The conflict between protesters and government forces in Turkey has captured the attention of an international audience, including people in the Lowcountry and the rest of South Carolina with close ties to the republic.
Ali Demirdas, an international studies professor at the College of Charleston, is concerned for his family.
“My family lives in Ankara (Turkey’s capital), and I must admit there were moments when I urged them not to go downtown,” he said Wednesday.
Demirdas came to the U.S. in 2006 as a Fulbright Scholar and was later accepted to the Ph.D. program in political science at the University of South Carolina. He is writing his dissertation on Turkish foreign policy and plans to develop a program that will enhance the interaction between students at the College of Charleston and their counterparts in the Middle East and Turkey.
“The significance of these demonstrations is that they showed that the part of the Turkish society who call themselves (part of the minority party) and secular have been exceedingly discontent and insecure under the (Prime Minister Recep Tayyip) Erdogan rule, and ready to defy his government by any means necessary,” Demirdas said.
The protests began May 28 as a peaceful sit-in by environmental activists trying to prevent the uprooting of trees as part of scheduled plans to redevelop Gezi Park in Istanbul.
Police crackdowns incited further protests three days later. Water cannons, tear gas and pepper spray were used against demonstrators in an effort to disperse the crowds.
The crackdowns have continued, as protests spread and attracted a range of groups unhappy with the 10-year rule of Erdogan, who many in the country believe is trying to gradually impose his religious and conservative views in Turkey, which has long had a secular democracy.
“Turkey has a long arc of being the secular beacon in the Middle East,” said Chris Day, associate professor of political science at the College of Charleston.
Day said Turkey has been an ally for the U.S. and serves a critical role as the nation straddling Europe and the Middle East, but he doesn’t believe the protests are comparable to movements seen in the “Arab Spring” uprisings.
James Newhard, assistant professor and chairman of the department of classics at the College of Charleston, agreed. “This is not a desire to overthrow a governmental system. This is a desire to reform the internal political elements within Turkey,” said Newhard, who has worked on multiple archaeological expeditions in Turkey.
On a nine-day visit to Turkey this month, Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon said he felt no apprehension during his time there.
“I think I have a pretty good sense of what’s going on, and I did not feel at all concerned about what’s going over there,” he said.
Cannon, who had previously visited in 2009, was in Turkey as a part of an effort to increase understanding between the American and Turkish people. He said the protests were confined to specific areas, and during his time in Turkey his group saw no unrest in the streets.
Cannon likened the demonstrations to the Occupy Wall Street movement, in which a variety of concerns and agendas came together in a way that captured people’s attention and interest, but did not spur revolution.
“There was a significant element of people who went there just to see and be part of what was going on,” he said.
The widespread protests come just two years after Erdogan was elected to his third term with 50 percent of the vote, thanks in part to economic prosperity during his tenure.
“My sense is that this is an awakening by the Turkish people, who because of Turkey’s phenomenal economic growth have tended to ignore the move away from a more secular government,” said Patricia Dwight, president and CEO of Adventure in Travel, a travel agency in Charleston.
Dwight has lived in Turkey and visits the country annually, along with specializing in travels to Turkey and other nations in the Middle East. She said her business hasn’t been affected by the recent unrest in Turkey.
Since the unrest began, more than 7,500 people have been injured and at least four killed — three demonstrators and a police officer. Authorities are investigating whether a fifth person who died was exposed to too much tear gas.
Erdogan has taken more religiously influenced, conservative stances in recent years. He was quoted as saying women should have at least three children, has used increasingly anti-abortion rhetoric and has banned the consumption of alcohol in certain public places, according to Demirdas.
“The spark that ignited this whole thing was not so much Gezi Park, it was harsh police treatment and the new impositions on beer, and a whole host of other infractions,” said Newhard, the C of C associate professor.
Police have raided homes and offices in Ankara and Istanbul, detaining at least 92 people suspected of involvement in violence. The state-run Anadolu news agency said the suspects were detained for allegedly destroying public property, inciting people to revolt or attacking police.
Nazli Yilmaz, a board member of the Turkish Student Association at Clemson University, has been in the United States since January 2011 working toward her Ph.D. in civil engineering, said almost all of her family and friends are still in Turkey.
“It’s all very concerning, but I have hope it ends peacefully,” she said.
Glenn Smith and The Associated Press contributed to this report.