Contours of a New Republic and Signals from the Past: How to Understand Taksim Square


  [Protestors clash with Turkish riot policemen on the way to Taksim Square in Istanbul on 5 June 2013. Photo by newsonline via Flickr] [Protestors clash with Turkish riot policemen on the way to Taksim Square in Istanbul on 5 June 2013. Photo by newsonline via Flickr]

Much has been written about the protests in Istanbul and Turkey, which have unfolded since the initial occupation of Gezi Park by environmental activists on 28 May. In the attempt to make sense of the massive unrest which followed, several frames of explanation have emerged: The prism of the “Tahrir Republic” and the “Arab Spring” was fast at hand, so were the references to the “Indignados” of Spain the and the “Aganaktismenoi” of Greece, and increasingly also to the Occupy movement. The uprising in Turkey has many common features with these movements, above all a concern with the excesses of neoliberal restructuring and the dynamics of ad-hoc grassroots activism.

Yet, none of these frames explain either why such large-scale protests could erupt under the conditions of rapid economic growth, decreasing unemployment and urban poverty rates, or the wide spectrum of the protesters. Nor do they help us understand why the well-off middle classes emerged and remained as the main driving force of the protests. As Taksim Square has been taken over by the demonstrators, and as battles rage on elsewhere in the country, it is a good time to take a step back and turn to Turkey’s tormented past and its history of social struggles and political symbolism for answers. This essay is based on perspectives I first presented in my book, Angry Nation: Turkey since 1989 (Zed Books, London 2011), as well as a series of articles published in OpenDemocracy (“From Tahrir to Taksim”, and “End of Islamism With a Human Face”) and MERIP (“Return of the Turkish State of Exception”).

[The football supporter group “Çar??” from Be?ikta? entering Gezi Park on
Tuesday evening to a heroes’ welcome. Çar?? was at the forefront of the street
battles, building on a long experience of political activism and social mobilization. Image by Kerem Öktem]

The Historical Backdrop of Modern Turkey

Emerging out of the ruins of an empire, Turkey’s political and moral landscape has been shaped by violence and suffering, from the Armenian genocide, the uprooting of Muslim communities in the Balkans, and their flight to Turkey to the destruction of its non-Muslim people. The republic of 1923 was an attempt to break with this past and create an identity and historical narrative that denied all of these events. It was a republic based on a nationalist and exclusionary world view, but one that created a secular Turkish-Muslim middle class shaped in the cultural image of its European contemporaries and that forged a strong national identity based on a personality cult around its leading figure, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Much of the country’s history has been one of oppression and exploitation. Turkey’s place in the international world order has helped its hegemons to uphold their grip on power. As front state during the Cold War, a pattern of military-bureaucratic tutelage evolved, which ensured that it remained a hybrid political system where regular elections took place, but brought to power politicians, who ultimately had only limited power outside the economic realm. This system allowed for the progressive economic inclusion not only of the urban elite, but also of rural migrants, who began to migrate to the more developed cities of Western Turkey from the 1950s. The cultural hegemony of the state founding elites, however, was rarely challenged. Despite this inclusive aspect of the Turkish political system, ethno-religious communities, from Kurds to heterodox Alevi communities and non-Muslims were subjected to assimilation, combined with policies of dispossession and state-sponsored pogroms. Entire neighbourhoods of Istanbul were forcibly cleared of their Greek and Armenian inhabitants during waves of violence, of which the events of 6-7 September 1955, also known as Septemvriana in Greek, were the most shameful. Indeed, almost all areas around Taksim, which are now slated for ‘urban regeneration’ and renovation as inner-city luxury residence, have already been appropriated once in the 1950s and 1960s from their original owners. It is one of those ironic twists of history that some members of the thriving middle classes, who are now buying these luxury flats may find out that their grandfathers were among those to benefit from this initial dispossession of the non-Muslim communities.

Despite the hegemonic grip of this politico-economic system on society, opposition existed. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, it took a revolutionary socialist direction. The “bloody May” events of 1977 were a symbolical turning point. On the first of May, unidentified snipers shot dead thirty-four demonstrators on Taksim Square. Political violence between socialist and pro-government fascist groups spiralled out of control, and Turkey came as close to a Civil War as it has ever been. In the years leading up to the military coup of 12 September 1980, thousands of activists, public personae, and citizens were murdered by rival factions, which were driven against each other by what we know today was the deep state, the real centre of power in Turkey at the time. This was a policy of divide and rule that pitted one group against the other and made all a tool in the service the maintenance of regime power. Nevertheless and despite the violence, it was in these years that Turkey’s civil society emerged, that trade unionism became the stage for the emergence of a self-confident working class, that Kurds began to organize democratically to demand their rights, and that society became, if polarized, also highly politicized and aware of capitalist exploitation.

The Military Coup of 1980 and the Kurdish War

The military intervention of 1980 destroyed all this, while it created the foundations of Turkey’s neoliberal rebirth. The almost complete breakup of trade unions and the massive curtailment of labour rights removed organized labour as political factor. All former parties were banned, and the political system was re-organised around empty parties handpicked by the military rulers. A new constitution, drafted by pro-military legal scholars ensured that individual and human rights were heavily curtailed. And in order to crush any socialist mobilisation, the military dictated a turn to religious conservatism. The Turkish Islamic synthesis, an uneasy ideological mix between almost racist nationalism and Islamic conservatism replaced the secular nationalism of the Kemalist Republic. The slow rise of political Islam and the new conservative middle classes in the 1980s owes much to this initial endorsement by the military. Another policy of the military, the brutal oppression of any semblance of demands for Kurdish rights created the conditions for the emergence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and the Kurdish War, in which the cultural geography of the Kurdish provinces and the historical heritage of its cities were all but destroyed.

The most important political leader of these years, Prime Minister and later, President Turgut Özal, was very much a product of this ideological environment, but he was able to tweak it towards a more global vision of liberal values and he personally attempted to negotiate with Kurdish leaders to end the war in Kurdistan. The causes for his death in 1993 have never been fully established. With Özal out of the way, the 1990s witnessed a brutal War of attrition in the Kurdish provinces. It killed more then 40,000, led to the burning and evacuation or more than a thousand villages, and caused a massive wave of refugees from the Kurdish provinces, to the cities, and to the West of the country. This second wave of (forced) migration significantly changed the ethnic setup of western Turkey. While most of the Kurdish refugees ended up in shantytowns around cities like Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Adana and Mersin, many of them began to flourish economically, and increasingly also academically, creating a Kurdish middle class and intelligentsia which has been shaped by this experience of state terror and brutality. Families in the rest of the country saw the same war through the lens of their dead and invalid children, many of whom came back deeply traumatized and broken. Their grief was exploited by extreme-right groups to create wide-spread anti-Kurdish sentiment, particularly in the West and the Aegean provinces.

The Lost 1990s and the Marmara Earthquake

Powerless coalition governments, a severe economic breakdown, the capture of the PKK’s leader Abdullah Öcalan, and a devastating earthquake in Istanbul and the Marmara region punctuated the violence-ridden years of the 1990s. A non-violent military intervention in 1997 led to the exclusion of conservative Muslims from positions of power and declared university students with headscarves as the symbolic enemy. Thousands of them were subjected to psychological torture and were excluded from higher education. Yet, just at the time, when Turkey’s political system was about to perish in the morass of corruption, deep state politics, secularist exclusion and unfettered violence, a natural disaster in the country’s most populous and heavily industrialized Marmara region shook Turkey. Killing probably more than 30,000, the earthquake saw an unprecedented outpouring of sympathy, solidarity, and collective social action to help the survivors. With the destruction of tens of thousands of homes, an exclusively rent-based urban development model lay in tatters, and so did the political class that had allowed it to go ahead. The international response made the narrative that Turkey was encircled by enemies and that Turks had only themselves to trust obsolete. The seeds of solidarity and self-regulating collective action had been laid and the tens of thousands, who rushed to the scene to help, have not forgotten the power they had vis-à-vis the impotence of faltering state agencies and squabbling politicians.

The AKP’s Emergence on the Stage

It was against the backdrop of these grave shocks to the system and the complete loss of legitimacy of established political parties that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) emerged as the largest party of the 2002 elections. It was a coalition of reformed Islamists, former centre-right politicians, and political liberals. Building on the good record of the municipal policies of their predecessor, the Islamist Refah Party of Necmettin Erbakan, the AKP embarked on an ambitious project for a less corrupt, less ideological, and more efficient state and a more democratic Turkey. A series of significant legal reforms paved the way for the start of accession negotiations with the European Union, a precious anchor for human rights and democratisation at the time. As the economy began to boom, an industrial class of pious, socially aware and globally acting ‘Islamic Calvinists’ took centre stage as the economy’s growth machine and the AKP’s strongest political support base. For the first time, a more prosperous and democratic Turkey seemed to be in reach.

The AKP government under Prime Minister Erdo?an had to fend off several attempts by remnants of the deep state and Kemalists within the state apparatus and the military to retake power. In the military’s attempt to remove the government, it succeeded to enlist parts of the secular middle classes into so-called Republican Marches, and columnists into creating an atmosphere of imminent military intervention. The judiciary was employed to block the election of Abdullah Gül as President in 2007. The Constitutional Court in 2008 went as far as attempting to outlaw the governing AKP, a step unheard of even in a country, which has a distinguished track-record of banning political parties of the left and right of the political spectrum. The closure was avoided with a margin of only one vote.

At around the same time, a wave of murders of Christian missionaries and priests contributed to a rising nationalist fervour directed at undermining the government’s EU reforms and at creating an atmosphere of fear and terror. They succeeded in both. We now know that they were carried out by rogue elements within the police force and the military. The most iconic person, who was sacrificed for reasons of statecraft, was the Armenian – Turkish journalist and human rights activist Hrant Dink, who had dedicated his life to bridge the chasm between Turks, Kurds and Armenians and to the promise of a future, in which the wounds of the past will be healed through recognition and reconciliation. The image of his dead body in front of the Agos newspaper, only a few hundred metres away from Taksim Square, has become yet another symbol of Turkey’s grim political history, attenuated only by the fact that 200,000 thousand mourners at the funeral walked behind his coffin, chanting the slogan “We are all Armenians”.

While all of these attempts at manipulation and all campaigns of violence were ultimately unsuccessful to derail the democratic process, they galvanized the electorate into more rather than less support for the AKP, and increased the government’s domestic and international legitimacy. Dismayed, the government pushed through legal changes to gain control over courts and independent regulatory institutions, and initiated a series of legal cases against members of the old ruling elites, the deep state and particularly the military. Applauded by AKP supporters, many liberals and democrats, and laying bare a number of plots to undermine the democratically elected government, however, these soon morphed into mass trials, where neither due process was granted, nor the search for truth appeared as the main objective.

Despite these systemic challenges, the AKP managed to balance its version of a neoliberal growth package with the extension of better public services in health and education to a larger segment of society. In a short period of time, the country’s infrastructure, its cities, and its countryside experienced impressive modernisation. That this model of growth was increasingly veering towards a neoliberal developmentalism that regards urban heritage and natural resources only through the prism of rent generation and profit maximisation for companies with links to the government was, up to a point, acceptable as long as the novelty of balance politics was maintained.

Turkey’s foreign policy, especially under Foreign Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu appeared visionary and pragmatic at the same time, casting Turkey as a pole for stability and good neighbourly engagement with its neighbours. That the media was experiencing pressures of censorship and dozens of journalists ended up in jail for their investigative work was a problem, but one that was not unheard of in Turkey and not something felt directly by the majority of the population. Coupled with Turkey’s economic success story of these years in macro-economic terms –In the decade of AKP rule, the GDP per capita tripled, and both unemployment and urban poverty decreased significantly- the 2011 elections delivered an almost 50 per cent victory for the AKP.

[Wednesday night (5 June) was the lailat al-miraj, or Kandil in Turkish. The protestors decided not to have
alcohol in the square. One of the Muslim groups who joined the square are the “Anticapitalist Muslims,”
whose slogan is “Property belongs to Allah.” The banner reads: The Kandils are days of oneness,
equality, and solidarity of the people.” Image by Kerem Öktem]

The 2011 Elections and AKP Hegemony

While signs of overreach both at home and abroad had been simmering, liberals and realist politicians within the AKP were able to curb excesses and reign in more radical views on society and foreign policy, which should not be too surprising for a party rooted in political Islam. Yet, 2011 was a double turning point: With the Arab revolutions, the government’s policy of incremental change through economic cooperation took a heavy blow, while it created the basis for Erdogan’s recasting as model leader for the fledgling democracies of the Arab world. It was at this point, that the Prime Minister’s conservative rhetoric began to spiral out of control and increasingly resembled that of an autocrat, who was lecturing his domestic and international interlocutors about the straight path ahead, increasingly resorting to religious rhetoric and symbolism. An insightful example of this mind set was his speech in February 2011, in which he asked Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to heed the will of the people to resign: “When we die the imam will not pray for the prime minister or for the president, but he will pray for a human being. It is up to you to deserve good prayers or curses. You should listen to the demands of the people and be conscious of the people and their rightful demands.” Yet, it was Turkey’s engagement in Syria that crushed any pretence of Davuo?lu’s “Zero Problem Policy with Neighbours.” Not only did Turkey become the conduit for Jihadi fighters as well as Saudi and Qatari arms for groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, its internal security was seriously compromised particularly in the province of Hatay (Antakya), whose ethno-religious composition mirrors that of Syria’s. The hitherto unresolved bombings of Reyhanli, which killed at least fifty-one mostly local residents and some Syrian refugees, is a case in point.

The second turning point is of an even graver nature. The Prime Minister has clearly misread the nation’s fifty percent vote as a mandate for unfettered power. Not only is he now largely unrestricted by the judiciary, which has been manned with pro-government judges and prosecutors, or by the EU accession process, which has been all but derailed. He has also centralised all power in the party in his hands and he has used it to push liberals and centre-right figures out of positions of power. He is now encircled by a group of mostly second-rate advisers, who shield him from the discontent and criticism both within the AKP and the public. The mainstream media has been silenced in the last few years, by economic pressure on media barons, who have economic interests outside the media sector and are easily corruptible thanks to the promise of public tenders. More recently, the Prime Ministry’s Office has repeatedly intervened directly with the editors-in-chief of newspapers and TV channels to dictate editorial policy decisions.

[One of the symbols of Lailat al-Miraj is the Kandil cookie. The banner readers: “To many Kandils in peace.”
In the background, we see the occupied Ataturk Cultural Center. Image by Kerem Öktem]

And Now Taksim

This is the backdrop, against which we need to read the current developments. There is a government that has only recently been re-elected with fifty percent of the popular vote. There is a prime minister, who was once the flag bearer of democratic reform and humane government, yet who has lost touch with developments on the grounds, and who is about to suffocate in his own delusions of grandeur. He is talking disjointedly about women who should have at least three children, about abortion as murder, about people who drink beer as alcoholics, and about the protestors as an immoral bunch of looters. He disregards anyone, who disagrees with his views and tries to brand mark them as enemies of the state. And he is not able to understand that the young activists, who began the occupation of the Gezi Park on Taksim Square, were not part of a deep state conspiracy in the fashion of the Republican Marches of 2007. These were environmentalists and students trying to prevent the destruction of one of the few inner-city parks so that yet another Shopping Centre could be built, and Taksim Square be recast as a space of consumption rather than as a meeting place for a democratic public.

Had Erdogan not ordered the extreme police violence, with which the entirely peaceful initial protesters were removed from the park, the nation-wide protests would not have begun. Had the Istanbul police not brutally targeted demonstrators with teargas canisters and water cannons, had they not beaten up all those young people, who were detained in the last few days, had they not turned much of central Istanbul into a battle ground, the standoff could have been deescalated and the loss of lives averted. Had Erdogan not made a final speech, before his departure for a North African state visit, in which he incited the situation even further by announcing that not only the shopping center will be built, but that he will also demolish the Ataturk Cultural Centre on the square and build a mosque, had he not threatened that the protestors by mentioning that he “can hardly hold back the 50 percent, who are waiting in their homes to act” most of them would have gone home by now. But he has not. What he has succeeded in however is to bring people together, who had come to believe that in the AKP’s neoliberal growth machine, no space had remained for solidarity and collective action. He has thereby unleashed the memories of social and political struggles, as well as the experience of state brutality and injustice, whose history I have attempted to chart in this essay. By targeting the symbol of resistance to injustice, Taksim Square, he has tried to belittle the memories of those who have stood up for their rights before. Yet, he has failed.

Today, students, middle class professionals, Kurdish activists, LGBT organizations, trade unions, football supporter groups, many conservative Muslims, as well as Kemalists, nationalists, and small left-wing organizations are demonstrating all over the country. They are inspired by different moments in the country’s history: Some see Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as their role model, others remember the socialist movements and the Taksim of 1977, some recall their uprooting from Kurdish villages and the hardships they faced when they were forced to start a new life without means in a foreign place, and yet others mourn their martyrs, be they families of soldiers or guerillas. Many conservative Muslim students, who were subjected to the so-called “persuasion rooms” where they were forced to take off their hijab, remember the solidarity of their fellow students.

This may indeed only be a short window of solidarity, akin to the glorious days of the “Tahrir Republic,” but it has demonstrated the possibility of overcoming the divides, that the country’s rule have sown between different social, religious and political communities. It has united them in their quest for a life that promises more than motorways, shopping centers, luxury residences, social housing projects in distant suburbs, conservative family values and restricted labour rights. In this sense, the protests have clearly demarcated the limits of neoliberal growth and authoritarian conservative politics in Turkey.

Whether Taksim Square will enter the annals of Turkey’s long struggle for freedom, justice and solidarity as the place, where a new social contract was made now depends, above all, on the government. This time Taksim is not about revolution, but about the possibility of a mature democracy that restraints the extremes of the neoliberal growth machine and that curtails the concentration of power in the hands of a delusional Prime Minister. 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.

There are reasons to believe that members of the government and the experienced elder statesman like President Abdullah Gül will find a way out of the current impasse together with the representatives of the protestors on Taksim Square. They are well aware that prolonged unrest will harm the country’s highly globalized economy and the reputation of its government. Should they fail, and should the Prime Minister return to his politics of hubris, Turkey will once again enter a period of sadness, of which it has experienced so many already. Yet the events today in Istanbul, and throughout Turkey and the outpouring of international solidarity will not be unmade, and nor will the sense of social solidarity and the moment of empowerment, which has changed everybody, who has joined the protests.

[The banner reads: “Now, Tahrir is Taksim. Forward for the revolution”.]

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