We are nearly a week into violent protests in Turkey, and the world is starting to take notice. Pictures of bloodied civilians, women being sprayed with pressurized water hoses and clouds of tear gas hanging over destroyed city blocks are flooding the internet. This has many wondering why Turkey, which — compared to neighbors Syria, Iraq and Iran to the Southeast has seemed a model citizen in the region to outsiders — is so upset with their government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Where to start? Here are 9 things you need to know about the Taksim Square protests.
1. It started with a peaceful environmental protest
It's hard to imagine, but the mayhem we've witnessed the past several days started with a sit-in of environmentalists protesting the construction of a shopping mall on a city park. It likely would have come and gone had the police not responded brutally, using pressurized water and tear gas to disperse the protesters. This seemed to have hit a nerve in the Turkish population, who flooded Taksim Square in the thousands to rally against Erdogan's government.
2. But it's not about the environment
Although the original protest was against environmental destruction, it quickly spiralled into full-on anti-government mayhem. Protesters are calling for the resignation of Erdogan, who they claim has become increasingly authoritarian and tyrannical. Is this true? Let's explore some recent actions of the Prime Minister.
3. The government routinely imprisons journalists
According to a report by the CPJ, "authorities have imprisoned journalists on a mass scale on terrorism or anti-state charges, launched thousands of other criminal prosecutions on charges such as denigrating "Turkishness" or influencing court proceedings, and used pressure tactics to sow self-censorship. Erdogan has publicly deprecated journalists, urged media outlets to discipline or fire critical staff members, and filed numerous high-profile defamation lawsuits"
It seems as if the government's heavy-handed approach to dissenters is nothing new. The report cites, "about 30% of journalists jailed in August 2012 were accused of taking part in anti-government plots or being members of outlawed political groups." Sounds familiar.
In fact, those within Turkey are reporting that news outlets are slow to report on the protests, likely for fear of government intimidation. Erdogan has responded by claiming, "social media is the worst menace to society." Maybe because he can't control it?
4. Erdogan fines businesses who disagree with him
It seems that nobody is safe to disagree with the government in Turkey. The government has also been known to impose steep fines on companies such as Dogan Yayin, a media group known for being critical of the Prime Minister.
5. Freedom of expression isn't that free
According to Foreign Affairs, "in May, Erdogan announced that the government would end state subsidies for the arts, closing the spigot on $63 million in annual funding and, in effect, endangering the country's more than 50 state theaters and artistic venues across the country. The AKP claimed that it did so in the name of private enterprise and was instituting a modern approach to government patronage of the arts; opponents argued that it was a deliberate attempt to silence artists, some of whom had become highly critical of AKP rule. Since the AKP era began, the world has watched closely to see if Turkey would embrace, or abuse, democracy. What is becoming clear is that Erdogan's strategy is to do both, simultaneously."
There seems to be a trend forming...
6. Alcohol has been nearly outlawed
Bowing to the conservative, religious right, the government recently passed a highly restrictive law on alcohol. According to The Guardian, "the planned regulations would prohibit retail sales between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., ban all alcohol advertising and promotion, and stop new shops and bars from opening within 100m of schools and mosques. As is already the case with smoking, the depiction of alcohol consumption in films and on television would be blurred."
Blurred alcohol consumption on television? While Westerners should avoid imposing their values on foreign societies, it's a pretty safe bet that restricting access to alcohol is an easy way to be hated.
The bill is not yet in effect pending executive approval, but President Abdullah Gul has signaled that he will likely sign the legislation into law.
7. Turkey has become a one-party state
Although Erdogan's AKP party has been repeatedly elected, it has been steadily consolidating power and muscling out those who might be competition. This has been done by manipulating the constitution to serve its own interests. According to Foreign Policy, "the most obvious way this pattern has manifested itself is in the debate over the new Turkish constitution, which Erdogan had been determined to use as a vehicle to institute a presidential system in which he would serve as Turkey's first newly empowered president. When the opposition parties voiced their fervent opposition to such a plan and the constitutional commission deadlocked in late 2012 — missing its deadline of the end of the year to submit its recommendations — Erdogan threatened to disregard the commission entirely and ram through his own constitutional plan. He floated the idea again in early April 2013, but softened his position as it became clear that there is significant opposition to his presidential vision even within the AKP."
8. The world hadn't noticed... until now
All of this has been happening largely under the radar of the international focus. In fact, the West has been quick to congratulate Turkey for its success in creating a stable state and combining a secularism with Islam. In that way, the protests have been largely a success in that they have drawn international attention to Erdogan's increasingly restrictive policies.
9. The Turks have guts
In an age of instant worldwide media, the Turkish government should be worried about its brutal crackdown. Cameras are everywhere and the protesters know it. Few might understand the courage it takes to walk in front of armed forces shooting high-pressure sprayers and tear gas at your head. As of the time of this writing, thousands have been arrested, two have been killed and hundreds have been wounded in the protests.