I’m sure many of you have followed the recent news that Turkey has just banned Twitter and YouTube. (If not, you can read about it here.) For a country that is a candidate for EU membership, and has long been seen as an example of a successful Islamic-style democracy, it is certainly a worrying move. I last visited Turkey two years ago, and while I was there I had dinner in Istanbul with a former au pair of mine (who had lived in London for a year in my family’s house) and her husband.
This was a full year before the protests erupted over the future of Gezi Park, but already she and her husband were anxious about the country’s future. Anyone who has visited Istanbul will know that it has a very European feel, as does much of the western coast of Turkey. Both of them had university degrees, spoke fluent English, and had a liberal outlook on life. They were fiercely patriotic, but also expressed deep concern for the direction that the country was moving in: since Recep Tayyip Erdogan had become Prime Minister in 2002 (with huge popular support), the country had been shifting away from democracy to autocracy. My au pair said that one of the main things that worried her was a clampdown on freedom of religious expression, by which I mean that in previous years Turkey had been the model of a secular state, where each individual chose to practise their own religion privately. School children used to have to swear “Our Oath”, a pledge to Turkey’s secular identity; it was forbidden to wear hijab in public offices or universities. This had started to change – the oath is no longer compulsory and the ban on hijab had recently been removed when we were visiting in 2012. Of course, I don’t think it’s a problem if a woman chooses to wear hijab, but what my au pair was describing was quite different: all of her friends who chose NOT to wear hijab were being turned down from public office jobs precisely because of their choice.
It sounded like she wasn’t in a minority, but part of a large demographic of young educated Turkish people becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the rule of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and so in many ways I wasn’t surprised by the unrest that arose in 2013. I suppose Turkey has always had a repressive side: it is still a punishable crime to criticise Ataturk (founder of the modern Turkish state); the Kurdish genocide is barely acknowledged, and one of the main things stopping Turkey’s accession to the EU is its human rights problem. However, banning Twitter and YouTube (even if the Twitter ban hasn’t exactly been completely successful) is the gesture of a Prime Minister who thinks he can do what he like: even the Turkish courts have tried to block the move, and the President has voiced disapproval. I can’t imagine any other European premier would get away with such a move (though it’s also worth noting that YouTube was also briefly banned in 2007 and later reinstated).
I’m intrigued (and nervous) to see what the future will hold for Turkey, and I’m very much looking forward to going back next month to visit my au pair again, and hearing from her what is happening. As with many news stories, the picture you get from the BBC isn’t always the picture you get when you talk to people then and there.