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  • Part 1: #occupygezi

    "If you go away, you will have a nice day. One has to obey the system."

    Turkish AK Party MP Sirin Ünal on Twitter, quoted in The Guardian

    My wife and daughter are traveling to Istanbul in two weeks. It is chaotic there, as well as in many cities across Turkey. I'm kind of concerned, but I think they will be OK.

    It began this past Friday with a sit-in at Gezi Park near busy Taksim Square in Central Instanbul. About 500 mostly environmental activists camped out to block bulldozers from razing trees to clear the way for a secretive government project to raze the park and replace it with a shopping mall. For decades, this park has been the site of many anti-government demonstrations, so when police brutally cleared protestors from the area, they hit a nerve.

    By the end of the day, riot police had moved in and assaulted occupiers with rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons. Although the incident was not widely reported and went unmentioned on the official state news media, thousands, the next day millions of Turks rallied to the cause.

    Demonstrations erupted in 48 cities across Turkey, all involving clashes with police. Rocks were thrown and police vehicles were burned.
  • An occupation to protect one little park and the under-reported police riot that followed could not have triggered this mass outpouring of anti-government sentiment. Here is the backstory.

    Since 2002, Turkey has been governed by a coalition headed by the AK Party. In Turkish, ak means "white," "clean," or "pure." The new party offered the electorate a refreshing alternative to the multiparty stalemate that had obtained for decades with its corrupt cronyism that had turned Turks away from politics. Under the old system, economic growth had stagnated and inflation was rampant. AK promised to change all that, and in many respects they did.

    Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is Turkish Prime Minister and the maximum leader of the AK Party. Rising from being a corruption-fighting populist mayor of Istanbul, Erdoğan and his associates assembled a party apparatus that sank roots in cities and villages across Turkey. It offered basic services to citizens that the central and local governments could not or would not provide. In so doing, AK followed the models of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine, but without their revolutionary anti-establishment rhetoric.

    Essentially, AK is a kinder, gentler Islamist party committed to capitalism and economic growth. But its core supporters are devout Muslims grown weary of official state secularism, an ideology established by Kemal Mustafa Ataturk when he founded the current Turkish state in 1923 on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. The new republic had no Caliph and no state religion, and accessories of faith such as the fez and the headscarf were banished from public places. Even though 99% of Turks were and are Muslim, they were forced to pursue their faith on their own time. Turkey modernized, completely and almost all at once.
  • In its decade in power, the AK Party has worked to roll back state secularism. In doing so, it has earned the enmity of "Kemalists" (true believers in Ataturk's vision), the Turkish military, the Constitutional Court, civil servants, many journalists, and citizens who are wary of religious orthodoxy. Each year, its actions to remake the nation in its own vision have grown bolder. And each year, it has clamped down a little harder on dissent.

    As a contextual aside, the AK Party is a little like what the Tea Party would be if the latter had any interest whatsoever in actually governing. Both movements are inherently conservative, believing that their fatherland has strayed from its authentic roots. For the AK, those roots are Islam and the Ottoman Empire. For most in the Tea Party, they are Christian and the US Constitution. But the AK wields levers of power with a heavy hand to advance economic development, while the Tea Party mostly carps about taxes and tyranny and opposes all government planning.

    State and private TV did not cover the police riot, but social media went ablaze with the news. What was covered was PM Erdoğan addressing the nation on Saturday to say that the government will move ahead with the Taksim development (which is but one of many urban renewal projects around the country). Referring to the protestors he said, "They can do whatever they want. We've made our decision, and we will do as we have decided."

    Erdogan also told the nation that protests are antidemocratic; democracy consists of voting in elections, and that's it.

    The reason why the occupation and riots were not covered comes down to self-censorship in the Turkish media. The Erdoğan Government has more journalists and bloggers sitting in jail for critical reporting than all other countries combined (bet you thought China took that honor). Erdoğan has personally sued critics for libel in the courts, and has collected more than $200,000 in damages so far. Roy Gutman, writing for McClatchy Newspapers, sums it up:

    The enablers of this state of affairs include an ownership structure in which media are held by large conglomerates that often compete for government contracts, in a conflict of interests; a judicial system that has jailed more people claiming the label of journalists than any other country, according to several studies; and finally a general lack of solidarity among journalists.

    In place of hard-hitting watchdog reporting, the result is self-censorship. Some journalists say 30 percent to 40 percent of their reports are never published. “Flattery is the key thing in Turkish media,” Mert told McClatchy. “It has never been as bad as it is now.”

    Next: What if they occupied Washington DC and nobody knew?
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