Turkey: It’s Not Only About a Tree, Stupid (Part 2/2)

Erdogan’s government has antagonized major portions of Turkish society over the last decade. This is the last of a two part series. Read part one here.

Negotiations with the PKK

The Turkish government’s handshake with a terrorist organisation, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), is another cardinal element of discomfort. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan first denied the negotiations with Abdullah Ocalan, calling those who talk to terrorists “inglorious”. But after a while he accepted the negotiations and claimed himself to be the founder of peace in the country. However, from the declarations of the PKK, peace looks still far away.

Without a doubt, Turkish citizens would like to see a peaceful environment in the country. But while there have been more than 30,000 deaths – civilians and military together – it should not have been that easy to forgive the terrorists or to organise a welcoming ceremony for them, as if they were national heroes. The agreement between the government and the PKK has created widespread shock and a serious backlash, as it was almost the only issue Turks were talking or posting about on social media recently.

Moreover, previous small-scale demonstrations with regards to different issues were all met with teargas, water cannons, and police batons, whereas PKK members who are perceived as criminals by the Turkish people, freely demonstrated without any police intervention. One of the slogans of these recent demonstrations was: “Flower to the PKK, gas to the people”.

The Turkish government established a commission of wise men as part of the peace process with the PKK. They were tasked with explaining or convincing people to support the peace process. The commission members were faced with angry protests each time they gave speeches to people in different towns.

Discrimination Against Women

Violence against women rose by 1400% since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power. The violence involves homicide and sexual harassment of children from both genders. Moreover, violence against women is rarely punished by law. The government’s insults and expressions degrading women have long been among the main discomforts of the population. The government even intervened with regards to the colour of lipstick (finding red too seductive) or the skirts of Turkish Airlines stewardesses by lengthening them. One minister said he did not go to university because he saw male and female students sitting on the grass together and thought he would go astray.

Erdogan attempted to criminalise adultery ten years ago but stepped back following pressure from the EU. However, he changed the laws that forbid marriage at high school, thus encouraging marriage for those who are underage. He has been making calls for women to have at least three children, and he argues it is very easy today to have a lot of children for women since there are disposable diapers.

Moreover, the AKP government attempted to make c-section births and abortion illegal. The minister of health declared: “Women who get pregnant as a result of rape should not have an abortion; the state is capable of taking care of that child.” Husbands and fathers of women who take pregnancy tests, receive phone calls from hospitals and are informed about the results whether it is negative or positive. Furthermore, morning-after pills now can be bought only with prescription, which will give an opportunity for the state to record women who have sexual intercourse.

The number of statements made by members of government on sexuality increased enormously in the last ten years and remained the main topic of satire magazines and caricatures, inducing angry protests at the same time.

The Turkish PM, his ministers, mayors, and other officials, have made thousands of statements which involve the humiliation of women and, to some extent, the legitimisation of violence and sexual harassment. A woman who was being threatened by her ex-boyfriend demanded protection from the governor, but her demand was denied by governor’s scandalious statement: “At worst you will die, there is no escape from death, death is a fate.” The young woman was killed by her ex-boyfriend in the end.

The president of the AKP’s Kirikkale provincial branch, Mehmet Demir, declared on March 8 that it was permissible, according to Islam, to “slightly” beat women. The minister of economy blamed working women for rising unemployment. Another example is that the minister of transport’s wife sat at a table alone in a restaurant, while the minister himself sat with male authorities at a separate table, two meters away.

When a group of women demanded a job from the minister of environment, he answered: “Is not the work at home enough for you?” An AKP municipality also published and circulated a booklet involving statements allowing the beating of women and marrying nine-year-old girls.

Perhaps that is why women seem to be more eager and bold in these demonstrations.

Oppression of the Alevi Population

The Turkish Alevi population is oppressed, which one had to expect, especially when the government distances itself from secularism. Alevis are not recognised as a religious group. They are sometimes harassed by fundamentalists, but those assaults are not recognised as hate crimes; therefore, the attackers are not punished. In 1993, for example, radical Islamists killed 33 artists and intellectuals by burning down their hotels in Sivas. Known as the Madimak Events, the people who were killed were mostly Alevis.

The Ankara High Criminal Court dropped the case due to statute of limitations. Protests and police intervention again followed the court verdict. While the Madimak Case scandal was not yet digested by the people, Erdogan’s suggestion to name the planned third Bosphorus bridge after Yavuz Sultan Selim has been another shock for the Alevis, as Sultan Selim is a 16th century Ottoman sultan known for having massacred Alevis.

Limitations on Alcohol

Erdogan’s insolent statement about people who drink alcohol was one of the recent agitations. The government accepted new rules limiting alcohol consumption. Beer bottles or wine glasses on television will be blurred and the sale of alcohol after 10pm will not be allowed. Although he explained the new regulations by giving examples from developed countries, his statements are especially controversial since there are already existing fears of an increasing Islamisation of Turkish society. Erdogan’s recent reference to “two drunken men” as the architects of the present alcohol laws that his government has changed, included Atatürk and the first prime minister of the republic, İsmet İnönü. Just two days before the start of demonstrations, Erdogan said on this issue: “When two drunkards make a law, you respect it. But when we make a law for something that faith orders, you reject it. Why?

His anger towards people who drink alcohol was reflected through his words: “People can drink until they are knocked out, but at their own homes.” After the demonstrations had started, he gave an interview on television and said that even those who drink a few glasses of wine from time to time are alcoholics. When the interviewer reminded Erdogan that there are some people who drink but voted for the AKP, Erdogan responded in a scandalous way: “They are not alcoholics!”

Anti-American Sentiments

There are also anti-American sentiments among the protesters. They are not against the existence of an American state, of course, like Islamist fundamentalists, but they are against unclear and sometimes secret agreements with the US, though these may be conspiracy theories. The problem is not the US; the problem is the belief that Erdogan is following the American president’s orders.

Although this looks like a problem with the American state, it is, in fact, a problem once more with the Turkish PM. Erdogan drew a rebuff when he said that he was praying for the safety of American soldiers, while not mentioning any Muslims who were killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Conservative Muslims were especially curious why the Turkish PM did not pray for Muslims as well.

Capitalism

Capitalism is also being criticised in these demonstrations. When we look at the big picture, the problem is the interesting system that was created by the Erdogan government. It is neither capitalist, nor socialist because Turkish citizens are paying high taxes but are not receiving any free or cheap services from the government.

Besides this, the simple reason behind questioning the morality of capitalism are the plans for a shopping mall on Gezi Park. It should be noted that there are a significant number of Arab business people who invest “hot money” in shopping malls, residences, and hotels in Turkey.

First of all, the Turkish economy has become increasingly dependent on the hot money flow from Arab countries. Hot money, which refers to short-term investments, is risky, because it can be pulled out quickly. Secondly, concerning the vulnerable economy, a more production-based economy is being increasingly defended by analysts. Thirdly, since the AKP government has a long list of corruption, suspicions have arisen that the government has made bid-rigging arrangements. According to the allegations, Erdogan favours Arab investors, which can be viewed as a form of religious nepotism.

Turkey, in comparison with European countries, has a lot of shopping malls. Protesters often make a call to the people to boycott shopping malls, preferring local and small entrepreneurs. According to research, recent demonstrations already hit shopping malls, lowering their profits by 30%. 

Campaign Against the Arts

The AKP government’s hatred against some types of art — such as ballet, sculpture, theatre, and opera — has been known for years. Erdogan said: “We all know what a ballet dancer is really up to, what they display and what they aim… these are all bawdy.” He also added: “I would suggest a ballet dancer to stop what she is doing… and thank God my daughters never had such dreams.”

AKP ministers often use defamatory words to describe certain artworks. Ankara’s current AKP mayor’s words in 1994 about a sculpture that he had found obscene were: “I would spit on such an artwork.” This was followed by Erdogan’s description of another sculpture as a “freak”. Moreover, the AKP government is trying to privatise and cut funding for the national opera, ballet, and theatre; a move that scared artists who are dependent on the state’s financial support.

Several weeks ago, there were already demonstrations in Istanbul to prevent the destruction of two historic buildings: the Emek Theatre and Inci Bakery. Building shopping malls by demolishing historical and cultural buildings brought about backlash and protests. Worse was the brutal police intervention, once more. 

In the recent demonstrations, protesters criticised the government’s attempts to destroy art, parks, and town squares which are thought to be signs of civilisation and the character of towns. Ignoring opposing views, the current government also changed the education system that allows students take selective Quran classes at primary school. Fears came true earlier than expected, as some teachers and school principals exerted pressure, humiliated students in class, or sometimes threatened families of students who did not select religious classes.

Religious fundamentalism has mounted during the AKP’s rule. Fazil Say, a well known composer and pianist, retweeted Omer Hayyam’s sarcastic poem about religion and was given a suspended ten-month prison sentence. However, strong insults and threats made against the world-famous artist were not punished.

The People Are on the Streets

It is essential to note that many protesters were held in detention after each of the above mentioned incidents. Before these demonstrations, the main topic of conversation was anger and fear about the future of the country; independent media had been making the AKP policies their headlines every day with scathing criticisms in their columns. Before the recent demonstrations, it was the social media where the news, fears, and concerns were shared and discussed. The unrest was a long-standing issue in Turkish society.

Today, Turkish citizens are not talking among themselves or on the internet; they are on the streets, and they raised their voice. If the main problem is the AKP policies, the second one is the incapability of the opposition parties to perform their duty.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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