English PEN’s Turkey researcher Alev Yaman reports on the ongoing protests in Turkey.
There is no better demonstration of the volatility of Turkey’s political climate than the transformation of a peaceful, low-key sit-in against the demolition of a small park in Istanbul’s historic Taksim Square into a defiant, five-day face-off – replete with water-cannons, tear gas and violent clashes with the police – between the government and the hundreds of thousands who have taken to the country’s streets in protest against an increasingly arrogant and authoritarian AKP regime.
While the seeds for this mass disorder were sown when security forces launched a heavy-handed, night-time raid on protesters occupying Gezi Park last Thursday, the mass unrest that has followed has outgrown this initial grievance, with a myriad of dissident, disaffected and disparate factions coming together to protest the incumbent regime for a variety of reasons.
Socialists, ultra-nationalists, Kemalist secularists and liberals have found themselves momentarily united by their opposition to the AKP. And yet what exists is a flimsy alliance predicated on a common object of disaffection rather than any popular notion of something to replace it. Turkey’s chronic lack of a populist opposition to the AKP has never been more glaringly obvious, with Kemalist secularists and sympathisers of the CHP (the Republican People’s Party, the party of Atatürk, modern Turkey’s founder) facing something of a backlash from their fellow protesters after clamorous lamentations regarding the government’s betrayal of Atatürk’s legacy. The rhetoric of old has proved unpopular with the largely young protesters gathering in Taksim Square and elsewhere; it would be inaccurate to shoehorn these protests into the old narrative of secularist Kemalism versus neo-Islamism.
The popular grievances among the protesters are a lot less ideologically grounded than that. A growing sense of intrusion by the government into people’s lives is one of the issues at the heart of the disaffection, as are concerns regarding free expression and a free media. For many, increasingly tight restrictions on where and when you can consume alcohol appear to be part of a wider campaign to change the identity of Turkey, something which has been felt particularly keenly in the area surrounding Taksim Square; one of the few areas in Istanbul where alternative identities, including those of homosexuals, transsexuals and bohemian artists, can be freely expressed. This, combined with a neo-Ottoman facelift being applied to the area and the city as a whole, is seen by many of the protesters as an attempt to reconfigure Istanbul’s identity and squeeze those who don’t fit into Erdoğan’s Turkey out of the picture. Plans for Gezi Park involved the reconstruction of an Ottoman-era barracks on the site and a new mosque off Taksim Square; while Istanbul’s third bridge has been named after Ottoman Sultan Selim ‘the Grim’, famed for his repressive attitude towards ‘unbelievers’ and Alevis.
Critics suggest that Erdoğan appears to be intent on leaving an Islamic legacy: following the introduction of a new curriculum which elevates the status of religious education, proposals to tighten conditions for abortions and announcements on public transport to ‘obey the rules of morality’.
Concerns regarding free expression, meanwhile, have been underlined well by the conspicuous absence of domestic, media coverage of the protests. Turkey’s mainstream media is in the hands of a small group of holding companies and business conglomerates whose commercial interests drive a culture of self-censorship in a bid to gain favourable government contracts. The media-blackout enforced during the protests has been the most glaring example of this self-censorship to date. Social media has had to fill the void left by Turkish journalism, much to the chagrin of Erdoğan, who declared: ‘There is now a menace called Twitter; the best examples of deceit can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society.’
The defiant, almost arrogant, attitude adopted by Erdoğan and the AKP has done much to ramp up the temperature in these protests. The AKP’s monopolisation of power and its crushing of its traditional opponents in the military, judiciary and police forces has granted Erdoğan something of a swagger of invincibility. Repeated landslide election victories and unprecedented economic growth have added to this. Erdoğan unabashedly wields that most dangerous of rhetorical weapons – the Will of the People – when he speaks, and his casting of the protesters as ‘extremists’, ‘alcoholics’ or ‘opportunistic provocateurs’ gives a clear insight into his psychology. His opponents are marginal, irrelevant and contemptible; while he represents Turkey. And perhaps it’s this dismissive attitude towards the rest that is the biggest factor in the unrest. For many in Turkey, there is a growing sense that their views don’t deserve to be heard or listened to. It is Erdoğan’s contempt for those outside his electoral base that is the biggest cause for concern of all.
Alev Yaman is a human rights advocate, who has worked for various London-based organisations specialising in freedom of expression, migration studies and the rule of law. She is currently working as a Turkey consultant and researcher for English PEN and PEN International.