Stay tuned for continuous coverage. In the meantime, we have to bear in mind one thing. The Turkish protest is not the result of an economic crisis, or of austerity measures imposed. It’s much more than that. It’s about principles.
To illustrate this, allow me to reflect on the issue of the national flag. It’s all related.
In the protests in Spain, you will never find a Spanish flag. Because there is no consensus between Spaniards if there really exists something like Spain, and if so, what it is and if we want to be a part of it. This is different, both in America and in Turkey.
At OWS, the stars and stripes had a prominent place. In a certain sense, the protest was very American, as it defended the rights of the individual. Freedom, opportunity, solidarity against oppression, the very things that America was founded on, at least in theory. But the flag was also controversial. One night a fight almost broke out when someone tried to burn it, because of America’s treatment of the natives, and to affirm his right to do it. Others tried to prevent him, because of the positive values the flag stands for, and because his gesture would needlessly offend a lot of people.
There is no such controversy in the Turkey. The flag is essential. It’s the one thing that unites the demonstrators. The protest isn’t a nationalist one because of this, but it does root in Turkey’s foundation as a modern state.
The national identity question is deeply anchored in the mindset of the Turks. You have to be aware of the basic historical context to understand this.
A hundred years ago, the once magnificent Ottoman empire lay dying as the ‘Old Man of Europe’. After ten years of continuous warfare, it looked like it would be completely dismembered. The peoples whom it had ruled for so long had risen up, and together with the colonial powers of the day, they tore apart proud Turkey as a pack of wolves.
The man who is credited with putting an end to all this was Mustapha Kemal, ‘Atatürk’.
He led Turkey to victory against the Greeks, and he refounded Turkey as a modern, secular republic. He has been venerated as the father of the fatherland ever since.
In the abundant imagery of Atatürk, you will notice that he hardly ever appears in the magnificent outfit of a great leader. His trademark is a simple suit and tie.
Atatürk was inspired by modern European liberal democracy. He wanted Turkey to be like Europe, but not subject to her. He opposed the imperialism of nations like France and Britain. Young Turkey aspired to be an independent member of a free community of nations, guided by popular representation, the rule of law, respect for individual rights, freedom from religious bigotry, etc.
Now, 2013, the people have risen up because they feel that all of these principles are under attack. They are ruled by a prime minister who favours foreign capital over common spaces, who is allowing religious powers to impose their morals on the rest of the population, who tries to control the access to information, and who is acting in word and deed as an Ottoman sultan.
The Turks grow up with Atatürk like the Americans grow up with the pledge of allegiance, and the catholics with their ‘credo in unum deum’. The defense of Turkey’s founding principles is what makes this protest so strong and transversal.
It is a crime in Turkey to insult the Turkish identity. This has been used many times as an excuse to silence critical voices. Now all of Turkey has taken the streets to accuse its own government of being anti-Turkish.