Resistanbul: Confronting the Arrogance of Power
(the first ten days)
Understanding a society and culture that you have not grown up with is a tough call and Turkey, because of its geographical location, is surely one of the toughest of all. Trying to draw conclusions based upon European/Western perceptions and values will not benefit you one jot. Turkey is complex and contradictory and the unrest sweeping the country and centred on Taksim in Istanbul exposes the tensions of the modern Republic.
The significance of this uprising cannot be overstated. Since its foundation in 1923 Turkey has been an autocracy with an occasional flirtation with a bit of freedom. During the 1960s and 70s there was a rise in ‘revolutionary socialism’. This period ended on 1st May 1977 when hidden (and still unidentified) snipers murdered 34 leftist demonstrators in Taksim Square. Clashes between fascist and leftist groupings escalated to the verge of civil war and led to the coup of September 1980. Thousands of activists, citizens and public figures were murdered by rival factions that were being manipulated by hidden vested interests and the military that were later identified as the so-called ‘Deep State’. Thousands more faced imprisonment and torture. The coup broke up the trades union movement and banned all existing political parties. Shell political parties populated by hand-picked lackeys were formed and the constitution was re-written. To counter any resurgence of the leftists a mix of racist nationalism and Islamic conservatism was encouraged to replace the secular nationalism of the Kemalists.
Over the subsequent years harsh crack-downs on dissenters from the government line have been the trade mark of the establishment. The media as well as individuals self-censored, either to gain or retain influence or to keep their jobs. Those who bucked the party line found themselves without work or their businesses harassed. In more recent years businessmen, politicians as well as individuals would attend the mosque, cover their wives and even make pilgrimages to Mecca to demonstrate suitability for promotion or consideration for a government contract. Shackled by a corrupt and vindictive political elite, ham-strung by tolerance-free policing and the ever-present military, Turks remained cowed – until now.
The spark that has unleashed the fire-storm of rebellion was not, as many think, about the destruction of trees and Gezi Park at Taksim. It was all about the brutal, unprovoked violence of Istanbul’s notorious ‘Robo-Cops’ in clearing away some 30 peaceful protesters against the loss of one of the city’s last green, public places. Gezi Park was to be sacrificed to build yet another shopping mall to benefit government cronies. The protesters returned, their numbers doubled, and were met with heightened police violence. By day three tens of thousands of enraged citizens were fighting with police for control of Taksim Square – their square! A place of huge significance to Turks, Taksim is the very essence of what belongs to the people.
This was no longer about trees or parks, it was and is about years of repression, of police violence, about successive governments that did not listen to the people, it is about corruption and cronyism, the Kurdish issues, religious homogenisation, freedom of expression, of sexuality, rampant neo-liberal economics, the government’s support for and arming of foreign jihadis fighting against the Syrian government, freedom, democracy and, increasingly against the autocratic, micro-managing prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
In the street fighting that followed the world has witnessed, through iconic photographs and videos, the scale of the state’s violence and the will of the people to resist. The world has also witnessed the dramatic moments when the police withdrew. For the first time in this the most heavily policed city in Europe they and their huge, armoured TOMAs (Public Incident Control Vehicle), had failed to break the people and the people celebrated. The sight of these monsters being chased out by a huge tracked digging machine driven by protesters was surreal.
Taksim sits on a hill and in order to protect the square and what it represents human chains thousands strong raised two metre-high barricades on every street leading to it – the only way through now is on foot or by bulldozer! Taksim has become what the people insist it will remain – their place. A place for families, for concerts and ballet, impromptu parties and discussion groups, for diversity and tolerance and unity:
‘It is also about the possibility of bridging the many fault lines of Turkey’s complex society. In the park and the square, Kurdish activists, Kemalists, Turkish nationalists, Socialists, and “Anti-capitalist Muslims” have been able to fight and celebrate together, despite occasional confrontations, which were resolved by immediate intervention of bystanders.’ (Contours of the New Republic and Signals From the Past – Kerem Öktem)
As Turkish media ignores or plays down what is happening, such coverage as does exist is focussed on Taksim. The brutal crackdown continues in cities and towns across the country as more and more citizens take courage and inspiration from Taksim and demonstrate. With mostly only social media available to get the story out, impressions can be blurred, misleading and sometimes fraudulent. That said, enough of the truth is emerging to show very clearly that Turks can, if they choose, build a different and more inclusive society based firmly on respect for the individual, freedoms of expression, conscience and speech and a determination to stand up against over-bearing government. Statements by the prime minister where he threatened to demolish the Ataturk Cultural Centre on Taksim and build a mosque, or when he accused the people on the streets of being terrorists, alcoholics, perverts, looters and worse, have only inflamed matters, brought out more protesters and hardened opposition.
So, will the protesters succeed? That is a question that only they and time will answer. That said, any prime minister who can so divide a nation and unite the street-fighting supporters of Istanbul’s three famous soccer clubs has a serious problem on his hands.
Why now? There is so much else that is contributing to numbers on the streets all over Turkey – each would make an article in its own right:
Syria is a huge concern for most Turks who regard Syrians as their brothers and sisters and this government’s support for jihadi insurgents as unforgivable.
Alevi are a mystical sect and an offshoot of Shia Islam. They have long been persecuted including in Turkey where there have been attempts to assimilate them into mainstream Sunni Islam and to impose the building of mosques in villages instead of the traditional cemevi (meeting house). Describing Turkey as 98percent Muslim may be correct but conceals the fact that Alevi form around 20percent of that.
Generals: there is intense anger, particularly amongst the secular middle classes at what they see as a vendetta against the military. Investigation of coup plotting seems to have degenerated into nothing more than mass show trials with little regard for evidence or due process.
Police in Turkey are a national force and officers are posted around the country, they therefore have no local connections or affinity with the communities they serve. They have a reputation for unrestrained methods of policing which has been well documented. There is also ample evidence that their ranks have been infiltrated by adherents of the US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen. It is widely believed that other followers include members of the governing party although indications are that as the prime minister has tightened his grip on political power his desire to be ‘guided’ by Gülen has declined.
Gül vs Erdoğan: splits between prime minister and president have been evident for some time. The fact that Gül and the deputy prime minister acted immediately to try and defuse the tensions in Taksim as soon as Erdoğan left the country on a working trip is evidence of differences of style and approach.
Kurds: this is a hugely complicated and divisive issue. Erdoğan and the government have been edging towards a settlement with the PKK and its leader Abdullah Öcalan that has resulted in the withdrawal of PKK fighters from Turkey into the Kurdistan Autonomous Region of Iraq. Nationalists are deeply opposed to any settlement which they see as the thin edge of a wedge that will hive off parts of Turkey into a Kurdish state. It is interesting that the largest population centre of Kurds in Turkey is Istanbul, where they settled after being driven west by 30 years of conflict. In polling carried out recently the majority of Kurds do not want an independent state – they seek recognition of their ethnicity, culture and language within Turkey. As this is being written the PKK has declared its support for the uprising.
Gerrymandering: blatant manipulation of the electoral process, buying of votes, and control of the media.
Executive Presidency: there is much opposition throughout the country, including his own party, to Erdoğan’s push for an executive presidency. If he succeeds in changing the constitution and winning a subsequent presidential election it would extend his control over the country by a possible further 10 years. Under the present constitution members of parliament are limited to three terms and presidents to two.
Anti-US sentiment of which there is a great deal is growing. When US forces were planning to use Turkey, with government support, to invade Iraq such was public anger that the government was forced to reverse course and send the US troops out of the country. As they left they needed police protection from stone-throwing citizens who bombarded their convoys.
So, who are on the streets and occupying the parks? Just about every grouping you can think of including some supporters of the governing party – from ‘Revolutionary Muslims’ and ‘Anti-Capitalist Muslims’ to those opposed to the Syrian intervention, Kurdish and Alevi activists to LGBT and civil rights campaigners, the middle classes and secularists to socialists and Kemalists and suited business types, students, academics and intellectuals to artists, performers and pop stars – you name it. Any one of those protesters could give any number of examples of what they don’t want. A very small number of groupings have articulated some very well-reasoned arguments for change and political development but they are not speaking for the movement as a whole which remains what it is – a representation of Turkey’s fractured opposition to Erdoğan. Erdoğan’s stated understanding of democracy is simply ‘put your vote in the box’ but Turks in ever-growing numbers see a huge deficit of democracy in their everyday lives.