Thursday, June 6, 2013

Turkey: Gezi Park is now a utopic ‘Freetown’

Istanbul’s city center is now a timeless place after the police withdrawal. Closed by barricades, Gezi Park and Taksim now belong solely to people and ideologies previously deemed closed to the mainstream
At the entrance of Copenhagen’s famous Freetown Christiania, visitors are greeted with a hand-painted sign reading “You are now leaving the EU.” Right now, something similar can be said for the Gezi Park – it’s no longer Istanbul as you know it. Since the police withdrawal from the city center on June 1 as a result of clashes with protesters, the Taksim district has been occupied as could never have been predicted. Closed with barricades, the central district now solely belongs to the people, and to ideologies that were previously deemed completely closed to the mainstream. Bright lights and loud music coming from İstiklal Avenue are not there. Shops are closed, and graffiti fills their windows. On Taksim Square, it feels like the post-apocalypse has met the day after revolution. A wrecked NTV van and a crashed police car have been left like remnants of the Berlin Wall, open for photographing. The iconic Atatürk Cultural Center (AKM) has been covered with flags: Legendary 1970’s revolutionary Deniz Gezmiş looks down on the area, while next to him are posters of left-wing groups and a “shut up” call to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Just a week ago, even the thought of such a scene was impossible. Now, with the occupation, it has become the reality. Forty-nine percent Make no mistake, even though it has a passing resemblance to the “Occupy” movement, this is not a “We are the 99 percent” action. It is more like, “We are the 49 percent.” It is the mobilization of thousands who do not find themselves represented in the Parliament. The protests were more about people, mostly youths, making themselves heard by a government that enjoys too much comfort from its majority and forgets to hear the concerns of the minority. As a crowd that was complaining of discrimination, the Gezi people are embracing their differences beautifully. On June 1, slogans were silenced when a prayer call was heard. “From now on, respect for every belief will prevail,” one said. That approach was again used yesterday, when they asked people not to drink alcohol out of respect to the sacred night of Lailat al–Mi’raj. Inside the Gezi Park, the utopian feeling is multiplied. There are open buffets for people feeding themselves, yoga sessions in the morning and now, a library. Every morning, after the police withdrawal, protesters got the area squeaky clean. People have fun in their own way and nobody intervenes: Kurds dance their halays, Laz people do their horon dance, and a group with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk flags chant their slogans - All this happens within a few meters’ distance. There are lots of differences, but no conflict. There are no police, but it’s safe. No hierarchy, but a humane order. For a country where the democratic tradition is about rights being given from the top to bottom, it is about reversing the order. It is about sharing, kindness, and reasoning. So romantic, for sure; but it is there. We know that it won’t be forever. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Turkish protesters want "neither Islamisation, nor unbridled capitalism"

Despite the Turkish deputy prime minister apologising for police’s “excessive violence”, protesters once again went out into the streets by the thousands in cities around Turkey Tuesday night. Our Observers participating in the protests explain their many grievances against prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and why they are determined to keep up the struggle. At least 25 people were arrested early on Wednesday morning in the western city of Izmir for allegedly spreading “false and defamatory” information on Twitter. Meanwhile, in the capital Ankara and in Istanbul, police used water cannons to push back protesters trying to reach government offices. Clashes between police and protesters at Taksim Square in Istanbul on Tuesday. Photo by Doğu Eroğlu On top of these protests, Turkey is now experiencing strikes led by one of the country’s main unions, the KESK. On Tuesday, it called on its more than 200,000 members to stop working for 48 hours. Bulent Arinc, who serves both as deputy prime minister and government spokesperson, offered an apology on Tuesday to “all those who became victims of violence because they wanted to defend the environment,” adding that the very first protests, held early last week in Istanbul to block the razing of a public park, were “just and legitimate.” Since 2002, Turkey's government has been led by the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, a moderate Islamist party with conservative views. The AKP has won the last three parliamentary elections. The main opposition party is the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, which is not religiously affiliated. Its president, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has publicly expressed his support for the protesters.
"If the AKP stays in power, Islam will regulate all parts of society"
Omer Koseoglu is 45. He is the manager of a nightclub in the capital, Ankara.
This is the first time in my life that I’ve participated in a protest. I joined this movement because the vast majority of its supporters behave in a peaceful way and because I agree with their goals, notably their opposition to the government eroding the boundary between religion and state. This separation is a founding principle of our republic; it’s in our constitution, and I refuse to see it besmirched. The AKP has made religion a bigger part of our children’s education. Last year, the educational system was revamped: we now have a “4+4+4” system, meaning that students spend four years in primary school, four years in middle school, and four years in high school. When they leave primary school, at just 10 years of age, they can decide to go to a “professional” school. These include Imam Hatip schools, which are religious. Before, kids could only enrol there after they turned 15. These reforms are put in place without any debate. Since the AKP enjoys a strong majority, the government can do whatever it wants. If this party stays in power, Islam will soon regulate all parts of society. "I’m also protesting against the Turkish media’s silence"
Doga Erdem (not her real name) is 25. She works as a journalist in Istanbul. I joined the protests early on – I was in Gezi Park on the second day. My goal was initially to stop the trees from being cut down so that the park could be replaced by a shopping mall. But then I, like many other young people, witnessed the police’s violent reaction and saw this as a sign that the government is becoming more and more authoritarian. So our demands became about more than the park – we started demanding more democracy. The AKP has such a strong majority in parliament that there are no more debates: they propose laws, and these are adopted almost instantaneously. Is that democracy? I’m also protesting against the Turkish media’s silence. There are practically no media outlets that are really covering the protests: this shows that there is a serious issue with freedom of expression in Turkey. I’m convinced that this movement is going to keep going. The vast majority of protesters are young people who aren’t members of any political parties, and who come from very different backgrounds. We’re not fighting for this or that political cause; we just want to assert our right to live in a democracy. The fact that this movement is spontaneous and diverse should worry the government.
"The government is selling off Turkish companies for next to nothing"
Mert Meric, 27, lives in Izmir. He holds a degree in fine arts and is currently looking for work.
For me, these protests are an opportunity to denounce the government’s economic policies. It is selling off Turkish companies for next to nothing. For example, it let a Czech company buy out Sedas, a subsidiary of Tedas, Turkey’s national energy company. If the government continues like this, energy prices – which are very low in Turkey – are going to go up. Meanwhile, a new law now allows foreign companies to start exploring underwater resources in the Mediterranean Sea. This puts an end to the preferential treatment that Turkey’s oil company TPAO had enjoyed. I fear that in this respect, too, the population could bear the consequences. If we have resources in the first place, why sell them off to foreign companies that we will then have to buy them back from?

Pakistani woman climber hopes to inspire with Everest feat

The first Pakistani woman to climb Mount Everest says she wants her achievement to stand as an inspiration to all the women of her troubled country that they can achieve their dreams. Samina Baig last month became the first woman from Pakistan to reach the 8,848 metre (29,029 foot) summit of the world's tallest mountain, after a gruelling expedition in rough weather. As she unfurled the green and white Pakistani flag on the peak, tears of joy and pride rolled down her cheeks, she said. The 22-year-old said that as she stood with the world at her feet, her mind turned to the millions of women back home denied opportunities because of their gender in Pakistan's conservative, patriarchal society. “I was thinking about the women of Pakistan, those who are not allowed to get education, those who are not allowed to do whatever they want to do in their life,” she said. “I hope that the families will understand that the contribution of women is important and can be more powerful for building a greater country.” Human rights groups say Pakistani women suffer severe discrimination, domestic violence and so-called “honour” killings – when a victim is murdered for allegedly bringing dishonour upon her family. Baig, from the small town of Shimshal in the Hunza valley in Pakistan's mountainous north said she hoped to empower the women of Pakistan through her achievements. “Mountain climbing is my passion and to empower women through my expeditions is the reason. I am doing the mountain climbing to empower women,” she said. “The reason behind this expedition was to convey a message that if Samina can climb a mountain other girls can do anything they want in their life.” The Everest climb was not Baig's first significant achievement – after taking up climbing just three years ago she became the first person to reach the summit of the 6,400-metre Chashkin Sar peak in northern Pakistan in 2010. “Chashkin Sar was virgin and we climbed it for the first time and afterwards the people renamed it as Samina Baig,” she said. Training for the Everest expedition, which she accomplished with her brother Mirza Ali with financial help from New Zealand, began 12 months ago in the frozen wastes of her home district. “It took us one year. Me and my brother were planning for the last one year. We went for training in winter on glaciers. We went to Shimshal Pass in the winter to prepare, stamina building and technical training,” she said. Northern Pakistan is home to some of the world's most impressive mountains and glaciers and challenging climbs, and Baig urged the government to relax the rigid visa regime which she said was holding it back as a destination for mountaineers. “The problem is the visa issue. People want to come to Pakistan but are not given visas. We wish for visas to be given to those people who want to come to Pakistan,” she said. With Everest in the bag, Baig's next target is to summit the highest peaks in each of the world's seven continents – all while studying for a degree in tourism management.

Erdogan(erdoGONE) returns to Turkey amid riots

Turkey: What would Ataturk think?

by Octavia Nasr
The father of all Turks and founder of the modern secular Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, must be turning in his grave from the turn of events throughout Turkey and the political implications they usher in. It all started when a few thousands of Ataturk's unarmed and peaceful sons and daughters took to Istanbul's Taksim Square to protest their government's greed and disregard for the environment as reflected in a lucrative plan to turn Gezi Park (one of Istanbul's last green spaces) into a shopping mall and commercial centre. That the ambitious project is contracted by Prime Minister's Recep Tayyeb Erdogan's AK Party might be the only reason why the Turkish Police responded in a shocking and unwarranted heavy-handedness against the peaceful tree-huggers. That, coupled with a local media blackout on the peaceful protest and the ensuing violent police response, drove the situation to an all-out protest across the country with people demanding the resignation of Erdogan and his government and even calling him a "dictator." The Prime Minister and his party have been acting as the masters of Turkey and its only rulers for quite some time. Riding their unquestioned popularity at the polls and pulling the numbers game any time they feel squeezed or pressured. Erdogan's famous quote about protests which he alluded to again over the weekend as he spoke about the latest protests, "you bring one hundred thousand, we bring one million!" This sounds very familiar to those at the receiving end of other Islamists that came to power thanks to the democratic process. Think Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ennahda in Tunisia, and Hamas in Gaza. What Mr Erdogan did not count on is that a small environmental protest, which he believed he could totally ignore and intimidate the media into ignoring as well, would end up being the one to expose his dictatorship-style democracy where his own opinions and beliefs are above reproach and where opposition is reduced to nothing and never given the chance to play its natural role. Mr. Erdogan never thought that a simple protest over a green patch would expose his party's inability and unwillingness to listen or negotiate. He never thought the word will get out of Istanbul, let alone to some twenty six cities in Turkey and through social media to the entire world. A simple march on Taksim Square, which on a regular day would have been insignificant and ineffective, brought out the worst of Turkish Police and brought in the world's attention. When the protests widened and got violent naturally, Mr Erdogan spoke not once but three times on Sunday, trying to appear in control and dismissive of the reach of the loud critical voices. He called Twitter a "bunch of lies-carrying vehicle" and to people calling him a "dictator," he had "nothing to say." In essence doing the same thing his government and his party have done every time they were met with criticism: Playing down the charges, dismissing and discrediting the critics, blaming dissent on the opposition, and moving on with their plans as usual. Many things should concern anyone looking at Erdogan, his AKP and the future of Turkey as a key player in the Middle East, Europe and on the international scene. Let's mention only some obvious red lights although there are many others: The very charismatic Mr Erdogan, with a large Islamist voter base, has been rallying to alter the constitution to allow him to become Turkey's first newly empowered president. His plans did not go through at the end of 2012 and earlier this year he seemed to put them on hold for a while. For someone who campaigned hard in 2007 to lift a ban on women wearing headscarves at state universities and made it a priority of his premiership until the ban was lifted, it is very obvious that his Islamist agenda is wrapped nicely into a moderate conservative one. Then the ban on alcohol sale earlier this year, which was introduced, written and approved in two short weeks despite a ferocious opposition and his comment, "those who want to drink can drink at home." On the same subject, Erdogan has said that the original alcohol law which he overturned was "written by a couple of alcoholics!" One has to wonder if he was referring to Ataturk as an "alcoholic." If so, wouldn't this be considered an "insult" to the father of modern secular Turkey? Because if he meant Ataturk, that would be an offense punishable by law! With an unapologetic statement like this, which went unnoticed, Erdogan's one party rule is well on its way to rolling back Turkey's secularism right under everybody's nose. For anyone in the free world who applauds Erdogan's Turkey and uses it as a "model" for Arab Spring countries and the Islamic rule within a democracy, let the latest events serve as lessons on how important it is to keep religion and state separate in secular societies and always beware of Islamist agendas disguised as democracies. I really don't know what Ataturk would think of all this, but if he is rolling in his grave, it is certainly not the first time and, from the way things are going in Turkey, it certainly won't be the last.

Turkey's reaction to protests follows Islamist playbook
The Turkish prime minister's dismissal of anti-government protests as the work of opposition thugs fits a pattern of how many Islamist political leaders are responding to legitimate criticism of their regimes. Islamist leaders in Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey have shown an arrogance toward opposition views, breeding frustration that exacerbates civil unrest and instability and is likely to spread as democratic reforms continue to sweep the region, analysts say. "The similarity is quite striking, (but) not that surprising," because Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other Islamist leaders "have a similar view of democracy," says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. They believe winning elections gives them a mandate and considerable latitude to pursue their vision, even in the face of significant opposition, Hamid says. "There's less of an idea of consensus building or taking into account the positions of the electoral minorities." The democratic changes that followed the Arab Spring revolts have led to the political rise of Islamist groups sidelined or repressed by Middle East political structures for decades. In Turkey, Erdogan's Islamist government has gained power in part by eroding the once powerful influence the nation's military had on politics. While the Islamists have taken advantage of democratic elections, they appear not to have embraced another feature of Western democracy: protecting minorities from the majority.Protests that erupted last week in Turkey started out as a peaceful demonstration against a government plan to build a mosque and shopping center in an historic Istanbul square surrounded by outdoor restaurants and bars. When police tried to break it up with force, however, the protest evolved into a mass movement against what many Turks describe as an increasingly authoritarian government that's pushing a religious agenda and ignores minority views. Demonstrators who took up the cause in dozens of Turkish cities protested a recently passed law banning retail alcohol sales between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. and the issuing of new licenses for bars within 100 yards of a mosque or school. What happened next was similar to how Islamist governments responded to secular opposition in Egypt and Tunisia. • Erdogan on Monday refused to back away from the development plan and said "I am not going to seek the permission of (the opposition) or a handful of looters." In a speech over the weekend, he warned demonstrators that if they bring 200,000 to the streets, his supporters would bring 1 million. • Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi declared unchecked executive authority and used his powers to push through a constitution drafted by an Islamist-dominated committee. When tens of thousands of people protested outside his presidential palace, he described them as illegitimate thugs, and declared that "God's will and elections made me the captain of this ship." Thousands of his supporters filled the streets to offset opposition protests. • In Tunisia, civil unrest erupted after secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid was assassinated. When Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali proposed a unity government to quell the unrest, Islamists blocked it, saying it would be wrong to give up any electoral gain. "This is what the West will have to contend with," says Eric Trager, an expert on the Muslim Brotherhood at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Islamist parties tend to view democratic institutions as useful in the short run but lack a commitment to democratic values such as checks and balances that allow political minorities to force compromise on the majority, and "the result of that is instability," Trager says. "People (in the opposition) are no longer willing to tolerate a situation in which even elected government acts repressively," he says. "That's not to say those elected governments will be replaced, but the reaction can be destabilizing and economically harmful." Hamid also thinks the conflict between Islamist governments and those who do not support them fully will continue to spread because the Arab world and Turkey are dealing with the role of religion in public life, after decades of repression, and the two sides are far apart ideologically. Each side thinks that "If your opponents win it will change the fundamental nature of society or the state," Hamid says. Feeling are so strong in Egypt, that some secularists have said they prefer a restoration of the military dictatorship that governed the country for decades, Hamid also thinks the conflict will be seen in more countries, especially Syria, where the Islamist-secularist and sectarian fault lines are the reason many Syrians fear a mostly Sunni rebellion will succeed. Michael Rubin, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, says many Turks believe Erdogan has become less committed to democracy and that the Turkish leader "has dispensed with this idea that there should be compromise," Rubin says. Rather than draw a parallel with Tunisia, however, Rubin sees similarities with another popular, elected throwback kind of president: Valdimir Putin of Russia, who has overseen a drastic backslide on democracy in the former Soviet Union. "In the Arab Spring a lot of the protesters were Islamists" bringing down long-standing dictatorships, Rubin says. "In the Turkish spring, people feel the country's no longer democratic. He (Erdogan) seems to combine the worst aspects of Morsi and Putin."

Police strike protesters in Turkish capital Ankara with sudden tear gas attack
The ninth day of the Gezi Park protests saw more police violence in the center of Ankara in the afternoon, despite the government’s repeated instructions to the security forces to exercise restraint. Police again used tear gas and water cannon to quell protesters, most of whom were members of unions who had called for a strike in solidarity with the Gezi Park demonstrations. The Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions (DİSK), the Public Workers Unions Confederation (KESK), the Turkish Doctors’ Union (TTB) and the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects (TMMOB) as well as members of left-wing political parties and members of civil society organizations were all present at the Kızılay square. A greater police presence compared to the last two days was noted near the square. Tensions arose as a group unrelated with the unions tried to set up tents on Kızılay Square, according to claims. Police chased protesters in the main arterial roads of the town such as Sakarya, Ziya Gökalp and Atatürk Avenues. Some detentions have reportedly been made following the sudden crackdown. Police also fired tear gas and used water cannons against another group of demonstrators that gathered at Kuğulu Park. Two journalists working for the Ulusal Channel, Ankara bureau chief Mustafa Kaya and cameraman Serkan Bayraktar, were taken into custody, the private broadcaster reported. Ankara was one of the places which saw the fiercest police repression over the week-end.