It first begins with a peculiar, bitter smell. As you inhale, it starts to burn your throat, your eyes get red and you start to cry. Then it becomes difficult to breathe. You feel suffocated. Get sufficiently exposed, and you may faint or even die.
These are the effects of pepper spray, the chemical that was used by the Turkish police against peaceful sit-in protesters who tried to protect one of Istanbul’s few remaining green spaces against a controversial reconstruction plan in Taksim Square on May 28. Undercover police then proceeded to set fire to the tents left behind by escaping protesters — with all their belongings in them — despite the protesters’ pleas.
For many people, this was the last drop in the glass, which took many years to fill. The unprovoked attack against the environmentalists urged people from very diverse backgrounds to pour into Taskim Square to support them. Most of the supporters were well-dressed, well-spoken, decent people representing no particular political party, or ethnic or sectarian group.
What had brought people from so many diverse backgrounds together?
When you talk to protesters, you understand. They are secular-minded (yet almost exclusively Muslim) pacifists; their slogans and chants revolve around only one person: Erdogan. The anger and contempt felt for him is the common denominator. Secular people are rising up against Erdogan’s style of governance.
This must be puzzling from a Westerner’s point of view, as the West still portrays Erdogan’s Turkey as a model for the Muslim world.
To date, his Turkey had been put forward as a political and economic success story for Muslim countries to emulate. Turkey is a considerably more powerful country than it was ten years ago, but beneath the surface a different picture emerges.
From the moment they took power in 2002, the Erdogan-led coalition of ex-Islamists under the AKP umbrella worked hard to convince the West and liberals that they had left their desire for an Islamic state behind. In addition to this extensive window dressing, they were instrumental in finding strategic targets for which they would receive the support of the Western world and liberals — they cracked the code of the West’s wishful thinking.
The power of the military has been rebuked, including that of the Western-oriented secularists within it. They emptied out Turkey’s secular judiciary with an induced retirement plan, and recruited their fellow supporters instead. Success in the economy was accompanied by a huge transfer of governmental resources to their supporters. According to observers, media owners are brought into line with huge tax fines or with governmental contracts as reward, while journalists are being suppressed via threat of getting fired or getting jailed. Telephone tapping by the government-controlled police is a common practice.
There are no checks and balances left in the Turkish state to stop this abuse of power. Critics say that the police, state prosecutors, and judges have all come under the control of Islamists, and that this setup is used to dismantle secularists from key posts in the Turkish state. In order to prevent any questioning or pressure from the West, they cunningly accuse the defendants of anti-democratic charges, and portray them as anti-Western.