14/07/2013

Idle Thoughts in Civil Unrest

After nightfall in Taksim: About five minutes from this part of the street, people are sat in bars revelling. Occassionally, groups of people will hurl themselves into the bar demanding lemon and ice to treat gas wounds. People oblige, and everything continues as normal.
Bob Marley famously once said “a hungry man is an angry man”, in reference to the many post-colonial uprisings of the mid-twentieth century. I can’t disagree with Marley’s observation, but maybe it is testament to the times we are living in – I would add that a hungry man can’t protest on an empty stomach

It’s been two weeks and I still haven’t installed internet at my new place in Taksim, so at about 6 o clock last Saturday, I obliviously ventured out to get some chicken and have a quiet evening in watching some English stand-up DVDs. Just then, I noticed a large groups of loiterers standing wide-eyed and startled, yet somehow on alert, on my way up to Dia supermarket. It was happening again, I thought. So, I walked towards Istiklal – still in search of chicken. I was planning a homely curry for the night.

However, the pavement was wet – it could have been shopkeepers washing the pavements in front of their stores, as they do every couple of hours in the summer here, I reasoned innocently. As the sound of chanting increased and I turned left to find myself confronted by fifty cops in riot gear advancing down the high street followed by a TOMA riot vehicle armed with high pressure water-spray, I decided it was most probably not that. I turned back down the street to a vantage point some distance from Istiklal. A young man shouted reassuringly to the wide-eyed youths “The police won’t do anything, guys”. How many times have I thought that and been proved wrong, I thought.

Then again, I was still hungry. I decided to give up the quiet night in and head towards the Demirören shopping centre right on Istiklal. Ordering an XL menu in a half empty shopping mall, with the sound of chanting and boom of gas bombs in the background, is one of the uniquely 21st century scenes one is going to have to get used to. I was reminded of my old suburb of Bakırköy a few weeks ago, when over two hundred people had converged on the square, waving flags and chanting anti-government slogans, whilst in the background, the huge screen installed by the local council displayed an advertisement for washing-up liquid. It was such a stark contrast to be obliged into this nuclear family kitchen and simultaneously cajoled into illegal protest on the other. The solitude and dispassion of the co-called post-ideological world, greeting the reality of the real world, certainly deserves a pause for thought.

I decided to go back home to get some milk, cut lemons and retrieve my old anti-solvent mask. According to a friend who called, there had been a flash-mob style water-fight on the square, but what had caused tonight’s confrontation was a call for the crowds to amass at seven o’ clock, sp the police put the area on lock-down. The way back home was like a scene from Godzilla, traffic was building up going towards the square, while thousands of people ran in the opposite direction as the police unleashed another unit from Tarlabaşı police station, which has always had a tank stationed outside it, but has begun to look like an army encampment in recent weeks. The gas made my eyes bleary, but the drivers heading the other direction drove cautiously.

As I headed for shelter in the leftist student café, an open air square nestled between bookshops and protected by two gates between the British Embassy and the middle of Istiklal, I thought about Said Nursi.

I had got frustrated with the moderators of this great 20th century Kurdish theologian’s fanpage, when immediately after the protests they posted quotes from Nursi emphasizing a strong stance against anarchy and disorder – aimed undoubtedly against the protestors. Who could disagree that in the age of mass media, mass populations and mass division – mass everything, for that matter, that anarchy is the last thing a society needs? Yet I can take various other quotes from Nursi, from just one page od Şükran Valide’s excellent biography of the man, that in order to avert this kind of reaction, certain responsibilities must be upheld on the part of government:

·         (P. 86) “Freedom is this: Apart from the law of justice and punishment, no one can dominate anyone else. Everybody’s right are protected. In their legitimate actions everyone is royally free.” (quoted with reference to the right to protest, which has no official restrictions)
·         “With constitutionalism, the paths leading to abuses are mostly blocked up. With despotism, they are unobstructed.” (quoted with reference to the protection afforded to guilty parties amongst the police)

There is no one I can think of on the Turkish political or social scene with the power to bring two sides together in the heat of street fighting. Yes, liberal social commentators and journalists, if a minority, can write eye-opening columns in the national press providing balance and fresh perspectives, so all is not lost. Yet, in the face of mass misinformation, vitriolic populist speeches and reactionary headlines in the pro-government press, the chance barely emerges for someone who garners equal respect on both sides to emerge. Maybe both sides are too far gone. At least the Ottomans pertained to a degree of respect for religious figures irrelevant of their own religious-political beliefs. As journalist Eşref Edip said of Nursi at the time, “No one, and most of all the Sultan, could at any time agree that there was even the smallest amount of disloyalty in him… The palace displayed great tolerance towards this struggle of his out of respect for his learning and virtue”. Given the fate of the local imam of Beşiktaş, who opened the mosque as a sanctuary for protestors there, it seems more difficult of late to make judgments based on learning and virtue in the face of questions of loyalty.

Then again, when I think of how much praise I have heard given to the Anti-Capitalist Muslims by Kemalists and other rigourously laicist types of protestor, I have some hope that if that movement develops seriously, it may open a space within, or beyond, the Turkish political landscape where would-be enemies begin to engage in dialogue about the direction of the country.

For now, I just aim to take a leaf from Nursi’s book, albeit in far more reserved way, helping tourists, families, the wounded on the streets, writing this blog when I can, and not cause too many waves. By a delightful coincidence, when the Young Turks took power in 1907, Nursi did what he could and, in his own words, “left after three minutes and went to Bakırköy”.

However, Bakırköy no longer affords me shelter as of this week, when the last rent on my old place expired. I spent the rest of the night rubbing milk into the eyes of those afflicted by the gas, and generally swapping information with people coming from various directions. One guy had a nasty cut on his arm from someone who had apparently been brandishing a machete. I shall continue to document as much as is appropriate. Who knows, it might be useful when one day I look back on this episode to find out what it all meant.

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