No, things are not back to normal in Turkey
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.