The protests in Turkey which many are rightly describing as a revolution, are unlike many revolutions seen in the last 200 years.
Many—indeed most revolutions, are wars in which an old regime is toppled and replaced with one holding antithetical values, with new political machinery, new political language and new ideology. The most famous such revolutions in modern history are the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian October Revolution of 1917. Other revolutions are revolutions to establish a state with a nationalist identity. Such examples are the failed revolutions of 1848 and the successful nationalist risings against Yugoslavia. Other revolutions are independence movements whether it be the long struggle for Polish independence against Germany, Austria and Russia or the struggles of Britain’s many colonies for independence after the Second World War.
The events in Turkey however are a different kind of revolution, one which seeks to bolster rather than change the current constitution—which has been under constant attack from Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from the moment he became Prime Minister in 2003. Turkey’s current constitution traces its roots to the aftermath of the destruction of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. The present constitutional document dates from 1981, but its main principles remain true to the Constitution of 1924 which established the values and principles of the new Turkish Republic, which Atatürk created.
Turkey’s constitution is more progressive than many in Europe. Indeed, it is one of the more progressive constitutions in the world. The most important aspect of Turkey’s constitution was that it established a secular republic. The Turkish republic which Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded, was one of the world’s first explicitly secular states. Only France with her Laïcité laws dating from 1905 and the constitutions of the Soviet Union (the first of which were written around the same time as Turkey’s) made such guarantees of freedom against religious oppression and domination. Religious practices remained fully legal in the private and personal realms, but the influence of religion was removed from the public sphere in much the same way, as it was in France and the Soviet Union. Additionally, Turkey’s constitution guarantees equality in society and before the law, regardless of historical ethnicity, gender or religious background/affiliation.
When one looks at the history of 20th century Turkey, one sees a country which has less religious influence in the public sphere than the United Kingdom, Greece or Spain, more religious freedom than the Soviet Union, and more gender equality than any country in central Asia or The Middle East; a gender equality that many southern European states only established decades after Turkey.
Atatürk’s Turkey was a representative democracy—one in which freedom of communication and freedom of thought are enshrined in the constitution. Turkey was also one of the first countries in the world to sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
It is this constitution that Tayyip Erdoğan has attacked from the moment he came to power. In the 1990′s he was an open Islamist, an extreme opponent of Turkey’s legal secularism. When his grasp on power became more likely, he toned down his rhetoric, but his policies have remained the same. Recently his hubris has gone so far as to wanting to make abortions a criminal activity, and limiting the legal sale of alcohol. But beyond the issues of gender equality and individual liberty, Tayyip Erdoğan is viewed by the CHP opposition and smaller progressive parties as an Islamist whose slick diplomatic tactics have blinded the rest of the world to the regressive and dictatorial nature of his rule.
His long term goal is to eliminate judicial independence and to transformTurkey from a Parliamentary republic into a country with an autocratic president, a position which most Turks see as Erdoğan’s way of establishing himself as the dictator he always aspired to become.
Individual freedom is under treat, religious extremists are surreptitiously encouraged by the government, and Turkish mainstream media has become one of the most corrupt and propagandist in the world. Turkish television is among the only in the world not reporting about the events in Turkey.
Although there was an anger over the larger threats to the Constitution which Erdoğan poses, it was a smaller, but still crucial issue which provoked the outbreak of mass demonstrations. Erdoğan and his cronies in the business world planned to turn the much loved Gezi Park into a Frankenstein child of American commercialism and Ottoman militarism. The plans called for the rebuilding of a long gone Ottoman Army barracks which would house a garish shopping centre. These plans offended men and women across political lines. It was not just the opposition CHP angered at Erdoğan’s, but people who were otherwise apolitical.
Politically minded people, citizens who wanted to preserve green space in their city, intellectuals, artists, working people, the very young and the very old all joined in a peaceful demonstration against Erdoğan. Erdoğan has answered by unleashing a wave of police, more rightly called para-military brutality that has sent shockwaves throughout the world. Already deaths are being reported by NGOs and concerned individuals. Many people have disappeared and their families fear the worse. A photo of heavily armoured police assaulting a frail woman with a water cannon has become an image which has galvanised much of the world to stand up for Turkish freedom when just months ago they were all too happy to believe the slick propaganda of Erdoğan and his cabal.
The tensions boiling below the surface for ten years have now exploded and no one can now deny the realities on the ground. After years of arresting respected military heroes and intellections, censoring critics and destroying Turkey’s secular constitution, the entire world must now see Erdoğan for who he is; a dictator who speaks of democracy abroad whilst destroying anything remotely democratic at home.
David Cameron who recently heaped praise on Erdoğan ought to be feeling a profound sense of embarrassment. So too ought many EU officials who have obsessed over Turkey’s definition of citizenship rather than looking at the realities of deteriorating human rights, this in spite of the fact that Turkey’s definition of citizenship is virtually identical to that of France, one of the founding members of the European Union. Many in Europe have also misunderstood the role of the Turkish Armed Forces in Turkish politics. Whereas the British armed serves swear allegiance to a monarch, the Turkish Armed Forces swear an allegiance to the Turkish state and constitution. The reason many respected members of the Turkish Armed Forces have been harassed, sacked and arrested by Erdoğan is not because they are violent or mischievous, but because they have sought to warn the world of the danger Erdoğan poses to Turkey’s secular heritage.
Thus the masses and the army are on the same side. They do not wish to destroy Turkey but to preserve the Turkish values that all living Turks grew up with. But this revolution is more even than that. Comparisons to the Arab Spring Revolutions are completely nonsensical. The Arab Spring Revolutions are more akin to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 than anything happening in Turkey. The Arab Spring were revolutions started by two polar groups. On one side were dangerous religious fanatics and on the other were increasingly marginalised progressive groups; Arab nationalists, socialists, communists, trade unionists and minority rights groups who have across the Arab world been reduced to a worse position than they were under the previous regimes.
Turkey has a long and highly successful tradition of secularism, gender equality, tolerance of religious minorities—all while living around the most unstable region of Europe (south East Europe) and The Middle East. The revolutionaries are not so much fighting for change, as against regression. Make no mistake—the idealism of many protesters want, is to not just take Turkey back to a better past, but to move forwards into an even better future. But the most important matter is that Erdoğan should resign and call elections. I doubt that he will, which is why protests must continue as long as necessary. The world is now watching Turkey, but I fear it shall be a while till the world fully understands just what they are watching and what they turned a blind eye to for the past 10 years.
The opinions in this article are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Estonian World Webzine.
Photos: Wikimedia Commons