Turkey has been in the news a lot lately. Strange headlines like “Is Erdogan Losing Touch with Reality?” “Teens Targeted as Turkey Cracks Down on Free Speech” and “Students in Turkey Petition for Jedi Temple after Call for Mosque on Campus” appear on the Internet lately.
Almost two years ago, the Gezi Park Freedom Protests challenged Islamist Ak Party leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan, like the Evil Emperor from Star Wars, struck back — hard. Instead of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s secular democracy, a police state reigned in Turkey. Anyone who spoke against Erdogan and his ideals, including a beauty queen, a 13-year-old boy who posted something on Facebook, teenage university students, journalists, academics, and novelists — were accused in court and, in many cases, faced with prison.
While Erdogan puts finishing touches on his over $600 million new Ak Sarayı (“White Palace”), now the largest palace in the world, working-class Turkish citizens are struggling to pay their rising electric and water bills. While his children and in-laws run for high posts in the government, university students struggle to find good-paying jobs. The Turkish lira hit an all-time low in December, and several Turkish banks are facing big problems.
Religious freedom is also at an all-time low. At Easter time this past week, a Muslim Koran reading was held inside the Hagia Sophia, one of the oldest Christian churches in the world. Built in the 6th Century, it stood as the world’s tallest building for 1,000 years. In 1453, it was conquered by Sultan Mehmet II and immediately converted into a mosque with the Christian altar removed, intricate mosaics plastered over, a nook cut toward Mecca, and tall minarets added. Ataturk wisely turned it into a museum in the 1930s, but its future veers toward being forced into a mosque again. There are over 80,000 mosques in Turkey and over 3,000 in Istanbul, with more being built at the cost of millions of dollars. Many of them remain almost empty while Turks try to pay rising rent costs. Not one Christian church was allowed to be built in the Turkish capital of Ankara, except on the foreign soil of embassies. The idea that Turkey is only Muslim is false; there are many Armenian Christians (who took Turkish names to survive) keeping a low profile in Turkey, even as the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide approaches (which Erdogan denies). There are also many other Turkish Christians with actual churches throughout Turkey, Jews, Alevis, and, apparently, Buddhists and Jedi (as university students recently demanded their temples be built on university grounds).
Erdogan has also been converting ancient Christian churches and monasteries into mosques. In lifting up the Ottoman Empire and portraying his image as a Sultan, Erdogan has denied the rich Christian, Roman, Greek, and Mesopotamian histories and cultures of Turkey.
Erdogan has closed Twitter and Facebook several times, only to reopen them if “offensive” items were removed. Erdogan has allowed his police force to attack unarmed protesters and even peaceful tourists (including me). I spent 2.5 years working in Turkey and covering the news first-hand. I even married into a Turkish/Armenian family and learned the language. Turkey is a beautiful country, brimming over with natural and historic treasures, and it should not go the way of Syria or Iraq. New laws in Turkey threatening women’s rights. New laws allow police to search and detain people without a search warrant or even an official charge. They also prohibit protesters from covering their faces with gas masks or wearing hardhats, thus making them vulnerable to pepper spray and even the now-allowed gun bullets.
A 14-year-old boy was shot in the head with a metal tear gas canister during the Gezi Park Protests nearly two years ago — while going to the store to buy bread for his family. He was in a coma for nine months and then died. When a judge would not release the name of the policeman (and others) responsible for his death, two neighbors took matters into their own hands. They stormed the courthouse and held the judge at gunpoint for hours, demanding the name of the policeman who killed the boy. When the judge refused, the neighbors shot him. Then they were shot by Turkish police and labeled “terrorists.” This is how Erodgan spins the news.
One Turkish man told me, “That boy’s neighbors sought justice, and they were not given it, so they brought justice in the Turkish way. If Erdogan’s Islamist Ak Party wins the upcoming June elections, Turkey will face a civil war. The Ataturk people will not be patient forever. They want secular democracy again. Turkey could become the next Syria.”
In fact, so great is Erdogan’s control over his citizens that he determines the legal recipe of bread. There is a bill before the Turkish Parliament to put smart chips with GPS trackers into the ID cards of all Turkish citizens—and talk of inserting smart chips inside Turkish citizen’s bodies so that the GPS trackers would be even more effective. Who would have thought that what some Christians consider the “Mark of the Beast,” mentioned in the Book of Revelation, could first appear in Turkey?
Apparently, Europe and the U.S.A. are happy to sit and watch Turkey fall into the darkness of dictatorship, like a Mevlana whirling dervish gone out of control. Even the Kurds are accusing Erdogan of being a dictator. Maybe they will help the Turks regain their government and their human rights. Some Turks are actually trying, like the new “Meydan” (“Defiance”) newspaper and the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Ataturk’s secular democratic group. But time is short and much needs to be done. If Turkey falls, how will things go with Europe and America?