Turkey protests 'dividing UK's Turkish population'

By Gerry Holt
BBC News

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The protests began in Istanbul on 28 May and have since spread nationwide

As anti-government protests spread in Turkey, people of Turkish origin living in the UK have been giving their thoughts on events in their home country.

It began on 28 May with a small group of people attempting to block the removal of trees to make way for a shopping centre in Gezi Park, Istanbul.

But as the protest spread - eventually to other cities across the country - it became clear it was far more than a simple row about the loss of green space in Turkey's largest city.

The protests betray widespread anger over government policy which is seen as increasingly authoritarian and conservative. Last week the government passed legislation curbing the sale of alcoholic drinks.

What does Britain's Turkish community make of the events unfolding there?

'Simple dictatorship'

Mutlu, 35, travelled to London in 2001 to learn English and ended up staying.

He has been using Facebook and Twitter to keep track of events in Istanbul, where his mother and brother remain.

"People [there] are fed up. They are fed up because of simple dictatorship. The government is trying to control people's day-to-day lives - what you're eating, what you're drinking, what you're saying, what you're watching on TV," says the charity worker.

Speaking in a televised interview on Sunday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismissed those taking part in protests as "a few looters" but Mutlu says the protesters are "educated people".

He says he is happy they are taking action, adding: "I'm ashamed of having a government like this."

Nesin Fehmi, editor-in-chief of Olay Gazete, a Turkish-language newspaper based in London, says, in his view, the anti-government protests have split Britain's Turkish community into six distinct groups.

There are those who support Mr Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) - "They don't say anything - silence means support for what AKP is doing," he says.

The second group supports the prime minister because "they don't care about politics or religion, they support the government because they have built a successful economy".

Then there are the supporters of the opposition: "I would call them partisan. They are not looking at things independently. Whatever Erdogan is doing is wrong."

The fourth group, in Mr Fehmi's view, are supporters of the Kurdish movement in Turkey - they are Turkish citizens but their nationality is Kurdish. "They don't support the AKP party because they are too strong and there is fighting going on between the government and Kurds about various issues, such as to have their language taught more in schools," he says.

Historically, the Kurds have complained that the Turkish government is trying to destroy their identity and that they suffer from economic disadvantage and human rights violations.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
The protests were triggered by plans to redevelop a park in Istanbul but have become a channel for anti-government feeling

The Alevis, a religious minority in Turkey, also oppose the government.

Finally, the sixth group - of which Mr Fehmi says he is a part - feels freedom of speech and liberty are being threatened by AKP.

He says that in total he believes that about a third of Britain's Turkish community are supporters of AKP.

'Coffee shop rows'

Events in Turkey are dominating the coverage in Mr Fehmi's newspaper, which is read by up to 200,000 people in London, and there are daily discussions about the protests.

"In coffee shops and in public places people I hear people arguing fiercely with each other - each one putting forward their own opinion and each one not agreeing with the other," says Mr Fehmi, who has lived in Britain since 1967 and describes himself as a British-Turkish-Cypriot.

"It's worrying in a way; we just don't know what is going to happen in the future."

But Mr Fehmi says he believes it is an "important moment" in the history of democracy for Turkey, which became a republic in 1923 after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

"This is like an explosion and there will be explosions in democracies, and there will be arguments and conflicts," he says.

An estimated 500,000 people of Turkish origin live in the UK, the latest Home Office figures suggest.

The community is made up of about 300,000 Turkish Cypriots, 150,000 Turkish nationals and smaller groups of Turks with citizenship in other countries, such as Bulgaria or Romania, the 2011 data suggests.

Much of the Turkish population is concentrated in north London, for example Haringey, Stoke Newington and Hackney.

Humayun Ansari, professor of Islam and cultural diversity at Royal Holloway, University of London, says many Turkish people came to Britain over the years for economic reasons but others, such as Kurds, for political reasons or to flee persecution.

He says Britain's Turkish community is diverse in terms of its religious affiliations and ethnic identities.

'Authoritarian fashion'

"You can't talk about the Turkish population [here] as a homogeneous, monolithic population in terms of their reaction [to the protests]... There will be different views on what is going on there," he says.

But generally, Britain's Turkish population would be likely to have a relatively secular outlook and this would colour the way in which they view the events in Turkey, he believes.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The protests initially targeted plans to build on a treasured Istanbul park but have spread into nationwide unrest

"The government [in Turkey] at the moment has a sort of moderate Islamist approach and so, generally speaking, my feeling would be that a large proportion of the population here would be fairly sympathetic to the protests that are going on," he says.

They are also likely to oppose the "authoritarian fashion" in which the government appears to be operating because a large number would have left for this reason in the first place, says Prof Ansari.

He says members of Britain's Turkish community are likely to be watching what is going on in their home country very closely.

But the younger generation who were born in the UK - many of them third generation by now - may feel less connection with what is going on because they are much more assimilated into British culture.

"They might have a passing interest at the times when these eruptions take place but essentially their connection with Turkey and what is going there would be relatively tenuous," he says.

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