Not a Turkish Spring, but a Call for Democracy From the Youth

06/26/2013 10:43 am ET | Updated Aug 26, 2013

The events that have been transpiring in Turkey have now entered their third week. The peaceful protests, originally advocating an environmental cause, escalated into a massive anti-government uprising. Essentially what has been happening in Turkey is the Turkish youth are striving to safeguard the secular democratic republic that their founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, left them to protect. One major slogan of the uprisings reads: "Turk Gencligi 1. Vazifesinde! Atam rahat uyu!" which means, " Father rest in peace! Your children are fulfilling their duty!" As the threat has become clear to all, crowds of 47 percent college students have been fighting for their rights and liberties, pushing for the government and especially the prime minister to resign. The trees the environmentalists were originally protecting serve as the catalyst that precipitated this entire protest. These trees are now a symbol of what Ataturk created and the Turkish youth will do anything they can to prevent them from being demolished. The way that this Occupy Gezi movement should be read is people chanting; "We are fed up with the policies of this conservative Islamic government. We want our freedoms, rights, and unrestricted press back!"

So, do these events mark the end of Turkey's "moderate Islamic" democracy or will this only strengthen Erdogan's standing and gain him more votes in the upcoming elections? To me, the Turks seem like they only change their votes when it is economically viable for them to do so. As I see it, the only way for the ruling government to change would be for an economic crisis to plague Turkey and for the dollar to rise against the Lira.

The restriction on alcohol regulations was the final straw; however, even before this, there were more significant restrictions that took place in Turkey, which I personally believe had a part in igniting and even intensifying these protests. The current government acts as if Islam is the only thing of sentimental value for the Turkish people. However, one key thing they forget, or don't want to take into account, is that for much of the population, Islam is not a major part of their identity (if any part at all). Even though certain aspects of Turks' lives may be considered conservative, they also believe in the secular, democratic and liberal ideals of their founding father, Ataturk.

As the current government tried to restrict all the national holidays, including Ataturk's death anniversary commemorations (10th of November), the republic day and independence day celebrations, which used to be celebrated with great joy all around the country, people started to see a side of AKP that they were no longer able to draw a blind eye to. As AKP's agenda became more apparent in the previous year, the secular minded Turks began to fear for their future free lives in their home country.

A distinct mark of the Occupy Gezi protests is that the crowd at Taksim square is highly educated and mostly college students and graduates. However, the people are also very diverse, from Kurds to gays and from Kemalists to supporters of the most ideologically polarized political parties. Some of Turkey's most famous actors are even joining in the protests. One thing that unites them, regardless of their backgrounds, is their cries for a modern, free country in which no one tells them the way they should live. The crowds that fill Istanbul's renowned Taksim Square today agree on one thing: Turkey needs a more democratic leader. They are not satisfied with the policies of the current government. This is the obvious subtitle that has been running. Whether or not the prime minister cares about it or not is the important question.

Shame on the Turkish media outlets and many of the Turkish news channels that choose to play documentaries and cooking programs instead of covering the protests during their first couple of weeks. As people on the streets began to criticize and mock the Turkish media outlets highly, the press, only after several days, decided the events were newsworthy. As a result, the protesters and other Turkish youths started utilizing social media in order get their message across and their voice heard all around the world. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram homepages suddenly became filled with the voices of the protesters from Istanbul, then Ankara, then other major cities in Turkey and even cities around the world. The globe finally heard their chant as they called for freedom and democracy. The activists even collected the necessary money in order to publish a full-page ad in The New York Times (June 6, 2013) titled "What's Happening In Turkey" in order to tell the world what exactly the protesters have at stake.

This point takes us to another important note on the Occupy Gezi movement. Even though I feel like the protests have been portrayed by the western media as the "Turkish spring" similar to the protests that erupted in Arab countries (starting in Tunisia and spreading throughout the Middle East), what is happening right now in Turkey is very different. Turkey has long been portrayed as the successful moderate Islamic democracy, as a role model for the Arab countries. Now the world can see that Ankara has been concealing large amounts of unrest and it is clear that Turkey was actually not a successful democracy model for Middle Eastern countries. Can Islam and democracy be practiced side by side? One of democracy's prerequisites is secularism; therefore, Turkey hasn't been a democratic country for a long time now. Ten years ago, Turkey was a much more peaceful country. Everybody, secular or religious, minded their own business. That is the government that Ataturk envisioned for Turkey.

The recent protests, despite what the American media is publishing, are the Turkish people trying to protect their rights, and safeguard the successes of the Ataturk-led revolution that founded modern day Turkey. The Turks are willing to inhale copious amounts of tear gas, get shot with rubber bullets or blasted by a fire-hose all in order to safeguard the liberties Ataturk once provided them with. The people filling Taksim Square, are fighting for something slightly different than the crowds in Egypt's Tahrir Square. The Turkish youths are trying to protect their democratic country from falling into the hands of a conservative and authoritarian ruler.