The Commercial Appeal
Turkish protests offer security lessons
I recently traveled with other Tennessee lawmakers and officials from the Department of Homeland Security to Azerbaijan and Turkey during the 22nd anniversary of the independence of Azerbaijan from the Soviet Union.
Given that the Boston bombing suspects had come from the Caucasus region, we hoped to learn security lessons from Azerbaijan. The main security lesson I learned, however, came from the extra day I spent in Istanbul, Turkey, at the end of the trip.
Having to walk through tear gas to return to my hotel was worth the opportunity it gave me to speak to protesters in Taksim Square. The lesson I learned is that protesters have complex motives, and democratic governments should listen to protesters’ grievances — whether in Turkey or in Tennessee.
The protesters in Taksim Square had myriad reasons for their presence. The initial protesters were largely environmentalists objecting to the removal of trees in a proposed redevelopment of Taksim Square into a shopping center. Their motives initially mirrored the anticapitalist “Occupy Wall Street” movement by spreading on Twitter with the hashtag “OccupyGezi,” referring to Gezi Park within Taksim Square.
The protest initiated largely because the government had failed to engage the neighborhood before it sent in bulldozers to begin the redevelopment work. This is certainly a lesson which can translate to Tennessee. Community meetings on the front end avoid community conflicts on the back end.
A second wave of pro- testers were in Taksim Square to object to police brutality. Instead of engaging the original protesters, the ruling AK Party government sent in tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd. As the Brazilian government is now learning, police brutality against protesters has no place in a democratic society and almost always backfires.
Thankfully, Tennessee never resorted to such tactics in dealing with the Occupy movement last year.
A large number of protesters are in Taksim Square to oppose AK Party laws promoting a more conservative view of Islam, which are slowly moving Turkey away from the Western secularism upon which it was founded in the 1920s. This disagreement is a major division in the society today.
For example, it is still against the law in Turkey to wear a head scarf in a university. Ninety percent of Turks ignore the five daily calls to prayer that can be heard throughout the country, and the Izmir coastal area is dominated by secularism and the free flow of alcohol.
On the other hand, the AK Party continues to win over 50 percent of the vote on a conservative Islamic platform. It recently passed restrictions on the places and hours in which alcohol may be sold. The government even condoned removing a couple from the subway for kissing in public.
Politically, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan believes that his best move is always to cater to his base of voters rather than to reach out to his opponents to try to bring some of them into his camp. While this strategy may win elections, it is certainly no way to govern.
The final reason for so many protesters in Taksim Square is the massive generational gap in Turkey. Sixty percent of the Turkish population is under age 35. Every single young person I met, including all hotel and restaurant staff, said that they had been to the protests and were going back after they got off work.
These young people do not view the protests through the prism of the social unrest of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s in Turkey because they were not alive then.
All they have ever known is a stable democracy in Turkey, ruled by the AK Party. The protesters do not fear that they are undermining the country like the older generation does. They simply think that they are appropriately speaking to power, especially to the increasingly authoritarian power of Erdogan.
It is important to engage young people to address their concerns rather than to dismiss them as Erdogan has done.
Similar to Erdogan’s, the Tennessee government’s initial response to the Occupy Nashville protesters was inappropriate. As a federal judge in Nashville ruled recently, the government cannot simply announce a new rule against protesting on Legislative Plaza and then arrest those who are violating it.
The correct way to address protesters is to listen to their various concerns and to provide them an appropriate outlet for their protest. The legislature was correct to allow protests during the day, but to deny overnight camping in a law it passed that applies to everyone throughout the state, regardless of the message being promoted. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, represents state Senate District 31 in the Tennessee General Assembly.