With Great Concern, Turkish Americans Look On From Afar


By Tanya Silverman

Protesters in Illinois showing their support for the Turkish opposition. Photo by Alki Denge.

Whether it’s through mainstream or social media, first-hand accounts or repeated news stories, many Americans — and more Turkish Americans — are staying up to date on recent unrest in Turkey.

These protests began in Istanbul, Turkey’s biggest city, on May 28th, with a peaceful sit-in at Gezi Park in Taksim. They were expressing opposition to the government’s plans to take Gezi, one of the few green spaces in the city, and convert it into a shopping center and mosque.

To dismantle the protest, riot police used tear gas and water cannons, followed by huge waves unrest around the city, which then spread to around the country in the next few days. As protests continued, the police kept using violent means to curtail them, leading to over 5,000 people being injured, as well as several fatalities.

Participants of these protests come from all levels of society. They stand against various policies of the current government under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which has retained power since 2002. Though credited with introducing a number of effective social reforms to Turkey, many of the Prime Minister’s beliefs and actions are incredibly controversial, including pro-religious measures like bans on public affection and adultery, as well as restricting expression and jailing journalists.

As protests have burgeoned throughout Turkey, so have the social media outlets which have reached audiences from all over the world.

“I really kept up with Occupy Gezi,” says Lisa Culhagil, secretary of the Maryland American Turkish Association (MATA), on the Tumblr page that features all types of powerful, interesting – though often disturbing – protest-related photographs. Such depictions range from scenes of police clashes to used tear gas canisters to shots of wounded backs.

Culgahil, along with other members of the MATA, had just traveled to several of the Turkish cities in May and returned right before the current movement had exploded. Initially fearful for friends and family present in Turkey, Culhagil did not let such feelings hold her back from getting daily updates through sources like Facebook and Twitter, along with reading foreign newspapers and corresponding through personal e-mails.

While keeping up with the Turkish protests while in America, Culhagil faced what she deemed as an act of government censorship. In the course of talking on the phone with a friend in Ankara about how he was witnessing the protests and how his friends had been arrested, the line was abruptly cut off.

These acts of censorship, along with violence against the opposition, tell Turkish Americans that Erdogan refuses to be challenged. Such an authoritarian stance is only deepened by his adamant religious regulations, which many interpret as a regression on Turkey’s secular societal evolution.

“He wants to take Turkey back to 7th century Ottoman Time… ruled by sharia law,” says Hudai Yavalar, Founder and Chairman of the Ataturk Society of America. Yavalar, an engineer, businessman and entrepreneur, had founded this society in 1995, in order to pursue the ideals of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the first president of the Republic of Turkey. After succeeding the Ottoman Empire, Ataturk had modernized Turkey as a secular republic. The ASA, in turn, preserves implicit ideals like sovereignty, secular education, democracy and progress.

Relating such principles to the course of recent events, the ASA condemns the violent measures that authorities have executed upon protesters, and is against the widespread arrests of “doctors, lawyers, individual business people, students” and various citizens of all ages in Turkey.

On a bigger scale, Yavalar fears the long-term effects of Erdogan’s religiously inspired rule. “Once you’re an Islamist,” he tells BTR, “it’s impossible to change your attitude towards democracy and secularism.”

Timur Edib, an attorney and member of MATA, shares such a stance on Erdogan’s aims. “Everything he’s done since he’s taken power has been to re-establish the Ottoman Empire,” he says.

Edib says his sentiment is proven by the fact that Erdogan chose to station his office is in the last palace of the sultanate in Istanbul, the old Ottoman capital, as opposed to Ankara, the city that Ataturk had established as such for the Republic of Turkey. His intentions to do away with Gezi are also symbolically significant, as the government devised a plan to demolish the existing Ataturk Cultural Center and rebuild the former Ottoman-era army barracks that once stood there.

Edib had sensed an oncoming reaction after Erdogan had also allegedly called Ataturk a drunkard. Such sentiment fell in tune with the Prime Minister’s attempts to ban serving alcohol in the proximity of a mosque.

“Erdogan has built so many mosques, that geographically, it’s almost logistically impossible to not be able to serve alcohol not within 300 yards of one.”

As for keeping up with the protests, Edib had communicated with a friend who works as the front desk manager at a hotel in Taksim, Istanbul. This woman, who was not even involved in the protests, had already been gassed twice. At one point, she tried to leave her balcony window open, and the authorities shot a gas canister into it.

“It’s beyond those that are doing civil disobedience or protesting-it’s anybody,” says Edib about the violence, finding that these authorities would call people “terrorists and instigators” as an excuse for such brutality. “It’s just people that are trying to live their lives.”

Domestic life was certainly affected as well. Yurter Ozcan, Founder and President of the Turkish Policy Center spoke with friends who reside close to Taksim Square in Istanbul, who reported that it was difficult to be in their apartments because their space always smelled like teargas.

Ozcan has also been keeping up with friends in Turkey who were personally involved in protests. Despite all of the intensive government oppression, he states that these events have been “going on successfully” because they incorporate “so many different layers of society” without any single leader or organization, making it difficult for the government to directly shut it down.

“I actually wish that I was in Turkey myself because I would actually like to be part of that movement.”

Living in the United States during the protests and staying informed through all of his first-hand resources and social media has influenced Ozcan to organize five protests in Washington, DC, because he cares to express a sentiment of solidarity with people in Turkey.

“Even though we are an ocean apart, we stand with them, and we always think of them,” says Ozcan. “As a taxpayer, I feel like I have the right to show the US administration that they need to condemn the violence and some of the tactics used by the AKP [Erdogan’s party] because President Obama has a very good relationship with Prime Minister Erdogan.”

This series of American protests have had significant turnout – some of them amounting to almost 1,200 participants — and acknowledgement by politicians like Senator John McCain. They have also just launched a website, Occupy Gezi USA, as a “news portal that gets updated constantly through social media” and a pool of resources for people to send letters to their respective senators and members of Congress.

As far as the protests go, Erdogan has expressed little if any sympathy and none of his bold statements have gone to convince protestors of his own views, as protests still continue, incorporating new strategies and different focuses. What will happen in Turkey’s future is uncertain, but for the time being, the protest movement and its inherent coverage have certainly highlighted various elements of social and political concern that much of its society seeks to transform.