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Free Expression: A Note on Turkey

Posted by: Stuart Comstock-Gay on 6/10/2013

I have more than a passing interest in Turkey these days. A recent blog post described a March trip there. As I mentioned in that post, one of my daughters currently lives and works in Istanbul. So it is with real concern that I watch what is happening there now: widespread protests about a number of recent actions by Prime Minister Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Many of the pictures and descriptions of the protests seem to show a peaceful exercise of free speech and expression of political grievances…pictures of children with grandparents, young people with the middle aged, and women in tank tops with women in head scarves.

But of course, if you’ve been watching the news—or Twitter or Facebook—you’ve also seen the violence, the seemingly ever-present tear gas, and—last weekend—water hoses turned on protestors.

From a distance we watch with a sense of awe and some dread.  I am watching my various Turkish Twitter feeds and news sources. I wait for comments from my daughter, assuring me that she’s safe and well. We think of the Arab Spring, which is still playing out across the Middle East, with some particularly nasty developments in Egypt. Turkey is, of course, decidedly not Egypt. It is a very different place, with its own tensions, its own historical background, and its own political and democratic traditions. But even so, we watch with concern, thankful that in the United States, peaceful demonstrations are protected, respected, and regular. 

And in large part, that’s true. But seeing those water hoses in Istanbul, I was struck by how recently American protests looked similar.

One month after my visit to Istanbul, I spent a few days in Birmingham, Alabama, for a meeting with some fellow community foundation presidents. We were fortunate to be there for the beginning of a 50th anniversary recognition of the Birmingham Children’s March and the notorious uses of fire hoses and dogs by that city’s police. We listened to a panel discussion with participants in those marches—people who were teenagers in 1963 and who suffered blasts from the hoses and bites from the dogs. One of the panelists was a pallbearer for one of the girls who was killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.  For him, the events of 1963 were still fresh in his mind. The abuse he and the other panelists suffered—as they helped change America—still hurts.  I was appalled at their stories. I was touched and proud to hear their courage and their clarity that they did the right thing, and their belief that doing the right thing is always right—even when it hurts. 

We cherish our free expression rights here. We value our democracy. Watching the troubles in Turkey, I’m reminded how those rights must always be nurtured and practiced. I believe that one of philanthropy’s roles is to continue nurturing those rights—by supporting grassroots organizations, by helping communities stay strong, and by encouraging the voices of all. We strive to do that in here in Vermont. And right now, I’m hopeful that Turkey finds its way out of this mess in a peaceful way. I’m thankful for those rights we often take for granted—and thankful that my daughter is safe, too.

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