Erdağ Göknar: Why Turkey is Up in Arms

June 4, 2013
Protesters under clouds of tear gas in Taksim Square; May 31, 2013.  credit: show discontent.com

Protesters under clouds of tear gas in Taksim Square; May 31, 2013. credit: showdiscontent.com

by ERDAĞ GÖKNAR for ISLAMiCommentary on JUNE 4, 2013:

Erdağ Göknar

Erdağ Göknar

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (the AKP) has yet to come to terms with the shock of a censure in the form of five days of nationwide protests by a broad spectrum of groups from women to students to unions and to small political parties. There have been a handful of deaths, thousands of injuries and hundreds of arrests as the world watches the standoff between the people and the state unfold.

This is not the outcome Prime Minister Erdoğan expected when he dismissed a handful of protestors in an Istanbul park just days before with his usual swagger. “I decided. It will be done,” he quipped about the construction of a replica Ottoman barracks and mall in Gezi Park. Then, in telling irony, he left the country in chaos for a four-day “friendship” trip to Arab Spring countries. One of the signs that greeted Erdoğan in Morocco read, “We don’t want criminals visiting our country.” This is a far cry from his reception fresh off the Arab Spring two years ago, when he was welcomed as a hero.

The once rising geopolitical image of Turkey and the “Turkish model” of Islam and democracy is starting to smolder. The protests are having their intended effect by hitting the Turkish economy hard; an economy that has climbed to 16th in the world over ten years. As of this writing (and the effects continue) there has been 30% cancellation in planned tourism; a 10% drop in the stock market (the largest in ten years); and two days of general strikes are just beginning. Meanwhile, the public squares of major Turkish cites are alternately war zones invaded by vengeful riot police or sit-ins peacefully occupied by drumming and chanting protestors, at times doing yoga en masse.

Taksim Square is filled with protestors, June 1, 2013. Gezi Park, slated for destruction, is on the left. credit: show discontent.com

Taksim Square is filled with protestors, June 1, 2013. Gezi Park, slated for destruction, is on the left. credit: show discontent.com

Erdogan’s dismissal of a small demonstration fanned the flames, turning the Gezi Park protest (which filled Taksim Square) into a national no-confidence vote against the AKP. In addition to its longstanding neoliberal policies, since the last election in 2011, the government has taken an unpopular role in supporting Syria’s insurgency, and also spearheaded a contentious peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (the PKK) that has been fighting for autonomy. It has silenced media opposition and imprisoned journalists without due process. Finally, it has interfered in everyday life and imposed conservative values by restricting alcohol sales and attempting to limit women’s free choice. Erdoğan has personally and openly stated that he aims to raise a religious generation and that he encourages Turkish women to have three children. These are some of the issues that have unleashed a flood of hundreds of thousands onto the Turkish streets.

Turkey is up in arms. Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites are abuzz with images of riot police goose-stepping through Istanbul streets, police brutality, maimed and dead protesters, and the excessive use of force (http://showdiscontent.com/ has good photo essays and continuous Twitter feeds). The historic Dolmabahçe Mosque is no longer a site of piety and prayer; it has become a make-shift field clinic for those injured by water canon, police batons, tear gas and pepper spray. It is a well-worn cliché to say that Turkey is defined by the tension between secularism and Islam. The protests reveal another possibility, one in which Turkey could manifest a lived duality, or even plurality, rather than a simple opposition.

The Prime Minister tragically missed this opportunity when he offered a black-and-white vision of “your 50%” and “our 50%” earlier in the week. Erdoğan’s attitude risks turning that cliché into an unfortunate reality by ignoring the emerging plurality represented by the protestors. Today, the government acknowledged that it had made mistakes and that the police had overreacted. Talks between protestors and government figures are even being scheduled. The protests in Turkey now promise to become an engine of political negotiation and change. President Gül recently acknowledged that the protesters’ “message had been received.” The future of democracy in Turkey, and the extent of the protests, depends on whether and how the current government responds.

Erdağ Göknar is Assistant Professor of Turkish & Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University and core faculty member of the Duke Islamic Studies Center. Göknar teaches the popular “Geopolitics & Culture from Bosnia to Afghanistan” course in the fall and co-leads the Duke in Turkey undergraduate summer program.  Orhan Pamuk, Secularism and Blasphemy: The Politics of the Turkish  Novel (Routledge, 2013) is his latest book. See also Göknar’s Pinterest page of ‘Istanbul Protests 2013′

 

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