It all started with a tree...

Today let me turn my attention to what my friends and colleagues have been experiencing in Istanbul over the past nine days.  At the outset, I neither claim to know all the nuances of Turkish history - it is a complex and evolving world with a challenging history - nor pretend to grasp all the issues that are driving the current protests. At the same time, however, I continue to read and reflect on the issues facing modern Turkey and stay in touch with some of the folk we met when our jazz band toured Istanbul two years ago.  Through the creativity of Facebook and the Internet - as well as Skype and a recent visit from our host family in Istanbul - their truths have helped give some shape and form to my understanding. 

A word of background:  three years ago, we hatched an idea about bringing a small jazz band to a moderate Muslim country in the hope that we might share music and meet new friends.  It was a "peace-making through music" project.  After lots of research and conversation - plus a ton of planning by band leader Andy Kelly - connections started to open up in Istanbul.  We were booked into small clubs throughout the city, the US Consulate got us a shot to play on the opening night of a regional arts fair. And one of our hosts invited us to the historic city of Iznik, once Nicaea, for a weekend of music and relaxation outside of Istanbul.  From time to time I was also in email conversation with some of the United Church of Christ educators working for the World Board in Istanbul.  So, after spending a year playing gigs to pay for the trip, we left for 10 days in June 2011: we played jazz almost every night, wandered the streets of the city of Istanbul every the day and began to make new friendships with some truly wonderful people with whom we continue to keep in contact.

Now I cannot speak for my band mates concerning their observations of our trip - we each had very different personal experiences in Istanbul - and did a variety of very different things.  Some would wander late into the night into the various music clubs in search of new and creative sounds.  Others spent time in the usual tourist centers.  I did a little of both as well as making it a point to spend time in conversation with our hosts and Consulate personnel, too.  And what I asked them to reflect on for me was what they were experiencing under the leadership of Prime Minister Erdogan? How was the culture of liberal secularism being changed by this "moderate" Islamic leader?  After all, the way Turkey has balanced liberty and religion in the context of democracy is often celebrated as a lively alternative to political Islam or Islamicist theocracies.  So, I wanted to know how was all of this was working out 10 years into Erdogan's tenure? 

Let me summarize the composite observations from five very different albeit it progressive Turkish friends:

+  They believe (and I agree) that over the past 10 years there has been a gradual but consistent movement away from the secular separation of religion and politics that defined Kemalist Turkey after 1929.  Attaturk, building a new nation out of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, looked to the West for both inspiration and direction.  He was aggressive in dragging urban Turkey into the 20th century and ran rough shod over the traditions of the majority peasant class who remain largely moderate Muslims. For decades the military was the last resort in maintaining a vigorous separation between the world of religion and politics and there have been three coops in their 70+ year history to maintain these separate realms.

Two years ago, Erdogan began to dismantle the secularist military influence in Turkey using both a change in the constitution and a legal effort born of a largely manufactured threat of yet another coop.  Today, the old line secularists in the military are either in prison or have been forced out of power.  A similar drive has taken place in both the judicial offices and police departments, too.  This has created an environment of resentment among many intellectuals and young people because now the Prime Minister has a very confident cadre of powerful social servants who hold office with his support.  Erdogan has all effectively emasculated his formal opposition.

+  All of my contacts in Turkey spoke of a variety of ways that a more traditional Islamicist presence was being cultivated in secular Istanbul. A few times each week, for example, young women in veils were bussed from one side of the city's shopping district.  My friends believe that this was not intended to be a way to help people acquire consumer goods; but rather a way to get people used to seeing people in traditional Muslim garb in areas that had been totally secular for years.  I know that sounds bizarre to those of us in the West, but given the slow but consistent Islamicist policies of Erdogan it seems to be true.  Culturally, socially and now legally there has been a gradual change towards traditional Islamic rules. 

My friend in Turkey, Ahmet Celebi, posted this on his Fodor's blog.  (If you would like to read his on-going thread, go to: http://www.fodors.com/ community/europe/brutal-crack-down-on-peaceful-environmental-protest.cfm)

Turkey is one of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, saved from the Allies in WW1 and the ruling Ottoman family by a a very able secular leader who managed to win against all invading forces from Russia, France, England, Italy and Greece to establish a secular state. He changed the script from Arabic to Latin, forbid the covering of women and emancipated women in the late twenties before many Western countries, and tried to impose the visions of "Peace in the Country, Peace On Earth" and "Total Westernization and Modernization". He and his assistant who took over after his death in 1938 were successful in keeping Turkey out of WW2.

However, religious activism continued under cover in the form of three major and a number of minor sects, meeting clandestinely and keeping their females without their rights (possibly a bit like the Mormons). These groups were, unfortunately, further supported by the United States as a possible defense against communism during the Cold War.


One of these sects, started a plan of infiltration of all significant bureaucratic institutions about forty or maybe fifty years ago. They were very successful within the judiciary and the police, and finally got there in the military in the last few years by having about 40% of all high level commanding officers in the Navy 30% in the the Air Force and a smaller % in the Army on trumped up coup charges based on false electronic evidence attested by US and European research labs to have been prepared after the supposed events.

The current government is the result of the partnership of the three major sects and some minor ones. This time around, their strong United States support was due to the misguided reason of trying to make Turkey a "Moderate Islamic" state and an example of friendly Islam to other Islamic countries. One of the major sects and the one which handled almost all infiltrations especially in the police and the judiciary is headed by a leader who is protected by the United States and lives in luxury in Pennsylvania, supposedly as the person who established over a thousand schools in almost 100 countries, including about 150 in the United States. (His schools, many in Texas teach "Creationism")


During the last three years, the Prime minister, and that leader started to disagree on the time for complete Islamisation and are now having some lover's quarrels about the high handed tactics of the PM. The PM has been reducing the secularism in Turkish government and bureaucracy, allowing religious symbols and activity in government and limiting the celebration of the national holidays relating to breaking away from Ottoman rule, as well trying to impose Islamic values on the way of life of the citizens. There are now effectively alcohol bans in almost 67 of the 81 cities except in touristic zones, when there were none only 12 years ago.

For some years, the PM has been fighting and arresting journalists and writers

who wrote of the control of the bureaucracy by him and by the sects and keeping them jailed by all means available to the courts who favor the false evidence. There are more journalists and writers jailed in Turkey than there are in any other country in the World. Turkey is the country against which the most European Human Right Court judgements have been made in the last ten years. He reduced the schooling age to 5 and included courses in Islam and the life of the prophet instead of the course in Turkish Modernization.
So, the park was the spark that was coming. Now, the event has grown into anti-dictatorialism and the desire for people to have free speech and the freedom of thought and expression.


Our United Church of Christ contact in Istanbul, Alison Stendhal, puts it like this (and you can read her other observations @ http://globalministries.org/mee/ missionaries/occupy-gezi-occupy.html)


June 5, 2013
What started last week as an effort to save Gezi Park in Istanbul from being razed to reconstruct a 19th century Ottoman Barracks, to house yet another shopping complex has grown into much more. It was the tipping point that has released years of pent up frustration and anger at the authoritarian leadership style of the Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan.

Tayyip Erdogan is from an Islamist background. He had been mayor of Istanbul and was incarcerated for 4 months for reciting an Islamic poem that contained the words: "The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.” He was prosecuted for claiming his right to free expression, his words being viewed as a threat to the state.


The reforms of Ataturk laid the foundation of the Republic of Turkey as a secular democracy, with the military entrusted as custodian. When things got out of line, the military would step in and “set things right”. Islam was kept in check to be sure that the influence it had in the days of the Ottoman Empire did not return. But as the heartland of the country, people who were more traditional and connected to their religious upbringing, became better educated and more affluent, it was inevitable that a new balance in the political life of Turkey was needed.

After his ban from politics was lifted, Erdogan struck out on his own and helped to form the Justice and Development Party (AKP in Turkish). He managed to put together a fairly wide base of political support, bringing a decade of political stability and economic growth. In the process the military has lost its job as custodian of Ataturk’s principles and has left the country with no other strength than the power of democracy.


It has taken awhile for an effective opposition to the AKP party to develop. Nationalism tried to become the rallying point for the opposition, but the heart and the minds of the people of Turkey were more inclusive and better educated. I have seen as an educator in Turkey since 1980, new generations of Turkish youth who will question authority and want the right to develop their own opinions. For a democracy to work, this ingredient in its people is essential. People wanted the freedom to express their thoughts without fearing the retaliation of some authoritarian entity. I remember the months following the 1980 coup when there was great fear to express any idea that went contrary to the military and its efforts to sacrifice the individual to save the whole. That was the role of nationalism, staunch secularism and the definition of “Turkishness”.

But something began to radically change in Turkey with the 2007 assassination of a prominent Turkish Armenian journalist, Hrant Dink. As a million people took to the streets for his funeral, young and old, rich and poor, Turk, Jew, Kurd, Armenian, they proudly displayed signs “We are all Hrant Dink. We are all Armenian.” Nationalism was shaken because the people wanted more for their country. They wanted to become individuals who could be more inclusive of their diversity and to think for themselves. They wanted to be trusted to formulate their own opinions.

Erdogan had used this sentiment to dismantle the military and to bring reforms. But the problem is now that he has evolved into the authoritarian entity he had sought to eliminate. As his confidence and power have grown, his agenda of imposing a certain type of Islamic imprint on every aspect of the country has been accelerating. The issue over women’s right to wear the headscarf in schools and national offices was put forward as personal freedom of religious expression. But the right to free speech and personal opinion must then extend to the entire population as long as it does not jeopardize the “common good”. But interpreting what is for the “common good” has brought Turkey to the forefront of countries incarcerating its journalists. Prosecution of individuals for expressing their thoughts is all too common.


So who can be surprised with what has happened over the last days? The long overdue development of a strong, vocal and outraged opposition has erupted. It has been simmering for years. I have been surprised it has taken this long when I know so many people who have been critical of what was happening in Turkey. It is easy to be critical but difficult to be constructive to enable change. Yet I need to remind myself that Turkey is a young democracy, founded in 1923. It is a country with a strong authoritarian past, based more on the concept of community rather than the individual. To tell you the truth, the caring for the community over the assertion of the individual out to benefit only his or herself has endured me to this country. I would hope for a caring community with the freedom of self-expression.

The young generations of Turkey have been taught to formulate their own opinions and to think for themselves. It took a small park in the middle of Istanbul to bring people together, people who have had enough. These people are not in search of a new authoritarian entity that tells them what to think. They are not the “extremists running wild” as Erdogan described the protesters yesterday. These are people who want to be a part of the dialogue and are claiming their freedom of expression as should be the case in any truly functioning democracy. After all Erdogan has claimed to want the same thing for those looking for freedom of religious expression. Where things go from here is uncertain, but I am proud to see so many of our schools’ graduates active and engaged!

Selam / Shalom / Peace
Alison Stendahl serves with the Near East Mission, Istanbul, Turkey. She is Academic Dean of and a math teacher at Uskudar American Academy in Istanbul Turkey.


And just to appreciate the depth of Erdogan's control and manipulation of social reality in Turkey, you might enjoy this story about how a game show host worked a way around government censorship.  (http://www.theatlanticwire. )com/global/2013/06/turkish-game-show-censorship-gezi/65964/

And of course there is this lovely video retelling of the growing protests that was posted on You Tube.

Everyone with whom I have developed love and respect say much the same thing:  the current protests are more like the Occupy Wall Street movement than Tarir Square.  They are the logical coming together of long simmering frustrations over the actions of an increasingly harsh and narrow-minded Prime Minister.  They ask: Has Erdogan over-stepped his ability to be effective given his consolidation of power?  Can very different groups in Turkey find common ground and make a change?  Clearly the PM has become tone deaf to the growing frustration of those Turks who cherish freedom, diversity and social and artistic creativity.  I pray you keep watch as the days unfold.

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