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My Turn: Bearing witness to Turkey’s struggling democracy

Police fire tear gas as riot police spray a water canon at demonstrators who remained defiant after authorities evicted activists from an Istanbul park, making clear they are taking a hardline stand against attempts to rekindle protests that have shaken the country, near city's main Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey, Sunday, June 16, 2013. (AP Photo )

Police fire tear gas as riot police spray a water canon at demonstrators who remained defiant after authorities evicted activists from an Istanbul park, making clear they are taking a hardline stand against attempts to rekindle protests that have shaken the country, near city's main Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey, Sunday, June 16, 2013. (AP Photo )

It was early evening on May 31 in Istanbul. We had left New Hampshire a week earlier for Baku, Azerbaijan, where we participated in a conference about relations between our counties, which was attended by U.S. senators, congressmen, state legislators from 44 states, and business and government leaders from both countries.

We left Baku on May 30 and flew to Istanbul, where we met with local government officials, visited a university and several nongovernment organizations, and were hosted by a well-regarded Turkish businessman and his family. We had extensive, thoughtful conversations comparing our political systems and exploring the effort to amend the Turkish constitution. Our host talked of his philosophy based on “hizmet,” a socially oriented idea of Islam focused on serving others.

On the evening of the 31st, we were in a van heading to an event with Turkish and U.S. government and business leaders. There were five New Hampshire legislators, six Vermont legislators, two spouses and three representatives of the Turkish Cultural Center in the van.

We passed a small park – a rare splash of green in overbuilt Istanbul – and spotted a crowd of people standing quietly, and asked our guides what the crowd was doing. The answer was that they were protesting the government’s move to cut down the park’s trees and build a shopping center.

We proceeded no more than 100 yards. A photo taken at that moment shows me with a look of incredulity as I saw about 100 police officers wearing riot gear and gas masks. On the other side of the van we spotted large water cannons. As if the passage of our white van was the signal, suddenly the police started running toward the peaceful protestors.

We proceeded to the dinner at a posh hotel with floor to ceiling windows, allowing guests to see the beautiful view of the Bosporus. We saw that view, but we also saw crowds running down the hill toward the park and others running up the hill. The latter had cloths clutched to their faces and we could see them coughing.

The dinner proceeded. Government and business leaders from Turkey and the United States spoke to an audience of perhaps 400. As the speeches continued, the temperature in the ballroom rose, not from the heat of rhetoric but, we soon realized, because the hotel had turned off the air-conditioning so as not to suck tear gas into the system.

Before the dinner ended we were ushered out to the lobby, and when our van pulled close to the door we were told to cover our mouths and noses and run to the van.

Once back in the hotel we watched the news and read the headlines the New York Times had published while we were at dinner.

We had witnessed the closing of the chapter of peaceful demonstration and the start of an aggressive response from the police. In the next two days we flew to Ankara and then to Izmir. In each city we observed the demonstrations and the government response.

All of this was taking place in a country working hard to move from an autocratic, military-run government to a successful democracy. Under the incumbent leadership, Turkey’s economy had blossomed.

Long a secular nation, the country was addressing the role of Islam in public and private life. Citizens largely felt free to talk about political differences and the possibilities that an amended constitution would bring.

In the course of hours, public perception of the government changed and now our Turkish friends will have to face new realities as they continue to work to strengthen their democracy. Serving as the bridge between Europe and Asia, Turkey has the potential to set the future relationships between East and West. We in the United States will be affected by what road the government and the people of Turkey choose.

(State Rep. Marjorie Smith, a Democrat, lives in Durham.)

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