A View from Taksim Square

Aug 2013

Issue V

Artist: resim77 | Turkish protesters resting Saturday morning

Artist: resim77 | Turkish protesters resting Saturday morning

Events that unfolded in Turkey in the first weeks of June 2013 shattered all my self-confidence regarding politics, and I must admit that I have become more cynical than I ever was in my life. As a Turkish person who was born there, who had endured the state’s discrimination and oppression there—as a person with a personal insight to multiple layers of issues and factors at play there—the oversimplifying and highly reductionist rhetoric that hijacked almost all of the external and internal discourse about the protests that took place in Taksim and beyond showed me a horrifying reality whose existence I was, apparently, only slightly aware of. That people with whom I had built alliances, and in whom I had put my trust were succumbing to stereotypes about Turkey in the wake of the Taksim protests was as shocking as it was disappointing.

Amidst this shock and disappointment, one motif of the shallow discourse that dominated both the traditional and social media was specifically disturbing to me: the idea that these events showed Turkey was not in fact a real democracy, but a fascist dictatorship with the façade of a democracy. Many negatively compared Turkey to western liberal democracies in an attempt to prove that Turkey was simply not democratic, a dismissive argument that fails to acknowledge problems faced by democracies.  That stance also idealizes some democracies making them immune from criticism despite their government’s authoritarian actions, for example, the United States. And, the actions of such governments’ in turn are used by leaders the world over to justify their own authoritarian policies. So, it is constructive criticism of democracy that we need now instead of rhetorical maneuvers to dismiss Turkey as dictatorial. Let me begin by providing some background on historical experiences and social dynamics in Turkey.

Turkey was founded and built upon the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Its founding father, was by-definition a dictator, in the sense that, he “dictated.” By the time of independence, Ataturk had carefully eliminated any political opponents he had very early on and, together with a small band of elites, dictated the “rule of law.” History as it is told in Turkey would regard him as “the founder”, as “the father”: in a literal sense too, the surname he was given (or one could say that he took) was “Atatürk”, “the father of Turks”. He undertook a series of top-down “reforms” that eerily resembled colonial practices. A small part of society became the urban elite; the rest were disenfranchised. They either did not submit to the new norms and refused to partake, or they simply did not have the right belief or the right ethnicity from the perspective of the state. The modernizing state held a vision of  the colonial “civilizing mission”. The state and its allies were keen on creating a new society based on a very specific and narrow definition of an ideal citizenry: ethnically Turk or at least identifies as such, ultra-secular, well-educated, urban, and culturally identified with the West.

Turkey is a country whose political history is written with occasional coups by an influential military that regards itself as the “guardian of laïcité” against elected governments, a staunchly ideological judiciary supported by a similarly ideological bureaucratic establishment, and systematic racism and nationalism in the rhetoric and practice of the state that is infused into every aspect of life. Public services from education to the arts, favor only the elite who have built alliances with political actors across the spectrum, though often with center-right parties that mainly appeal to lower classes and rural populations. This is to ensure that the social, economic, and political interests of the elite are not undermined by the electoral process and elected officials. Thus the regular elections and numerous coalition governments that were formed simply did not change and in general not even attempted to change the power dynamics behind the thin veil of democracy, where the Military, Jurists, and Bureaucracy stayed as the de facto rulers of the country.

We should, then, read Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi—Justice and Development Party”, or AKP—and Erdoğan’s rise to power in late 2002 within this political and historical context to understand the underlying political, institutional, and social factors. The daily newspaper, Sabah, used an apt headline in 2002 to refer to AKP’s victory in the first elections it ever participated. It read:  “Anadolu İhtilali” or “Revolution of Anatolia.”1 AKP’s and Erdoğan’s vote only increased after the elections as the party followed a developmentalist economic policy, undertaking large infrastructure and public services projects which returned to them as votes. AKP was able to form a very diverse and wide vote-base as it appealed to different groups across society who were dissatisfied with the current political establishment for different reasons. Some of the middle classes sought more freedoms and economic stability. Others, like the pious conservatives, who had been discriminated against by the state for decades also wanted more equality. The Kurds, whose identity was always denied and faced the harshest state violence, looked to the AKP for recognition of their ethnic identity and an end to state violence. AKP’s record on the Kurdish issue has been mixed. There have been some improvements, especially with respect to the media and recognition of Kurdish identity, but there have also been incidents that reflect the attitude of the Turkish state towards Kurds. Recently, however, the AKP has initiated a peace process, working alongside Kurdish political and armed forces, to bring an end to the armed conflict and also ensure better legal, political, and social conditions for the Kurdish people.

AKP did not have a smooth ride during its 11-year reign; there were coup attempts, an electronic memorandum of the army that led to early elections in 2007—which AKP won by a good margin—as well as the infamous attempts by the Kemalist judiciary to force the party to disband. It was dubbed the “Google Trial” because the evidence against the party largely seemed to come from random Google queries. After much hardship, Erdoğan was, finally, able to contain the influence that the Kemalist establishment had held in Turkish politics.

But there was a single problem: Erdoğan had no competition. A powerful leader and a ruling party that seems to only increase its vote bank and no viable or appealing opposition in sight, inevitably-leads to an authoritarian tone and policy-making in the government.

AKP’s rule led to several socioeconomic changes. More conservatives from the working class became part of the middle class. There was considerable urbanization and the rural population declined considerably. The migration into cities, became an added burden on already strained metropolitan areas like Istanbul. Secondly, more segments of society gained a presence in the public sphere leading to discussion and sometimes political clashes over questions of lifestyle and expression. The effect was to turn Erdoğan into a larger-than-life persona who became the embodiment of his party. His rhetoric only grew more authoritarian, accelarting polarization within Turkish society and politics.

With no opposition that could express dissatisfaction, a significant portion of the urban population in major cities found a political visibility with the Gezi protests. If you ask me to define what Taksim was or what Gezi meant in a single word now, I would say: catharsis.

AKP’s own minister of education, Nabi Avcı, commented: “We have achieved it – something that the opposition would not be able to achieve in years – only in five days and caused very different parts of society, groups, fractions that are normally impossible to imagine with one another to actually come together amidst this turmoil.”2 It was a catharsis in which people who were dissatisfied with the government and the AKP but also could not find any voice or political stance for themselves within the opposition parties were declaring that they had enough. The grievances were diverse. Originally, the small crowd of protesters was made up of environmentalists, urban planners, anti-capitalists as well as a few opportunists. But, the large spontaneous crowd that formed after the first violent attack of the police was very diverse and had a common motivation: standing against police brutality. As the days went on, different groups put forward various kinds of demands, dissatisfactions, and goals. There were feminist groups, anti-capitalist groups, Marxists, anarchists, Kurdish activists, Turkish ultra-nationalists, LGBT organizations, far-left parties, far-right parties, football fan clubs, a large number of apolitical youth who have never before protested. Although the groups involved at Gezi did not have of a singular profile, the solidarity protests that took place in other cities were more dominated by Kemalists and far-left groups. Small accounts of violence have been reported between different groups who attended the protests but there have not been any significant clashes between different political groups within the main protest in Taksim Square. Repeated bouts of police violence ultimately dispersed the protesters. It was a sad sight for Turkish democracy.

What intrigued me was a common theme that arose both in foreign media outlets and domestic discourse. Police brutality was used as an argument to suggest that Turkey structurally lacked democracy, and the discourse suggested that Turkey is a fascist dictatorship. This is not surprising in domestic rhetoric. Popular political rhetoric, from the Left to the Right in Turkey, is notorious for its prevalent use of Nazi and fascism analogies. Protests in Europe and the US, that similarly endured police brutality, were interpreted in a completely different manner by mainstream international media. by Turks.

One may be tempted to ask why that is so. Why is there such a discrepancy in the perception of these protests in terms of political institutions? Some countries are well-established as alleged beacons of democracy. Their governments may  execute violence as they see fit without losing any credibility of their political structures and institutions. Protests in these countries are never described as anti-regime;  rather, they are categorized in very narrow and specific ways, such as being anti-austerity. The image of Europe and America as democracies par excellence was common among the Turkish protesters themselves. There were constant comparisons of Turkey with idealized perceptions of Europe and the US with many commenting that “this would never happen in progressive democracies like Europe or America.”  That idea was then used by Erdoğan for his own political ends.

Erdoğan made several speeches throughout this period in which he repeatedly spoke of the hypocrisy of European leaders and the foreign media who have criticized his policies and the police brutality in Turkey. He noted how police brutality was a regular occurrence in the West as well. He also pointed out how tear gas was used in supposedly progressive democracies as well. The use of tear gas has been an issue in Turkey for some time now and it was one of the main topics and grievances during the Gezi protests.

So, Erdogan used this image to justify his own actions. The idealized image of European and North American countries as truly democratic, first, allows these governments to breach civil rights and liberties, expand unregulated executive authority domestically and externally, exert systematic violence and repression to many different groups and dissidents across the without undermining their image. In other words, it legitimizes problematic practices and crimes in the name of democracy. This is, then, manipulated by others. Erdoğan precisely did just that while defending police action and tear gas use.

Broadly, the idea that there would not be any issues of authoritarianism or police brutality in a democratic country is a fallacy. Democracies are not immune to the power of the state, problems of civil rights and liberties are very much valid in democracies as well; these are not issues that solely apply to dictatorships or other forms of government that are less egalitarian than democracy. This is part of the vulnerability of democracy. So, democracy is not a cure for all political ills.

In the end, AKP might be the single most important and effective democratizing force in the last decades of Turkey’s history. It is still the only Turkish-majority party willing to start a peace process to resolve Kurdish issues. It is still the only party other than Barış ve Demokrasi Partisi (“Peace and Democracy Party”, BDP), the political party of Kurdish movement, to actually gain considerable vote from Kurdistan. It is still the only party with a definitive foreign policy and complex economic policy. And most importantly, it is still the party that won the general elections that saw 83 percent turnout in 2011.3 It is the democratically elected government in Turkey that is still supported by a majority.

The question to ask is then, how can we reform AKP? How can we further reform the democratic process in Turkey? How can we introduce pluralism into our democratic institutions? How can we ensure that no minority is disfranchised due to convictions of a majority? How can we build a democratic system that has better opportunities for representation for minorities and others? How can we impose better regulation of executive power in democracies? The questions are many but, when you look closely, you realize that few are specific to Turkey.

Thus, if protests in Turkey should teach us one thing, it should be the fact that we need to start discussing the vulnerabilities and deficiencies of democracy as a form of governance and how we can alleviate these. That would be a better road than relegating some countries to the dustbin as failed states while hailing others as unparalleled utopias.

H. Kubra is a writer based in Turkey.


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One Response to A View from Taksim Square

  1. Issue V: Space | Tanqeed on Aug 2013 at 12:40 PM

    […] Square, and now Taksim square, have driven home not only the importance of public space to oppositional politics, but also […]

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