Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Taksim Revisited

This is a second effort to comment on the recent protest in Turkey. This 'second take' is informed by having had the opportunity to talk over the past couple of days to a number of people in Istanbul with diverse opinions on the situation  .

In an article I wrote back in 2007 on the events of the summer of that year in Turkey, I had tried to develop a reasoning that countered the way in which the military-bureaucratic establishment in Turkey framed Islamism in general, and the AKP in particular, as the ‘Other’, as an outsider to the Turkish body politic that threatened to destroy the achievements of the secular, modernizing forces that had built the Republic. I was arguing then

it is evident that, contrary to the attempted simplification of the current political situation into one characterized by the irreconcilable conflict between a monolithic and fundamentalist Islamist camp bent on introducing Şeriat (sharia law) and Turkey’s secular forces, the reality is much more complex. Political Islam in contemporary Turkey is an incredibly diverse phenomenon that cannot be reduced to the traditional label of religious fundamentalism. In this vein, the AKP should be seen as a multifaceted, internally diverse movement that comprises old Islamist political forces, to be sure, but increasingly, the new middle class and business elite that emerged in the 1980s due to the transformation of the official Kemalist discourse into one that had room for Islam and, indeed, depended on the latter for its own legitimacy and effectiveness. As such, it purports to represent both the urban and provincial poor who see in Islam the promise of social justice and of what Tuğal (2002: 101) has called ‘moral anticapitalism’ and the aspiring economic elites who consider that the party’s Islamic discourse has room for what Tuğal once more calls alternative, or ‘moral capitalism’. As it has also been pointed out, (Cornell 1999; Sofos 2001: 259) Islamic political forces have been very successful in attracting the young, especially those disaffected with the impasses of Turkey’s tutelary democracy, corruption and Turkey’s state bureaucracy. It is this, additional, dimension of political Islam in Turkey, its ability to attract considerable numbers of young and disgruntled voters and to articulate their disenchantment, that has been largely ignored by commentators and politicians alike.

Within a few years, the AKP, and Prime Minister Erdoǧan in particular, had presided over a sea change in Turkish politics. The military had been tamed and slowly abandoned its intervention reflexes, a fossilized opposition had started to consider embarking on a long and painful process of renewal, and secularism was being redefined in ways that did not discriminate against citizens who faced the dilemma of compromising their religious beliefs in order to participate in the public arena (I am primarily, though not exclusively, thinking of the relaxation of the restrictions imposed on covered women entering in education or employment in certain areas of the public sector). A lot of its achievements have been controversial. The investigation of senior army officers for corruption and conspiracy has attracted accusations of fixed charges and has been likened to a witch-hunt. The number of journalists that faced government obstructionism and lack of transparency or even were incarcerated has increased dramatically. The AKP and its leader have grown arrogant and have started marginalizing their secular, liberal and leftist critics in ways that are reminiscent of the marginalization of their constituency by the 'Kemalist' establishment.

The events that started at the Gezi Park in late May have been interpreted in substantially different ways by the different parties involved. The protesters - not a homogeneous group - have, at least temporarily, been brought together through what social movement researchers call 'the construction of shared injustice frames'. In simpler words, they perceive themselves increasingly ignored and marginalized by an arrogant government and Prime Minister. Some of the people I talked to describe the protest as a 'White Turk Revolution'. If this means the political coming of age of relatively young and hitherto relatively apolitical Turks, the label 'White Turk' is accurate. If this means that the events have set in motion of a long, arduous process of political realignment of the political system, then the term 'revolution' is also accurate. Some of the protesters I talked to are passionate secularists and some are nostalgic of the 'Kemalist era' meaning the time prior to the political ascendance of the AKP, although they have little or no memory or experience of it. 

Others have been more irreverent towards the Kemalist heritage - protesters in Taksim put fruit in the hands of the statue of Mustafa Kemal on the İstiklal Anıtı (Independence Monument) whereas others covered the facade of the Ataturk cultural center with banners and flags. And, next to the secular or liberal or leftist youth one needs to recognize the Alevis who have been increasingly worried about an increasingly assertive AKP and all sorts of different political minorities with other particular concerns.
On the other hand, the very few AKP supporters I managed to talk to gave me an insight to the fear of becoming marginalized again under an aggressive secularist system that would draw legitimacy from the secular educated middle and upper classes. Some argued that the 'Kemalists' ' contempt towards 'them' could be described as racism. Which reminded me, incidentally, a discussion I had a few years ago with a major Leftist intellectual whose name I would not divulge who had said, referring to the AKP's Anatolian strongholds, 'Anatolia is a factory of ignorant fascists'. Against this background, the arrogance of some in the leadership of the AKP notwithstanding, one can understand (not though justify) the fierce and brutal reaction of the government. 

The paradox of this situation is that the protesting youth in the street are the product of a period of economic development and increased educational and employment opportunities created by the model of development adopted by the AKP. Although its paternity may be unclear as it built on the economic plans of Kemal Derviş, their paternity is complex and points partly to the AKP. As I suggested in another note, the protests constitute an alarm call for both government and opposition. They should bring home to the AKP the realization that Turkish democracy, all its deficiencies notwithstanding, has come of age. The streaks of majoritarian authoritarianism inherent in the AKP governmental record are increasingly becoming unpalatable to half of the electorate that had remained sceptical of the AKP’s pre-election assurances that it was not intending to pursue a strategy of creeping islamization. Arrogance and contempt can generate powerful emotions and solidarities and the past few days have made this abundantly clear. The opposition’s irrelevance during the protests is bearing bad news for its leadership. Although some of the slogans used during the protests such as the popular ‘we are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal’, at first sight reflect the endurance of the Kemalist ideology shared by CHP, the major opposition party, along with many other smaller political forces, the secular, democratic and grassroots outlook of the protests has very little to do with the fossilized, elitist and statist version of Kemalism revered by opposition parties.

If one had to resort to catchwords to describe Turkish society today, the words that come to mind are post-Kemalist and post-Islamist. To be more accurate albeit still simplistic, it is a society where secular modernity (including its political-democratic components traditional Kemalism has been so ill-at-ease with) intersects and interacts with conservative, often religious values, expressed by particular factions within the AKP, in so many possible ways. The messages conveyed by the popularity of the AKP and the vibrancy of the ongoing protests are unambiguous: the contradictions of Turkish society call, not for political and social polarization, but for the search of a modus vivendi, one that needs to be painstakingly invented and continually recalibrated, based on democracy, tolerance and compromise. It means that the fears of the protesters and those of the supporters of the AKP need to be addressed. And this will require a government and an opposition that are prepared to ‘listen’. I still maintain that whether the political class of the country is prepared to embrace the challenge of renewal is yet to be seen.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

mixed messages from the balkans




The protests that spread from the relatively small and rather underused Gezi park in Istanbul to a host of cities and towns throughout Turkey are not likely to overthrow the AKP government. As I was pointing out in another note, the demonstrations had a dual effect. On the one hand they were an indictment of the the arrogance and contempt for dissenting opinion displayed by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and an expression of increasing unease at the way the party has been introducing issues of public morality in the political agenda as new alcohol regulations and the Ankara Metro protests indicate. And, it is becoming increasingly clear that they constituted a condemnation of the alliance of the AKP with particular corporate elites that seem to benefit from the capitalist development model the party has promoted. On the other hand, they inadvertently exposed the irrelevance and lack of vision of the opposition parties.

The protests are likely to fizzle out, the AKP will probably stay on to complete its full term in office but the events will have left an indelible mark on the Turkish political system; different factions (and personalities) within the AKP but also within the 'secular' opposition will be reflecting on this outburst of social protest and the reaction of Turkey's political class to it.



At the very same time Turkey was experiencing the shockwaves of grassroots politics, Bosnia-Herzegovina was witnessing the emergence of a protest movement that was largely overshadowed by the magnitude of the protest in Turkey. Sparked by the case of baby Belmina Ibrisevic, whose life was endangered as obstructionist tactics in the parliament meant that legislation necessary for the production of the documents that would allow her to travel abroad for treatment was not forthcoming Bosnia's Baby Revolution stirred the stagnant waters of the country's byzantine politics. Within days several thousand protesters were outside the parliament demanding that their representatives abandoned grandstanding and passed this and other legislation that would start addressing some of the pressing needs of the citizens.  Just as in Turkey, a 'localized' issue became the rallying point for a broader protest movement which, notably, has transcended ethnic lines. The Sarajevo protests were followed by protests in the towns of Prijedor, Banja Luka, Mostar and Zenica conveying the message that ethnic politics and divides can be overcome by a sense of common citizenship forged in the process of the pursuit of solutions to common problems and challenges and, ultimately, of a better future.

The mood in nearby Macedonia, on the other hand, is not upbeat. The governing VMRO-DMPNE is preparing for the grand finale of its Skopje 2014 transformation of the country's capital. I have commented elsewhere on the controversial character of the project, so I will just point out that the project does not possess only an aesthetic component as the government often suggests but constitutes an intervention in the social imaginary of the country as it constitutes a veritable exercise in grafting a particular kind of memory, of history, in the physical space upon which social imaginaries are built. In a way reminiscent of Turkey, after over a decade in office, VMRO-DMPNE has grown arrogant and has sought to discredit and criminalize dissent and opposition at every opportunity. Recent examples include the new law on abortion, welcomed by the Orthodox Church and placating ultra-nationalist factions within the party, concerned at the demographic decline of the Macedonian nation which was passed by the narrowest of majorities, and the storming of a Skopje City Hall municipality by supporters of the government-approved plan to build an imposing Church in Skopje's Centar after rumours that the city's new, opposition, Mayor, Andrej Zernovski was planning to demolish it. The polarization of Macedonian politics was echoed in the slogans used by the mob who called the mayor's supporters “Communist Scum!” and “Muslims!”.

But here the analogy with Turkey's political turmoil ends. Despite the inventiveness of grassroots movements in Macedonia, the prevailing mood is one of resignation. There is no sign of a robust response to the massive and ambitious intervention of the government ideologues in everyday life and the erosion of spaces where dissent and difference can be articulated.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Taksim: a protest like no other

Taksim Meydanı has been a focal point of political protest in Turkey for the best part of the last one hundred years. It has also seen its fair share of violence and destruction: the Kanlı Pazar (Bloody Sunday) of February 1969, the Kanlı 1 Mayıs (First of May massacre) of 1977 are the most well known such examples. Traditionally the location of choice for the celebration of the 1st of May for the Left, it was off limits this year as the May Day events were not allowed to take place there. As a result, small scale skirmishes between Left-wing activists and the police took place in the surrounding streets a month ago but the area was soon back to normality. 
So, earlier last month, no one would have imagined that Taksim would once more become the arena of the violent events of the past few days. The few protesters that started gathering and organized a sit-in at the site of Gezi Park in the run-up to 26 May to protest against the destruction of Gezi Park and the rebuilding on its site of the Ottoman Halil Paşa Artillery Barracks as a museum-cum-shopping centre had probably not imagined that they were going to become yet another addition to Taxim’s turbulent history of protest. Even more so, little did they imagine that their action was to become the springboard for a broader and viral protest movement throughout the country. Yet, in the early morning of 30 May the police attacked them displaying unprecedented brutality, using chemicals and water cannons - to the extent that one can safely deduce they acted with explicit and unambiguous government approval.

The initial protest was described by many as an effort to save the park that stands at the centre of the proposed development. Indeed, this is not an implausible explanation as Gezi park is probably the only notable green area in the vicinity, and one that should have been protected had not the developers expertly used regulations for the protection of historical and cultural heritage (read the museum to be housed in the rebuilt Halil Paşa Barracks) to overcome the statutory development restrictions in a green space. Indeed, many protestors are concerned at a host of major infrastructure projects that are going ahead without effective consultation such as a third airport, a new mosque that will dominate the Istanbul skyline, the opening of a ship canal in the Marmara area. Leaving aside the environmental concerns and the increasing public expressions of reservations of the pervasiveness of the market logic in the AKP leadership vision of a modern Turkey which I intend to discuss in a separate note, the governing party has managed to alienate several relatively young and upwardly mobile parts of its electorate who had invested, not in its Islamic credentials, but in its democratic promise against the tutelary democracy promised by its political adversaries. Indeed, eleven years after the AKP’s first landslide victory at the polls and its uninterrupted and virtually unchallenged hold to power, the political atmosphere was quite charged as the government had paid lip service to the accountability it had promised to uphold in the last elections and has introduced controversial measures such as the new regulations restricting alcohol sales near schools and mosques which, to many secularists, augured what many called ‘islamization by stealth’.

Within this atmosphere of suspicion and doubt, Gezi park almost instantaneously became the focal point of a massive and intricately networked popular movement. On the ground, people converged to the park to express a diffuse sense of unease and dissatisfaction, although, at least initially, no one could give it a clear shape or content. Despite the reluctance of television channels to relay news from Gezi park, news traveled fast to other cities and towns across Turkey, largely, though not exclusively, through the help of social media. Local protests were organized in various other urban centres and information and expressions of solidarity flowed through cyberspace between the various localities hosting their own protest events. As the police had not anticipated this transformation of an originally small and fairly localized protest into something so large and unprecedented in Turkish politics, it reacted with more violence. Local and national politicians were also unprepared for such an event and ill-equipped to make sense of it and articulate an appropriate reaction. Prime Minister Erdoǧan, described the protesters as ayyaş (alcoholics) and capulcu – slang for thug, punk or troublemaker. His reaction was arrogant and threatening as he warned them that he had his own supporters and he should not be provoked. His response was not untypical of his style of government which has attracted criticism for frequently shunning criticisms and reservations expressed by opponents . It reflected his puzzlement at how he, who had presided over a long period of economic prosperity and regional hegemony was at the receiving end of the ire of a nationwide protest movement that had just added in its demands his resignation. Erdoǧan, an otherwise astute politician who had changed the face of the country in his ten years in office by taming the country’s military that had seen fit on several occasions to brutally suspend party democracy on the grounds of the need to protect the country’s Kemalist heritage, by modernizing the country’s Civil Law and by bringing Turkey at the threshold of a historic peaceful settlement of the country’s Kurdish question, was unable to comprehend his sudden transformation into a villain. Other members of his party with less abrasive manners tried, once they became aware of the dimensions of the protest movement, to adopt more conciliatory positions: Abdullah Gül, President of the Republic conceded that freedom of expression and protest is part and parcel of democracy and assured the demonstrators that he had taken on board the message of the protest while Bülent Arınç, Deputy Prime Minister, offered to review the Taksim project in consultation with all parties and suggested that violence was not the appropriate response to the protests. The opposition parties and their leadership were also unable to make sense of what should have normally been a gift for any political force aspiring to end the AKP’s hegemony over Turkish politics. The so-called ‘secularist’ political forces have not had a notable role in the events of the recent days and the fact that their traditional supporters are almost certainly over-represented in the ongoing protest movement should not be interpreted as a sign of the return of the opposition from the wilderness. The current protest is not a party-led movement as the 2007 anti-AKP demonstrations which the opposition had organized in 2007 - its much more protean structure and discourses and its grassroots character indicate that the opposition parties may no longer provide a vehicle for alternative voices and the expression of political disagreement and dissent.

The protests constitute an alarm call for both government and opposition. They should bring home to the AKP the realization that Turkish democracy, all its deficiencies notwithstanding, has come of age. The streaks of majoritarian authoritarianism inherent in the AKP governmental record are increasingly becoming unpalatable to half of the electorate that had remained sceptical of the AKP’s pre-election assurances that it was not intending to pursue a strategy of creeping islamization. Arrogance and contempt can generate powerful emotions and solidarities and the past few days have made this abundantly clear. The opposition’s irrelevance during the protests is bearing bad news for its leadership. Although some of the slogans used during the protests such as the popular ‘we are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal’, at first sight reflect the endurance of the Kemalist ideology shared by CHP, the major opposition party, with many other smaller political forces, the secular, democratic and grassroots outlook of the protests have very little to do with the fossilized, elitist and statist version of Kemalism revered by opposition parties. If one could use catchwords to describe Turkish society today, the words that come to mind are post-Kemalist and post-Islamist. To be more accurate albeit still simplistic, it is a society where secular modernity (including its political-democratic components traditional Kemalism has been so ill-at-ease with) intersects and interacts with conservative, often religious values, expressed by particular factionjs within the AKP,  in so many possible ways. The messages conveyed by the popularity of the AKP and the vibrancy of the ongoing protests are unambiguous: the contradictions of Turkish society call, not for political and social polarization, but for the search of a modus vivendi, one that needs to be painstakingly invented and continually recalibrated, based on democracy, tolerance and compromise. This will require a government and an opposition that are prepared to ‘listen’. Whether the political class of the country is prepared to embrace the challenge of renewal is yet to be seen.