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
“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
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
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)
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)
Backed against a wall and Backed against a wall
Initial Reflections on the Protests in Turkey
(June 6th, 2013)
The Return of the Police
(June 4th, 2013)
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.