Joel

The majority of my writing on Turkey is either on the wall or in my blog “A Heart of Arkenstone” at http://joelark.blogspot.com/. I will occasionally paste blog posts from my personal site to WordPress.

Image Problems and Topography

(July 15th, 2013)
Turkey, and Istanbul particularly, benefits from the East meets West image of the region, so much that it trades in stereotypes. The food is a proud mix of West Asian and European cuisines, the people are all sorts of tan and brown colors, and the area is even called Asia Minor. Turkey is a fascinating mixture of disparate cultures and languages (now), but the problem is exactly that it’s a mixture, not a solution. The people are friendly in the park forums, but there are severe cleavages in Turkish society. Ethnic, social and religious groups identify themselves by their Turkish narrative, but there is only some overlap in the narratives and completely different readings of Turkey’s history.
Sometimes what we’ve seen in the political arena is less East meets West, and more East vs. West.
What I expected in Istanbul was some glistening oasis straddling the Mediterranean, which I immediately found wrong, having not consulted a map, apparently. The vibrant Europe I expected was replaced by neighborly köys. The quaint Turkish villages I expected were replaced by incredible traffic and businessmen.  The Islam I expected was confronted by demands for a more secular state, but the secularism I expected is 99% Muslim. This all speaks to my surprising ignorance of everything, especially of the Middle East as it actually exists, but it also speaks to the availability of completely different, authentic Turkish experiences.
It was made clear to me that the other American interns at Mazlumder had seen a different Turkey and had a slightly skewed image of what was going in Turkey. They were staying in Fatih, the most conservative part of Istanbul, and had to get picked up and dropped off at work. They were losing their minds from the closure and I think that losing the opportunity to wander around and stare or be stared at depressed them. One of their coordinators said there were no good places in Istanbul to drink. That wasn’t a joke he told, he outright stated that drinking was not commonplace.
As I previously hyperlinked, Erdogan has gone on record denying that the national drink is a liquor called rakı, and instead this salty yogurt drink, ayran, and some recent laws have attempted to constrict the drinking culture, but what? People get drunk in Istanbul. There are many liquor stores and the cheap beer is safer to drink than tap water. And even though it’s Ramadan (Ramazan in Turkish) in a majority Muslim state, the bars are by no means empty. That doesn’t speak to Turkey as a whole, but you’re in Istanbul, the New York (and New York exceptionalism) of Turkey. It’s different here, but people argue endlessly about the nature and legitimacy of this difference.
One of the ways you can clearly see the cleavages in society is touring through the town. Fatih has all the ancient mosques and Ottoman and Byzantine buildings with engravings of ancient architects and visiting mathematicians, and the like. If you walked around all day in Fatih and never left (could never leave), as many tourists do, you would think the nation is full of observant Muslims, beautiful and ancient architecture and cheap, knock-off items like you’d find on Canal Street.
On the other hand, I walked up past my little neighborhood to Levent and I was amazed by the wide streets, carved skyscrapers and smoggy orange sky. There was a hypercorporate Levantine oasis mere blocks from Ortaköy. It was impressive and manicured with cavernous malls and American and European fast food chains, a far cry from the cobblestones blocks away.
The strangest and most visual difference is on Dolmabahçe road, the thoroughfare I take to work, with its blown up images of Atatürk kissing babies and staring through periscopes. There isn’t an attempt to connect the history of the founding of the republic to the realities of the pictures, so they’re fixed anachronistically, onto the sides of road where taxi drivers could care less. Likewise, in all government buildings (in a country where the bureaucracy was byzantine, there many state and municipal buildings) a large, more than life size picture of Atatürk is required to adorn the walls. Every building has a corner for Atatürk.
There is a strong connection to Kemalist tradition and the education system here pushes how glorious Kemal Atatürk was with his revolution, and that is apparent with the reverent images of the man throughout Turkey. İsmet İnönü, another founder of Turkey, has a stadium named after him near Taksim. You’ll see his or Atatürk’s gilded head literally jutting out of buildings.
The prominent presence of Atatürk in the architecture of Istanbul demands the attention of a deity of a civil religion. Kemalism is an official narrative; even the religious conservative parties have to harken to nationalist sentiments. It’s a major voting bloc. What’s interesting is that it runs counter to the Muslim narrative of Turkey. The “only functioning secular Muslim democracy” schtick, like the East meets West, unravels when you examine it. The narratives don’t coalesce, they stand opposite each other, especially further away from the Kurdish narrative also gaining national credence. The protests of the last two months have shown that the Turkish public takes quite seriously the identity and story of the nation, and go to the streets to demand their own narrative.
Turkey is facing serious image problems, not just in the region and in the Western media, but from inside. It hasn’t sorted out its own history, still fighting Armenia on the semantics of genocide from 100 years ago. The Kurdish people have only been able to speak Kurdish openly in recent history. Declaring yourself a non-Muslim on your state identification takes incredible effort and only certain groups, like the Rum Orthodox Christian people, have permission to do it.

“Turkey is a nation of contradictions” is also a stereotype, but it’s accurate. Turkey is a nation of disparate realities, village life and pleated shirts and 300,000 Syrian refugees and EU aspirations and secular folks in the streets and 99% Islam. I don’t think secession is the most viable solution to the problems created by these contradictions, but Turkey needs to find some common ground.

None of these groups are disappearing. No one is going to drastically change their life, at this point. The government and Turkish society needs to find ways to better integrate these groups and halt the polarization deepening the ridges between them. It starts with new rhetoric and education.

I don’t know where it goes after that. Maybe I’ll take a class.

Coups and armies, democracy and legitimacy

(July 7th, 2013)

Outside of Turkey, my current knowledge seriously wanes, but the action is making me want to write a lot more about it. The situation in Cairo mirrors some of the possibilities in Turkey, even though the clashes in Egypt are much more violent. It’s the same problems. It’s legitimacy, it’s democracy and it’s disaffected folks disconnected from their governments and leaders. The same course of action is erupting all over, whether it’s protests or clashes or coups. Bear with me.On June 30th, massive protests erupted in Egypt  with folks demonstrating against the government led by democratically elected President Muhammed Morsi. The autonomous Egyptian military on July 1st issued an ultimatum that they would intervene in 48 hours if protests continued. The protests continued and the Military deposed Morsi on June 3rd. After the overthrow, there were protests and celebrations in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 2011 protests, with laser shows and everything.

There have been some arguments about whether this deposition was a coup or not. There are some Egyptian protesters and allies rallying for the redefinition of the word “coup,” in part because coups are illegal under the Egyptian Constitution and states under coups receive less international aid from the United States, a major beneficiary. I think, despite the financial concern, that the whole argument is bunk and missing the point. Of course it’s a coup, but more importantly, it’s a coup by the Egyptian military, a governmental, social and economic institution which existed under previous Egyptian authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak,

After Mubarak who was forced to step down in 2011 after months of violence between government supporters, the military and protesters, the military took temporary control of the government until elections were held in Summer 2012. Their short rule marked a period of increased violence, that slowed but did not end after Morsi, the candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood, took office. The military was also the organization that deposed the King of Egypt in 1953, and has since become autonomous and powerful in its own right, without ever being an democratically elected institution.

I wrote two years ago that what threatened Tahrir Square and the Egyptian revolution was the military, and it still is, I think.

The news of the Egyptian clashes struck me as cut and dry bad. Sharif, my roommate, used to live in Egypt and has a keen interest in the politics there. He was appalled by the celebrations of an organization that is as despotic with a striking history of violence. The military had a role in torturing many of the “dissidents” under Mubarak and get half the criticism as the former regime. There was violence under Morsi, who was sort of corrupt, but the criticism he received was more pointed because of his leadership of an Islamist organization

and the military offers a counterpoint.

My relationship with autonomous militaries is different and has changed since I’ve been here. In Turkey, there is some sentiment that the army of the past, the “guardians of Kemalism” as they say, should have taken down Erdogan after the protests, handily, as they have in the past. Now, however, the Turkish military is not in the position to overthrow, but because it’s been weakened by AKP (a move lauded by European and American spectators) and because it’s made some agreements with AKP and Erdogan to not plan some coups.

But some of my friends, when talking about the absence of the military, have to keep reminding themselves that it’s good for democracies that militaries are not autonomous, but it’s a struggle! Turkish dissidents can no longer be comforted by the fact that the military will overthrow the government if it strays too far from Kemalism anymore. Even if it’s good for democracy, it’s a reminder that times have changed and that the opposition forces are weaker.

And at first I felt the same way. “These protests would be over a lot faster if the military would just step in and clear everything out!” I was excited at the beginning when military folks came in and brought real, sturdy gas masks for the protesters. When they were reprimanded, I felt cheated. It’s their job to protect the state, I thought.

But they weren’t protecting the state in that instance, they were jockeying for power, if ever slightly. All actions by autonomous militaries are inherently political!

This is the same thing we’re seeing in Egypt, and it’s unsurprising that the Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters are not letting the coup-via-protest stand. Both parties feel that the opposition is illegitimate and should be fought against completely. And so they have.

But all this is not that simple. I’m ignoring the fact that there are thousands upon thousands of Egyptians in the street, protesting for the military to take over. There has to be something I’m missing.

In talking with my colleagues and friends about the protests, I’ve found that my misunderstanding was about democracy in the first place. I thought that a clear and recent democratically elected leader removed from office (and put under house arrest, awaiting charges of whatever) was not logical and was the most illegitimizing action the military could take. It was inconceivable to me, but the Egyptian presidency itself is illegitimate right now. The first presidential election was a year ago and as a society, Egypt’s coming to terms with major disagreements in ways that look similar to many other nations

“Coups are a means” as Sharif said to me yesterday, and even though they are not legitimate, the military is one of the most legitimate actors in Egypt. It helped found the state and it’s claim to power is stronger than Morsi’s for a surprisingly massive group of people. The coup is not legitimate, but is only a means to the larger claim that the military is the most righteous leader of Egypt right now.

My friends have also reminded me that democracy is slow and looks different everywhere. Though I don’t think political Islam is dead, regardless of what all the major news is spewing, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt may be banned and denied its NGO status in the aftermath of these protests. That does not mean the people who supported Morsi are leaving Egypt or the people who protested Morsi will be satisfied with their   current state.

The military will impose a leader soon and they’ll be building back up to an election in the next years,
or until the next protest…

Back to Athens

(June 28th, 2013)

Or, more accurately, back to New York and Oakland.On June 3rd, the President of Turkey, Abdullah Gül attempted to differentiate himself from his party’s response to the protest. Erdogan, among others, made statements about the undemocratic nature of the protests and how the people did not truly represent Turkey, as Erdogan was elected in a landslide in 2011. Gül, on the other hand, scoffed in an interview that the ballot box was not the only form of democracy.

I thought about his statement when I went to the Abbas Agha Park Forum on June 26th. The forum was in a Beşiktaş park, a couple of blocks North from where the police threw teargas at protesters in my first posts about Turkey. Now, all over the country, forums are held with dual aims of education about the protests and injustices and also motivation to change Turkish politics.

I arrived a little after 9 pm, which means I missed the clapping and banging of pots and pans still taking place throughout the city. For some five minutes at 9 pm in Turkey, cars honk and flash their porch lights in solidarity. It was odd at first, but now it’s a reminder that this isn’t over.

So after the 9 pm banging, my group arrived at the park where hundreds of folks were gathered to listen and participate in the forum. The protesters spoke in Turkish, and my language skills were nowhere near good enough to understand everything, so it was a little bit like I was an interloper, only there for the sights, but a lot of people spoke English and could contextualize the hand waving and speeches. I asked in Turkish what one of the signals meant, and he told me, in English, that it meant to hurry up the speech. “Oh, that was the same in Occupy.”

“Yeah, it’s inspired by Occupy.”

I hung around for awhile after my friends left and lent my phone so one of them could record interviews about legitimacy for her research (which I need to get on!). There were smaller working groups scattered around the park. I listened to the politics and media debates, standing idly, but intently focused on the dozen words I could take out of each speech. It’s surprising but you can really get the gist of most things with tone and a few key words.

I stayed for a couple hours and met up with two other friends who’d been there separately. We all connected and talked politics but I mostly told jokes for another hour. Before we left, I tried to go find a bathroom, but wandered around asking people where the “bathhouse” was, which elicited all sorts of weird reactions and poor directions. There is a stereotype here that anyone will give you directions and they’re often inaccurate. That is a proven stereotype. It’s so nice that everyone wants to help, but I should have just listened to Florencia and I just learned directions in our Turkish class.

We were there long enough to see the next group set up and start presenting. Some group from Paris made the banner pictured above of a tree and its roots. The French group sent a message solidarity with #direngezi or whatever it’s called now. The point was that direct democracy is nouveau again and it’s popping up around the world. Regardless of their outcome, the occupations and rebellions throughout the world and especially in Middle East and North Africa, are about popular dissent at their core.

This forum is another democracy. It makes me wonder, how many types of democracy are there? And, are any of them more legitimate than the others? Erdogan posited that his favorite form of democracy is the ballot as it is the most legitimate way to measure the people.

It’s strange in Turkey, though. Actually, a lot of the politics in Turkey is strange and misleading. Erdogan, the head of the majority party in a parliamentary system, is elected by the party machinery, operating at full force at all times. AKP is a rigid hierarchy and Erdogan sits firmly at the top. His party is buffered by the fact there’s a national 10% threshold for any political party to be elected into the parliament, meaning that parties that sweep elections in the East, especially Kurdish parties, can’t muster the 10% and are not represented at all. This means there is a stark overrepresentation of AKP and CHP, the historically Kemalist (nationalist-secular) party.

So Erdogan’s quotes about representing the “true Turkey” are full of steam. His democracy is problematic and unrepresentative, and there is a counter-democracy on the ground actively trying to unseat him. Their methods are a little more old school (or at least a performance of old school) but their resistance is not only a demonstration against Erdogan, socially conservative policies, police violence or Islamization, but also the kind of status quo politics that the national elections provide.

There are several kinds of democracy at work in Turkey, and they often work hand in hand. Erdogan initially relied on his 2011 election in his anti-protester rhetoric, but he and the AKP upper brass felt that the people were eventually going to be moved by police violence on peaceful protesters, so they planned and ran their own rallies. They’re a lot more vitriolic and a lot less funny, but I think the operate on the same premise. If you have a large portion of society visibly represented, it is effectively democratic, even if it is a rally for an increasingly authoritarian leader. The presence of sheer mobs of people appear to be the democracy so it’s an affirmation of the ballot box.

But this is a false affirmation, because the rallies, stocked with folks from all over the nation, clearly lack the critical insight of the secularists and young folks lining up to take Erdogan down.

(It makes me think, would Occupy have been different if everyone was focused on throwing Obama out of office?)

Because of my work with Mazlumder, I’m sensitive to the opposite criticism, too. Despite the solidarity for religious folks in the protests, they really are not present in the dialogue. In the above pictures there are no women in headscarves. The women at my internship are convinced they’d be attacked if they went, which I find unlikely, but the fear remains. There are definitely nationalists that are offended by the sight of a hijaab and there are people who are offended that anyone drinks alcohol.

True democracy is illusory and the media represents the masses in contrasting ways. The point is that there may be solidarity, there may be clear ballot winners, but neither democracy, yet so far, has bridged the gap between the two massive groups.

It’s uphill to Athens.

Taking a Stand (sakin, sakin)

(June 22nd, 2013)

A couple days after my last post, which was written half in fear, the police stormed Gezi Park intent on removing the protesters. Erdogan wanted to hold a rally for his supporters near the airport, and then one  in Ankara, the capital of Turkey, and couldn’t stand the dissidents. A couple days after my last post, also, a gun started standing in Taksim Park, not in Gezi, which is now empty of protesters and occupied by police. This man stood for hours and was joined by other folks, just standing silently, in front of the buildings upon which police draped a picture of Atatürk (it always comes back to Atatürk). The folks stand out in the open with journalists and tourists buzzing around them, next to kids selling water and teenagers selling simit. Unlike the earlier Gezi Park protest, which was shrouded with trees and barricades, these protesters stand side by side demonstrating their quiet and peace. They challenge the Erdogan, they challenge the media, they challenge the nation to listen by proving that they are not inciting riots, that they are peaceful and respectful, that they just disagree. Via the (now!) ever-present cameras, they watch the government watching them. They silently provoke the government, challenging them to spin a hundred people standing into a public menace. They provoke the people in the city that aren’t protesting and the people in their homes that disagree, by staying in the public sphere and staying visible. It’s impressive how simple an idea like standing gained some much traction immediately. What is clear from the interviews and the insight of my friends, this slow-burning revolution is full of working folks. It dies down for a while, people need rest, need to visit their parents, need to help their kids with homework. In other states, when the protest stayed burning hot for weeks and months, the working folks went home and the militant radicals took over. The face of the protest changes and it turns into war, as we saw in Libya, Egypt and Syria. The folks who do rage against the state, professionally, have the most practice and are ready to take the helm whenever it’s clear. That hasn’t happened in Istanbul. The protest continues on but it changed, needed to change in order to keep the focus on dissent and not war. The protesters were accused of throwing molotov cocktails and, rightfully, of provoking police by breaking the concrete out of walkways and throwing rocks. The protesters were accused of all sorts of stuff that just doesn’t hold water when it’s just a bunch of folks standing in a park. While personally (and I hate to be confused as an infiltrating foreign element), I think violence can have a place in protests and especially in revolts, and has often been necessary as a tool of the powerful and the powerless, the protests in Turkey have clearly not been about violent uprisal. The protesters, who never had a strong grip on the national and international narrative, were losing control even further, and were forced out of the park. Instead of returning in battle gear, making soap in their bathtubs, they stopped reacting and regrouped. I think the standing man protests are operating on thought and not panic, which gives them more control, and it’s a bunch of folks idling against the government, successfully! How novel is that! It may be fashionable, all this standing, but it’s not blind. It’s a disorder of the normal politics in Turkey and no matter what the media says, it’s not throwing rocks.

Taksim is being cleared right now

(June 15, 2013)

A bunch of nonsense is happening right now, June 16th, 2:40 am. Watch here. or here. Police have taken off the numbers on their helmets, so along with many of them wearing civilian clothing, there is nothing to distinguish between police officers. That’s bad news, especially considering the following: The Turkish military has joined in. There are vehicles that look like SWAT cars from the US, anti-riot vehicles, as well as larger military vehicles. There are still clashes with police around Gezi park. Police are throwing teargas into the nearby Divan and Hilton hotels, one of which has served as a medical space for protesters. One person staying at the Divan Hotel, Claudia Roth, is a member of German Parliament (MP) from their Green Party. She was injured by police and she is refusing to leave, and seeks to broadcast what’s happening right now. Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily News reports “[The police] will intervene in everybody who try to enter the Taksim Square [treating them] as a terrorist,” Egemen Bağış said hours after the police’s intervention in protesters in Istanbul.” It’s still safe to be in Istanbul, but it’s not safe to protest right now. I’m not around these parts, but I keep getting updates, as do my roommates. These measures are not the products of thoughtful governance, or respect for human rights. These policies are the product of survival instinct. AKP is threatened and is reacting accordingly.

Backed against a wall and Backed against a wall

(June 13th, 2013)
Yesterday, June 13th, Turkish PM Erdoğan announced that he was rather tired of all the protesting shenanigans. He would much rather take a quick referendum on the park conversion and for protesters, çapulcular (marauders, or riff raff) to get picked by their mothers and ushered home (he actually said this). Erdoğan is done with the protesters and would like to resume with his big boy politics, this coming from a man who said that one drink and you’re an alcoholic. He also stated that he planned to clear out the park within 24 hours of June 13th. Alexi, a friend in my cohort, and I went into Gezi Park to conduct some interviews for our internship (the absence of roadblocks and barricades was eerie), but we cut out before 6 pm, when I heard police were going to come in. No word yet about what’s happening tonight, but the clearing and the referendum will happen soon. The referendum is a measure to divide the protesters, because they really can’t say no when their first and only clear demand (outside of a return to democratic politics) is to keep Gezi Park and not create a mall. The protest is so much bigger than that, though. It’s about justice and democracy and identity, and increasingly about the authoritarian and anti-democratic moves by the leaders of the majority party. The protesters (and the public) can’t say no to the referendum, but it will appear to solve their problems. In the past few days, there has a sharp increase of violent clashes between the protesters and the police but from the interviews with protesters yesterday, it seemed there was consensus that the protesters throwing molotov cocktails at police vans were not part of the generally peaceful protest. Some of those interviewed had pictures of the violent protesters with walkies and guns on their sides, looking exactly like plain clothes officers around the fringe of the protest. The same day as the molotov cocktails were thrown, some 70 lawyers defending the protesters were arrested and beaten in a courthouse by the police. Fascinating times to be in Turkey. So why do people protest in the first place? Why not just vote your stupid leaders out of office? In talking to some of the disheartened leftists in Istanbul, the hope for a long-term change out of this protest seems quite diminished. CHP, the main opposition party in Turkey, only gained 23% of the vote in the 2009 election and hasn’t been in control of the nation since its heyday under a single party state immediately after the founding of the republic. There are strong feelings of support for CHP, and what CHP stands for (the legacy of Atatürk, secularism), but their leadership is obtusely hierarchical and they don’t pose a real alternative to the current government. AKP, the conservative majority party, has a hold over several sectors of the government, as well. The main contributors to the opposition have been undone and replaced by AKP members or supporters. The judiciary in Turkey was more radical in the past, and now houses many conservative judges. The Turkish media too, which failed to report the protest well or at all, tries not provoke the government. One of our interviewers described a striking example of biased coverage: CNN International reporting from the front lines of Taksim, and CNN Türk reporting from the police barracks. The military of Turkey has played a decisive political role in keeping the autocrats (and the Kurds, and the Armenians, and anyone, really) in check throughout Turkish history. Because of this, they are often called the “Guardians of Kemalism” and secularism. The military posed many coups, including the one founding the state, and has operated outside the scope of the government as part of a “deep state” for a hundred years. AKP, in the last ten years however, has defunded and regulated the actions of the military to the point that their insider-political machinations are basically absent. Even a lot of the public workers have their jobs because of who they know in AKP. What’s most interesting for me is the organization that I started working for, Mazlumder, is on the other side of the debate. It was formed in 1991 by lawyers, authors and businessmen to support the human rights of Muslims denied by the state at that time. Muslim women who cover are still discriminated against in a state that is as rigidly secular as it is Muslim. Fascinating times to be in Turkey, but Turkish politics is defined by pendulum swings from one pole to the other, where some leader is representing only part of the public. Secular people feel today that the new AKP laws discriminate against them, but the government 20 years ago discriminated against Muslims. There seems to be little, and decreasing, middle ground, nationally. AKP provided a glimpse of a middle ground, working with Kurdish nationalists as no other party had done before, but is instead increasingly defined by its heavy-handed and violent politics. Taksim looks like the best place for middle ground, but it certainly doesn’t represent all of Turkey. Mazlumder is a strange place to work, and I’ll write a lot more about it as time passes. They’re a Muslim human rights organization with informal ties to AKP, but has been critical of its policies. I’ll find out more about their official stances soon. I’ll try to stay more on top of writing in the next couple of days. I feel overwhelmed with the writing. There’s a lot to do and I’ve got a cold, but I’m still pumping along. Hagia Sofia and the Black Sea this weekend, maybe. Until then, I’m drinking some tea and watching cartoons.

Initial Reflections on the Protests in Turkey

(June 6th, 2013)

I feel like everything I write about Turkey is more accurate and informed than the piece before it, so the first post will be so dated and strange by the time I leave that I’ll be convinced that I wrote it in my sleep. I haven’t traveled out to Taksim or Gezi since Monday, and I think I’ll wait a while before I go again. The protesters will likely not leave and Erdogan won’t resign, so I have many more chances to engage with the protest. The last couple days have been inspirational for expanding my knowledge of the context of the protests. We’ve had talks with local academics and a couple outside perspectives that follow Turkey’s politics closely.The first upset of my initial conception of the protest was that not every demonstrator agreed with the concerns of the few I interviewed. The legacy of Atatürk is important to many in Turkey, but not all. Some of the people that are most charged about the the state of Turkey as it relates to its founder are members of the Republican People’s Party (CHP in Turkey) which was actually Atatürk’s party at the founding of the Republic and through more than a decade of single party rule.There are many factions in Turkish politics and in the protest especially, and they are not neatly divided. Some of the larger overlapping factions whose interested are sometimes at odds include Secularists and Islamists, conservatives and liberals, Liberals and Socialists, State Socialists and Marxists, Kurdish Nationalists and Turkish Nationalists, Kemalist and European-minded, Alevis and Ultra Nationalists and Christians and Jews and others. Turkey is not so much a state of contradictions as it is a state of confounding difference upon which nationalism has been built. There are so many different groups that don’t fit into my (or the common) boxes that work in strange configurations to reify Turkey’s idiosyncrasies. I’m beginning to understand how different this nation is, one based on an artificial linguistic and ethnic nationalism. (and why is it that Turkey is where Europe ends and the Middle East begins when most folks in the Mediterranean look similar and have roots from all over? Why is it that  Europe gets its own special recognition when it’s just a hand on the left of Asia?) The protest that started in Gezi Park and expanded to the rest of the nation is rather heterogenous with many different groups rallying around the ouster of Erdoğan and the discomfort of the encroaching socially conservative policies. What is remarkable to the academics that talked with us is the absence of violence in these protests, especially among people who would skin each other in any other circumstance. This is not complete exaggeration: Earlier in May 2013, Istanbul football team Fenerbahçe fans rioted against police and Galatasaray fans, as Galatasaray won the Istanbul derby. Along with Beşiktaş, the other main football team in Istanbul, Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe fans work in Taksim together, putting down the fierce (some of the fiercest in Europe) rivalries for the larger cause. The definition of that larger cause has yet to be stated, though. With Turkish nationalists, secularists, socialists, Marxists, Kurdish nationlists, Weather Underground-type militia members and environmentalists working together (so far) in harmony, how could any one specific political determination be adequate? I keep asking myself, What is the lesson to take from Occupy Wall Street’s dissolution? That too was a national movement that was strident and specific at first, but slowly allowed an opening for it seems every partition of Leftist politics. The ideological takeover of Anarchists from inside (at least in the New School shreds of Occupy) and the slow loss of steam were larger reasons for the dissolution of Occupy, and those problems will plague any movement based in demonstrations without corporate sponsors. The protesters in Taksim feel that their way of life is threatened and that their Prime Minister thinks he’s a king, so what will it take to turn that bare rage and disgust into political change? There’s no conclusive answer yet and that may be for the best. The disheartened Turks that see their country moving away from both their ideals or utopian vision of what it could be and Taksim provides a space for a discussion, an opening of politics. Maybe this protest, at the very minimum, offers a sense of optimism that change is possible where there was none. Maybe this protest will create something more in time for the 2014 elections. We will see. For more information and excellent insight, you can check out Yunus Sözen’s article on the protest here. Many trade unions went on strike yesterday in solidarity of the protesters and hopefully that effort continues. I start my internship with Mazlumder tomorrow, and I’ll be away from the action in the Fatih District 5 of 7 days a week

The Return of the Police

(June 4th, 2013)

 The police came back last night, razed the Beşiktaş area, where the violence was the strongest overnight. The protesters resisted throughout and attempted to break into the empty palace and Istanbul home of Erdoğan. I don’t think they were successful.
I woke up late and strolled to Beşiktaş with a group of six students. We scoped out the scenes, which looked much different this time. I heard that the thoroughfare from my neighborhood to through Beşiktaş to Taksim, was covered in debris and blockages, but was cleared by morning. Bricks from the sidewalk were missing, though, lifted and placed into roadblocks leading up past the stadium Rihanna performed in 5 days ago, to Taksim Square.The culture of Beşiktaş was odd. It was emptier than yesterday, but still tense. Less joyous, more prepared. A lot of younger protesters, teenagers, were methodically and sometimes powerfully taking apart small retainer walls or signs to create stronger barricades. There were some gleeful at the destruction, but others were more grave. This was serious business, regardless. One of my Turkish friends from New School said that this protest was a civil war, and seeing the youth take apart walls to make their barricades and walk about the burned out buses seems like a war effort. I saw 10 or so strategizing. This is not just an occupation of public property anymore, if it ever was.We climbed past the barricades to Gezi Park, the forested portion of Taksim Square still threatened by construction, and found the camps of protesters. Many were playing cards, drinking beer, and sitting quietly in the shade. We marched on and found thousands more singing anthems and cheering, the sound of drums eerily filling the whole park (eerie maybe because I watch a lot of Game of Thrones and Doctor Who). The scene was comforting, though. Protesters were occupying and respecting the space, unlike the destruction in Beşiktaş. It was a communal and left-leaning experience, though many of the protesters are nationalists and would on no other condition share cigarettes and shade as they did in Gezi Park. On the other side of Taksim Square, an area empty days ago, thousands more cheered and gathered. I spoke with an older protester who couldn’t speak much English (and my Turkish is very limited), but still managed to explain that the supply table in front of the Taksim Starbucks was part of an international solidarity organization, and that the proletariat had been provoked for socialism. I said goodbye and called him a friend and he said goodbye and called me a comrade. Some of my friends were nervous about the yelling in Turkish and our poor knowledge, so four of us split off and took the Metro subway North to get out of dodge and ended up far North of my place, and I obstinately didn’t want to pay for a cab, so we walked for too long in a nice neighborhood (extra information). After we left Taksim, Tens of Thousands marched into the park, vast numbers my friends couldn’t count. More than they had ever seen, marched and cheered, and jeered at Doğuş Garanti Bank, a backer of several of the major Turkish news firms who continue to not air the protests. The police came back at nightfall and threw teargas into the crowds of families and while international news organizations measured the panic at the fray, CNN Turk aired a documentary about penguins. You can’t make this stuff up. As Protests rage all over Turkey, and Erdoğan’s AKP party offices have been attacked and set on fire by protesters in Izmir, I’m wondering about the use of violence in political strife. I talked about this extensively in one course at the Transregional Center for Democracy in Wroclaw, how violence is sometimes necessary when all other paths towards political change are disrupted. This makes me think of Jacques Ranciere and his Ten These of Politics (a great, but coarse description of Ranciere’s work). The point of the protest, or any protest really, is in part to disrupt the police order of “dissensus” that is a false democracy. Putting themselves in the public sphere when they feel like their politics have been ignored by the ruling class, the Turkish protesters disrupt the status quo. The Deputy Prime Minister apologized for police brutality and urged the protesters to leave the park, while Erdoğan tours North Africa. Today, though, the protests rage on.

The First Days of the Gezi Occupation

(June 2nd, 2013)

It’s my 5th day in Turkey for my academic program, which has ran roughly parallel with the protests in Istanbul. Peaceful protests began on May 30th as bulldozers started excavating the trees in Gezi Park, part of Taksim Square, the main public space in Istanbul. The park was originally military barracks under Ottoman times, but was renovated by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (the father of Turks) after the founding of the Turkish Republic and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. Turks are, in general, big fans of Atatürk’s legacy of creating the Turkish nation, language and identity from disparate Ottoman notions.

Protesters wanted to save Gezi Park from being demolished and replaced by a shopping mall and condos, a designation decided without the input of locals by the Turkish municipality and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Prime Minister of Turkey. Police raided the protesters on May 31st, throwing teargas into the crowds and burning protester tents. The police brought in riot vans and doused the crowds in water and threw teargas into the metro station. Many protesters and bystanders sought cover in neighborhood stores, as white smoke covered the Square.
The protesters rallied against police brutality in Taksim, and all over Turkey; thousands more came to the aid of the protesters, including military officers handing out free gas masks. Violence against protesters escalated as several people were killed by the toxic levels of teargas. So far, 3 are dead, 3 blinded, many maimed and injured. On June 1st, 40,000 Turks lined the Bosporus Bridge  in protest of the increasingly despotic response to what was a peaceful protest.
The heat died down after police left on the on June 1st, and as thousands of Turks stayed in Taksim and Beşiktaş areas, not far from where I am staying.
I went to check out the continued protests in Beşiktaş on June 2nd, as I heard there was a waning, and therefore an opening for foreigners like me, to scope it out. My friend and I talked to some protesters among the many standing in the street, singing the national anthem and waving Turkish flags with the face of Atatürk plastered on them. My friend was critical of Occupy’s lack of specific demands (and viewed that as one of the fundamental causes of its failure as a movement), while I just wanted to chat, really.
We first talked to a couple that spoke English and explained that the movement was not about the park, per se, but about the politics of Erdoğan that cut freedoms, referring to the law passed recently banning the sale of alcohol after 10 pm, and the laws barring public displays of affection. “We just want to drink alcohol and live our lives and not be bothered,” we were told. These sentiments were developed and expanded by the long conversation we had with two German women of Turkish descent in Istanbul for holiday and protest. They explained, at length, that the legacy of Atatürk was one of Turkish exceptionalism, and a necessary creation of a Turkish secular state that granted many freedoms to its citizens. Though his procedures and policies have been labeled autocratic and authoritarian, Atatürk has incredible support in Turkey still.
Prime Minister Erdoğan demanded in a speech on June 1st that the protests end and his decision had already been made, therefore the protests were in vain. He also stated that the Atatürk Cultural Center would also be destroyed. The two people we talked with saw these actions as offensive to the legacy of the Turkish Republic and to Atatürk specifically. In Erdoğan’s speech, he accuses the protesters of being atheists and government dissidents angry because they couldn’t get their candidates elected in 2011. While many of the crowd were dissidents, many were not, and most waving banners or chanting the name of Atatürk in reverence.
What was most striking to me was the strength of the Turkish narrative of secularism in a mostly Islamic nation and human rights afforded to all people in Turkey. The protesters fall back on that narrative in times of strife and mandate that all politicians live up to the initial promises and compromises of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Upon pondering these grand truths, I saw university students and young protesters sprinting away from main road leading to Taksim, and yelling. My friend and I parted from our German and Turkish acquaintances and thanked them for talking to us. We crossed the street to get a better view of the action as police began to throw teargas canisters into the crowd, some 300 yards away. I caught a little teargas in my throat and we left the area.
The politics of Turkey are complex and very simplified in this post. This article better explains the protest, but even it is short on some details.
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