What Caused the Mass Protests in Turkey?


2 June 2013

Nobody expected the mass demonstrations in Turkey. Nobody saw them coming.

And for good reason: since the ascendancy of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP in Turkish) in 2002, Turkey’s economic and political fortunes have improved considerably. Per capita income has increased threefold while foreign trade has more than quadrupled. Ankara is becoming a crucial player on the international stage. It no longer looks like the sick man of Europe. In fact, Turkey’s democratic and secular political system in a Muslim-majority country is being hailed as a likely model for other Muslim countries to follow for quite some time.

In short, Turkey isn’t Tunisia, Egypt, or Libya and certainly not Syria. Mr. Erdoğan – whatever his shortcomings (and he has many) – is no Zine al-Abidin Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, or Muammar Qaddafi. And he’s certainly no Bashar al-Assad.

So, why did the protests in Turkey flare up so unexpectedly and spread so quickly? Simply put, the initial shock at police brutality against a small band of peaceful protestors in Taksim Square in Istanbul turned into something very big and something very angry.

Mr. Erdoğan’s words and deeds since he came to power over a decade ago helped to build a lot of that anger. To say that Mr. Erdoğan has a confrontational personality would be an understatement. He is boisterous and short-tempered, a fact he takes great pride in. He likes to raise a ruckus and to offend his detractors, which created a lot of animosity among different segments of Turkish society. The following episodes (and there are many more like them) give a good idea of how the Turkish prime minister provided fuel to the current fire in Turkey:

– In February 2006, when confronted by a bankrupt farmer who complained that his “mother was crying” (a figure of speech in Turkish to describe one’s great distress), Mr. Erdoğan suggested that the man “take [his] mother and go away.” The prime minister’s disturbing statement came as a not-so-subtle “f*** off” to the poor man. Plus, “your mama” jokes are a taboo in Turkish society – not even close friends go there – but Mr. Erdoğan did not think much of it.

– In September 2006, in the face of renewed terror attacks in southeast Turkey, Mr. Erdoğan faced criticism for the government’s perceived weakness. To one citizen who expressed frustration at the sight of fallen soldiers and military funerals, Prime Minister Erdoğan responded with a very strange statement: “the army is no place for slacking.” It almost sounded as if Mr. Erdoğan thought service-members deserved to die.

– In May 2010, Prime Minister Erdoğan compared Turkey’s second president and war hero İsmet İnönü to Hitler. İnönü holds a dear place in many people’s hearts. Under Atatürk’s command, he led armies against occupation forces during Turkey’s war for independence after World War I. As president, İnönü kept Turkey out of World War II. In the late 1940s, he oversaw Turkey’s transition to democracy and sowed the seeds of its alliance with the West. İnönü certainly deserved a different type of acknowledgement from Mr. Erdoğan.

– In April 2012, the prime minister declared that he wanted to raise “a generation of pious youth.” Faith is a personal matter, especially in a secular country. Prime Minister Erdoğan frequently forgets that he’s the leader of a secular republic. Many of his fellow Turks don’t.

– In May 2012, the prime minister renewed his calls for every Turkish family to have at least three children. To ensure that outcome, he attempted to ban all abortions and still managed to pass a law from parliament that restricted women’s access to reproductive healthcare.

– In November 2012, Mr. Erdoğan issued a veiled threat to execute the imprisoned leader of Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the militant Kurdish group PKK. The fight between Turkish government forces and the PKK has claimed the lives of nearly 40,000 people since 1984. Mr. Erdoğan’s inflammatory words could have reignited hostilities and preempted the PKK’s more recent decision to withdraw and possibly lay down its arms, which now presents a chance for real peace in Turkey.

– In February 2013, to Turkey’s Alevis, a minority of heterodox Muslims, Mr. Erdoğan offered this gem of wisdom: “cemevis are not places of worship.” Alevis prefer to congregate in what they call “cemevi” (houses of assembly) rather than mosques. Many of their rituals that are not recognized as worship by mainstream Sunnis. But that’s not the business of the prime minister of a secular country. Another moment when Mr. Erdoğan forgot what his job entails.

– In March 2013, Mr. Erdoğan called into question the “morality” of a lesbian couple in the Netherlands who had adopted a Turkish boy. Netherlands is known for its rigorous adoption regulations and there are few if any documented incidents where adopted children come to harm from LBGT couples who adopt them. For the Turkish prime minister to think that this Dutch couple would harass the young Turkish boy because of their sexual orientation is disturbing on many levels.

– Last month, when his party passed a bill from parliament to restrict the sale and consumption of alcohol, instead of framing the issue as a public health concern, Mr. Erdoğan preferred to fall back on religious symbols. He called the law “a dictate” of Islam and questioned why people respected laws passed by “two drunkards.” Whether the prime minister meant Atatürk and İnönü as those two “drunkards” is still uncertain.

As I write this post, Mr. Erdoğan called the opposition and the protestors “plunderers” and called for the construction of a mosque in Taksim Square in Istanbul, where the protests had originally started.

It won’t be unrealistic to expect the protests in Turkey to continue for a while.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Virginia and a predoctoral fellow in International Security Studies at Yale University. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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