The Serendipity of Social Media – Sevim Irmak’s Fight for Her Country

Sevim Irmak. (Photo: Sevim Irmak / Facebook)Sevim Irmak. (Photo: Sevim Irmak / Facebook)In which the author of Affluenza learns the power of social media to help him understand the world beyond his borders, specifically the strange case of neoliberalizing and fundamentalizing Turkey.

I don’t often use Facebook for personal revelation. I’m not all that interested in whether Jenny ate haricots vertes at Chez Panisse, or if Rodrigo has another “cutest cat” photo with which to fish for likes. But when I somehow – I’m not sure through which “friend” – got connected recently with Sevim Irmak, I suddenly realized the power of this medium to help me better understand the world beyond my borders.

At the time, Sevim’s Facebook photo portrayed a happy young woman seated at a table in an outdoor café, a smattering of lights in the night behind her, a basket of bread and a glass of white wine in front of her. Her fashionably cut, shoulder-length dark hair framed a face with a bright lipstick smile and dimples. But there were other photos on her Facebook page – of massive demonstrations replete with red banners, police in full riot gear, and the same face standing in crowds of protesters, carrying an OCCUPY sign, or with hands raised in a victory salute, or wearing a thick cap and a mask like a bandit. Then there was the headline at the top of her home page, with the word SOCIALISM printed in bright green letters.

Sevim Irmak is a 27-year old Turkish literature and language teacher from Istanbul, and she seems to me a symbol of youthful rebellion against the injustices of our day. As I read some of Sevim’s Facebook posts, I was drawn in to her story and that of the people protesting with her. With great courage they have been challenging the government of Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a near-dictator with a neo-liberal “shock doctrine” economic agenda and markedly sexist social policy agenda.

I had already described the beginning of the protests that Sevim hopes will undermine Erdogan and liberate Turkey. In the third edition of my book, Affluenza: How Over-consumption is Killing Us and How to Fight Back, co-authored with David Wann and Thomas Naylor, I wrote of the battle last June over Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park, an area of green trees and grass in the middle of the city. Erdogan and his business associates wished to turn it into another soulless shopping mall and parking lot. I wrote of my delight at seeing young Turks coming out to stop the bulldozers and save their park. Facing police tear gas and cannons shooting water laced with stinging chemicals, they have so far kept their park from being demolished. It was a fight for the environment and against consumerism at a time when the latter seemed to enveloping every non-commercial sanctuary on earth.

Only recently, 14-year-old Berkin Elvan died after hundreds of days in a coma. He had been struck by a tear gas canister shot by police in the June conflict and had never regained consciousness. He was just a boy and hadn’t even been a protester: He’d gone into the melee seeking to buy bread for his sick mother. At Elvan’s death, another round of demonstrations shook Istanbul, one of the world’s largest cities with a population of 14 million, and one of its most popular tourist destinations. Sevim had been part of the Gezi Park protests from the beginning, protests that have widened to include many other problems of Turkish life.

Sevim was among the protestors when Elvan died, and she was badly hurt by a blast from a water cannon that slammed into her back and left her gasping and struggling on the ground. I was reminded of the water cannons used by police chief “Bull” Connor against civil rights protesters in the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1960s.

A few days later, Sevim hobbled to the massive funeral for Elvan that brought tens of thousands of mourners into Istanbul’s streets. Through all of this, she kept posting photos and running commentary on her Facebook page and she and I corresponded. I sent her a series of questions, hoping to help bring her story and that of her brave compatriots to a broader audience. Her answers are abbreviated here:

I was born in Istanbul and grew up in a socialist and communist neighborhood. Ever since I was born, my neighbors always stood against injustices and fought for their rights. I am still living in this neighborhood with my parents. I always wanted to be a teacher. I knew it even when I was in middle school. I always thought that you need good teachers, especially in a very religious, uneducated and poor society like ours.

“I always thought that you need good teachers, especially in a very religious, uneducated and poor society like ours.”

I have been a teacher for five years. High school is important if students hope to go to the university. They have to pass a university examination. So I am doing my best to help them succeed and be admitted to the university. Rich students can take private courses to help them pass the exam. But poor students have no chance to do that; they cannot afford it. Some of my students come from the middle class, but I have many poor students as well.

When Erdogan came to power, I was in high school. I thought first that religious attacks would begin after he became the Turkish Prime Minister. I was afraid because my parents are not religious. Day after day, he destroyed the modern way of life in Turkey, starting with our secular education system. Turkey is really so changed now. He created a polarized society where people are hostile to each other.

My parents never pushed me to be in this fight for social change. I was not very active before Erdogan’s government, but now I am. For me, socialism is a philosophy and also a lifestyle. I want equality among people as much as possible. I always feel solidarity for the poor and working class and want to defend their rights.

“I always feel solidarity for the poor and working class and want to defend their rights.”

Erdogan and his government have been ruling Turkey for eleven years. But I have never seen any good that he has done for our country or our future. His government is an enemy of the arts, science, education, and the environment. Our own protest started as a peaceful protest to protect the trees in a park. They wanted to turn our Gezi Park, the best park in Istanbul, into a shopping mall. I think they want to turn all parks, all green areas, into shopping malls or parking lots or commercial spaces.

I’m very worried about the growing consumerism in Turkey. Day after day, this problem has grown and disturbed our lives. We are starting to lose the historical texture of Istanbul, especially with this government’s policies and deeds. But our resistance has begun to stop them. We are protecting our social living spaces and green spaces so that we can breathe between all the cement structures.

I think we’ve been under the control of the American lifestyle like other undeveloped countries since before I was born. The name for this is cultural imperialism and it is happening all over the world. We should protect ourselves as much as possible from it. People in every country need to do that. To be a modern society, we don’t need the America way of life. We need a strong education system and we need to stay far away from the dogmatism of religion.

When I say I believe in modernism, I need to explain what I mean by a modern Turkey. I want justice and equality between the classes. But the first step is to be free. We need freedom of speech, freedom of belief. If we still haven’t got freedom of speech, there is no modernism here. I want to express my thoughts freely, but with this government it is impossible. They are even watching what we are talking about on social media. They are even trying to ban social media outlets. They want to make us afraid to talk about government policies. So I want a modern Turkey, but first I want to be able to say what I think. After that, I will be more able to fight for my rights, and for a better modern way of life.

“Many people are angry with [Ergodan’s] government for stopping freedom of the press, expression, and assembly. They are protesting his encroachment on Turkey’s secularism and religious freedom.”

I believe [Erdogan’s party] won the recent municipal elections in Turkey with the help of corruption, dirty tricks and fraud. Many religious and uneducated people did vote for him. They love him when he says that he is a religious person and that Islam will be part of our government. How we can change that if we are not organized? We were not organized enough during our resistance at Gezi Park, but still, we are fighting and trying to do good things. We are reaching out for freedom and democracy.

But at the same time, many people are angry with his government for stopping freedom of the press, expression, and assembly. They are protesting his encroachment on Turkey’s secularism and religious freedom. During the protests, the police were so cruel. They attacked people so brutally. Each time we protested, I saw so many injured people. I was injured myself a few times. But Erdogan always supported the police and said they were his heroes! With his aggressive support, the police attacked us even more brutally.

I think of Berkin Elvan as a little brother. He is a martyr. He died on March 11. He has since become one of the prime symbols of violence faced by protesters throughout the nationwide Gezi demonstrations. There were millions of people at Berkin’s funeral. Of course, the struggle will continue! We will never forget our young brother. And until we win, we will keep fighting!

I feel hopeful, but I also sometimes feel like I am losing it. I am confused and depressed but I know I must never give up. My people are really strong and they will never give up either. We want to make a real revolution. And we will do that.

“If Obama tries to do the right things, America’s dirty tricks will be played by someone else.”

The American government has supported Erdogan. Obama welcomed him to the White House. I am not very hopeful about Obama anymore. When he became president I cheered. I said, “Yes! Here we go!” because he was a black man so perhaps he would be more understanding of other people. I thought at that moment that a big change was coming. But he did the same kinds of things that Bush did. He can’t really change things. How can anyone change America, even the president? If Obama tries to do the right things, America’s dirty tricks will be played by someone else.

I have a dream for my country and for people all over the world. I have a dream that one day my people will win our revolution and we will be free. Modernism, equality, justice, and freedom of speech will be part of our lives. I also dream that Islam, which tries to keep us in our place, will be far away from women’s lives. With free and brave women, I know the world will be better! I wish peace for all of the world’s people. And I am trusting love’s power in the revolution!

Sevim and her companions deserve our support and solidarity for their non-violent civil disobedience and Erdogan our condemnation for his repression. Whenever I consider how passive Americans have become in the face of similar injustices and of those in our government and among our people who would uphold growing inequality, continued destruction of our fragile environment, and encroachment on the hard-won rights of women, labor and minorities, I think of Sevim and her courage and I am inspired again to hope. Thanks, Facebook, for connecting us in the first place!