in their third term starting in 2011, as the Eurozone and Global North hopscotched hopelessly from one financial crisis to another.

To the disappointment of most citizens, the grass was not greener on the other side. Drunk with a ballot-supported sense of “legitimacy” and looking up a bit too much to the Ottoman monarchs in their heyday, the government didn’t take long to pursue agendas that would make the public raise its collective eyebrow, including those who voted for them to begin with. Issues stretched from government-initiated environmental destruction, hostility towards arts and culture, and overlooking the geography’s non-Ottoman and pre-Islamic past its entirety (anyone who has been to Istanbul knows those infidels just built too much). Other issues included women and LGBT rights, the imprisonment of a record number of journalists (most of whom were critical of the prime minister and his ways), attempts to ban abortion, an unofficial ban of PDAs, and eventually, a realized ban on alcohol. If you thought this was an exhaustive and alarming list, imagine living it. The #occupygezi movement did start over people’s intention to keep a public space open to all and green (again, the grass), yet the government’s condescending approach on all of the events below built up the tension to the protests that followed:

LGBT Rights

July 3, 2010 – “Homosexuality Is a Disease, Needs to be Treated”

AK Parti’s state minister, responsible for the affairs of women and family, states that homosexuality is a sickness, and her government does not plan on considering gay marriage anytime in the future.

Arts and Culture

April 26, 2011 – Statue of Humanity Demolished

On a January 2011 visit to Kars, a northeastern city that once had a notable Armenian population (and the background to Orhan Pamuk’s acclaimed novel, Snow), the prime minister describes the Statue of Humanity as a “freak”. Since the statue is a symbol of reconciliation between Turks and Armenians, many agree that it was a timely, elusive wink at the country’s anti-Armenian, anti-Kurdish, anti-everything-but-themselves nationalists, six months in advance of the general elections.

The Environment

May 31, 2011 – The Hopa Incident

On the day of Erdogan’s election rally, environmental activists protest against the hydroelectric power plants in Hopa, which have the potential to make more than five species of fish go extinct and destroy the local ecosystem. The police use excessive force, including water cannons and tear gas. 36 protesters are arrested in a nationwide protests and one individual dies because of excessive police intervention.

Women’s Right Issues

January 30, 2012 – Action Plan for “At Least” Three Kids Policy

Known for requesting at least three children from every Turkish family on every related and unrelated occasion since he first came into power, the prime minister makes the issue a top government priority and creates a task force to look into the subject.

May 26, 2012 – Attempt to Ban Abortion

The prime minister calls abortion “murder”, compares abortion to a current controversial Kurdish massacre, and proposes outlawing all “medically unnecessary” abortions. Month long demonstrations to protest follow.

May 4, 2013 – Turkish Airlines Red Lipstick Controversy 

Turkish Airlines, which is 49% government-owned, brings restrictions on the cabin crew’s makeup, banning certain shades of red and pink from use in lipstick and nail polish. Upon instant reaction from the employees, media, and public, the ban is overturned in less than a week.


April 15, 2013 – The Tweet Incident

Upon making a reference to poet Omar Khayyam in a tweet, the country’s most celebrated pianist and composer, Fazil Say, is sentenced to 11 months in prison on the basis of  “insulting Islam”.

2007-Present – Locking Up Journalists

Throughout AK Parti’s reign, more than 94 journalists are imprisoned, resulting in more censorship-based arrests than in China and Egypt. Most of the arrested journalists beg to differ from the policies of the nation’s ‘mainstream’ lawmakers.

Ban on Alcohol

May 24, 2013 – “Youth Wandering About in a State of Inebriation

The government passes a bill that forbids alcohol sales between 10 PM to 6 PM. The bill also bans the overall sale of alcohol if the location is near a school or a mosque. In an act befitting an overbearing parent, Erdogan recommends everyone to drink ayran, a savory yogurt drink instead. (“It’s not like one could bear you when dry”, a young woman responded despite a headscarf covering her hair.)

The Third Bridge over Bosphorus

May 29, 2013 – Construction Begins

Despite the opposition by environmentalists, urban planners, and the general public alike, the construction of a third bridge was started with a religious ceremony, no further than an hour’s distance to Gezi Parki.

Finally, the most recent dispute of Erdogan with his nation was over Taksim’s Gezi Parki. About 100 to 200 people peacefully demonstrated against the demolishing of the park, only to be replaced by an Ottoman-barracks silhouetted shopping mall (Turkish kitsch indeed knows no boundaries). The protests started on the morning of May 28, and went uneventful until the police’s 5 AM raid on the morning of May 30. May 31st marked the once local protest’s evolution turn into a nationwide event (it rapidly spread on social media), yet it remained untelevised and unpublished on any Turkish media platform for a full five days. The protests still continue throughout the country.

All in all, the tension that was once solely based on the differentiating opinions between the secular, modern Turks, and the religious conservatives has now turned into a collective fundamental concern over freedom, democracy, the right to be heard, and democracy versus autocracy, making it about the people instead of one’s self. Free from the ties of religion, ethnicity and social class than any prior movements, Occupy Gezi in its current state is a promising and much needed conversation-starter between those in power and the citizens, with a chance of even turning into the first occupy movement that bears fruit.

To hear BULLETT Editor-in-Chief Idil Tabanca’s thoughts on the events in Turkey, go here

Follow Busra on Twitter: @busra_erkara