It’s been a traumatic year in Turkey. Protests have swept through the country, igniting a densely packed tinderbox of discontent that had been accumulating for decades. Turkey’s role in the wars playing out around it, in Syria in particular, have come under increased international scrutiny; corruption scandals have rocked Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a widening circle of senior members of his Justice and Development Party (AKP); and a recent mining tragedy that killed more than 300 has exposed systemic weaknesses in some its basic economic activities.
This week marks the first anniversary of the Gezi Park protests, which began on June 1, 2013, in Istanbul over the AKP’s plans to build a mosque and museum on the site of one the city’s last remaining green spaces. Since then, the unrest has expanded.
At the heart of it now is Mr. Erdogan himself, viewed as increasingly authoritarian and out of touch with a large segment of the people he is supposed to govern. His actions and statements over the past year have become the source of ridicule, both domestically and internationally. Some of things he’s said have been downright outrageous, others merely myopic. As a whole, however, they shed light on how this increasingly crucial powerbroker thinks, and help to explain why Turkey is where it is today.
Here are six of Mr. Erdogan’s most revealing statements and what they can tell us about Turkey’s troubles:
1. “We will build a mosque in Taksim and we do not need the permission of the CHP [Republican People’s Party, the main opposition] or of a few bums [capulcu] to do it.”
Mr. Erdogan said this in the early days of the protests in June last year. For months, his opponents had been critical of the Turkish leader’s increasingly confrontational stance. The mosque issue itself had become a mission for Mr. Erdogan, something he had dreamed of doing for years. That degree of personal involvement in the minutiae of governance was a hallmark of his leadership style, something even party insiders had noted with concern.
The reference to “a few bums” was the one phrase that caught fire on social media. Critics noted that tens of thousands of protesters taking to the streets in virtually all of Turkey’s major cities could hardly be described as “a few bums.” Protesters concluded Mr. Erdogan’s strategy was to calm his core supporters by assuring them this was only a minor event. To counter that, they took the word capulcu, which can also mean looter, and subverted it. A meme was born: chapulling, a neologism meaning “to fight for one’s rights,” and quickly became one of twitter’s top trending topics. “I am chapulling” became the rallying cry for the protesters.
This sort of subversion has been a trademark of the protest movement ever since. When the mayor of Istanbul pleaded to the mothers of the protesters to take their wayward children home, hundreds of angry moms flooded into Taksim Square, the symbolic heart of the protests, and set up a protective human chain around them. When AKP politicians claimed the heavy handedness of the police was a legitimate response to the violence of protesters, a lone performance artist stood silently for hours on end in the centre of Taksim Square. Hundreds joined him and then thousands across Turkey, sparking the Standing Man movement.
2. “There is now a menace which is called Twitter. The best examples of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society.”
Turkish authorities have always been sensitive to freedom of opinion. No-go subjects include insulting Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, and the military, long-considered the guardian of Ataturk’s vision. But Mr. Erdogan has taken it to an entirely new level.
Under his guidance, thousands of websites have been blocked in Turkey. Twitter and YouTube were banned in mid-March, after unknown users (believed to be members of the Gulen movement, a secretive organization with deep roots in Turkey’s police and judiciary, headed by Fethullah Gulen, a moderate Islamic cleric based in Pennsylvania) posted recordings of private conversations between Mr. Erdogan, his son and senior members of the AKP allegedly discussing kickbacks and favourtism in business dealings with AKP supporters. In one recording posted to YouTube, senior officials, including Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Hakan Fidan, head of the MIT, Turkey’s spy agency, are caught discussing the possibility of carrying out a false flag operation in which missiles would be fired at Turkey from Syria. Turkey would blame the Syrian regime and invoke article 5 of the Nato agreement, forcing the U.S. to take action.