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Archive for the ‘Protests’ Category

Attacks at the HDP Rally: What We Know (and don’t know)

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In Diyarbakir on Friday, two explosions erupted at the final HDP rally prior to Sunday’s elections. The latest reports indicate that four people died, including 2 teenage boys, and close to 200 hundred were injured (update- more than 400 with at least 25 critically) as a result of the blasts.  Initially blamed on a malfunctioning generator, it now appears that a gas cylinder packed with ball-bearings was deliberately planted and responsible for one of the two explosions that were heard. Immediately after the explosions, police targeted the crowd with tear gas and water cannons.  The rally was canceled and some of the crowd regrouped outside the HDP headquarters in the city where party leader Selahattin Demirtas (who was scheduled to speak around the time the explosions occurred) urged HDP supporters in general, and those gathered in Diyarbakir specifically, to remain calm.  His message seemed to be taken to heart and no rioting occurred.  Instead, peaceful protests in the form of banging pots and pans and flickering lights in both Diyarbakir and Istanbul.  Prime Minister Davutoglu condemned the attacks. President Erdogan offered condolences and promised to investigate the bombings before going off on a tangent about how roaches in the old Prime Minster’s residence forced him to build a new palace for himself.  He also expressed his annoyance at the fact that Demirtas was refusing to answer his calls, which lead to a curt war of words between the two. Despite the obvious news-worthiness of this event, today’s pro-government papers lack any front page coverage on it.

The superlative importance of the Kurdish vote in this election has been explored in depth numerous times and there is no need to reiterate it here. The potential for Kurds to decide the election makes it safe to assume that the perpetrators behind these attacks wished to affect the outcome of the election by either 1) provoking violence 2) intimidating HDP voters 3) pinning the attacks on the PKK or 4) a combination of all three.  Motives one and three would feed into the pro-government media machine’s characterization of Kurds as uninterested in sustaining the peace process. and, ultimately, as a treacherous 5th column who will tear Turkey apart is allowed to gain political power. The HDP and their supporter’s maintenance of calm in the face of this provocation took much of the wind out of the sails of this narrative, but some pro-government elements still suggested that it was the “Kurds themselves” who planted the bombs.

What we very clearly don’t know at this point is who planted the bombs, or if they are related to the dozens of other attacks against HDP supporters, election vehicles or party headquarters.  Of course, many are blaming the AKP, if not for directly perpetrating the bombing, for their encouragement and use of offensive and goading language against the HDP.  With Turkey’s history of unsolved political violence, there is a chance that there may never be a clear answer to who perpetrated the attacks against the HDP and what if any organizations they were working for.

We also don’t know how this latest and most damaging attack on the HDP will affect the election outcome.  The best analysis of all the available polls indicates that the HDP will likely pass the 10% threshold (barring fraud, which is unfortunately likely to at least some degree).  Given the fact that both the leadership and the base of HDP supporters reacted coolly and called for peace in the face of ongoing violence, the bombing may very well serve as a last minute boost pushing undecided voters to the HDP.

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June 6, 2015 at 7:58 am

Reflections on Two Years since Gezi Park

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1. Neo-Ottoman mall that was planned to replace the park has still not been built.

2. It has basically become a style rule that you can’t write anything about current Turkish politics without bringing up the protests.

3. The protests marked the first time that the superiority/sincerity/humane nature of Erdogan and AKP’s political program was publicly questioned.

4. It took years for the objectives other famous anti-government protests to come to fruition (i.e. in the Eastern Bloc countries during the Cold War).

5. Polls show that Turks of all political affiliations don’t want a strengthened presidency and associate it with authoritarianism.

6. Erdogan is currently in the fight of his political life. As Michael Koplow put it, “there’s blood in the water.”

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May 28, 2015 at 9:01 pm

Religion and the Gezi Protests

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Note: I have had to take a hiatus from blogging during the last few months to focus my energy on a number of other writing projects.  One of these was a paper I presented for the “Religious Symbols and Secularisms: Contemporary Perspectives from Canada and Turkey” panel at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting.  I have revised and condensed some of my research for this paper into the blog post below.  You can read the paper as it was presented on my Academia page.

Religion has played an important if under-studied role in the series of protests that have swept the globe over the last several years. During the Occupy Wall Street, Arab Spring and Euromaidan protests, religious actors served to legitimize and at times even directly participated in the protests. In contrast, during the Gezi Park protests that took place in Istanbul during the summer of 2013, official religious actors were peripheral. Instead, these protests produced the unique phenomenon of lay persons utilizing religion as an instrument of protest. Religion has deep political undertones in Turkey and the Gezi protesters deftly manipulated these subtexts in order to make specific political statements.  The AKP recognized the protester’s use of religion as a challenge to its hegemony over the political use of Islam in Turkey.  Hence why some of the most particularly virulent denouncements of the protesters by the government specifically aimed to characterize the protesters as sacrilegious.  

The rise to power of the current AKP administration marked a significant shift in the politics of religion in Turkey.  Though the majority of the population has always been pious, for most of the history of the Republic the secular elites controlled the country’s political, educational and even religious institutions.  When Mustafa Kemal established the Republic of Turkey in the aftermath of the fall of the Ottoman Empire, he subordinated and integrated the institutions of Islam into the Turkish state. To this day, the Turkish Ministry of Religious Affairs, known colloquially in Turkey as the Diyanet, is solely responsible for training imams, maintaining mosques and distributing pre-approved Friday sermons. This bureaucratic arrangement explains the absence of official religious actors at the Gezi protests.

The AKP has worked to break the previous social and legal conventions that restricted public piety.  AKP members frequently use religious symbolism in their official statements high government officials conspicuously pray and their head-scarved wives appear at affairs of State. Despite their claims to represent the masses, it is important to note that the style of Islam that characterizes the AKP is not analogous to the traditional Islam of the lower classes. The AKP represents a “conscious,” modern interpretation of Islam that grew out of twentieth-century Islamist movements. Their brand of Islam is the Islam of the urban, educated nouveau riche that embraces the trappings of elite lifestyles. A whole industry has sprung up catering to the tastes of the pious upper classes. There are Islamic fashions, Islamic resort hotels and Islamic gated communities. As a lifestyle, it is just as exclusionary of the lower classes as the secularism of the old Turkish elites.

The Gezi protesters targeted the AKP’s elitists Islam with the most well-known of its religion-infused protest activities, the iftar dinners that were organized on Istiklal Avenue.  The Istiklal Iftar meals were purposely arranged to create a sense of radical egalitarianism. Diners sat facing each other in two long lines along much of the length of the almost mile-long boulevard and ate donated food from paper plates set on table cloths or even just newspapers spread on the ground. All were welcome to attend, whether religious or secular, protester or bystander, those who had fasted and those who had not. The image of hundreds people sharing food while seated on the street was purposely meant to contrast the catered, closed, official municipal AKP iftar dinners that were taking place nearby. The iftar celebrations served to temporarily sacralize a formerly profane space, creating a peaceful haram (sacred) space in the midst of what at times was a violent and deadly period of protest.

Though the protester’s primary goal was to challenge the AKP and the current neo-conservative Turkish state, their acceptance of acts of public worship and accommodation of religious allies demonstrates that they were more than simply a reconstitution of the old secular elite.  There are numerous documented incidences of secular protesters going out their way to going out of their way to include pious citizens in their midst.  For example, on the night of the Mirac Kandil holiday, the park was declared an alcohol free zone and those who wished to could attend a sermon and communal worship service.

The Gezi park protests were a remarkable moment in Turkish history because they brought together elements of a number of previously mutually antagonistic classes of Turkish citizens.  Represented among the protesters were environmentalists concerned about the destruction of the forests surrounding Istanbul; secularists and nationalists convinced that the AKP is undermining the secular nature of the Republic; minorities such as LGBTQ individuals, Kurds and religious such as Alevis who continue to be face institutional discrimination; and leftists and anti-capitalist Muslims who are opposed to the governments neo-liberal economic policies.  Much has been made of the detente between the Kurds and nationalists in the park, while the interaction between secular and religious Turks has largely been dismissed as trivial.  Most research done on the participants does indeed suggest that the majority of active protesters were both young and secular.  However, ignoring the very real and significant shift in the treatment of public religion and its use as a method of protest during Gezi simply plays into the AKP government’s that only they can truly represent and protect the rights of pious Turks.

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December 22, 2014 at 3:14 pm

Untangling the Turkish-Kurdish-IS Debacle

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The Islamic State is advancing on the Kurdish city of Kobane in northern Syria.  Turkish Kurds and Kurdish refugees still huddled around the boarder are rioting.  The take away of most international media observers can be paraphrased as “the Kurds are unhappy because Turkey is purposely letting Kobane fall.”  As with most Turkish politics, the truth is much more complex.

Turkey is genuinely stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to Kobane.  Both the Syrian Kurdish leadership and the Assad government have flatly said that they would consider a Turkish military incursion into Syria a hostile act (although the position of the Kurdish regional government may be changing). About half of Turkish citizens are opposed to intervening against IS.  Erdogan and Davutoglu are absolutely right when they insist that a half-hearted air campaign will never succeed in fully defeating IS and that a multi-lateral strategy is need.  None of these issues of course excuses Erdogan’s equating the PKK (which the Turkish government has been in peace talks with for the year and half) with IS (which kidnapped dozens of Turkish citizens and has called Erdogan in infidel).  Nor does it justify tear gassing Syrian Kurds trying to cross back into the Kobane region to help defend the city. However, it does explain why Turkey has knowingly given the US and the Syrian Kurds an impossible to fulfill set of demands that would need to be met before it would agree military cooperation against IS.  This is also why Turkey will continue to urge the US to use airstrikes on IS and lash out against the US for not doing enough to stop IS, while simultaneously blocking the usage of the US airbase in Turkey for such a purpose.

Kurds are indeed frustrated with both the US and Turkey for what they believe is the former’s unwillingness to provide sufficient air support for Kobane and the later’s all but open support of IS.  Both of these accusations are oversimplifications, but the tense situation right now means perception matters more than the truth.  The political dynamics between Turkey, its Kurdish citizens, its Kurdish Syrian refugees and the Syrian Kurdish regional government complicates issues further.  The Syrian Kurdish government does not want its previous autonomy disrupted by a partnership with or military intervention by Turkey.  As Harold Doornbos, a reporter currently on the Turkish-Syrian border tweeted yesterday “There are some misconceptions, especially among Western audiences, regarding Turkey ‘doing nothing’ and ‘just watching how Kobane dies’ [sic]… Kurds [are] angry at Turkey NOT b[ecause] Turkish army does not intervene in Kobane, but b[ecause] Turkey blocks weapons, fighters from reaching Kobane.”  Kurds in both Turkey and Syria are upset at what they perceive, accurately, as Turkey’s double standard when it comes to Syrian fighters.  After letting Islamists cross the border essentially unimpeded for years, Turkey is now denying this same privilege to Kurds.  Granted the greater border security has much to do with the rise of IS, but Turkey’s decision to prevent unarmed young Kurds, both Syrian and Turkish, from traveling to Kobane since this battle started has led many Kurds to perceive Turkey’s new border security as more anti-Kurdish than anti-IS.

Kurds began protesting in cities around Turkey and around the world Monday and on Tuesday night in Turkey these protests morphed into riots.  Kobane is the spark, but frustration has been building for some time among Turkey’s Kurds.  The Turkish-Kurdish peace talks have been stalled longer than they have been productive.  The AKP government gave Turkey’s Kurds hope that they would finally enjoy equal cultural rights with Turks, only to have these hopes met halfway at best and indefinitely delayed at worst.  Turkey was forewarned multiple times by Kurdish leaders that an IS victory in Kobane would lead to renewed Kurdish violence.  Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the situation should have been able to see these riots coming.  The Turkish government should have also been able to predict that Kurdish protests, peaceful or not, would be met be counter-protesters from Turkey’s ultra-nationalist and extreme fundamentalist groups, all of which are known for their involvement in past violence.  Whether out of malicious intent or simple stupidity (and again, Kurds will perceive it as malicious) the Turkish government seems not to have taken any steps to prevent or assuage the violence.  Many police were off duty due to the holiday over the weekend and were only recalled once the violence peaked.  Once again, citizens have reportedly been killed and seriously injured by police actions.  Perhaps more disturbingly, the police failed to prevent multiple deadly clashes between Kurdish citizen and political groups and one or more extremest political groups.  Reports indicate at least 14 dead (update: 18) most the victims of the inter-group clashes.

Some Turkey watchers have raised concerns that we may be seeing a return to the bad old days in Turkey- armed clashes between rival political groups, renewed PKK insurgency and government emergency rule.  It is too early to make any solid predictions, but the events of the last few days have put the gains that Turkey has made during the AKP decade under serious threat, even more so than its recent slip toward authoritarianism.  A return to unpredictable violence does not just threaten Turkey’s democratic institutions, but its economic and growth and social stability, the foundation on which the AKP has built its power.  It is the best interest of all groups involved, the Kurds, the AKP and the Turkish nation at large for the Turkish government to find a way to deescalate this explosive situation.  The first step is to address it’s pro-IS reputation.  The Turkish government must stop simply saying that it does not support IS and find ways to demonstrate this stance, such as providing non-military aid and allowing Kurds to cross into Kobane to help defend  the city.  The government must also clarify its position on the PKK.  As long as the PKK is engaging in military actions against the Turkish government, it makes no sense for the government to maintain that it is equivalent to IS.  If the PKK and its members have no chance of being rehabilitated, what motivation do they have to hold the ceasefire?  Of course, an Erdogan apology for this statement is out of the question, but Davutoglu or other government officials need to find a way to modify or qualify this comparison.  Only if Turkey’s Kurds stop perceiving the Turkish government as the enemy, and vice versa, will there be any hope for a return to peace and stability.

Reaching a Real Settlement

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In an article yesterday, Claire Berlinski commented on the eerie and depressing similarities between the Gezi protests last year in Turkey and the ongoing protests in Ferguson, MO.  Indeed,  there is a trend in the images produced by protest movements- clouds of tear gas, police in armor and choking but defiant citizens.  The post 9/11 world have given rise to the nearly universal militarization of police forces.  Whether recent protests have taken place in an autocracy, democracy, or one of the many semi-democracies, police have again and again erred on the side of excessive force.

Both Ferguson and Gezi are examples of a dangerous world-wide trend in law enforcement.  However, the demands and demographics of the protesters in these two cases actually have little in common.  A more apt comparison to Ferguson in the Turkish context would be the intermittent and chronic protests by Kurds against government repression, particularly the building of gendarme outposts, in Turkey’s Southeast.  Both involve an ethnic and socio-economic underclass that largely inhabits marginal areas.  Both groups have been the target of brutal police repression but are often ignored by the mainstream media.

Of course comparing these two very complex and very different cases of minority repression is dangerously reductive on many counts.  That being said, at this particular moment in Turkish history, Turkish politicians would be wise to take a broad lesson from the history of African-Americans in the US, of which Ferguson is only the latest manifestation.  Turkey is in the midst of a much heralded attempt to finally reach a settlement with its indigenous Kurdish armed movement in return for increased cultural rights for Kurds.  Even if this process reaches the ideal outcome of granting equal cultural and legal rights to Kurds, the residual social and economic discrimination faced will not be erased.  The Turkish government cannot drop its focus on Kurdish issues and concerns once the settlement process is deemed complete.  Even if a formerly second-class group group of citizens is recognized as having full legal parity with the majority, in all likelihood discrimination will continue in practice for many decades to come.  Leaders on both sides of Turkey’s settlement process need to realize that the current legal negotiations are only, and should only, be the beginning.  In the decades to come, social, educational and economic inequalities will have to be addressed in order to truly reach equality between ethnic Kurdish and ethnic Turkish citizens of Turkey.

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August 15, 2014 at 1:38 pm

No Where to Hide

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The anniversary of last year’s Gezi protests has reopened the lively debate regarding what if anything these events say about the changing nature of Turkish society.  The political impact of the protests is highly debatable but there is no doubt that Gezi marks a turning point in the relationship between the AKP government and it grass-roots opponents.  The Gezi movement initially caught the government off guard and put them in a defensive position.  In Turkey, with its history of strong-man politics, being put in a defensive and weak position can spell death for a political party.  The AKP’s need to maintain its aura of power doomed the chances of a peaceful and productive ending to Gezi from the start.  The AKP sprang back with an offensive campaign designed to crush Gezi physically and politically and reassert its power.

Unfortunately for opponents of the government, this offensive campaign hasn’t ended.  The AKP has allowed and probably encouraged the police to adopt a shoot first ask questions later strategy when dealing with any government opposition groups.  It is this kind of reckless behavior that has led to the vicious cycle of protests and deaths, particularly in Alevi towns and neighborhoods.  The government did not even bother to take a more nuanced approach to the understandably angry crowds that gathered in the wake of the Soma disaster.  Many outside observers were shocked by these tactics, but most Turkey watchers have come to expect nothing less from the current government.  Erdogan has made it clear in his nearly daily speeches that all opposition or discontent will be considered traitorous.  Grief over the preventable death of a loved one is no excuse for lashing out against the AKP or its leadership.

Soma proved that no one is immune from the AKP’s offense against opponents, but those with any association with Gezi, however tenuous, have been the target of an organized government legislative and propaganda campaign.  The AKP’s strategy for preventing another Gezi is to eliminate all places of refuge for protesters, whether they be physical, legal or social.

The government eliminated physical refuges by outlawing the emergency treatment of injured citizens without authorization.  Part of the impetus behind this law is to force injured protesters into state owned hospitals where the police can document and arrest them.  Erdogan has also done his best to discourage private or religious institutions from offering protesters shelter during clashes with the police.  The Koc conglomerate, which owns the hotel off Taksim square which allowed protesters to take shelter in its lobby, was hit with an unexpected audit.  One of Erdogan’s favorite antidotes regarding Gezi is the instance where protesters turned a historic mosque into a shelter and triage site.  Erdgoan has accused these protesters of not only desecrating the building but also drinking inside the mosque.  The muezzin of the mosque, who had reportedly invited the protesters to take shelter there, was soon after exiled to a small town. The protesters themselves are also facing criminal charges.

Desecrating a mosque isn’t the only crime Gezi protesters have been charged with.  The AKP has used every legal maneuver and thrown every criminal charge they can at protesters, from creating an illegal organization to wearing inappropriate clothing.  The Turkish government has also prosecuted dozens of people for “thought crimes,” prosecuting or suing twitter users who dared criticize the government.

The social offensive against Gezi protesters and their supporters may be the most damaging in the long term. Erdogan has ensured the continued political domination of the AKP by characterizing “Gezi People” as the ultimate “other” from good Turkish citizens. They are traitors who burn the Turkish flag.  They are terrorists.  They are guilty of murder and assault.  No one in their right mind would support the goals of such people.

Despite this multifaceted attack on grass roots opposition in general and protesters associated with Gezi in particular, Erdogan has failed to eliminate the serious undercurrent of discontent in Turkey.  Instead, he has created a dangerously polarized society, with supporters of the AKP convinced of evil of government opponents, and opponents of the AKP (correctly) convinced that the government is out to get them.  This is unfortunately the contemporary legacy of Gezi: a government which is determined to reinforce its power through the persecution, prosecution and demonization of the opposition.  The good news is that grass-roots opposition to the AKP has not been crushed and barring a catastrophic crackdown, most likely will remain active.  The AKP and Erdogan in particular have compromised their moral and politically authority in the process of undertaking this blanket offensive against opponents.  Soma starkly highlighted that the government has overstepped the boundary of who and what they can legitimately include in their smear campaign.  As I stated previously, Soma will not bring down Erdogan.  However, it would be ill-advised for Erdogan to repeat the performance he put on for the crowds gathered at the mine.  Telling mourners that certain people are simply fated to die tragically, then kicking and punching members of the angry crowd that subsequently gathers is not the way to win votes; and Turkey is (still) a democracy.

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May 30, 2014 at 10:43 pm

Power, Paternalism and Fate in Soma

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Modern Turkey was founded and shaped by the innovative but paternalistic regime of Ataturk.  The tradition of Great Man and paternalistic politics was carried on by Ataturk’s successor Inonu and many of the democratically elected governments that followed him.  Turkey’s secularist governments never fully shook the paternalistic tradition, earning them limited popularity among the masses.  Part of the hope that surrounded the AKP in its early years was that they promised to break this tradition by liberalizing the laws governing social and political life.  After over 10 years of as the dominant political force in Turkey, few of these promises have been kept.  Particularly since the 2011 election, the leadership of the AKP has proven that they are as much a product of Turkey’s paternalistic political tradition as any of the secular predecessors.  Erdogan’s actions in the wake of the Soma tragedy are just the latest and most startling manifestation of this long Turkish tradition.

The AKP grew out of Turkey’s Islamist political tradition.  As result, many in the Western media have interpreted the AKP and Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian governance as a sign that they are preparing to institute “sharia” rule in Turkey.  However, a review of the party’s political legacy and current initiatives reveals a government that is more interested in expanding its power than spreading Islamist ideology.  The party first attempted to consolidate power through the drafting of a new constitution. The proposed constitution would have reconstructed the balance of power in the government, redefining the position of President as a strong executive without building in checks and balances. After the proposed constitution failed to make it past the drafting committee, the party has pursued other means of consolidating power. A recent law subjugated the judiciary to the executive branch, seriously compromising one the few effective checks on the AKP’s power. Erdogan, up against internal AKP term limits, has strongly hinted that he plans to be a candidate for President in the upcoming elections. He has also stated that if elected he will not conform to the traditional role of President in Turkey, that of an impartial, non-political moderator. Instead he promised to “use all my constitutional powers” as president, alluding in later speeches to either an official or unofficial expansion of the powers of the office of President.

Historically, the AKP has quashed any internal dissent from or debate of party policy, maintaining a strict hierarchical structure that it is now trying to mirror in the government as the whole. In the past year the party has subjected the country to an obsessive campaign against political dissent.  The AKP has compulsively repeated the claims that any and all of its political opponents are engaged in a conspiracy to launch a coup against the current government and destroy the democratic system.  The AKP’s war against political plurality has naturally led to further restrictions on media freedom and independence. Conglomerates sympathetic to the government have been buying up newspapers, leading to a dearth of critical reporting. All media outlets face pressure from the government, in some cases being personally scolded by the Prime Minister for not toeing the AKP line. Notoriously, the social media platforms Twitter and You Tube were banned for a period coinciding with the recent local elections.

Particularly over the past year, Erdogan’s attempts at paternalistic social engineering have triggered warnings from both in and outside of Turkey that the country’s secularism is under threat.  The most prominent example of “Islamically-inspired” legislation is the new restrictions on the sale and advertising of alcohol.  Though annoying to secularists and largely unnecessary, these laws seem to have had little real impact on the ability of both Turks and tourists to enjoy a drink.   Most concerning have been reports that reports that abortion has been de facto banned in state hospitals.  However, Erdogan’s successes at passing conservative social controls have been few and far between.  Those areas in which there has been change, such as alcohol and family planning, are favorite targets of conservatives the world over.  The conservative shift over the course of the AKP’s time in office is real but stems more from Turkey’s tradition of paternalistic governance than Islamism.  Arguably, the AKP’s Islamist heritage is distracting observers from the most likely explanation for Erdogan and the AKP’s political recent trajectory: the consolidation of power for the sake of power itself.  Erdogan has made no secret of his conservative political and social positions and is not hiding a secret Islamist agenda.  As evidence by the lengths he has gone to to break down checks on his power, Erdogan is more concerned with, and been more successful at, finding a way to maintain his control over the country than instituting elaborate Islamist social programs.

Erdogan’s infamous reaction to the tragedy in Soma can only be fully explained in the context of Turkey’s tradition of paternalistic politics.  For most politicians elsewhere in the world, the obvious first reaction in the wake of a tragedy is to console the survivors, shed tears for the victims and promise them and their families justice.  Instead, Erdogan condescendingly informed the gathered mourners and survivors that it is the fate of miners to live and die in such tragic circumstances.  As cogs in his program of fast-paced economic and infrastructure growth, Erdogan, needs working class Turks such as miners to accept their “fate” and keep on working despite the unacceptably high rate of occupational injury and death in Turkey.  They need to trust that Erdogan knows what’s best for them.  Ironically, Erdogan’s attempts to pacify Soma with references to “fate” rings strongly of the neo-Orientalist stereotyping that the AKP and the Turkish media outlets which support them have so vocally condemned.  Soma should be a wake up call for Erdogan and the AKP.  There is a limit to Turk’s tolerance for government suggestions about how they should live (and die).  Erdogan may be free to suggest what Turks should eat or how many children they should have, but Soma has made it clear that Turks are willing to fight for the right to have agency in their own fate.

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May 19, 2014 at 6:42 pm