Down With This Sort of Thing! Our Experience with Protests in Istanbul

Screen Shot 2015-02-20 at 21.52.58People have asked us whether we are bothered by the unrest and the political climate in Istanbul after the Gezi Park Protests. It’s a good question, and we certainly cannot dismiss it out of hand. However, we know for a fact that it is much calmer now, and we chose to be a good distance away from epicenter. But while the major protests took place a year and a half ago, people have not simply forgotten their grievances. Besides, in a city of nearly 20 million people, one cannot expect everyone to be happy all the time.

That said, we simply have not seen much in the way of civil disorder. We have seen a couple of protests, but having seen protestors block off the I-35 freeway in Minneapolis over police brutality concerns in the United States, I wouldn’t say that anything we have seen here would be beyond the pale even in the land of Minnesota nice.

Once we saw a protest that prompted the police to block off a major city street called Istiklal Caddesi for an hour or two. It seemed very minor, and we might not have noticed if it weren’t for the fact that we were walking on Istiklal at the time and couldn’t get home. (We went to a bar to pass the time, like good, secular Istanbullus.) And today, we saw another protest going down Istiklal near the noon hour, but it was peaceful and had no more than a hundred or so demonstrators.

02-22-15 - Down With This Sort of ThingThe real problem we have with these things is not so much that we are not Turkish and so have no say anyway. The problem is that we couldn’t involve ourselves even if we wanted to, because we hardly have any idea what’s going on. We have to Google everything later. For all we know, they’re chanting “No more kicking puppies!” Or perhaps not.

The protest today is a prime example. If you look at the picture in this post, taken of that protest, you’ll see a posterized photograph promoting a Muslim-looking man, and a bunch of Turkish signs. If you’re American as we are, you will no doubt have trouble making heads or tails of this display. (Not that it is directed at us.)

By way of brief explanation, derived entirely from post-protest research and liberal use of Google Translate, the photograph is indeed of a Muslim, an imam in fact, named Obid Nazarov. Nazarov was/is critical of the regime of Uzbek president Islom Karimov. Karimov was the Communist Party leader of Uzbekistan when it was a Soviet “Republic,” and he was “elected” the country’s first president in 1990. He has been the “president” ever since. The signs in Turkish are largely signs promoting solidarity with Uzbeks against the Uzbek government.

While a devout Muslim, Nazarov emerged as a leader of the secular faction in Uzbekistan (or as secular as the people are willing to go – I am a bit skeptical). He has denounced Communism and promoted freedom of religion. In response to his criticism of the old-guard Communist regime, he was targeted for arrest and fled to Kazakhstan, where he was in hiding from 1998 to 2006. In 2006, he was granted political asylum in Sweden, but in 2012, he was shot three or four times in the head in a small Swedish town and has been in a coma ever since. Two people with ties to Uzbekistan were tried and acquitted, but it strains credibility to think that it was a random act of violence.

In any case, this protest is illustrative of the situation of an American expat in Istanbul. First, we have no idea what the protest is about when it is happening. Even if we did, are we comfortable taking the side of the “secular” faction if in fact it is hardly secular? It is, after all, led by an imam. Obviously, Communism is a failure of an ideology, but while the opposition is admirably against Communism, what is it for? Similarly, why would we have any credibility if we have no dog in the fight? What Americans do you know who have an opinion on the Uzbek political climate?

Best, it seems, to stay on the sidelines. That decision turned out to be properly made when, not five minutes after this group marched by, two minibuses full of at least thirty Turkish riot police came screaming down Istiklal after them. I have no knowledge of what transpired after, and I’m not sure that internet searches within this country will fill in the gaps.

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