Some days ago, Turkey hit the social media news – but not the media. This is not surprising, especially after episodes such as the Arab Spring in Egypt and Syria, and – locally speaking – the Mexican youth movement prior to the 2012 Presidential election. All these movements have a lot in common. One of their common traits is that media were constantly trying to minimize them or failed completely to report on them. Another one is that all of them involved young people fighting for their ideas to be heard.
So, what really happened in Turkey and – most important – what is to come?
I have the privilege of being close friends with a young Turkish lawyer, who took some of his time to explain things to me. These are some of the things I learned today thanks to Berk Demirkol, my dearest friend.
Turkey’s Prime Minister has been very active in telling people what to do and what not to do. He’s been issuing statements, restrictions and orders on people’s life choices (such as number of kids that one should have, or whether one should drink alcohol or smoke, or even give birth by C-cut). Namely he has imposing a life style, a conservative one. Quite obviously, the Turks were not particularly happy about this. Many of them saw Erdogan, the Prime Minister as someone whose sole interest is his own and who is willing to sell out his country and does not care about its citizens, not to say anything about minorities.
Well, it all exploded some days ago, when people in Istanbul ran across a bunch of public workers, who were bringing down some trees in Gezi Park, which is located downtown. Gezi Park is a small green area that serves as an access to Taksim Square, a huge metropolitan center for transportation, services and commerce. People learned from these workers that the park was to be torn down and that something else was being built in its stead.
In Berk’s words: “Gezi is no Central Park, but it’s a nice green spot in the city and people felt the government was again taking away something that belonged to the community.” These few people decided right there that they would not let such a thing happen, so they started a very small protest which included a few of them staying over at the park. The government reacted by excessively using public force against a group of peaceful demonstrators.
In older times, this would have been the end of it. Actually, according to Berk, Turks are not very likely to go into demonstrations. The Turkish society is not used to protest. Apparently, their last experience in mass demonstrations in the late 1970s, which was followed by a coup d’état affected the society deeply. Since then, Turks became apathetic to participate in politics or to be seen as politically active.
So what is really interesting about the Gezi protesters is how a previously submissive society suddenly turned into a world-class example of civic engagement and peaceful demonstration, as protests spread all over the country and rapidly gained support both in Turkey and internationally. I guess the answer to this enigma lies in the participation of young people in this movement. For one, youngsters were not afraid of confronting their government’s ways. They also happened to master skills which their parents lack – they are in possession of social media and non-official communication channels, which brought them together throughout the whole process, regardless of what the authorities were trying to censor. Live coverage by thousands of different sources put the government on the spot and helped the world keep track of the latest developments in real time. It also put things under a different perspective, where protesters are very peaceful people, who are worried stray dogs and cats do not receive any harm from the fighting, and the police are clearly exerting force in an excessive manner.
Something that started really small has become huge. As things stand today, we are not certain what will be the final outcome, but what we do know is that the Prime Minister will think twice before not listening to what the citizens have to say.
Young people in Turkey have helped wipe out several decades of fear from the older generations and are now leading this movement towards a more open society. Turkish friends, we stand by your side.