Turkey, perhaps the Middle East’s most-trumpeted democracy, dominated the international news cycle this week as one peaceful environmental protest in Taksim Square’s Gezi Park in Istanbul turned violent: Government-backed police pulled water cannons and tear gas on protestors. Demonstrations subsequently erupted across the country. The Guardian reported Thursday that three people have died and 4,000 have been injured in the tumult.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has won three straight elections by popular vote – his supporters are largely religious and conservative. But dissent has grown steadily as Erdogan has implemented increasingly authoritarian measures in Turkey.
The Pulitzer Center snagged two of our grantees, Jenna Krajeski and Dimiter Kenarov – both of whom are based in Istanbul – to answer a few quick need-to-know questions about what’s happening there now. Their responses, e-mailed from Turkey, have been excerpted.
What specific stories within the protests do you plan to cover, where and why? How will you do it?
Kenarov: Environmentalism is not just a convenient vehicle for expressing dissatisfaction with the Turkish government, but a very real driving force behind much of Turkey's protest movements in the past 10 years. In fact, environmental degradation caused by Turkey's aggressive market liberalization and industrial boom has been tremendous. The pace of Turkey's industrialization is so great that it threatens serious environmental collapse in a couple of years. In that sense, the clear-cutting of a few trees in Gezi Park is not just an excuse for protesting other social issues, but a serious concern in and of itself, and part of a greater pattern, which has to be explored.
Krajeski: I'm interested in a couple of angles particularly, both rooted in the idea of nationalism. I've written a lot about Kurdish rights in Turkey, and so far the Kurds have not mobilized in large numbers to join the protests even though they have many grievances with Erdogan. They feel alienated by the nationalism at the protests - the Kemalists who worship Ataturk, who Kurds consider an oppressor - and they are worried that by attending anti-AKP demonstrations that will ruin their peace process with the AKP.
But who else does the nationalism alienate? That's what I'm currently working on. This idea of secularism as embodied by Ataturk versus Islamism as embodied by Erdogan is an overly simplistic one, to say the least. It's worrisome the desire to return to Kemalism, and the real visionaries at the protests are those who reject both Kemalism and Islamism, but their voices risk being drowned out by the nationalism which, in its exclusionary fervor, is quite off-putting.
I'm also looking into the role of women. In my opinion, women have the most to protest and the most to lose. Erdogan has curbed rights to abortion and many other rights for women, but at the same time made it easier for religious women to live and work in Turkey. It's impossible to look at Turkish society and count headscarves to conclude how conservative it is, but that's what's often done, by the media and by the secularists in the park. But what I want to write about is how women – under Kemalism and Islamism – have had their governments be this sort of paternalistic force (not to mention the highly militarized and masculine society writ large) under both Ataturk and Erdogan.
What do you think will come of these protests? What do you think they say about democracy, and Turkey's democracy in particular?
Kenarov: It is still early to say. One big mistake that western commentators make is to compare the events in Turkey to the Arab Spring. In fact, the context is very different and, though Erdogan is hated by many, he remains a democratically elected prime-minister in a nominally democratic country, serving his third term and still enormously popular with the majority of the Turkish masses. It is hard to ignore the very real contribution of Erdogan's party to Turkey's growing economic prosperity and national confidence. The protest, overall, is not about a radical change of the regime, but about curbing Erdogan's growing authoritarian methods and arrogance, and introducing a better system of checks and balances in the government, which will defend the rights of all Turkish citizens, not just of the ones who support Erdogan. In that sense, the protest is a welcome development and shows the growing democratic consciousness of Turkey's middle class, which demands real rights and not just stable economy and jobs.
Krajeski: I have no idea what the outcome will be. So far Erdogan's not budging. At the very least it will show him and his government that Turkish citizens will not tolerate police brutality and demand a voice in decision making, which is a very positive step.
As global civil unrest goes, how significant is this week?
Kenarov: This week is very significant because we're talking about civil unrest not just in any country, but in Turkey, one of the key global players in the world economy. Any significant change in the domestic situation could lead to major repercussions in world politics and the global economy.
Krajeski: I can't help but compare these to Egypt, where I was in 2011. There are so many differences. But this week marks a loud and spontaneous reawakening of the Turkish left wing, and perhaps a new protest culture. This is very important, even though it likely won't lead to regime change. Turkey's dormant individualism is now awakened. And it's pretty exciting to see.
Follow Jenna Krajeski and Dimiter Kenarov on Twitter @dkenarov and @jenna_krajeski. Keep an eye on The New Republic online and The New Yorker online, where Krajeski’s stories will run. Kenarov plans to blog for the Huffington Post.