Jun 13

Holding Out For A Hero

Could this be Turkey’s next leader? He is Sırrı Süreyya Önder, an MP who was at the forefront of the Gezi Park protests in May, leading the resistance in the teeth of advancing bulldozers. He is a politician of unusual integrity and charisma. A former actor and film director, he turned his hand to political journalism before running as an independent candidate for Istanbul in the 2011 elections. After winning an overwhelming victory in the polls, he decided to align himself with a political party and settled on the BDP (Peace and Democracy Party), the party which represents Kurdish rights and has been negotiating with the government in the recent Kurdish peace process. Önder is not Kurdish himself, which is unusual.

As I wrote last week, there have been exciting – if vague – rumours of a new political party emerging from the protest forums which have been held to discuss political representation for the concerns of protesters. This is badly needed, because mainstream opposition in Turkey is pathetic. The CHP (Republic People’s Party), the main opposition party, is outdated and disorganized, incapable of capitalizing on these protests or anything else. Their policies are almost entirely reactionary, and they rarely bestir themselves beyond blanket criticism of AKP policies. The leader until 2010, Deniz Baykal, led the party for eighteen dreary years, and was only persuaded to leave after an alleged sex-tape was leaked to the press. The current leader, Kemal Kılıçdaoğlu, seems like a rather nice man but has not taken the country by storm.

Turks have huge respect for strong, charismatic leaders, which stems from the ongoing hero worship of Kemal Mustafa Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey. Every Turkish leader since Ataürk has struggled in the shadow of the great man, and many people suspect that for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he is a particular nemesis. Erdogan has been the most popular and longstanding leader since Atatürk, and he needs a living rival.

He has no rivals, currently, because there are is no new blood in Turkish politics, only stagnation. This is mainly due to the barbaric 10% threshold which prevents any new political party from getting anywhere in elections. Even if a particular party candidate wins an overwhelming majority in their constituency, they will not win a seat in parliament unless their party has won over 10% of the votes nationwide. Anyone who voted for them effectively wasted their vote. This means that voters tend to support old dinosaurs like the CHP, even if they have no faith in these parties. Alternatively, they vote for independent candidates, who can, unaided, legally win seats in parliament by winning over 10% of votes just in their constituency. The 10% nationwide threshold for political parties is, incidentally, the highest in Europe, and the subject of much controversy, but the AKP show no interest in lowering it. It was instigated after the military coup in 1980, so that the military could control the main parties in power and prevent opposition. It is a self-evidently unjust system, but unfortunately it never suits those in power to change it, so it has stayed like this for twenty years. During the protests, I heard a religious Turkish lady describe it as “haram” – a religious sin.

Some parties have rather cleverly tried to buck the system by recruiting independent candidates; when these candidates win, they join the party to boost its profile and improve its chances for the next election. The BDP (Kurdish rights party) has done this to great effect, even attracting new ministers like Önder, the charismatic ex-actor. Önder has impressive credentials – like all successful politicians (including Erdogan), he has been imprisoned for his political views. At university in Ankara in 1980, he was sentenced to twelve years for being part of a student body that resisted the military junta. He is hugely popular, at least among Kurds and Istanbulus, although he cannot currently compare to Erdogan, sadly. If a political “Gezi Park” party did emerge now, it would need to employ the same tactics as the BDP to gain any momentum. It would need a lot of financial backing, which some old banking families might be willing to provide. Most of all, it would need a leader: my money is on Önder.

Jun 13


On Friday, 19 year old Medeni Yildrim was killed by police in Lice, south east Turkey, when police opened fire on people protesting the disproportionate number of gendarmerie and police stations in villages which have no water, schools or hospitals. In solidarity with this killing, thousands marched in Istanbul and Ankara yesterday, and ten protesters were detained in Istanbul.

Takvim, the newspaper that published a fake, “confessional” interview with CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour, has lodged a formal complaint at an Istanbul prosecutor’s office against CNN. The newspaper charged CNN and Amanpour personally with “inciting the public to hatred and enmity by making false news.”
That is correct: the tabloid is charging CNN, rather than the other way round.

In Ankara, Egemen Bağış, the EU minister, has shown European ambassadors a video of stone-throwing protesters in response to criticism of the heavy-handed behaviour of Turkish police forces. Afterwards he declared that he had shown them evidence of protesters drinking in a mosque – this so-called evidence turned out to be a still shot of a squashed can (which apparently looked more like a coke can than a beer can) somewhere in the vicinity of the mosque. The muezzin of the mosque in question has repeatedly confirmed that no one drank in the mosque on the night he admitted injured protesters to shelter from police. He was interrogated for six hours but has not deviated from his story. His testimony is conveniently ignored by Erdogan who is fond of referring to “shameless” protesters drinking in mosque when he addresses crowds of adoring AKP supporters.

Jun 13

Journalists Rally in Self-Defence

Last night I attended a emergency meeting of the foreign press club in Istanbul to discuss the verbal and physical attacks on foreign journalists during the last few weeks of protest. A motley crew of journalists – hard-bitten stringers, high-profile columnists, novice freelancers and veteran photojournalists – sat around discussing their experiences of harassment and intimidation in a strangely idyllic setting on a rooftop bar. We heard about press card confiscation and online targeting by Turkish MPs, as well as lone journalists being roughed up by police in the streets near Taksim. This was not mere anecdote swapping; we had come to decide on a strategy to protect ourselves. Andrew Gardner, a representative of Amnesty International, was there. Senior correspondents were there. Here was a collection of people in the best possible position to publicize their predicament, but it was not obvious how to go about it.

Journalists here are scared, and rightly so. Attacks on journalists of any status are obviously unacceptable, but when whole institutions such as the BBC, CNN and Reuters are being targeted, it becomes clear that the Turkish government has lost any interest they might have previously had in maintaining good relations with major foreign media, and that is a very sinister development. Without fearless, unbiased media coverage, any country is in deep trouble and Turkey needs to improve its freedom of speech record now, more than ever.

A couple of weeks ago, a Russian journalist, Arkady Babchenko, was beaten by police for filming empty police cars. He had to be hospitalized, but was immediately deported when he could walk again. Other journalists, most notably Selin Girit for the BBC, have been the target of hate campaigns on Twitter, instigated by senior politicians. Other journalists have had their houses mysteriously burgled, their computers smashed up. Aside from these specific attacks, we all agreed that there is currently a distinct atmosphere of intimidation which makes one think twice before publishing anything negative about the government. Erdogan talks with complete conviction of foreign media plots. Pro-government newspapers call foreign journalists liars and urge Turkish citizens not to trust them.

We came up with a plan – to write an open letter to Erdogan and other ministers, stating our fears and demanding an end to the threats and smear campaigns. The idea of a formal association was floated but rejected on the grounds that it would shackle us with bureaucratic demands and constant investigation by authorities. The open letter would be widely publicized in foreign papers and online. So far, so good – until one wag pointed out the obvious problem: “How do fifty writers write one letter?”

Jun 13

Erdogan’s Folly


Gezi Park used to be an unassuming patch of green by Taksim Square in Istanbul. It is now a symbol of widespread resentment against the AKP government, in particular the Prime Minister. For some time, Erdoğan has been planning to redevelop the whole area of Taksim, and the centerpiece of his plan was to rebuild the Ottoman Taksim Military Barracks, destroyed in 1940. A “cultural preservation board”, however, refused permission for the project in January of this year. No matter – by the first of May, a higher board conveniently overturned the decision, just in time for construction to start.

Why has Erdoğan been so insistent on this project? At the beginning of June he told the occupiers of Gezi Park, “Do what you like. We’ve made the decision and we will implement it accordingly.” The man has a mission, and it is bigger than a mere whim of urban planning.

In 1909, the original Taksim barracks was the seat of an Islamic uprising against the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the nationalistic predecessors to the founders of the Republic of Turkey. The CUP then used this mutiny as an excuse to exile the last power-wielding Ottoman Sultan, Abdülhamid II, who had adopted a controversial policy of pan-Islamisation throughout the Empire. The barracks was turned into the first football stadium in Turkey in 1921. It was then destroyed in 1940, and Gezi Park was created.

The barracks project is of great personal significance to Erdoğan, an uncompromising leader who is determined to reestablish the prominence of Islam in Turkey. In 1909, Islamic Ottoman soldiers were repressed by revolutionary nationalists. In the 1990s, men like Erdoğan and other Islamic-leaning politicians were also repressed by nationalists, most significantly the underground members of the ultra-nationalist “Ergenekon” movement. In the last few years of AKP rule, there has been a slew of Ergenekon trials aimed at seeking revenge on those who tried to bring down the AKP during the 1990s.

Erdoğan sees himself as a neo-Ottoman leader who celebrates the Islamic heroes of Ottoman history in order to celebrate the return of Islamic leadership in modern Turkey. He recreates elements of the Ottoman past to show that the pendulum has swung; the decades of military-backed nationalist control are over, and Erdoğan can say “We’ve won”. The most striking way to express that is through changing the landscape of Istanbul, re-branding a previously secular square of enormous historical importance with an overtly religious renovation project.

In 1999 Erdogan was sent to prison for reciting a poem which was regarded as an “incitement to commit offence”. It included the lines: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers”. Perhaps in recent years, the overlapping images of mosques and barracks has made an impression on Erdoğan. Last year, in suitably Sultan-esque style, he announced plans to build an enormous mosque on Çamlıca hill in Istanbul, positioned so that is will be visible from any point in the city. If he persists in this project after the debacle of Gezi Park, I hope we will see a return of the tree-hugging troublemakers throwing themselves in front of bulldozers.

The picture above is an artist’s impression of the proposed Ottoman barracks.

Jun 13

Turkish Police: beyond the arm of the law


Today Erdogan praised Turkey’s “heroic” police and defended them against accusations that they acted aggressively towards protesters. “Our police passed a tough test of democracy successfully. They stood against attacks and provocations that would not be tolerated in some other countries; in a way they wrote an epic story”, was how he rather poetically put it.

This came on the same day that the policeman who shot an unarmed Ethem Sarisuluk in the head from five meters away and killed him was released from custody because he was deemed to have acted in self defence.

Here is the link to footage of the shooting, so you can judge for yourself. This video slows down the footage to show the policeman firing three shots directly into the protesters in front of him. The third shot hits Sarisuluk in the head and he dies. The policeman turns and runs.


A crowd marched on the Asian side of Istanbul this evening to protest the release of this policeman.

In yet other police related news, CCTV footage has been released of three protesters being beaten viciously by police in Antalya. The protesters come into a garage and hide in a corner. Police follow them in shortly afterwards and set to work.

Here’s a link to the footage on the website of Turkish paper Radikal:

Again, a reminder that today was the day that Erdogan chose to describe the Turkish police as “heroic”.

The photograph above shows a policeman directly spraying pepper spray into the face of a man holding a sign saying “Chemical Tayyip”.

Jun 13

A Smear Campaign Backfires

The Mayor of Ankara, Ibrahim Melih Gökçek, has held his post for nearly 20 years. He has not covered himself in glory during this time, constantly fighting off rumors of corruption and nepotism. This weekend took him to a new low, when he targeted Selin Girit, a Turkish journalist employed by the BBC, in a smear campaign over Twitter. He said she was a spy “rented” by the British government, intent on betraying her country. He started a trending topic with the hash tag #ingiltereadınaajanlıkyapmaselingirit (“Don’t be an agent on behalf of England, Selin Girit”) and urged all his followers “who love their country” to re-tweet it.

Unfortunately for him, the campaign backfired when thousands started defending Girit and retaliating with hash tags such as ProvakatörMelihGökçek (Provocateur Melih Gökçek), which was the number one worldwide trending topic for some hours. Gökçek has responded by claiming that this inconveniently popular hash tag was instigated as a plot by the BBC, and declared he would sue anyone who used it.

Reading these Tweets has been very entertaining, a spot of light relief amid the depression following Saturday’s crackdown. One of my favourite exchanges was as follows:

Gökçek: “This [protest movement] will happen in England, just wait and see.”
Response: “Is that a threat, or just the voicing of free speech?”

I have said it before: the wit and good humour of protesters and social media users throughout this movement has been impressive and humbling. There is, admittedly, rich material to work with – namely the conspiracy theories spewing forth from the government like the script of a badly written sitcom. But there has also been plenty to enrage and depress protesters, which makes their creativity and wittiness even more uplifting.

Jun 13

A Political Debate with Baklava Sellers


Earlier today I had an unexpectedly heated argument with employees of a baklava cafe. I was with a friend, Ozlem, and we were finishing up our tea and conversation, which, inevitably, had revolved around the protests (no one talks of much else here anymore). The baklava seller had evidently picked up bits of what we’d been saying and as we got up to leave he could not resist declaring his allegiance to the government and condemnation of all protests. There ensued half an hour of lively debate between Ozlem and I, this middle aged man and an infuriating youth who poked his head out from the kitchen to join the fun. He snorted derisively at whatever we said, implying that we had no idea what we were talking about, and managed to be incredibly supercilious while wearing an unflattering white hairnet.

The conversation was frustrating because it was like arguing with people living in a parallel universe, where everything is decided, justified and any new or challenging points of view are automatically dead on arrival. These men were not bad, but they were effectively deaf to reasoning.

To make matters worse, we were women, and they couldn’t accept that we were telling the truth when we said we had been at the protests – here we were, two middle class, respectable-looking young ladies eating baklava one minute and ferociously defending protesters the next.

Here is a sample of the quality of highbrow debate we were engaged in:

Baklava Seller: “All this fuss over 3 or 4 trees!”
Ozlem: “It’s not about the trees anymore. It’s about abuse of power, authoritarianism.”
BS: “There has always been abuse of power in Turkey! Before this government there was loads of corruption, there always has been!”
O: “Yes but we want to fight it. And we have the right to protest peacefully.”
BS: “Business has been terrible because of you. Also, you left loads of rubbish in the square.”
Me pitching in: “That would be the police. The protesters have always cleaned up after themselves.”
Man in hairnet: “Protesters? Cleaning up? Yeah right.”
Me: “Have you even been up to see for yourself?”
Hairnet: *snorts scornfully*

And so it went on.

The kind of attitude displayed by these men made me first angry, and then incredibly sad. There is no arguing with wilful ignorance. They had false or irrelevant answers for everything we said, and were absolutely fixed in their views, which they had learnt from dodgy media coverage, sycophantic soap operas and the speeches of a bombastic and irrational leader. We were wasting our breath.

Wilful or lazy ignorance is less dramatically tragic than the deaths and injuries sustained so far during the protests, but in the long run it is much more of a tragedy for society at large. If millions of Turks are not prepared to challenge authority, if they are not prepared to question what they are told, listen to other points of view or exercise even a modicum of independent thought, then all the efforts of protesters so far will come to very little.

I heard a rumour a few hours ago that a political party is in its first stages of development, emerging from the post-protest forums. I hope it is true, even if this party never gets anywhere near winning an election, because taking steps to capitalise politically on the show of solidarity among protesters is of enormous importance. Once people are given proof that the protests were not some kind of passing threat cooked up by foreign agents and interest lobby groups, as the government keeps insisting, Turkey’s future starts to look a little brighter.

The photograph above depicts the kind of spitting rage demonstrated by our political opponents this afternoon.