The following post is a much revised version of an opinion piece published a few days ago in Al Jazeera English. It reflect a continuing effort to capture the diverse mood that now prevails in Turkey.
Whither Turkey: First Thoughts after Gezi Park
As the dramatic Turkish protests subside, or declare an intermission, this is a time to take stock, but cautiously.
Precisely when political reality explodes in unexpected ways, pundits come along suggesting comparisons, offering hastily constructed explanations, and cite influences and antecedents. Surprise is suppressed by most ‘experts’ who do all that they can to hide these awkward exposures of how little they knew about the explosive forces in society, which erupted without any advance notice. After the explosion these wannabe gurus step forth with undiminished confidence to tell us with learned demeanor why and how it happened, why it was almost inevitable to turn out as it did, and the most arrogant and often most influential even dare tell us what to expect next, and why it is good or bad.
While appreciating this fact of public life, let us take note that even the most wily intelligence agencies, with billions at their disposal, total command over mountains of secret data, running roughshod over the privacy and legal rights of even their own citizens and others to get it right on behalf of their government employers, still invariably miss ‘the jumps’ of change that are the real stuff of history. Why are the historians of change so bad at anticipating these jumps of history? Partly, for the same reasons that even the most sophisticated vulcanists cannot predict with any accuracy an earthquake or volcano—as in politics, the tipping points in nature and society are rarely anticipated by interpreting scientific trends or through the analysis of incremental changes, but generally disclose themselves with an unforeseeable abruptness.
In reaction, an appropriate level of humility and tentativeness goes a long way, acknowledging these limits of understanding, suggesting hesitantly and explaining as best we can such charismatic events when they occur, taking due account of their distinctiveness and admitting our inability to access deeper meaning that lie beneath the surface of cascades of events.
Another type of difficulty associated with these interpretative ventures is the bias associated with the observer’s gaze. We are habitually trained and experienced to look at politics from above, whether our perspective is that of elites or counter-elites, but revolutionary impulses come, if and when they come, almost invariably from pressures generated from below, that is, from the ‘multitude,’ pressures that materialize by suddenly bursting forth as happenings that startle and reverberate (e.g. Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the velvet revolution, the Jasmine Revolution, Tahrir Square, Occupy Wall Street).
The Gezi Park Protests
Was Gezi Park in Istanbul such a happening, as many here in Turkey hope? Did it reflect the wishful thinking of those among the protesters who were seeking a genuinely inclusive democracy in Turkey respectful not only of the environment and cultural identity, but dedicated to the rights of all, especially such habitually abused minorities as Kurds and Alevis? Professor Asli Bali, a highly regarded young law scholar teaching at UCLA, persuasively encapsulated the core of the struggle as an epic encounter between two models of democracy– the majoritarian entitlement claims of Erdogan (but not necessarily all elements in the AKP) versus the participatory and populist ethos of the younger generation, which is almost as opposed to the republican (anti-democratic) ethos of the secular elders who were mainly aligned with the recently inept and anachronistic CHP as it is to Erdogan’s leadership of the AKP. Bali pins her own best hopes for the political future of Turkey not on an anti-AKP challenge being mounted by an opposition party, but rather on a split within the AKP that will transfer control from Erdogan to the more inclusive moderate wing, which I presume would be led by the current president of Turkey, Abdullah Gul.
This is a most unusual way to conceptualize the best political alternative for Turkey, and it underscores a situation in which a change in the leadership of the country would be beneficial, but cannot be seen as issuing from either the present arrangements of governmental authority or as a result of a successful challenge mounted by the organized opposition. The idea of a split within the AKP that produces a more moderate and inclusive leadership is an attractive option for three reasons. First, it validates the positive contributions of AKP governance over the past eleven years, while rejecting the style and some of the majoritarian implications of Erdogan’s leadership. Secondly, it implicitly rejects the prospect of an electoral transfer of governmental authority to the traditional opposition represented by the old Kemalist party, the CHP, as a result of elections, which despite its strong presence in Gezi Square and in the protests throughout the country, was viewed by the core protesters as politically antagonistic to a reshaping the political future of Turkey through redefining an understanding of democracy. In this regard, the republican/CHP conception of democracy so long as the party held the reins of government in its hands was intolerant toward the religiously observant, as well as repressive toward the Kurdish regions of the country. Thirdly, strong doubts are present as to whether the Gedi protests, with neither party, program, agenda, nor leaders, strong anarchist elements could grow into an inclusive movement along the lines of what Derrida calls ‘democracy to come,’ an aspirational vision of the future that embraces a liberating conception of freedom that far transcends any historical embodiment of ‘democracy,’ anywhere up to this point. If the past teaches us anything, it suggests that such revolutionary impulses, no matter how intense, will quickly dissipate or implode, either because they become institutionalized in stultifying bureaucracies, engage in torrent of revolutionary terror, losing their revolutionary identity authenticity, or they don’t institutionalize and purge enemies from within and without, and simply fade away. Of course, for reasons suggested at the outset, history is cunning, and may not mimic the past.
What Future for Turkish ‘New Politics’?
The dust in Turkey has not yet settled, although it appears to be settling. At this point it is far too early to discern whether a new political subjectivity has been born that will fill the Turkish political vacuum. This unfortunate vacuum was formed by the absence of a credible and responsible opposition during this elapsed decade of secular displacement and AKP consolidation. It is uncertain whether this recent venting of frustration and resentment can be converted into a sustainable political movement that offers the Turkish polity a post-Kemalist alternative to Erdogan’s AKP, and does so without losing the very substantial achievements that included ending the practice of prison torture, civilianizing the military, paying off the IMF, tripling the Turkish GDP, coming forward with a promising approach to the Kurdish problem, and gaining great influence and respect for Turkey as a success story in the region and world. Symbolizing these eleven years of national ascent was the emergence of Istanbul as a cosmopolitan crossroads for the world, and a favored site for diplomatic meetings and high profile events.
We also should not dismiss the capacity of the AKP, including Erdogan, to learn from the Gezi Park experience. Despite the bluster and the inflammatory tirades about the evils of social networking, foreign provocateurs and domestic ‘looters’ and ‘terrorists’, the excessive police force (hardly a novelty in the region, and even Europe, but no more excusable for being ‘the old normal’), Erdogan did eventually pull back to a significant degree, apparently taking account of the strong objections mounted against the Gezi Park project in its original form. Erdogan seems now to have put the Gezi Project on hold for the indefinite future, awaiting a judicial finding as to the acceptability of the project and possibly organizing a citywide referendum in Istanbul both to consult the municipal citizenry and find out about their attitude. And we should not idealize the protesters, a minority of whom did vandalize and demean Islamic sensibilities with obscene graffiti and allegedly threw beer bottles thrown on the floor of a nearby mosque, although this charge is sharply contested. Unfortunately, and unacceptably, many governments that claim the mantle of democracy use excessive force when dealing with angry protests and demonstrations, but no autocrat worth his name attempts to meet adversaries half way as such temporizing is regarded either as unnecessary or as a display of what such a leader finds most distasteful, namely, weakness.
The government’s new approach to the Gezi controversy may yet prove to be problematic. The referendum may endorse the project as a reassertion of popular support for Erdogan, and he might be tempted to plunge ahead. A referendum in such situations can often dangerously infringe upon fundamental social values that should be protected regardless of how ‘the people’ vote. The preservation of Gezi Park would seem to qualify for meta-political protective treatment. Gezi Park as a green enclave, along with its proximity to Taksim Square, possesses a vivid resonance for the whole city of Istanbul, including even the revitalized Ottoman heritage that is so dear to Erdogan and the AKP generally. It seems especially precious to a younger generation of urban Turks that often have cherished memories of the park from their childhood. And for the most ardent followers of Kemal Ataturk the Taksim Square milieu has always been hallowed space where patriotic holidays of the Turkish republic are solemnly celebrated.
Of course, except at the very beginning, and maybe not even then, Gezi Park was about far more than Gezi Park. It was, as suggested, a slowly articulated repudiation of the sort of democracy being offered by the Turkish state, and as yet unarticulated series of demands for another kind of governance based on a different understanding of what politics and freedom are about. It was also about, although vaguely and incoherently, the cultural leveling down associated with neoliberal globalization and the rise of a predatory private sector that seemed responsible for littering the city of Istanbul with shopping malls and high rise twin towers.
There were other more conventional grievances that need to be addressed if the AKP wants to build a more legitimate structure of governance in the country, including the release of journalists and other prisoners of conscience presently held prison, greater reassurances about freedom of expression and dissent, and more public accountability of police and government. At the same time, the depth and intractability of the opposition in some sectors of Turkish society makes reconciliation a mission impossible. Polarization seems the destiny of Turkey for the foreseeable future. Most of the protest spawned by Gedi Square focused on calls for the resignation of Erdogan, in effect demanding a repudiation of democratic elections, which seems rather perverse considering the overall success of Turkey while Erdogan was running the country.
There is, to be sure, some peculiar features present in the litany of opposition complaints. For instance, there are frequent allegations that anti-government criticism of Erdogan and the AKP is absent from the media due to intimidation. It is true that Turkish TV seemed at first to ignore embarrassingly the events in Gezi Park while international TV was covering the unfolding protest in real time. Yet the true situation in Turkey, as I have experienced it, is one of widespread and harsh criticism of Erdogan from many angles, in this regard not the slightest evidence of media intimidation or alleged self-censorship, and a greatly exaggerated contention here and abroad that the voices of censure have been silenced by imprisonment. Posting an otherwise illuminating article online, Michael Ferguson, finishing a PhD in history and classics at McGill, writes this incredible phrase, while commenting on the media’s failure to mention of a controversial assertion: “..not surprisingly, however, given the Turkish media’s unwillingness to criticize Erdogan.” I have been reading numerous opinion pieces attacking Erdogan in the Turkish press during the past two weeks, and so I cannot imagine what prompts such an assertion. True, there are many journalists imprisoned, to be sure, but apparently less for their critical views than for their supposed involvement in anti-government, unlawful activities. These charges should be investigated without any further delays, and those being held either tried or released, but that is a different matter than contending that Erdogan is being treated as a hothouse flower by the Turkish media, which is manifestly untrue.
The puzzle I have encountered after recently arriving in Turkey is why so many people seem honestly to believe that freedom of expression has been so severely encroached upon when it seems at least as robust as what is found in other democracies. What can be more aptly complained about here in Turkey, but less so than in the United States, is the shrillness of the critical media that offers no space for those with moderate views cleaving to ‘the golden mean.’ In the U.S. where talk radio features inflammatory voices of the extreme right such as Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck. Also present are the Murdoch tabloid mendacities of the Fox Network that are given more intelligent and careful reactionary spins in the editorial and opinion columns of the Wall Street Journal. Yet there is also present influential middle of the road media, New York Times, Washington Post, PBS, Rachel Maddow, MSNBC, which although far from objective still helps readers understand that there are at least two sides to many contested issues. Controversially, I find Today’s Zaman the most consistently informed and balanced of the major media sources in Turkey, but interestingly almost unavailable at most newsstands throughout Istanbul that seem to favor the strictly secular media.
A Preliminary Balance Sheet
Up until now the unsettled immediate situation in Turkey has dissuaded me from commenting on what remains a still confused, complicated, and unfinished situation. Despite their marginalization in Gezi Square itself, the mainstream Turkish secular opposition to the AK Party leadership of the country over the past 11 years, welcomed these protests with unreserved enthusiasm misleadingly claiming in the media and throughout the world that these confrontations with the state was a moment of their supreme vindication. It should be remembered that both the Kemalist republicans and the traditional left have feared and hated the AKP from the moment of its suprising initial electoral victory in 2002. They have particularly detested Recip Teyyip Erdogan even before he became prime minister. These political elements of the Old Turkey stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the achievements of his leadership in elevating Turkey’s regional and global stature in dramatic fashion, while managing to do what was thought to be impossible—depoliticizing the Turkish military from political arenas while managing to preside over an unprecedented period of economic growth and political stability. The embittered opposition angrily explained that these positive results would merely the good luck of the AKP, that they would have occurred under whatever government was in power, and besides, the AKP must be stopped and exposed, as it is deceitfully pursuing a secret agenda was intent on placing the country within an iron cage of Sharia law, the unquestionable goal to make Turkey into ‘a second Iran.’
It seems clear that these essentially partisan and polarizing attitudes do not seem to have animated the original protesters in Gezi Park who were mainly reacting with appropriate anger to a grotesque urban renewal plan that would have destroyed a sentimental park adjoining the richly symbolic center of Istanbul in Taksim Square, replacing it with a vulgar reconstruction of Ottoman Era army barracks, incredibly given an ugly modern face as one more shopping mall. In some respects, such a future for Gezi Park did strike many of the early protesters as a fitting predatory expression of consumer capitalism gone wild.
The second much enlarged wave of protest was the spontaneous outpouring of youth, appalled more by the brutality of the police response than the environmental agenda, and clearly thirsting for a new form of emancipatory politics, beyond the greed for power of the traditional parties with their hollow promises and interest-driven programs. It was this outlook, difficult to categorize precisely because it was discovering and revealing itself as the events unfolded, exemplifying their distance from traditional politics by relying on humor, satire, inclusiveness, and a political style that seemed to owe more to ‘performance art’ (e.g. ‘standing men’ and other tropes) than to bombastic political speeches enunciating the familiar litany of political demands. Such a politics of protest, even taking account of the carnivalesque atmosphere and the anarchist turns toward violence, was fully committed in its critical posture to a ‘search and explore’ method of doing politics along with an extreme reflex of disgust whenever political leaders tell their citizens what to do and not do in their lives. It is this acute sensitivity to government and its leader intruding upon this sacred zone of private autonomy that does make this new protest ethos seemingly join forces with seculars in their denunciation of Erdogan and the AKP. Imprudently, Erdogan has gone down this road. He has backed legislation restricting where and when alcohol can be consumed, aired his opinion as to how many children a mother should produce, and told the public why kissing in public and wearing of lipstick should be discouraged and avoided. There is no doubt that Erdogan does irresponsibly fan the flames of youth and secularist discontent in Turkey by his inability or refusal to keep his conservative personal preferences about social issues to himself, and not undermine his identity as the elected leader of the whole public of a modern nation composed of diverse ethnicities and outlooks. Especially in Turkey’s principal cities many young people, above all, want to live their lives as they please without any guidance from Ankara. As we should all know by 2013, ‘the personal is political.’
These traits of Big Brother also lend some credibility to the deeper fears that Erdogan does harbor dreams, if not ambitions and plans, of becoming an autocratic ruler in the manner of the great Ottoman sultans or that his vision of majoritarian democracy is at odds with substantive democracy, that is, the establishment of a society where the views and identities of minorities and dissenters are respected and protected alongside the preferences of the majority. In effect, Erdogan should not be blamed for the acute polarization of Turkish society of which he is in many ways an unjust and long-term victim. At the same time, his blunt style of communicating with the citizenry and the opposition, is also polarizing. It suggests that Turkey remains an immature political culture, but it is far being alone in this regard.