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Friday, September 13, 2013

The Legacy of Response

I wrote about the campus protests in Ankara recently, and friends in Istanbul have emailed me with news that the protests have escalated after the death of a protester in southern Turkey, who was out it's thought in support of the students in the capital city.

Demonstrations denouncing the death staged in Istanbul's Kadıköy have witnessed severe crackdowns. News stories say that police once again resorted to tear gas and water cannons against protesters.

Those critical of the protests have voiced the opinion that if you instigate violence, set fire to public properties and throw stones at riot officers, you will definitely come up against the sharp end of the law. But though the authorities deny responsibility for the killing, the fact remains that six anti-government protesters have now been killed in Turkey in recent months.

Freedom of assembly is a basic right, and it relates to the freedom of expression when groups feel they have no other voice in society with which to have their say. They know if they use force, they will be met with a larger force. They know the best thing would be to play it safe and stay away from the spark of protests, especially when Turkey seems such a tinderbox for violence.

Yet here these young people are steadfastly protesting - and what stands out for me is that these protesters are supporting each other right across Turkey. They are bridging cultural and religious divides, which have threatened to fracture the republic ever since its genesis, to stand up for each other against something. Gezi Park - and my experiences of it - was the best illustration of that.

In my mind, these protesters are trying to tell us something, but what is it? We all know it is not simply about the uprooting of trees in a small city park, or the construction of a road through a campus; there are wider issues at the heart of this. Dani Rodrik, a Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey - someone whose opinions I respect greatly - has written to say that Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is not Turkey's only problem.

Behind Erdoğan, Rodrik believes there is a movement at work whose ultimate goal seems to be to reshape Turkish society in the movement's own conservative-religious image. These protests may well be a manifestation of those fears. That the protests have sprung up in Kadıköy is no surprise if you know the location and historical background.

They have an intensely secular outlook, but more than that, the riot police should have known that any protest there would need to be dealt with differently than at Gezi Park. If Taksim is "uptown" then Kadıköy is as down town as you can get.

You would think the police would know in their own back yard that Kadıköy is NOT Gezi Park, it's like going into old Harlem, or the Bronx. And with feelings still high over Gezi, the protesters were bound to clash with riot police. Knowing this, the police should have tried different tactics. Their job is to control crowds, not incite violence.

But this is more than police incompetence, too. Why are the protesters using this form of language to make their point?

On this subject, I was preparing to return to Istanbul this week to hear a lady speak whom I also greatly admire. Judith Butler is one of the world's leading scholars and philosophers, known for her ground-breaking work in political philosophy, and she is scheduled to be in Istanbul to give a talk on the freedom of assembly. Her timing couldn't be more poignant in coming to Istanbul to talk about how the freedom of expression relates to the freedom of assembly as she understands it.

Due to my own work obligations, I've yet to finish my two series on how our historical bias and our ideas (and ideals) for democracy have shaped the way we view this Turkish panorama, but we can talk politics, historical bias, theories on democracy as much as we like, we can sift through the conflicting reports and find that indeed the clashes are a result of violent fringe groups with their own agendas - but the statistic remains - six lives are lost.

Six too many. Far too many.

The reality is that (whatever we believe) it is our response to violence which sets our own legacy.

The legacy we leave behind IS our responses. For example, to each anniversary of 9/11 the administration of George W. Bush has attached long wars, the limitation of rights, CIA torture cells, and a global spy network - all culminating in the creation of an expansion of government surveillance powers that have recently been the subject of intense debate.

All debates aside, more painfully it overshadows the innocent lives lost. All that violence clutters up what 9/11 should always be about - the innocent lives lost senselessly because of an insane man's insane ideology.

That is what the Christian lesson of "turning the other cheek" is focusing on - if you respond to violence with peace, your legacy will be one of peace. Violence can only do so much, it ultimately burns itself out, or destroys itself.

The likes of Bashar al-Assad, and his supporters like Vladimir Putin or his opposers like Erdoğan, are as foreign and alien to my way of thinking as Bush was. I don't understand the authoritarian mentality that seems to think that life is a collateral, expendable under means they see fit to justify. Life is never expendable to me. Never. If their life, and their families and the people that think like them are precious, then everyone else outside of that remit is equally precious, too, in my mind.

And I don't need to read an article from Putin about the futility of going to war; to me that's like listening to a lecture from China on human rights. What I want to hear is how we are going to stop this loss of life, without the political machinations and swagger. The only time Putin would ever get "one up" on President Barack Obama in my eyes is if he became half the man Obama is, rather than trying to be twice the politician.

Likewise, when we respond to events in our lives, we have to be mindful that our responses are our defining legacies. The response we show towards our citizens, towards our neighbours, and to each other is the inheritance we leave for the future estate.

We only have to look to Russia to see Putin's legacy. We only have to look to Turkey to see Erdoğan's - because even if he is not responsible for the initial violence (although I would dispute that) he will always be responsible for his RESPONSE to it.

This is why I try so hard in my own life not to respond like with like when it comes to pettiness, lies, and hatred. That is their legacy, not mine. Irrelevant of gender, I prefer my responses to be better than that, because everything that comes out of our mouths about other people, really say more about us than them.

Those that spout hate are the remnants of defective institutions of the past. They are not my future; nor will such a limited mindset hold ransom the future of our young ones. Maybe this is why the youth of Turkey see fit to take to the streets again and again.

And although those that resort to violence lose my support, and I cannot - and will not - condone violent protesters, however noble their cause may seem, I have to admit I respect them, too, for the way they have put their lives on the line for what they believe in.

It may well be this is the language the unheard have chosen to speak in, because it is the only language they believe violent or authoritarian people will understand, but they are wrong.

Yes, to be able to lay down your life for someone you have never seen, to give your life when you know how beautiful it is to live, that is courage.

But there is a greater courage. The courage to take the slings and arrows of others and not throw any back - even when you have plenty of ammunition - and to protest in the language of peace.

That is a legacy that will not only last, but it's the only legacy I know to give lost lives meaning.

Note: The death toll rose to eight, with more fatalities resulting from the sporadic unrest in the ensuing months.

Read more: The Gezi Park protests | What I have to say >>

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