A new metro line opened recently in Istanbul, something that normally would be cause for celebration considering the city’s notorious traffic woes. But of course like everything else to happen to this city recently it was marred in controversy. The new metro bridge across the Golden Horn that connects the historical part of the city with the more modern areas of Galata and Taksim has been called a monstrosity because it disrupts the old Ottoman skyline with its two 47-metre high ‘horns’. Many consider it yet another nail in the coffin of historic Istanbul.
Sure, it’s just a metro line – but this debate is symbolic of the conundrum that is currently facing Istanbul, and Turkey as a whole. One one side, the (secular) educated “elite” decry the numerous new construction projects because they destroy the old (Islamic) Ottoman history. Meanwhile, the (religious) uneducated lower classes who vote for the (neo-Islamic) government overlook the destruction caused by these projects for the sake of modernity and because it proves the government is Getting Things Done. What’s more, the (neo-Islamic) government wants to restore Turkey to the ‘glory days’ of the Ottoman Empire, but is quite happy to destroy Istanbul’s rich history in the process. This was how the Gezi Park protests began last summer: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tried to raze one of Istanbul’s last-remaining green spaces and replace it with Ottoman barracks-cum-shopping mall. While the protests were largely successful (for now), they opened a can of worms on the Government’s 12-year rule that has been simmering ever since.
Last month I moved to Taksim, the heart of the city and where most of the protests occur. While never as bad as they were last June, dodging protests has become something of a daily sport. You notice something’s up long before the first shots are fired. It begins with a general malaise, a sense of unease. Tension hangs heavy in the air. News travels like a game of Chinese whispers. Old ladies crane their necks out of windows. Shopkeepers begin to pack away outdoor seating. People stop in the middle of otherwise bustling streets and stare towards an unknown foe. Mobs of police materialise out of nowhere and begin to mill around, chatting and snapping pictures of each other on their phones. Minutes later they could be spraying protesters with tear gas and they’d probably instagram that too, but for now they’re just untrained young adults who probably still live with their parents covered head to toe in riot gear and holding machine guns.
The police’s disregard for keeping citizens safe is staggering. One night on Istiklal we witnessed an old man getting pummeled in the middle of street while the police watched on blithely, but if three people get together with some placards out comes the tear gas and water cannons despite the fact that Istanbul is currently going through one of its worst droughts on records (there may only be six weeks of water left). Journalists, usually outside the standard rules of police brutality, are treated no better- last week a journalist in Ankara was hospitalized after being hit with a water cannon. Ironically the recent protests against new internet censorship laws were censored before they even began, which is a shame because there were some really creative placards:
Most of the protests lately though have been about an increasingly expansive corruption scandal affecting the government. Late last year a bunch of MPs and the CEO of the state-owned bank were detained when millions of lira were found stashed in shoeboxes in their apartments. Erdoğan’s response? Fire everyone involved in the case, as you do. Since then thousands of police and prosecutors have been demoted or reassigned, and laws passed that allow the government to have much greater control over who is in the judiciary. It seems that every week a new allegation is leveled against the AKP, but it wasn’t until this week that the atomic bomb was dropped: phone recordings of Erdoğan and his son allegedly conspiring to hide millions of Euro on the day the corruption charges were revealed.
In any other democracy allegations this massive – true or not – would almost certainly have resulted in the MPs in question resigning. Instead Erdoğan has gone on a rampage about a shadowy ‘parallel state’ within the government run by a secretive movement called Hizmet (Turkish for ‘service’) who are out to get him and his government. The Hizmet is run by a self-exiled Islamist cleric called Fetullah Gulen, who supposedly commands thousands of supporters in the police force to do his bidding from his gated estate in Pennsylvania. Sound like a terrible crime novel? It gets better. Gulen has a network of schools around the world – including the one I work at here in Istanbul – in order to create a ‘golden generation’ of people sympathetic to his world view. There’s no doubt that Hizmet exists or the extent of its reach; the teachers at our school have gone from staunch pro-AKP supporters who would scoff at the çapulçu to the government’s harshest critics, all in the space of two months. As much as any progessive person would be happy to see this obviously corrupt government taken down, having an unelected group wielding power within the state whenever they see fit isn’t exactly helpful for democracy either.
It doesn’t help that the media in Turkey is incredibly biased, and not like the ‘Oh the ABC is full of lefty green hippies’ criticism we get in Australia either. Erdoğan has a tight grip on the so-called ‘free’ media in the country, to the point that when one paper published a criticism of him a few years ago they were mysteriously lobbed with a $3 billion dollar tax fine the next week, effectively putting them out of business. Turkey has the dubious title of having the highest number of journalists in prison, beating even Iran and China. Last month a pro-Gulen journalist was deported for tweeting some things the PM didn’t like. Meanwhile, the pro-government media is so incredibly one-sided it’s almost laughable: recently they published analyses of the phone recordings from two ‘leading American audio analysts’ that proved they were fake, only to be rebutted by the analysts in question who denied ever even hearing the tapes. But when you have a largely uneducated population in the villages believing everything they hear on the nightly news, continual lies tend to eventually turn into truths. As one journalist put it; “Since there is hardly any objective institution left, truth will vary according to whom you ask”.
Turkish politics has historically been pretty tumultuous. Since becoming a republic in 1923 there have been four military coups overthrowing governments; if it hadn’t been for the fact that Erdoğan stripped the military of its power last decade, they’d probably do it again. But somehow this time it feels different, more pressing. Turkey is at a turning point, being pulled in both directions by two very powerful forces, and it’s having trouble deciding which way to go. Local elections in a month’s time are widely regarded as being a litmus test to see whether all this turmoil will affect Erdoğan’s vote. If he retains power, expect him to come after Gulen with a vengeance. Really, I just think the two of them should sort it out with some good old fashion Turkish oil wrestling.
Jokes aside, I’m currently trying to work out what to do after my contract expires in June, and as much as I am loving living in Istanbul, when you’re only here for a year it’s easier to forget that the country is heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction. But when you’re here long term, that kind of thing gets harder and harder to ignore. So what do you do when you’ve fallen in love with a country but its politics make it increasingly difficult for you to justify staying? It’s a question I haven’t quite figured out the answer to yet.