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The Muckrakers: Edward Snowden and Co.

July 12, 2013

I’d like to continue my First Amendment Watch with a discussion on Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and all those whistle-blowers and muck-rakers.

Snowden gets 'highest honor' from Cheney

Edward Snowden, sourced from CNN.com

Attesting that all information disclosed will remain confidential is no doubt part of the contract when one signs up for a job with the CIA, NSA, FBI, American Army or other governmental offices. It’s an odd sort of assault on our right to free speech, although it makes sense because the purpose of the job, which said applicant is applying for, is to protect the nation. Leaking that information can be quite damaging to national security.

Edward Snowden worked for the NSA. Julian Assange, the founder of Wiki Leaks, did not and therefore did not have to abide by such a contract. Snowden was obviously displeased with what was transpiring, and Assange clearly wanted the truth out at any cost. The catch here is: do the ends justify the means?

When it comes to national security, the ends always seem to justify the means, no matter the cost. The United States, as a recent article I translated for Watching America from French news site Le Point pointed out, is not alone in its methods of spying and espionage. Torture has been used across the world by governments “liberal” and “conservative” alike in the name of national security. But just as torture has a bad name to it in the post-Guantanamo era (er, wait, the prison is still there….) spying is now having its trial in the public square. Except that spying on a country, as opposed to torturing a specific person, seems to be more insulting to allies and enemies alike.

Did Snowden’s means justify the immediate, and any future, results? I think people like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange have, well, incredible balls (excuse my poor language choice). I am 100% in support of voicing your own opinion, especially in the name of justice, equality and human rights. However, the path these men and others took is not an easy one. I cannot imagine being expelled from one’s country…for something one said. I cannot imagine being stateless, homeless, with the whole world closing in on you because of a system of “allies” (oh dear, is it World War I again?) Depending on the nature of the information, revealing it can be very dangerous indeed to national security. But how else is the United States government (or any government) going to take the hint that they’re doing it wrong unless they are publicly humiliated?

On an individual level, Snowden will dearly pay a price; even if he does make it to Ecuador or Venezuela, or manages to stay in Russia as he seems to wish (probably because the United States government would have nil chances of capturing him there, ever) he will be living in exile forever, unless he chooses to return, where he will then be charged. And Assange clearly is paying a price, since he is now hated the world over and stuck in the Ecuadorian embassy (I wonder if Ecuador’s London location is a glossy, gilt embassy, as embassies often are, or is it all business?) Unless he does a sex change and dyes that platinum hair of his, I doubt he’s ever going to get out of there a “free” man. The moral of the story is that if a government is on the hunt for you, you will never be a free man. Trading freedom for liberty for all–a liberty these men will never again taste. I admire these men for their sacrifice and guts to do such an act, but I believe that there should be a better way to make governments accountable for their actions.

In order to prevent more leaks that could potentially damage national governments, I feel two things must be done: Snowden et al. should not be villified the way the media and politicians have made them out to be; and two, the morals and ideology that make up this country should extend to our national security. Former vice-president Dick Cheney recently labeled Snowden a “traitor,” saying that he suspects Snowden is a spy for the Chinese. How is it democratic if one is not allowed to criticize the government without being labeled unpatriotic? How is a government democratic if it is so deep in secrets that nothing is transparent, not even our own electoral system? How can the United States government sit here and rail against other nations and their human rights records when we bug our allies and even (especially) our own people, just in the matter of national security? Setting up microphones sounds like a KGB move, not a post-Cold War American move.

Sont susceptibles d'être reprochés aux société incriminées un "accès non autorisé sur un système de traitement de données, des collectes de données à caractère personnel, des atteintes volontaires à l'intimité de la vie privée, le fait de porter atteinte au secret des correspondances électroniques".

Pro-Snowden supporters in Paris, sourced from Le Monde.fr

The Assange-Manning matter shows where one of the many whistle-blower difficulties lies. The information Julian Assange, Wiki Leaks founder, and Bradley Manning, former US intelligence analyst,  leaked about the War in Afghanistan to Wiki Leaks, is regrettable for it seriously endangered the lives of those Afghans mentioned. I’m not quite sure why the names of the innocent weren’t blacked out before they were posted, and in terms of this information I’m not so sure why it had to be revealed unless it revealed gross misconduct on behalf of the US military. Manning unfortunately has to report to the military, but Assange simply published the material; he didn’t source it. Transparency is not important if the general public has no intelligence regarding a certain matter, such as certain army tactics (is Joe Schmo down the street trained for combat?) but it is certainly important when the government is spying.

But, as someone who believes in the truth, I don’t believe people should ultimately be locked in jail for speaking it.

Are we supposed to support these men, give them an honorary medal or hang them up at the gallows? They are not strictly Benedict Arnolds; they are revealing this information because they want to make the United States, and the world, a better place. Their acts are not entirely malicious in intent as words like “traitor” would make them seem. What I find most interesting is the public support of these whistleblowers,  because it seems to smack in the face of international cooperation. But aren’t countries, organizations and individuals entitled to their own opinions? I was shocked to click on a recent New York Times article, only to find out that Julian Assange had wrote it. Obviously the New York Times, the best newspaper in the world, has no qualms about letting a wanted man write for them. And what about Ecuador, whose embassy harbors Assange? Does the US government condemn Ecuador and refuse to cooperate with the country because it refuses to expel Assange from the premises?

This is the Age of Information. Clearly the First Amendment and 21st-century technology have some issues to work out.

Sources

First Amendment Watch:Why I’m Defending Paula Deen

July 4, 2013

Ah, the First Amendment. The Right to Freedom of Speech. Who knew that you were so complicated? Who knew that the citizens you govern would speak freely, only to have their words turned against them? I am often wary of what I post on this blog for fear what extremists and nitpickers would say. But then I have to remind myself: I have the right to say this. If we are not allowed to voice our opinions, why hasn’t this amendment been repealed?

Paula Deen, sourced from npr.org

I’ve watched as the Paula Deen Story has unfolded in American-and no doubt foreign-press, lamenting the obvious death of the 1st Amendment, the one which I hold most dear (and indeed, the human right I hold most close to my heart). The right to freedom of speech allows one to be truthful; it allows one to express oneself. I am a big fan of honesty and staying true to oneself. And Paula Deen was nothing but honest, even though she could have easily lied and said that she never had used the word in her life, in order to save her Food Empire (although, really, who could have seen all of this coming?)

Paula Deen, who is embroiled in a lawsuit accusing her of using the N-word and being racist toward employees at her restaurant, admitted to using the N-word in the past. Key word: past. Does she use it now? Has anyone heard her use it? Not even Lisa Jackson, her accuser, has heard her use the word. She didn’t recently lash out at a customer, passerby, employee etc. and call them that derogatory word. And even if she has, why is it front-page news? Why does she have to be branded as a social leper because she-gasp!-used a word that every.single.fucking.rapper seems to use in his songs?

At my previous job, every single person in the office, besides my boss, used the N-word. Granted, they said it “nigga,” and they were using it in that “oh, he’s my nigga”-i.e., a non-derogatory-way. But none of them were African-American, they were either Dominican or Puerto Rican. Their sentences were liberally peppered with the N-word the way a baby says “mama” over and over again. It made me apoplectic. But no one was going to report them to some human rights watch or Communication Committee.

Now, I am fully against the N-word that I won’t even spell it out for the context of this post. It makes me feel mightily uncomfortable. It sounds disgusting and cruel, because it was meant to be disgusting and cruel. I don’t believe that people should use this word. However, she did not say it to an African American, shouting it in harassment. Paula Deen was born in a generation where using the word was acceptable, and no doubt her parents probably used it as well. This does not make it right to use the word; it is not an excuse. If she is in fact a racist, than I do not support her, but she does have the right to her own opinions and beliefs. Somebody should have tried to help her, instead of “crucifiying” her, as one article put it.

If a person can have their entire life ruined over admitting to using a word that, let’s face it, people do use today, then what about other words? Why don’t I see the endless rappers who use the words bitch (which it’s perfectly acceptable to write) or slut or ho or cunt being ostracized from society and cut off from their mikes? Because they’re talking about women? Because most rappers are African-American? There is so much garbage out there being said about women, often times in jest that even women don’t realize it, yet nobody seems to give a damn. What about the scores of teenagers who deem practically everything “That’s so gay!”–should we make them sit at the Losers Table in the cafeteria?

Or what about Alec Baldwin, who recently fired out at a gay reporter, calling him a “Queen,” among other things? No one has started a Boycott Alec Baldwin Campaign, have they? I personally like Alec Baldwin; I think he is funny and he does a lot of charitable work out in the Hamptons, where I’m from, and I don’t support his choice of words, but I do understand that people make mistakes, especially when they’re angry and being targeted (as his fiancee was by the reporter). The comparaison between Baldwin and Paula Deen shows that it’s okay to insult gays; insulting women is okay, too-but not insulting African Americans. If this is a true democracy, than everyone should be treated equally: men, women, all ethnicities and all sexualities. I understand that racism and little subtleties happen all the time on the ground level, but for the whole of American media to gang up on Paula Deen and one topic but not on Baldwin and another says a lot. Or maybe it was just because she was a woman?

Are we going to criminalize certain words and phrases? Because if we aren’t, then I’m not quite sure why we’re going to make a big deal out of a person using the words, especially if it happened in the past and was in a private, non-hostile conversation. Instead of forcing Paula Deen to flee to Mexico (which is what I’d probably do if I were her) we should focus on ending racism. It’s a delicate subject, but it can be dealt with.

As we celebrate Independence Day, the 4th of July, I hope Americans can unite in our differences. I hope Americans can work together to strengthen America, a country which, despite its flaws, I love and appreciate more than I did in the past (gasp!) I hope we can support the right to free speech, and appreciate honesty when it comes, because honesty is rare when it comes to public figures.

Happy 4th!

Sources

Brazil, Turkey, and the Decade of Protests

June 24, 2013

Just when the protests in Turkey were getting into the full swing of things, another big country erupted in public demonstrations (that would be Brazil). CNN deemed the Turkish protests “massive and sustained;” sustainability here means that the protests in Istanbul and elsewhere are attracted enough momentum to dedicate serious time and effort (having a 10-years-in authoritarian leader in power seems to be a good inkling that a protest will become sustained). The Brazilian protests, too, seem to have caught a wave, and with their debut I now christen the 2010’s to be the Decade of Protests.

“Tayyip Istifa (resign)!” Protesters in Turkey. Sourced from Socialist Party.net

What do Turkey and Brazil have in common? Plenty of writers, speculators and, of course, world leaders (such as Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister) have made the connections between the two wildly different-seeming countries. Turkey and Brazil have quite the advanced economies (Turkey is, after all, considered a “first-world” country), which not only is their main similarity but also the big irony in the whole affair. Despite experiencing growth during the past decade, even despite the Great Recession, these two nations have experienced intense discontent. Clearly an economic upturn doesn’t equate wealth and equality for all, and there might be some merit to the idea, I argue, that a glossy, globalized country isn’t what some want at all.

Protesters in Recife, Brazil, sourced from NBC News.

Take the case in Turkey: the straw that broke the turkey’s back was that the Strombulites didn’t want a shiny new shopping mall to be built on Gezi Park (I’m still mulling over the possibility whether, when the Turkish protests do finish, whether Gezi shall be bulldozed or not). Economic progress, rejected! And take the Brazilians: although the straw on this side of the world was a 10-cent increase in public transportation fares, the other reasons for Brazilian protest seem to point, again, at a dislike for what most in the Western World would deem “progress” and “modernity:” mainly, the preparations for hosting the FIFA World Cup and next World Olympics. To the Turkish, a green space to relax and connect with nature and friends is more important than another mindless shopping mall (among other things); to Brazilians, even the pride associated with hosting the beloved FIFA World Cup and Olympics cannot suppress their ire over a collapsing public-utilities sector, nor the fact that entire neighborhoods are being demolished to make way for shiny new stadiums for these temporary events.

brazil world cup protests masked man fire

Protester carrying the Brazilian flag, sourced from Business Insider.com

I’m pretty sure that World Leaders everywhere are tired, but at the same time intensely terrified, at the mention of protests. Protests, particularly in the Western world, normally don’t call for a leader to step down nor for overthrowing the government, nor are they taken seriously. Protests in either developing or more authoritarian countries are worrisome for their nation’s leaders, for they often represent regime change and overhall. I’m sure the readers of this blog are equally tired of hearing me discuss protests! But, although I myself personally am not moved to march down a street protesting and carrying a sign (I prefer to protest here on my blogs), the protests fascinate me because the-duh, you’re probably saying-99% is taking a stand. If I was a Brazilian, I’d be pretty angry too if I found out that the government had spent more than $14 billion in constructing new facilities for sporting events but couldn’t even provide basic public services. Likewise, police spraying water cannons and wielding batons during a funeral march for the 4 people who have died in the Turkish protests would make me equally apprehensive and angry if I were a Turk.

France, Spain, Italy et al. were protesting long before street protesting was ever en vogue, but it was the Arab Spring protests that ushered in 2011 (and are still going) that melded new technologies and the new phenomenon of publicly stating one’s ideas and emotions that got the ball rolling. Add numerous other protests, whether sustainable or short-lived: Britain’s mad rioting in l’ete 2011. Occupy Wall Street in fall 2011 (which led to #Occupy movements throughout the United States as well as Europe). Chilean protests from 2011-present, as well as Spain’s. Turkey. Brazil. Protesting has taken on a whole new significance in the 2010’s, and that’s why I deem them the Decade of Protests. Voicing our minds in public has never been easier, regardless of whether other’s want to hear them or not.

Governments that do not listen to their people and leaders who do anything to stay in power should not be en vogue. The people have grabbed the microphone, and they will easily outdrone the government. It cannot be denied: the Decade of Protests will continue, and it will change how our world works.

Will # Ocupy Gezi Park and the Brazilian protests achieve their goals (which now include the resignation/impeachment of both heads of state)?

A protest can end in 3 ways: it can dissolve, i.e. the protesters abandon the “mission” (for various reasons); two, the government can choose to acquiesce the requests or three, the protesters turn into full-scale violence and war. #Occupy Wall Street succumbed to the first reason; Egypt managed to eek out a “victory” thanks to reason no. 2 and Libya and Syria escalated into full-out civil wars, with the situation in Syria obviously still unresolved.

“The same game is now being played over Brazil,” Tayyip Erdogan is quoted by CBS as saying. “The symbols are the same, the posters are the same, Twitter, Facebook are the same, the international media is the same. They (the protests) are being led from the same center….. It’s the same game, the same trap, the same aim.”

Well yeah, it’s the same game: the general public (not just poor people!) is protesting because their respective governments (and capitalistic society at large) do not care about them! The aim-to achieve rights and equality-is of course the same; besides those in power, who doesn’t want equality and justice? This is no international scheme , it’s democracy at work.

Sources

1. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-202_162-57590600/turkish-police-unleash-water-cannon-on-protests/

2. http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2013/06/21/whats-going-on-in-brazil/?hpt=wo_r1

3. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-202_162-57590609/brazil-250k-protest-against-govt-corruption/

When Cultures Clash: When to Conform

June 14, 2013

The idea of cultures clashing is one of the great cliches of the international affairs world: it’s easy to imagine two radically different cultures, sussed up in traditional garb, running at each other with ‘traditional’ weapons. (That, ahem, would be the physical version of ‘cultures clashing’). I’m referring to the idea of cultural norms meeting and…disagreeing.

The 2012 Contestants posing in bikinis, sourced from India Today online

A great example that’s been a hot news topic recently has been the removal of the bikini segment from the Miss World pageant, which is due to be held this September in Indonesia. In order not to insult the Muslim-majority country (religious clerics were calling for  the pageant to be moved to another country) Miss World decided to scrape the bikini segment from the show. If this had been decided after a torrent of feminist rantings (yeah, right) as a motive to encourage acceptance of different body types (albeit healthy), I could get behind the decision, even though the reality is that most girls who participate in the pageant are fit, and have worn many a bikini in their pageant days; I also like bikinis. However, this is not the case: the pageant removed the bathing suits from the program because a bunch of men were making threats and saying it wasn’t compatible with Indonesian culture. Oh, men.

Normally, I post about Islam on my S-L-M: Peace blog, but the fact is that I do not discuss Indonesia/Melaysia/countries outside the Middle East on that blog, and furthermore the incident reminded me of a subject that often comes up in the International Affairs that makes for a great (and unfortunately controversial) discussion. The question is: when, if ever, should one conform to another culture? This might seem like a completely stupid question, you might say, questioning my intelligence. When visiting another country, one should always be polite and respect local traditions, because you’re not on your home soil! What about when you visit someone’s house, I’d ask-sure, the host may ask you to remove your shoes, but the host also seems to want to make you very comfortable in a “your wish is my every command” way.

Respecting local traditions seems to be the time-honored response; any diplomat or international careerist will have certainly been in countless situations where, ahem, diplomacy is key. Of course one must remove their shoes before entering a house, accept a cup of tea or a fourth helping of a dish one loathes, cover their legs if visiting a super-conservative community, etc. Yet a lot of what I just listed is very personal, very one-on-one I’m-visiting-your-house acts. I doubt presidents and diplomats are forced through many of the traditional codes-of-conduct but-aha!-they seem to reside in that globalized upper echelon where American/Western (there, I said it) behavior is the cultural norm.

The Indonesia Miss World incident is wrong, in my opinion. Who gave the greenlight for the show to take place in Indonesia, anyway? The Indonesian government? Their Ministry of Cultural Affairs? Were they not aware of the bikini segment of the show, did they not agree to have it when they signed whatever contract that was set up? Removing the bikini scene isn’t going to destroy the integrity or scope of the pageant (unless you’re one of the contestants and want to show off your flawless thighs in that teensy-weensy polka-dot bikini), and surely if the suits really were going to offend the Indonesian people then they shouldn’t have been worn. But to cave in to a few men is unfortunate.

What I’m about to say next might come off as…well, think among yourselves. If it is common courtesy and in the interest of diplomatic relations to conform to another culture when one is traveling abroad, then the same should be said about people who either visit or, more importantly, come to live in America. Ah, one of my favorite topics. Correct me if I’m wrong, please. If I am expected to learn a few words in the local language when visiting a foreign country, then shouldn’t tourists and immigrants who visit America be expected to do the same? Citing America as the “land of the free” and how we’re supposed to be accepting of other cultures (both true) might seem justified here. But if these two truths are so valued by non-Americans, then why don’t they inject a little of them into their own cultures? So the next time I go to Egypt or some other Middle Eastern country I don’t have to cover up when it’s 110 degrees out? Why are Americans expected to be so accepting (obviously not a bad thing) but when we go abroad our conduct is critiqued or condemned?

This is a little observation I made during my first semester as a graduate student and I will state it here now: the general consensus seems to be that America has no culture. Or, that our culture can be so easily transmuted because of our melting pot heritage that it doesn’t have to remain the same; we have no true, base ‘cultural heritage,’ nothing that can be  overridden or changed. The United States government was founded using the English language, NOT Spanish. After colonialism a lot of former colonies elsewhere in the world retained the imperial country’s mother tongue as a second language, as is the case of North African countries who speak Arabic or Berber first and French second.

Sometimes colonized countries have accepted colonial languages as their first language, such as Central and South American countries which keep Spanish or Portuguese as the official language or many African countries which use French, English or Spanish as the official language of the government. Because these countries were made up of many diverse groups of people who possessed different languages (this is particularly the case in many African countries like Nigeria), picking one language seemed a good idea; the reasons for choosing a ‘colonial’ language are many and can be disputed as being bad or good. Nevertheless, the United States of America was founded on one language; if immigrants wanted to keep their native tongue this was acceptable, but the official language was expected to be learned.

No one seemed to disagree about this until recently. If I move back to France or Egypt or another country someday, I will make an effort to learn the local language if I do not already know it. Especially if I (of course) will be working. I took a taxi in Brooklyn yesterday with my twin sister and husband and the cab driver, unable to understand the street name we gave him, asked us if we knew Spanish. Que?  Were we speaking to each other in Spanish? If you can’t speak the official language, maybe you ought to try learning it-or find a job that doesn’t require you to speak to people in English. I fully understand that some people-especially adults-are not adept at learning a second language. It is difficult but not impossible, even if your are poorly educated or illiterate, a statement I can back up and will in my future post on Folk Arts Rajasthan.

At this point, my honesty might have rubbed some people the wrong way, unfortunately. But here’s a tip: try replacing America with a different country. Try France: the French are going to roll their eyes even if you do speak French fluently (don’t I know) or try to. I’d imagine that going to Italy or Germany and expecting serene smiles when one asks for change in a language like Chinese or Afrikaans would be unlikely. Working in Indonesia without knowing one of the local languages would be disastrous. If I move to a majority-Muslim country I’m definitely going to be expected to act a certain way, to change myself, but when many Muslims arrive in the United States or Europe they expect to be treated in accordance to their cultural norms. They demand that they be allowed to live according to their own beliefs. Which is fine: America tolerates religious freedom, except when it infringes on American laws. If you think it’s fine to marry a 12 year old girl, then-shudder-go do that in your old country, because by law that is not permissible. This brings me back to the Miss World-Indonesia issue: it is not illegal for women to wear bikinis, or any type of bathing suit for that matter, in Indonesia. Even if most of the population is Muslim, there are many ‘types’ of Muslims, some of whom may feel that wearing bikinis (or at the least other people wearing bikinis) is fine. Yet the Miss World organizers caved to a social/personal norm being pushed by a few male clerics.

My Gender Studies in the Middle East professor (who I will probably end up quoting endlessly on my other blog) grew rightly tired of me and my classmates ranting on and on about the hijab and the freedom to dress however one likes. Am I, like many other feminists, Republicans and liberals alike (!) just getting hung up on a simple scrap of fabric, about a superficial symbol that we equate with freedom? No-because it’s so much more than an argument about letting beauty queens saunter across a stage in a bathing suit. It’s much more than my little First-World tirade about a taxi driver asking me if I spoke English in New York City. One of the first things you realize when it comes to International Affairs is that nothing, absolutely nothing, exists in a bubble. Why does this irony exist where American culture is exported around the world, yet on our home turf the English language and the Christian religion, which our Founding Fathers both spoke and believed in, became…irrelevant? If I move to Indonesia I am expected to respect Islam, but if children in an elementary school want to sing Christmas songs for their ‘Holiday’ pageant, it is feared that singing these songs might offend non-Christians in the audience? Au contraire, I think not; were non-Christians really offended by seeing Christmas decorations or hearing Christmas carols pumped through mall speakers in the past, or is this more of an apology by the majority-Christian American society (and, despite our great diversity, our government) for…for what? Our culture? In a democratic state ‘majority rules’ is not applicable when it comes to culture because people seem to feel that, even if one recognizes and promotes so-called ‘minority’ or smaller-number (in population) religions or ethnic backgrounds, that promoting the ‘majority’ group is somehow demeaning to the smaller groups…. it’s food for thought, even if you disagree.

The point I’m ultimately trying to make is that American culture is(and should be) accepting and we embrace all people into our country (this is humorous because the AIS and Immigration Office are NOT easily welcoming) but this does not mean that the inherent values which have remained at the core of American culture need to be trampled upon. American culture exists! Are you surprised? I don’t see why. Our culture is the source of what world critics like to designate “globalization,” which, in case you weren’t aware, has become quite the dirty word. The culture clash and class continues….

Turkey’s Questionable Human Rights

June 4, 2013

The Gezi Park Protests (or shall we simply refer to it as the Turkey protests?) have taken over the international news….or have they? In Turkey certainly not, with the state-controlled media failing to report on the situation; but, if one were to go solely by my blog stats, one would say that international media (particularly ‘official’ or state medias) are not doing a good job of reporting. I had 59 visitors click on my discussion on Turkey the day I posted it; the following day I had 98 visitors; both days beat my record of most visitors.

The Gezi Park Protests, sourced from The Australian.com.au

This makes me ask, why are these readers clicking on my blog, which provides more opinion and analysis, then official sites like CNN or The New York Times? I would think they want facts; but maybe analysis is important too. I admit that I am not familiar with Turkey’s government, beyond the fact that it is secular, run by Prime Minister Erdogan and prohibits the wearing of veil in public places. The extremely large turnout for the protests, which are not only continuing now beyond the weekend but are also growing, and the government’s subsequent handling has led me to believe that the human rights situation in Turkey isn’t as rosy as I believed it to be. Based on my knowledge of Turkey, I viewed the country as pretty open and ‘free,’ at least when compared with other majority-Muslim states. After a bit of light news research, I present to you the conclusion: that Turkey is not a bastion for the protection of human rights.

Kissing on the Metro

According to Al-Jazeera, demonstrators on May 25th protested in front of a subway station in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, in an unique way: they were kissing. Apparently public displays of affection such as kissing are not permissible behavior in Turkey and a couple was recently “admonished” by subway officials who urge the public not to engage in such behavior. Kissing in public or any other such displays (a Turkish friend of my sister reported that even holding hands in most places is frowned upon!) are usually either socially or legally frowned upon in majority-Muslim countries, but I was surprised to learn this of Turkey, which prides itself (although apparently not with the Erdogan government) on secularism. Kissing might seem like a silly thing to complain about, but as long as a couple isn’t being grotesque about it who is the government to ban it?

Alcohol 

In another move that seems highly reminiscent of Arab countries, the Erdogan government is apparently continuing its seeming campaign to Islamize Turkey with its amendments to alcohol consumption. Again, unlike its majority-Muslim counterparts Turkey allowed bars, clubs and cafes to serve alcohol and there was more exposure of alcohol, whether in advertisements, on television, etc.; but a new law that has been passed (although, interestingly, not yet signed by President Abdullah Gul, as of Al Jazeera’s reporting) restricts where alcohol is served and when it is sold (shops cannot sell it between 10pm and 6am). It also stipulates that “TV series, films or music videos are not allowed to contain images encouraging the consumption of alcohol.” Although one can stress that in this case the government is perhaps more well-intentioned (especially in its heavy new fines for drunk driving), nevertheless these too are curbs on personal freedom. I guess all those foreign rap music videos are going to have to be cut from clubs and cafe TV screens….

Press’ Problems

Lest one think that human rights only means the freedom to sexily cavort and consume alcohol in public, Turkey has strictly controlled not only personal choices but any choices (read: voicing opinions) against the government. Apparently Turkey ranks no. 1 in terms of journalist incarceration rates….good job! On Friday May 31st, the first day of the protests, only one Turkish news channel reported the protests…I think the first day of the Arab Spring in Egypt did better than that!

Abortions, Detentions and All That Jazz

Besides silencing the press, Turkey seeks to silence those who oppose its current regime. Months-long detentions are the norm, even for student protesters; according to Amnesty International’s 2012 Report, many are held under the trumped-up charge of “terrorist” and then forced through unfair trials where their lawyers do not have access to the evidence being used against their client. Furthermore, those arrested and detained are often roughed up by the police and tortured. This unfair system of punishment is probably the most important human rights issue in Turkey, followed by the lack of press freedom; after all, if people will be roughed up after “speaking freely” than freedom of the press does not matter; the two go hand in hand.

Abortion, according to The Gaurdian UK, which has been legal since 1983, is facing tough new laws that will likely go into place that will “all but de facto prevent” most women from getting abortions, since the new law stipulates such rigid restrictions as limiting abortion to 10 weeks and restricting operations to hospital obstetricians only who will be allowed to “say no.” I suppose the fact alone  that Turkish women can obtain an abortion is commendable, given that in the United States this is a controversial issue. But clearly the Erdogan government is having second thoughts of allowing this life-changing operation to take place.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, sourced from turkishpress.com

Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) Party have been in power for more than 10 years. Although Soli Ozel, a Stambouli professor of International Relations at Kadir Has University, in his The Conversation discussion accuses Erdogan’s government of pushing a more conservative and fundamentalist agenda (rightly so, given the above), Erdogan himself is quoted as accusing the Gezi Park protesters of being “extremists elements!” In addition, his party is now looking into the possibility that the protesters are part of a foreign agenda. Really? Why is that whenever citizens stand up to a dictatorial ruler, they are immediately accused of being “influenced and/or funded by foreign nations?” Oh right, that’s because the dictatorial ruler is upset because it appears that he does not have control over the entire population. But he’s supposed to be democratic, don’t forget!

A government that pepper-sprays a few protesters who are trying to protect trees from being uprooted and their neighborhood park from becoming another concrete shopping mall and then proceeds to use tear gas and water cannons is a government with its priorities out of line. If Erdogan acts now, he can save his government…perhaps. Whether the Gezi Park protests fizzle out within a week or a month or five months from now; and whether they produce positive or, God forbid, negative change, I support Soli Ozel’s conclusion:

“In all likelihood the past five days will take their rightful place in Turkey’s chronicles as the “five days that changed the course of Turkey’s politics in the 21st Century”.

Sources

1. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2013/05/2013525191210116123.html Kissing protest

2. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2013/05/2013524101622966667.html Alcohol

3. http://theconversation.com/turkish-urban-uprising-has-smashed-national-wall-of-fear-14916

4. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2013/06/20136372149597177.html

5. http://www.amnesty.org/en/region/turkey/report-2012

Turkey: Another Park takes Center Stage in Protests

June 2, 2013

The Occupy Wall Street movement convened and took over Zucotti Park in the Financial District of downtown Manhattan. Egypt’s Arab Spring commandeers (still!) Tahrir Square, which although it is not a park contains a wide grassy circle in the middle of it which is perfect for camping protesters. Now, Turkish protesters have claimed an Instanbul park-Gezi Park- not only as the stage but also  the reason for their protests.

Gezi Park, located in the city of Istanbul, has been marked for demolition by the Turkish government for quite some time. Protesters staging a sit-in on Friday, May 31st, were broken up by the police who used excess force against the demonstrators. Since then massive protests have erupted throughout the capital, spilling over into nearby Taksim Square and spreading throughout Turkey and across the entire world. A quick scan of images online shows us protesters as far apart as Germany, the Netherlands and New York (a Turkish promoter on my Facebook was urging people to protest in Manhattan today), showing that, once again, protesters have the solidarity of the common folk everywhere.

Aerial view of Gezi Park, sourced from Samanyoluhaber.com, a Turkish news website

Protests were particularly violent today, with water cannons and tear gas being fired by baton-wielding police. CNN reports that 939 people have been detained in connection with the protesting. All of this begs the question: why? Why did the Istanbul police force decide to use excessive force when removing a small group of protesters who were protesting something that was uncontroversial compared to, say, human rights or a political leader? Now the situation has turned into a human rights protest, giving it a new drive and sparking rumors that this could be a “Turkish Spring.”

Smoke issuing from Taksim Square, sourced from a eyewitness who sent it in to HuffPost

Protesters in Gezi Park, sourced from BBC UK

The police-and more importantly, political leaders, who in other countries seem to have more of a control over police matters than, say, local governors or mayors here in the United States-clearly do not read the international news. Otherwise they would see that using tear gas and force on innocent protesters gets you absolutely nowhere with both your fellow countrymen and the international world. As a whole, the Turkish press-including television stations-is keeping mum on the subject, as is Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, the source of much ire among the protesters, whose sole comment was “Vous faites ce que vous voulez, notre décision est prise” (Do what you want, our decision has been made). However, in true 21st-century fashion, the protesters have taken to the internet: Radio France International reports that an  ‘International support for Ocupy Gezi Park, Istanbul‘ page has been set up, and Stamboulites (people from Istanbul) and foreigners alike have taken to Instagram, leaving comments on the pictures of the most-high profile people, urging followers to support the protesters.

 A semester of discussing international politics and the “right to intervene” has certainly taught me to view the situation in a different way than I would have previously. Whatever the reasoning behind the use of excessive force and then the water cannons, the Turkish government cannot take back what it has done, but that does not mean it has to continue doing it. Even if Erdogan has been careless and largely silent, it looks like President Abdullah Gul has brought about a cease-fire for now, as police withdrew late on Saturday and Turkish flags celebrating victory filled Taksim Square. The Turkish State, like all governments, forgets that its response to problems can sometimes be more significant and heavy-weighing than the problem itself. What started out essentially as a protest over replacing a nice park with a shopping mall-a local, neighborhood-situated issue that could have been argued at a neighborhood town hall (if Turkey has such democratic forums, not sure) but is now an issue spanning several issues, and the Turkish government now additionally has to deal with international backlash as well.

My advice to the press would be this: back off. If the protest has finished, let Turkey figure out how to handle this. Let’s not guilt shame the government (even though its actions were cruel, horrible, unjust, stupid, miscalculated….the list goes on); after all, didn’t the US Government use water cannons on Civil Rights Protesters back in the 50s and 60s? I don’t believe it has apologized….and even if it has, this issue does not have to become an international one blown to new proportions. Relief groups should be set up in Turkey for those who were in the protests, but it doesn’t mean the whole world has to make it this out-of-proportion issue. I know what I’m saying sounds rather, well, heartless perhaps-but just as the Turkish government made an issue exponentially bigger because of its handling of the situation, so too can outside interference, and not in a good way.

“In a democratic society, reactions should be allowed to be given in accordance with rules without causing abuses. Similarly, authorities should exert serious effort to lend an ear to differing opinions and concerns,” Turkish President Abdullah Gul said in a statement, and I believe this shows promise-as long as Gul and co. act on it. Clearly, Turkey has a problem with freedom of the press and political dissent, but the fact of the matter is that these problems are not new. So the rest of the world has to stop trying to turn this into a Cause du jour and hop off the Gezi Parki bandwagon. Turkish citizens are not ignorant. Let’s see what they can do first, shall we?

Sources

1. http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/world/2013-06/02/c_132424644.htm

2. http://www.rfi.fr/europe/20130601-turquie-violences-policieres-peuple-istanbul-souleve-Erdogan-manifestation-gaz-lacrymog%C3%A8ne

3. http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/01/world/europe/turkey-protests/index.html?hpt=hp_t1