Letter From Istanbul

TaksimRecently, my wife and I returned from a dream holiday: a month in Greece, Turkey and the Czech Republic. Mere days before we were to leave for Istanbul, however, Turkey experienced a coup attempt in which nearly two hundred and fifty people died, many of them civilians. Friends and family urged us to cancel this leg of our trip but, then, some stability was re-established and we decided we couldn’t miss visiting that ancient capital, truly one of the world’s “eternal” cities. We flew into Kemal Ataturk Airport and spent an incredible ten days walking its teeming streets. But while we were out and about, chatting with waiters, hawkers and people from various strata of society, I started composing an article on the attitude of ordinary Turkish citizens to the bungled coup and their autocratic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Here it is:

 

The woman in Taksim Square is insistent: we must buy two Turkish flags. Thrusting another red pennant at us, even though we’ve just paid five lire (about $2.50 Canadian) for a colourful souvenir of our time here in Istanbul.

We’re trying to be polite in our demurrals but she’s an annoying, persistent huckster, her demeanor bordering on insolence. We’re backing away, hands raised, but she’s having none of it—until two passing gentlemen upbraid her in Turkish, clearly telling her to leave us alone.

That does the job; she withdraws, muttering and scowling.

For the past week there have been “celebrations” in Istanbul’s most popular gathering spot, every evening thousands of people streaming into the square, waving flags, listening to live bands and exhortations condemning the recent botched coup attempt, praising President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his steadfast and courageous defense of democratic principles.

We’ve kept away from these government-approved rallies, finding other things to do, other venues to patronize, an easy task in this city of twenty million souls. In our eyes, Erdogan’s idea of “freedom” includes the suppression of any dissent, journalists and political opponents rounded up en masse and spirited away to swelling detention centres, held for thirty days without any outside contact or legal representation. He has even gone to the absurd extent of suing school age children for drawing cartoons satirizing their glorious leader.

We arrived in Turkey’s largest city mere days after the rather inept coup plotters had been crushed, their compatriots either killed or carted off in disgrace. The nightly news showed men and women being led into waiting police vans, while pro-Erdogan commentators and television personalities heaped scorn on them—so much for independent journalism. The fifth estate here definitely know their place.

All that said, we’ve felt perfectly safe here in Istanbul throughout our visit, able to move about freely, and as a result we’ve had the opportunity to speak to Turks from various levels of society. What we’re hearing doesn’t exactly jibe with Erdogan’s point of view.

Every single person we’ve chatted with has made it plain (in halting English) that they regard their president with absolute contempt and hold him largely responsible for the country’s political and economic woes. From our hosts to sales people and backstreet vendors, everyone who feels compelled to broach the subject says it is Erdogan’s machinations that have endangered democracy in Turkey, not the designs of some obscure cleric operating from exile in Pennsylvania.

The problem is that while the loathing of Erdogan’s tactics is widespread, there is no cohesion or cooperation between those alternative voices…and a splintered, squabbling opposition is next to useless.

President Erdogan is clearly a canny operator but his heavy-handed tactics are alienating and infuriating an increasingly larger proportion of the population and may end up backfiring on him. Along with the jailings and intimidation, he has fired tens of thousands public employees, closed many schools and universities, politicizing groups and individuals who had previously been either compliant or indifferent (or too fearful to act).

And can the uneasy alliance he has forged between right-wingers, militarists and religious fundamentalists hold together, can his vision of a New Turkey be perpetuated once his reign is over?

After all, the nation’s secular character has been present since modern Turkey was formed, it was one of Kemal Ataturk’s foundation stones when he composed the country’s constitution almost one hundred years ago. Can a mere cult of personality supplant an ideal shared by generations of Turks who have grown up believing in and fighting for Ataturk’s magnificent legacy?

As one older Turkish gentleman told us, “Erdogan wants to take us back in time but time, as we all know, only moves forward”.

He made this statement with great assurance and I feel I am not qualified to challenge or undermine his optimistic assessment. I can only hope that for his sake, and the sake of those whose Erdogan’s tactics are hurting, the husbands, wives and children of the detained, that he is right.

 

August 1, 2016

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