Scholar’s Notebook: Ayşe Soysal on Turkey’s Cultural Rifts and A Prime Minister Losing Touch

June 4, 2013

by AYSE SOYSAL, in ISTANBUL,  for ISLAMiCommentary on JUNE 4, 2013:

Ayşe Soysal

Ayşe Soysal

It was a ‘Wow!’ weekend indeed.  My niece Elif, a college student, was one of the protesters in Taksim Square — the first time ever that she participated in a public protest. She was there for the environmental concerns she supports, and the protest movement at Taksim was initiated mainly by young people of her profile. When eventually things got out of hand, Elif and many others tried to prevent those who were trying to provoke the police, but to no avail.

It was, at the start, truly a grass roots movement. The only event that I can recall which was similar to this past weekend’s events (grass roots participation, diversity of representation, but on a much larger scale) was the public march of an estimated 200,000 hundred thousand people that took place on the funeral day of Hrant Dink, the Armenian journalist and human rights activist who was assasinated in early January 2007.

This weekend, it  was refreshing to see that we Turks could behave as individuals and not in accordance with categorical political positions. I am hoping that this mood will survive; if it does, it may define a new, fresh (and much desired) opposition movement. ‘Categorical positions’ is how our prime minister (Erdoğan) sees things – in black and white: the conservative, law-abiding citizens vs the bad guys who want the military junta back in action.

The protests, however, were an expression that there are many who don’t fit into these two molds. To me, the definitive proof that last week’s protesters were different from traditional protester profiles is a photograph taken in the aftermath of the protests, which shows a chain of protesters equipped with garbage bags, who were collecting the trash scattered on the ground. Protesters collecting their own garbage? Nobody in this country has seen such a thing before; this is unheard of!

Many people I know participated in the protests. The information I get from them is that the diversity of people there was tremendous: liberals, young Muslims, fans of rival soccer teams, gay and lesbian groups, grandmothers, students and housewives, Kurds and Turkish nationalists, and of course, citizens of Istanbul who are fiercely protective of their beloved city — who fear that the city is being reduced to a collection of look-alike shopping malls and monuments with pseudo-Ottoman kitsch architecture.

Remarking on the unity of purpose among the diverse groups of protesters, the Minister of Education said ‘What the opposition could not do in ten years, we did it ourselves in six days.’ This sentence sums it all up, but I don’t think Prime Minister Erdoğan has gotten his  message, not yet, anyway.

What issues brought people to the protest? I would say many. Concerns about Istanbul, its environmental and cultural heritage, certainly. However, people feel threatened by other things as well: A law was passed recently, regulating the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages. There is nothing in the new law that prevents us from imbibing as we choose, but discussions in the parliament revealed that many MP’s from the AKP (including our prime minister) do not see any difference between drinking alcohol and being an alcoholic. This attitude scares people, and their fear makes them angry.

Another deeply rooted issue (which is not verbalized, but I believe it is an issue) is the divide between people with cosmopolitan, metro/city backgrounds and those from conservative small-town backgrounds (who form the backbone of the supporters of the AKP). And underneath it all, the threat to alternative life styles (alternatives to a devout Islamic lifestyle, that is) continues to simmer.

Prime Minister Erdoğan was insensitive to people’s dissatisfaction and the unduly severe, prolonged reaction of the poliçe forces was uncalled for. The fatal flaw in Erdoğan’s  government is that people close to the prime minister have started to let him dictate everything, and this inner circle  does not offer critical analyses to him any more; they acquiesce. When the police arrived at the scene and it was clear the demonstration was not one of the usual ones, someone should have gone to the prime minister and said, ‘Sir, with all due respect, I think we should reconsider our response.’ Nobody did, hence the resulting overdose of police brutality.

Good things are happening. Though the Turkish media gave little coverage to the protest — for many of us, yet another example of the kind of shoddy journalism that seems to define the Turkish media — this time around the citizens (protesters and observers alike)  were online, and everyone shared their pictures through social media. Self-censure by traditional media could not prevent people from seeing what was happening.

Yesterday there was a big crowd (mostly of white collar affluent professionals) in front of the headquarters of NTV, a mainstream TV channel, protesting the channel for its biased coverage of the protests.

One of the big questions now is, after all is said and done, whether any dissent will emerge from within the prime minister’s party. If so, it will influence the political situation greatly, since next year is an election year. This remains to be seen.

This is what I can read of the situation right now. As the Chinese proverb goes, we live in interesting times indeed…

Ayşe Soysal is former President of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, one of Turkey’s elite universities.  She received her master’s (1973) and doctoral (1976) degrees in Mathematics from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Prior to becoming the first woman President of Boğaziçii University in 2004, Prof. Soysal also held office as dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, and chair of the Department of Mathematics. She has been highly visible as a promoter of academic freedom who welcomed controversial conferences to her campus. She is also a tireless promoter of raising educational investments in Turkey at all levels and through both public and private sources. She served on the Science Board of TUBITAK, the Turkish Science and Technological Council from 2008 to 2012 and is presently a board member in the Turkish Council of Higher Education. She is also a member of the Duke Islamic Studies Center Advisory Board. 

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