Ten years ago, I moved from Turkey to America.
I grew up in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, and Istanbul, the most beautiful city in the world. But ever since I can remember, I wanted to live in the States. In 2003, I moved to San Francisco to get my MFA in Screenwriting. I was equally excited and terrified to begin my new life in a new country. But San Francisco welcomed me with open arms. Eventually, I got married, became a dual citizen, and my wife and I now live in Portland—the cheaper, cleaner alternative to San Francisco.
Ten years ago, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his far-right religious AK Party came into power in Turkey. His rise to power was cause for alarm among progressive secular Turks, who wanted to uphold a democracy that has strictly separated government and religion. The separation of church and state is a founding element of Turkey’s modern government—just like America’s—and was put into place by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923. This central policy states that members of any religion can practice their faith without letting their beliefs interfere with public policy and atheists or agnostics (like me) don’t have to live by religious rules.
Ten years ago, Turks like me feared that AK Party, with its fundamentalist Islamic views, would meticulously chip away at Turkey’s secular laws, cultural and social progress, and Ataturk’s modern legacy one small chunk at a time, molding Turkey into a country more like its neighboring Islamic states. As AK Party stayed in power since then, those fears have all been realized. The future for a progressive, secular Turkey is becoming grimmer by the second.
Like the right-wing in America, AK Party has been eroding women’s rights through making religious standards a part of their laws, trying to shame and discredit secular women and keep religious women under even more control. They signed legislation that limited rights to abortions, birth control, and for some reason, C-sections. They spread homophobic lies about the gay community while officially calling homosexuality a disease.
During the last couple of years, with more executive power under his fingertips, Erdogan ramped up his efforts to turn Turkey into an Islamic autocratic state. He jailed an astounding number of military members and journalists who made the mistake of speaking out against his authority. He enacted ridiculous restrictions on alcohol sales, called Ataturk “a drunk” and said with a straight face that whoever drinks any alcohol is an alcoholic.
During the first five years of Erdogan’s administration, I heard from my progressive friends and family that though the new administration was not pushing many conservative laws, the religious right’s influence was growing and Turkey’s social climate was hardening. In 2009, I realized how grim things were when my mother and I visited Ataturk’s grave in Ankara. My mother wrote on the guestbook: “We apologize for not defending you against the religious fanatics.”
In 2011, when my wife and I considered moving to Turkey in order to spend more time with my family, every single friend begged us to stay in the States. “This is not the country you remember before you left,” my friend Ozgur told me. Indeed, it wasn’t.
I, like other Turks of my generation, took many of our freedoms for granted. I guess we all thought that no matter how bad things would get culturally and economically in Turkey, no one would be dumb enough to challenge Turkey’s vision for a secular democracy and revert the country back to an Islamic state. Well, I guess someone is really that dumb, and his name is Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The current protest in Turkey began over the government’s approval of a plan to destroy the Gezi Park in the middle of Istanbul in order to build a shopping center.
But when police attacked the peaceful protestors with brutal force, it served as the spark that ignited the nationwide flame that’s been building up for the last ten years. Thousands of people, as far as the eye could see, occupied Taksim in defiance of the police, who began throwing teargas directly on them and beating them with extreme prejudice.
These protests are not just about a group of trees anymore. These protests are about millions of Turkish people doing whatever they can to protect our country’s legacy of personal freedom and secularism. After ten years of their rights being taken away bit by bit, the country’s young and old banding together to remind a deluded, self-imposed king that he does not rule over the land. That the land does not belong to him, it belongs to all of us. Erdogan lit this fuse ten years ago; the explosion was inevitable.
In an act of desperation this past weekend, the government closed the Bosporus Bridge that links the Asian side of Istanbul to the European side to oncoming traffic. Tens of thousands of protestors crossed the bridge on foot to aid their fellow citizens. Many cities around Turkey and the world joined in the chants “Tayyip istifa!” (“Resign Tayyip!”).
The current protesters are not a fringe group consisting of some young troublemakers, as Erdogan tries to make the world believe. It’s people from every walk of life bonding as one to fight the forces of oppression.
My friends, even ones I thought to be apolitical, are taking to the streets, bravely facing the abusive police force. My wife and I asked my mother to stay indoors, wrongly believing a woman in her 60s does not belong out in the potentially violent scene. But upon returning from the protests, my mother told us that she felt like the young one among the crowd, that there were hundreds of people much older than her taking to the streets challenging the police nightsticks and tear gas. I am so proud to call the protesters my friends and family.
We Americans have our share of problems with our government, but the one thing we cannot take for granted is our freedom of speech, which is severely threatened in Turkey. The government has a stranglehold on the media; none of the major newspapers or television stations dares to report on the protests. While CNN America at least occasionally reported on the escalating situation, especially regarding police brutality, CNN Turk decided to show a documentary on penguins. The government forces are trying their best to block Internet access, to stop the protestors from sharing the truth with the world. So far, they have been colossally unsuccessful.
Now, we need to use our free speech to help those who are losing their country, their ideals, and their ability to freely express themselves. My heart is breaking by the fact that I can’t join in the protests in Taksim, but I try to spread information about what’s going on as fast and as frequently as possible. Please keep your thoughts on Turkey and spread reliable news any way you can and tweet with the hashtags #occupygezi and #direngeziparki.
Photos: At top, two women in Ankara hold up flags against police water cannons. At right, feminist protestors in Istanbul. Both photos are via the Occupy Gezi Tumblr, where they are uncredited.