The Square, the Suburbs and Why People are Angry

The square, the suburbs and why people are protesting

Sunday night: Beyond the teargas clouds and water cannons, by far it is the image before me, on Taksim Square, that has made the hairs on my arms stand on end. A group of kids are shout “Allah! Bismillah! Allahu Akbar!”, gathered around a Turkish flag. It is the MHP national party’s penchant to combine Islamic sloganism with Turkish nationalism. The group has had bad blood with the left since both were engaged in a vicious, urban war in the late 1970s. The youngsters, to the gob-smacked reaction of bandana-sporting leftie protestors, began filtering down Istiklal Caddesi towards the Communist party headquarters in Taksim, at the time, blasting out revolutionary anthems to a crowd of admirers on the street below.

‘What’s going to happen?’ I thought. The MHP have been treading water since the unrest broke out, trying to stay out of everything. As these MHP kids marched directly under the Communist party Office, a raptuous applause greeted them, and party leaders waved their hammer and sickle banners in a dramatic, and frankly unbelievable, gesture of support.

For a while there, I had observed that the crowds gathered at the square were the typical anti-AKP crowd. People in their 20s-30s, who would have marched against the government a decade ago, had there been an opportunity like this. However, age is not the integral factor in a country with far greater divisions – as the ecumenical spirit shown above demonstrates. When I witnessed the breeching of barriers between far left and far right back there, I had just been having a conversation with members of the “Anti Capitalist Muslim” organisation – an independent, free-thinking group of religious youths, tired of Islam ‘a la turca’ – the boring, ideologically-tinged brand of Islam espoused at mosques from official Ankara-approved lectures, with its emphasis on unrestricted capitalism and love of the nation. We had been chatting outside the entrance of the now world-famous Gezi Park, where in the middle of thousands of people lay the old, run-down shell of a police wagon that had been broken into and set-ablaze by a youth with his face covered.

“The fire will spread to the trees – were we not here to save them God damnit!” one on-looker cried. At that moment a young woman screamed “Has anyone got water? Water!”  We dosed out the flames before anything could happen. Applause and back slapping abounded all over and the night continued in good cheer.

Taksim that night had the feel of the last day of school; idealism, hope, relief, energy and comraderie, the same thing could be said the night before, in Bakırköy (before Taksim square had been taken and police had withdrawn).

Bakırköy is my beloved coastal suburb, some 40 minutes from Taksim. The only difference was the age-range here. Old women were hanging out their balconies banging pots and pans on my quiet suburban street at 2:30 in the morning. I decided to try to get some sleep, but was awoken almost immediately by the sound of a mob coming from the square. I decided to check out what was going on.  Some 4000 people had gathered; house-wives, young children, thirty-something parents and old men, walking down the main high street, waving flags and posters of Atatürk. Bakırköy is one of the few municipalities controlled by the Kemalist CHP, thus their anger was to be expected to come rain or shine. But the march went on on the long half hour march up the street to the main circular highway – the E5. Protestors, now double in number as suburbanites left their houses to join up, discussed whether to march back to the square. Then another chant emerged “E5! E5! E5!”. I received a text from a friend battling it out in Taksim; “Taksim is the castle, once we take it, this is finished”. I informed her a crowd in their thousands would be joining soon enough as they began the march to the epicentre of the city.

Who is marching, and why?

Monday: Police are no-where to be seen throughout the city. One taxi-driver put it to me that “they are scared to leave”. They should be. Police have never been so unpopular in Turkey.

It is not just the police however, they are a temporary concern, maybe the second or third in the big scheme of things. And if that is not uncertain enough, the interview below with an Al Jazeera reporter was refreshing in its honestly when faced with the question ‘to what end are people protesting, and why?’

Well, the press (national and international) have been struggling, after years of assuming Turkey had been plodding along fine, to come up with a narrative. I think it is only a matter of time before the media settles and negotiates on a narrative, so I should take the opportunity to document as many factors as possible.

1)    Police Brutality
Although the infamous image of the girl in the red dress being sprayed aggressively by riot police was enough to rattle those on the fence in to action, I would hypothesise that the anger against the police. The force which was formerly seen as the vehicle of state power – now perceived to be AK Party power, began last summer. At that time I wrote an article documenting some of the abuse scandals and the emergence of the over-use of gas as a tool of repression for even the most benign of protests.

This summer it has all come to a head, however. It doesn’t matter what protest, gas and riot tactics have been used to move people on. Many condoned the events on the 1st of May this year, when Istanbul’s transport was shut down to prevent a leftist riot in Taksim, a historically significant place for the left, from getting out of hand.

On one hand, the reaction was overblown. With hindsight, that weekend was almost a war games operation for last week’s events. However, the AKP being the party which had officially allowed protests to take place in the square for the first time since the 1980s, it was unnecessary for the left to interpret the fact of massive road and construction works were a cover for the abolition of their right to protest. However, Istanbul Mayor shocked many by showing as much defiance and failing to provide an alternative protest area. Instead, choosing the shock and awe of well-practiced riot police.

As Istanbulian blogger Emre Kızılkaya stated most eloquently almost a year ago now, the Turkish state is fast turning from a military state, to a police state. The government’s love of legislation, no matter how intrusive, and a hesitation to get tough on police brutality, mixed with its bolstering of wages and resources to the police testify to this fact. I can personally attest to the aggression, rudeness and self-righteousness of the Turkish police, as a 20-something male (the most conspicuous of profiles).

2)    Islamism’, or anything of the like
Most of the people gathered in Taksim had been out for Erdoğan from the start. Erdoğan’s inflammatory Islamist rhetoric from the bad old days of the Fazilet Partisi were not forgotten. In a lot of ways this manifested itself in discrimation and hatred against anyone with religious views, belief or – especially important in Turkey – outward appearance and dress. This gave the party a certain amount of legitimacy elsewhere and is one the reasons Turkey’s opposition parties, obsessed with old ideas of the ‘civilising mission’ of Atatürk and the one-party state, remained paralysed for such a long time.

Whilst I’ve never hidden my disapproval of this section of society’s extremism, (‘Turkey is turning into Iran’, was the old cliché) I completely sympathise with how difficult it must have been for young, urbane, religiously apathetic flag-wavers, to deal with being marginalized for the first time in the history of the Republic.

The last month especially, has seen unnecessary alcohol restrictions, unnecessary insults to Atatürk, and a change in the law making it harder to get the morning after pill – all directly led by Erdoğan, with little chance for objection from what is left of the party liberals or the opposition. Legislation also dictatedt that alcoholic drinks would be blurred on TV. If we go back over the last year, there have been many such moves by the Erdoğan, who succeeded in robbing Taksim of its nightlife by removing outdoor seating, and for a couple of weeks at least, threatened to ban abortion, utilizing the state imams to whip up support for the move, which was pushed for as long as it took to distract the public from the Uludere scandal.

3)    Urbanisation and Gentrification
I have often joked that, whenever I notice a nice, rundown building in need of a bit of renovation in Turkey – within a week it is being bulldozed or converted into something modern and hideous. Whole areas of indigenous Istanbul have been wiped off the map for good in a wave of construction projects. Some were initiated over a decade ago, when a younger Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was mayor of the city and oversaw crucial work to the transport system. However, historic heartlands (typically well-located near the water in old Istanbul) have been severely targeted to make way for generic apartment blocks, shopping centres and offices. The gypsy/Kurdish areas of Balat and Sulukule had a narrow escape last year, when a court ruled in favour of local residents in a what has otherwise been a UNESCO protected zone on the Golden Horn. Other areas have not been so lucky. The gypsy population of Algeria Street (otherwise known as ‘France Street’) on Taksim’s backstreets have been turfed out and sent to state housing blocks on the outskirts of the city, with little opportunity for work. Tarlabaşı too, on the other side of Taksim, is already seeing the start of gentrification despite the presence of the gypsy community there. The area saw a lot of publicity in order to preserve its uniqueness, with art projects and the work of photographers such as Ali Öz.

For the protesters, this coincides with the relentless privatization drive and thus brings together ecological and anti-capitalist concerns, tinged with very real fears that a city with over 15 million people is being pruned to become another Kuala Lumpur, or Dubai, or some other powerful, world-famous, and utterly charmless global centre.

Last year there was panick at tall modern office buildings and hotels encroaching upon the ancient city

Corruption is not unique to the AK party by any means. However, it has been a lot more openly under their rule given, not just the party’s power, but the way that it has been done in the name of economic liberalization, with friends of the party and even their family members, getting first dibs on rapidly privatized public institutions and land. The problem is that the economy has been one of the hallmarks of the AKP’s success to many Turkey-watchers. Turkey survived the economic recessions of the Eurozone as the fastest-growing economy in the world. As one colleague stated, to give the devil his due, ‘in a country with the highest petrol prices in the world, everyone has a car’. Is it any wonder corruption was quietly tolerated for so long, by so many. I include not just the Turkish media, but the foreign press and – wedged somewhere in-between on a tiny blog – myself, in that overly-optimistic group of individuals.

4)    Coup trials
Another cause for concern have been the on-going investigations into military personnel and journalists accused of being party to a coup to overthrow the government. The evidence is overwhelming for many, but there are some defendants who are widely considered to merely have been rounded up to lessen the power of the military, which has overthrown elected governments four times in the history of the Republic.

Many see the army as a balancing force for Turkish democracy, although to this outsider, this is very much a view constructed and enforced by the military through the education system and the myth of the ‘army-nation’. None-the-less, the loss of the army’s intimidation tactics have left a large segment of the public feeling that they have no one looking out for them at the top.

5)    Democracy
People have short memories if they think Turkey was a freer place before the AKP. Craig Murray is one journalist who has addressed this point, speaking of the initial triumph of the AKP:

“The forgotten people of the Anatolian villages, and the lower middle class of the cities, had a voice and a position in the state for the first time. In individual towns and villages, the military and their clients who had exercised absolute authority had their power suddenly diminished. I witnessed this and it was a new dawn, and it felt joyous.

As mentioned, those protesting are the ones who for the first time have felt marginalized, and it has been harsh medicine. Whilst people often quote that Turkey has the most journalists in prison, journalists in the 1990s were being assassinated as well as imprisoned, if not forced to flee the country, this is especially true of anyone with sympathies towards the Kurdish side of the struggle which has raged since the foundation of the Republic (if we treat the PKK the latest of a series of rebellions).

For an interesting insight, I watched a presentation today, prepared by a student, on the 1980s coup. The young student read out the statistics – the hundreds of thousands imprisoned, hundreds killed in prison and executed, the many more fired or exiled – before stating that it showed how similar events in those times were to today. As a history student, I couldn’t help but object to a compromised connection. The student replied that, “it was different in those times – life was cheap. We weren’t living in a democracy”. “So you are saying that we are living in a democracy now then – what’s the problems?”.

Of course, it is not that simple. The student unintentionally made a valid point: the expectations of what a democracy should be, have certainly grown in the last decade. There could be a link between this and the retirement of the military – and I am tempted to make this argument, however it could also be a question of economic growth – using the classical liberal argument, or something entirely generic to the globalised world.

Time will tell us more, I feel. In any case, some serious critiques of the ‘vote once every four years’ interpretation of what it means to be a democracy have been voiced and I am absolutely impressed that this soul-searching is taking place in Turkey of all countries. I pray it continues on the right track.

As far as the implication of the protests on party politics, a piece of graffiti in Taksim being widely hailed on social media sites is one that exclaiming ‘WE ARE an AKP without religion, a CHP without Atatürk, a National Party without a nation and a Kurdish party without the Kurds: WE ARE THE PEOPLE”.

Erdoğan’s accusations against the CHP, that they had provoked the protests, whilst taken as ludicrous by the party, must have been treated behind closed doors as a well-needed compliment. The CHP tried and failed to lead, or at least integrate into the movement, but have been so-far shunned. When party leader Kılıçdaroğlu announced a meeting on the Asian side port, in which supporters would march across the bridge on a long, glorious parade to Taksim in the evening, 40 000 people were already making their way, in dramatic fashion over the bridge from Asia to Europe. Needless to say Kılıçdaroğlu saved face by later making a cancellation.

The Guardian reported today that the Gezi park protestors have saved up money to put an advertisement in the back of the New York Times, calling for global support as they push for
true democracy in our country." (my emphasis) Note that democracy is no longer a good enough model in itself.

Change in Turkey, Change in the world

The lack of a party, leader or figurehead, has been one of the keys to the movement’s success and integral to its authenticity – and a pivotal moment in Turkish history. The people have put themselves on the agenda of Turkish politics, rather than being subjected to it. No conqueror on a white horse nor photogenic revolutionary liberator appeared.  This could be the long-awaited touchstone which brings Turkey into post-modernity – or even something which, having already occurred in various waves across the South America and the Middle East in the last few years, could be an example of the kind of mass movements to come to the West in the not-too-distant future.

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