The view from the ground
The protests in Istanbul over the past two weeks became increasingly tense as heavy-handed tactics on behalf of the police were met with equally strong reactions by the protestors. It began as an attempt to stop the bulldozing of Gezi Park in Istanbul’s central hub, Taksim Square. In response, the police pepper sprayed protesters resulting in larger numbers of people joining in over the next two days. It wasn’t until Friday, May 31 that things really took off. Large crowds waving Turkish flags, shouting “Hükümet istifa” or “government resign!” and “Faşizme karşı omuz omuza” literally meaning “shoulder to shoulder against fascism” blocked traffic on the city’s busiest intersection.
Protests have continued across Turkey in cities like Izmir and Ankara as well as in various neighborhoods within Istanbul, notably the ferry-port neighborhood of Beşiktaş. Liberal secularists, Kemalist, Kurdish, and leftists groups have joined together in order to oppose what they see as the growing authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). He represents a new style of conservative leadership interested in moving the country away from the founding secular ideals of the Turkish Republic and towards a more historically sensitive “Neo-Ottoman” direction.
What is often overlooked in the mainstream media is that the shopping mall proposed by the administration isn’t your regular shopping mall. It is in fact a reconstruction of the late Ottoman military barracks built in 1780, which stood in the same place as the park until it was destroyed by modernizers in 1940. The proposed barracks were reconfigured to accommodate outdoor cafes, restaurants and shops. In many ways, with its domes and arches, the new mall is a part of a nation-wide restoration project. In Istanbul this translates into changing the look of a district that has been, since the formation of the modern republic, seen as the central hub for what was the “new” Istanbul. Gezi park near Taksim Square is in Istanbul’s historically westernized district, hosting the city’s vibrant nightlife, bars, clubs and cafes. It has European styled streets, 5-star hotels and chic modern architecture. But since the rise of the AK party, the city has been embracing its cultural past. Everywhere, historical landmarks that were left neglected in the dust of a modernizing republic are slowly undergoing a second-life.
Until now, this westernized pocket was largely untouched. The growing frustration of the recent protesters is directly tied to the changing aesthetic of what was “new” Istanbul. Turkey’s westernized upper class has been undergoing an intense episode of claustrophobia as populist reforms are closing in on them from all directions. And this isn’t just some pathology; the AKP has systematically tried to root out the old guard. The most publicized defeats were over the complete transformation of Turkey’s military and corporate media. But also there has been a complete overhaul of the education system. Now women with headscarves are able to attend and teach classes. Children in grade school are given options for private religious education. And a whole new network of colleges continues to be funded by religious foundations. Along with being gradually pushed out of their traditional strongholds, broad economic liberalization designed to increase investment and decrease international debt has ensured the rise of a completely new capitalist class. Despite the media’s obsession, the newly passed legislative act limiting the sales of alcohol after 10 p.m. from vendors that are not restaurants, is not the whole story, it is part of this larger story which is overlooked by today’s corporate media.
The passion of democratic politics
One quick glance over the massive amounts of protest tweets reveals the same theme repeated over and over again: the media has failed, politics belongs to the people, and Erdoğan must resign. As the argument goes, he is a tyrant that has let power go to his head, thinking that because he has democratically won the past three elections with a sweeping majority vote he can do as he wishes. Protesters have remained quite optimistic, romantically chanting that “chemical Erdoğan” must resign because it is the will of the people for him to do so.
Perhaps there is a better lens other than the romanticism of upper-class revolution. Politics breaks hearts and revolutions often add bones to the mix. There is no doubt about the fact that the police response in Istanbul has been out of proportion to the original presence of the protestors. Furthermore the Prime Minister rants and raves about his own contributions to Istanbul’s green spaces, acting as if their demands were simply about the park. Erdoğan can’t seem to make out the trees for the forest. In a number of speeches, the PM has been talking almost entirely to his own supporters, constantly threatening the “looters” that he could have just as many, if not more, people in the streets.
These events are obscured by the democratic rhetoric employed by both the administration and the protestors. The administration claims, for good reasons, that it is the democratically elected representative of the people and the protesters fire back, claiming they are the true voice of the people. Although the mainstream media has reinforced this trope, the issue at stake is not authoritarianism vs. hooliganism—democracy is obviously both electoral and public. However the past two weeks demonstrate that even after free and fair elections a country can be torn by rifts of deep hate between those who are steering the country and proponents of the ancien regime. Somehow neither appeals to the ballot box nor direct civil disobedience is enough to create a politics of love. Perhaps there is something amiss when we only appeal to democratic rhetoric. We should not overestimate it’s ability in healing past injustices, communal violence and hatred. Democratic rhetoric can mask as well as expose real antagonisms and difference. With the growing number of Islamic democracies in the region, each can ask itself: how should an Islamic democracy deal with the leftover resentment of their secularist citizens? What makes it Islamic, really? Turkey shows us that democratic rhetoric risks repeating the lack of imagination witnessed with modern governance more generally. For example, why is there no qualitative difference in an Islamist response and say the ruthless response of the NYPD against the “occupy movement” on Wall Street? Do we see anything different from the same old tear gas, brutal arrests, riot police and water cannons witnessed in both Cairo last year and anti-globalization movements in Europe? Perhaps the most ironic aspect of these past two weeks is that both the administration and the opposition are not so different from each other. They both rely on the trope of naive faith in democratic rhetoric alone. Hiding behind democratic rhetoric does not deal with real feelings and real differences. Taking power hurts no matter how one does it. And taking power, even democratically, is never pretty.
The road from nowhere
As the dust settles, some things have become abundantly clear, most notably the deep connection between the failure of the media to address the protests and the deeper marginalization of the secular upper class. Most characterizations of what is taking place have been centered on Erdoğan himself, paying no attention to the history of Turkish secularization, the contested history of Islamist political representation, or the potent fears and hatreds that play a central role. This “road from nowhere” approach that sees the protests as a manifestation of Erdoğan’s political will misses out on another important tributary feeding into the river of democratic rhetoric, namely how democracy, as conceived by both the protestors and most notably by the government, has failed to take the agonistic nature of its passions to heart.
M. Owais Khan is a doctoral student in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University
Micah A. Hughes is a master’s student in the Alliance of Civilizations Institute at Fatih Sultan Mehmet University