Archive for July 2013
or Why Occupy Gezi still matters.
Egypt may have usurped Turkey as the Muslim-country-in-crisis of the moment, but the protest movement that began over a month and a half ago in Turkey is far from dead. The police have continued to use force against any gathering that even remotely resembles a protest, especially in or near Gezi park. They have also begun arresting individuals suspected of participating in the protests outside the context of demonstrations. In response to the heavy-handed tactics of authorities, there has been a boom in creative passive-resistance protest in recent weeks including public standing, walking, festivals and even Ramadan Iftar dinners. There have also been move made toward creating a solid political movement out of the diverse grievances of the protestors through the creation of community forums throughout Istanbul.
These forums are of course only baby steps toward Occupy Gezi having representatives in local or national government. In the short term, as myself and others repeatedly predicted, Erdogan and the AKP are not going anywhere. Indeed some, including anthropologist of Turkey Jenny White*, have begun to question whether Westerners and Turkish elites have over estimated the real impact Occupy Gezi has had and will have on Turkish politics. I certainly don’t discount her observations and they mesh with my own impression that away from the protest centers there is little sympathy for the movement. In this way the AKP’s base has been little effected by Gezi and the party is sure to remain a force to be reckoned with in the short term. However, the very existence of the Gezi movement itself remains remarkable and bodes well for the political future of Turkey.
Occupy Gezi would be an interesting political anomaly in almost any country because of the political and cultural diversity of its participants. However this kind of intermixing of people is especially remarkable for Turkey. As White outlines in her new book, “mixing” of different populations has been stigmatized in Turkey as long as the existence of the Republic. Homogeneity was something to strive for and difference, whether it be ethnic, religious or linguistic, suppressed. In Gezi participants have marveled at how the complete opposite sentiment prevailed. As both myself and my collaborator have discussed previously on this blog, this kind of classical liberalism and tolerance of difference is a new development both in Turkish society and politics. It appears that Western liberalism has not only arrived in Turkey through some of the EU-influenced legal changes but through soft power and cultural means as well.
M. James believes that it will take a radical upending of Turkish society for liberalism to take hold, but I counter that Gezi could very well bring about a liberal transition in more slow but sure manner. I believe that the Occupy Gezi protestors represent the future of Turkey. This statement may sound overly sentimental, or like propaganda from the Jewish controlled interest rate lobby if you are currently part of the Turkish government, but statistics and social trends back me up. The Turks who have participated in Occupy Gezi up to now have been largely young. The average age of a protester in Istanbul is 28. Not only do young people make up an inordinate number of the Gezi protestors, but the Turkish population as well. The Gezi demographic has become politically awakened and is just reaching the age where members of their generation will start to have a direct political impact. I hypothesize that even those young people who did not or could not participate in protests are more likely to be sympathetic to the protesters because of their use and access to social media.
In short, I believe that what we are witnessing in Turkey is the symptom of a generational change that will gradually overtake and liberalize Turkish society, much like the changes America underwent from the 1960s onward. There are still many political obstacles that these new “Young Turks” must overcome, not the least of which is finding and fielding political candidates that believe in classical liberalism. However, I continue to remain optimistic that in the end State violence will not be able to stop this liberal awakening.
*Full disclosure- I am a former student of hers.
Despite their concurrence with the Kurdish Peace Process in Turkey, the Occupy Gezi protests initially took little interest in the struggle of Kurdish Turks. Though there were signs of a Kurdish presence in Taksim and Gezi, the vast majority of Kurds have chosen to watch from the sidelines. However, as the Gezi movement has moved forward it has begun to make some historic connections with the Kurdish movement, even as the Turkish government has begun to retreat from the peace process.
Despite the turmoil in Turkey’s major cities over the past month, steps in the peace process between the Turkish government and the PKK have continued on schedule. The “Wise People” commission finished their tour of Turkey and reported back to PM Erdogan with suggestions on how to continue the detente with the Kurds. The PKK has been busy with step 1 in the process, moving its guerrillas out of Turkey and into the Kadil mountains of Iraq; the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) claims that 80% of PKK fighters have already left Turkey. As a result the PKK has begun demanding that Ankara institute promised reforms such as the right to Kurdish-language education and lowering the 10% electoral threshold for parties to be included in the parliament.
Despite the unprecedented initiative on the part of Erdogan and the Turkish government to begin this peace process, the past week produced some worrying developments. In contrast to the BDP, Erdogan claims that only 15% of PKK fighters have left Turkish territory, the implication of course being that the PKK has not fulfilled their end of the bargain. In addition, he seems to be full out refusing to even consider implementing promised reforms, step 2 in the outlined process. In a speech last Wednesday, he claimed that the government has “no plans” to lower the 10% election threshold or to provide “mother tongue” education for minorities. His related pronouncement that “the only official language is Turkish” hearkened back to the Kemalist nationalism that was instrumental in creating the Kurdish resistance and the PKK in the first place.
On Friday, protests over a perceived government violation of the peace agreement turned deadly. In the largely Kurdish Lice district in the province of Diyarbakir, protesters clashed with the Turkish army over the building of a new gendarme outpost. One young man was killed and a number of other seriously injured when members of the military opened fire on the
hostile crowd. *(eyewitness reports suggest that the government’s version of events exaggerated the violence of the protestors)
This incident is extremely worrying but so far the PKK seems hesitant to retaliate. Currently the PKK appears to more eager to see the peace process succeed than the Turkish government. Indeed Turkey’s Kurdish population has much more to lose from the failure of the peace than the Turkish government or average Turkish citizens. While Turks of all stripes protested in cities across the country over the past month, the Kurdish south-east has remained almost eerily quiet. Many have interpreted the lack of protests in Kurdish-majority areas as stemming from a desire to avoid giving the government any excuse to back out of the peace process. There are likely other factors at play as well. The Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink who is based in the largely Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, argues that the Kurds do not feel a need to participate in the Occupy Gezi movement, even if they sympathize with the protesters. Their “protest” started with the founding of the PKK and has been ongoing ever since.
In contrast, as the protests have gone on those involved have begun to take more and more of an interest in the Kurdish struggle. The protests have brought together Turks of all different lifestyles, political affiliations and ethnicities and created an arena for them to not only interact but forge bonds in a struggle against mutual enemies. The hugely important fieldwork conducted by Turkish sociologist Zeynep Tufekci in the midst of the protests in Gezi and Taksim has documented this culture of pluralism and tolerance. One of the outcomes of Gezi’s nurturing of plurality is the first time large numbers of Turks are fully comprehending the grievances of the country’s Kurds. After the incident in Lice, crowds gathered in various locals in Istanbul on Friday night in a solidarity protest. They applied the same terminology to the Lice (diren Lice) as has been utilized in the Gezi protests and chanted pro Kurdish slogans. As Tukekci observes “This would have been hard to imagine a month ago.”
A great number, if not a majority of Turks have a negative and even hostile view of Kurds. They have been raised to believe in the centrality of Turkish ethnic identity to the survival of the Turkish nation-state. Though Kurds make up the majority of the victims of the Turkish government’s war against the PKK, thousands of Turkish soldiers have also been killed. Turkey still requires all its young men to complete mandatory military service. Their military training and experience in the field has served to reinforce the idea that Kurds are the enemy to a generation of young men (and their families). However, Occupy Gezi has introduced the “other 50%” to the grievances of the Kurds in a very personal way. It is too early to make any predictions as to how Occupy Gezi will affect the outcome of the Kurdish peace process and vice versa. The Kurdish cause could very well give the Gezi movement the legs it needs to keep going now that its initial, Weberian “charismatic” stage seems to be coming to an end. No matter if the Lice protests in Istanbul end up being an isolated incident or not, I am optimistic that the pro-Kurdish protests by Turks is a sign of a cultural shift among at least some elements of Turkish society. After experiencing a month of insults, violence, and pro-government media coverage, I suspect that the “resistors” and their supporters will have trouble believing the official government line on aspirations of the Kurds and the inherent evil of the PKK.