The battle taking place in Turkey touches the very core of the Turkish Republic and its future. The country’s secularists who were in power for decades, but who have for the last ten years taken a backseat, have taken to the streets demanding the separation of mosque and state, while the Islamists led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan aim to Islamize the country faster and more thoroughly than ever before, while cracking down on all possible dissent.
I was able to speak to protesters in two different cities (Izmir and Istanbul) about their aims and the reasons for their sudden protests. At first, international media reported that the protests had started purely because inhabitants of Istanbul wanted to save a park (Gezi Parki). Although that certainly played a role, it was made clear to me from the get-go that the park was simply the last straw: their anger with Erdogan had increased year after year, and lately month after month. Finally, they said, they were fed up. They drew a line in the sand and said, "No more" to Erdogan’s authoritarianism and Islamism.
Some of the protesters I spoke to had voted for Erdogan’s AK Parti in 2003. At that moment the country was hit hard by an economic crisis (which eerily reminds me of some other authoritarians who came to power in such difficult times, and who gradually increased their hold on their populace). He pretended to be a liberal democrat, a man who could unite the Turkish people, both conservative Muslims and secularists, and who would take the desperately needed measures the economy required to spring back to life. With him, he said -- and voters believed -- that a new era of universal freedom and economic prosperity was to arrive.
Sadly, things turned out slightly different than these voters had expected, they said. In the last ten years, they told me, Erdogan first strenghtened his hold on the government and all its institutions (including the judicial power and the military), after which he - at first slowly, later much faster - started to Islamize the country. In the last few months especially that Islamization had speeded up, with the prime minister saying women should have three children, a ban on the sale of alcohol between 10PM and 6AM, and an attempt to greatly reduce the right of abortion. When the opposition voiced their criticism they were at best ignored and at worst imprisoned (as has happened to hundreds of journalists).
“Erdogan is a fascist, it’s that simple,” one of the protesters in Izmir told me. “He has to step down!” Another passionate youth said that “Erdogan has gone too far. Did you know that there’s no image of [Mustafa Kemal Atatürk - the founder of the modern and secular Turkish Republic] in schoolbooks anymore? He wants to remove all traces of Atatürk, who represents Turkish secularism. He wants to replace our laws with the Sharia!”
One of the reasons that I understood the significance and true meaning of these protests early on is that many of the protesters are women. One of them told me that they all fear for their future role in a Turkey governed by the AK Parti. “Do I have to stay at home and raise three children or more? Will he decide that for me? Will I not be able to decide what I want to do and how I want to live my life? Do I need a headscarf eventually?”
Erdogan’s response to these questions and concerns has been brutal. Lawyers, doctors, protesters, Twitter users, Facebook users, journalists (both foreign and domestic) have been arrested this month. By behaving in that manner, the prime minister has, protesters justifiably say, confirmed their suspicions: he is out to Islamize the country and he will not stop until he has achieved that overarching goal.
Much has been written the last few years about a so-called "Arab Spring." Arab peoples were ridding themselves of their dictators to finally embrace democracy. Yes, it was the start of a new Middle Eastern Golden Age. Sadly, that scenario was, as we now know, not to be. The secular dictators of the region have not been replaced by democrats, but by Islamofascists. Egypt, Tunisia, Libya are all lost to the West. They have been taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic radicals who not only wish to destroy Israel, but also to enslave and oppress their own people.
In Turkey, however, there is a real Spring taking place. The protesters who have taken to the streets for weeks now, and who are attacked, tear gassed and arrested by the police are freedom-loving secularists, who defend their right to live as they see fit, and who demand answers from a prime minister who is increasingly showing his true - authoritarian and Islamist - colors.
More photos of the protest in Turkey:
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