Posts Tagged ‘protests’
Last Thursday March 19 Sinan Ciddi of the Georgetown Institute of Turkish Studies spoke at Boston University on “Elections and the Struggle for Political Legitimacy.” His focus was the current state of Turkish democracy, namely how and why current President Erdogan has come to dominate all aspects of the Turkish government and the likely course of Turkish politics in the near future. Ciddi offered some thought-provoking and timely insights into the current trajectory of AKP rule and the possible outcome of the June 7th general elections.
Erdogan’s rise to power was until recently enthusiastically supported by Western governments and, despite his increasing authoritarianism, Ciddi reminded us that a large plurality of Turks still enthusiastically support Erdogan and his party. During the last ten years the AKP has transformed the economy and infrastructure of Turkey. Lower class and rural Turks in particular have seen a significant, positive change in their income and access to necessary services. Those Turks whose lives have been significantly bettered under Erdogan’s leadership are extremely loyal to his party and him personally and care little about the more abstract political issues at stake.
Ciddi characterizes President Erdogan’s efforts to convert the Turkish government into a Presidential system as “regime change.” The change is already de facto, but it is important that it has not yet been legally established. In other words, though Erdogan operates as if he already the official head of the Turkish government, the office of the Presidency still retains only limited official abilities to influence legislative functions. During the early years of AKP rule, the party and its leadership were hailed as denizens of [relatively] liberal, democratic change and shining examples of how Islam and democracy could co-exist. Now Erdogan is daily, and not undeservedly, characterized as an aspiring dictator by the international media.
Erdogan’s seeming transformation from a committed democrat to a committed autocrat has been distressing and puzzling to many of his former Western allies, but Ciddi believes that Erdogan’s current trajectory was in many ways set before he even ascended to the office of Prime Minister. Ciddi identifies Erdogan’s Islamist background as a significant influence in his current political vision and the instigator of his authoritarianism. For Turkish Islamists, Kemalism and its program of modernization and Westernization serve as their political foil, and Erdogan’s current political agenda is still significantly motivated by opposition to everything the “old” Turkey represents. Ciddi points out that though Erdogan insisted that he had accepted the secular, democratic nature of the Turkish state, he provided no proof of his reformation besides his declared conversion. Ciddi asserts that Erdogan never reformed his beliefs and deep down still maintained a commitment to the illiberal Islamist political vision. Ironically Erdogan is attempting to eradicate the monolithic ideologically of Kemalism, only to replace it with his own monolithic vision for a “new” Turkey.
Erdgoan’s actions are not pure motivated by political ideology however. Ciddi believes that there are two other significant factors driving Erdogan: a desire for revenge and the need to escape criminal inquiries. Turkey’s Islamist movements were subject to decades of political oppression and marginalization. Erdogan’s mentor, who was also the first Islamist Prime Minister of Turkey, was forced out in a virtual coup and the AKP party itself narrowly avoided being shut down by the constitutional court. After the constitutional court case against the AKP, Erdogan set about systematically crushing or usurping the power of all the institutions that previously targeted the AKP or its predecessors, in particular the military, the judiciary and the presidency. But Erdogan may have some even more unsavory rational for curtailing the independence of Turkey’s political institutions. The corruption charges that were brought to light a little over two years ago were never full investigated. While Ciddi refuses to say definitely that Erdogan, his son and his closest ministers were involved in graft, he rightfully insists that the allegations need to be fully investigated. However, it is very clear that the investigation will never see the light of day so long as Erdogan maintains his grip on power.
Ciddi concluded his talk with general observations and predictions about political future of Turkey. Turkish society is currently extremely polarized politically. largely thanks to Erdogan’s handling of the Gezi protests and his subsequent consolidation of power. Though the opposition parties remain divided, unpopular and ineffective, Erdogan has been unable to crush the grassroots opposition. The individualistic, disorganized nature of the popular opposition actually works in its favor. Erdogan can and will continue to arrest individuals who dare to speak out against him but the lack of organization and leadership means that he will never be able to silence even a fraction of his citizen critics. In this line, Ciddi expects that there will be social and political turbulence in Turkey for the foreseeable future. The Gezi protests made clear that Erdogan does not know how to manage popular protest movements, and indeed they are a new phenomenon in Turkey. Previous opposition movements were institutionally based, organized through unions and fringe political parties, and Turkish politicians have no political playbook for dealing with disorganized popular movements. Turkey has not seen such social unrest since 1978. At this point, “anything can happen.”
I am in general agreement with the majority of Ciddi’s analysis, with my major point of contention being the origins of Erdogan’s authoritarian ambitions. I have argued elsewhere that it is the illiberal nature of Turkish political institutions, not his Islamist roots, that set the stage for Erdogan’s consolidation of power. Ciddi’s introduction of the idea that revenge was a motive in Erdogan’s campaigns to crush the power of the military and judiciary is an interesting one. I don’t rule out revenge as a factor, in all probability it did play a role. However, I still believe that the major motivating factor behind the efforts to subvert the power of the military and judiciary, not to mention Erdogan’s coveting of the presidency, was simply to consolidate and retain power.
There were several interesting points brought up during the Q&A after Ciddi’s talk. Prescient of yesterday’s very public intra-AKP spat, Ciddi asserts that there are very real fractures within the leadership of the AKP and that the rank and file of the party are increasingly unhappy. He attributes some of this frustration to the fact that since become president, Erdogan has closed himself off to all but his most inner circle of advisers. During his years as Prime Minister, Erdogan had a very open and even collaborative relationship with his advisers and other party members according to Ciddi. He characterized party divisions and infighting as natural given Erdogan’s de-facto one-man rule. Such a political system is inherently a house of cards and all those within the system are aware of its weakness. Ciddi also posited that Davutoglu may not be the simply Erdogan puppet many are making him out to be and he may assert his independence after the upcoming election.
Regarding the most talked about component of the election, the Kurdish vote, Ciddi urges caution. He reminded us that the HDP and its leadership have their own ideological agenda centered around Kurdish nationalism and autonomy. and predicted that even if the HDP breaks the 10% threshold and is able to seat its candidates in parliament, they may very well be induced into forming an alliance with the AKP in return for greater Kurdish regional autonomy. Ciddi added that this would ultimately be a misguided political gamble as he believes that Erdogan in the end is not truly committed to meeting Kurdish demands for equal rights and political autonomy.
I agree with Ciddi’s assessment of Erdogan’s position on this issue but would posit that the HDP leadership, and even most ordinary Kurds, are well aware that Erdogan is largely disingenuous in his efforts toward Kurdish-Turkish reconciliation. It is like the Turkey-EU assention situation, Turkey knows that the EU will never actually allow it to join them but is unwilling to fully pull out of the assention process. In both situations the spurned party is willing to let talks go on as there is no desire to upset the status quo and risk returning to the bad old days. The HDP will indeed bring their own agenda if their candidates are seated in parliament, but unlike Ciddi I don’t believe they would acquiesce to being the AKP’s puppets. To become a partner in the AKP’s illiberal policy agenda would be to support policies that are likely to be disproportionally used against Kurds. If the Kurdish party earns more than 10% of the vote, and this is still a big if, it will be a significant net positive for Turkish democracy.
Ciddi believes that the AKP will still enjoy a majority in parliament after the June 7th elections, though they will not have enough seats to pass the constitutional changes needed to create a presidential system. As he himself confessed, Ciddi is not a fan of the AKP but he also could not envision any other current Turkish political party actually governing. The CHP is notorious among Turks for being corrupt and inefficient and the MHP is more than happy to remain a minority opposition voice. The takeaway from Ciddi’s talk: the AKP is not going anywhere, but that does not mean that Turks will sit by idly as Turkey is transformed into a one-party state.
Note: I have had to take a hiatus from blogging during the last few months to focus my energy on a number of other writing projects. One of these was a paper I presented for the “Religious Symbols and Secularisms: Contemporary Perspectives from Canada and Turkey” panel at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting. I have revised and condensed some of my research for this paper into the blog post below. You can read the paper as it was presented on my Academia page.
Religion has played an important if under-studied role in the series of protests that have swept the globe over the last several years. During the Occupy Wall Street, Arab Spring and Euromaidan protests, religious actors served to legitimize and at times even directly participated in the protests. In contrast, during the Gezi Park protests that took place in Istanbul during the summer of 2013, official religious actors were peripheral. Instead, these protests produced the unique phenomenon of lay persons utilizing religion as an instrument of protest. Religion has deep political undertones in Turkey and the Gezi protesters deftly manipulated these subtexts in order to make specific political statements. The AKP recognized the protester’s use of religion as a challenge to its hegemony over the political use of Islam in Turkey. Hence why some of the most particularly virulent denouncements of the protesters by the government specifically aimed to characterize the protesters as sacrilegious.
The rise to power of the current AKP administration marked a significant shift in the politics of religion in Turkey. Though the majority of the population has always been pious, for most of the history of the Republic the secular elites controlled the country’s political, educational and even religious institutions. When Mustafa Kemal established the Republic of Turkey in the aftermath of the fall of the Ottoman Empire, he subordinated and integrated the institutions of Islam into the Turkish state. To this day, the Turkish Ministry of Religious Affairs, known colloquially in Turkey as the Diyanet, is solely responsible for training imams, maintaining mosques and distributing pre-approved Friday sermons. This bureaucratic arrangement explains the absence of official religious actors at the Gezi protests.
The AKP has worked to break the previous social and legal conventions that restricted public piety. AKP members frequently use religious symbolism in their official statements high government officials conspicuously pray and their head-scarved wives appear at affairs of State. Despite their claims to represent the masses, it is important to note that the style of Islam that characterizes the AKP is not analogous to the traditional Islam of the lower classes. The AKP represents a “conscious,” modern interpretation of Islam that grew out of twentieth-century Islamist movements. Their brand of Islam is the Islam of the urban, educated nouveau riche that embraces the trappings of elite lifestyles. A whole industry has sprung up catering to the tastes of the pious upper classes. There are Islamic fashions, Islamic resort hotels and Islamic gated communities. As a lifestyle, it is just as exclusionary of the lower classes as the secularism of the old Turkish elites.
The Gezi protesters targeted the AKP’s elitists Islam with the most well-known of its religion-infused protest activities, the iftar dinners that were organized on Istiklal Avenue. The Istiklal Iftar meals were purposely arranged to create a sense of radical egalitarianism. Diners sat facing each other in two long lines along much of the length of the almost mile-long boulevard and ate donated food from paper plates set on table cloths or even just newspapers spread on the ground. All were welcome to attend, whether religious or secular, protester or bystander, those who had fasted and those who had not. The image of hundreds people sharing food while seated on the street was purposely meant to contrast the catered, closed, official municipal AKP iftar dinners that were taking place nearby. The iftar celebrations served to temporarily sacralize a formerly profane space, creating a peaceful haram (sacred) space in the midst of what at times was a violent and deadly period of protest.
Though the protester’s primary goal was to challenge the AKP and the current neo-conservative Turkish state, their acceptance of acts of public worship and accommodation of religious allies demonstrates that they were more than simply a reconstitution of the old secular elite. There are numerous documented incidences of secular protesters going out their way to going out of their way to include pious citizens in their midst. For example, on the night of the Mirac Kandil holiday, the park was declared an alcohol free zone and those who wished to could attend a sermon and communal worship service.
The Gezi park protests were a remarkable moment in Turkish history because they brought together elements of a number of previously mutually antagonistic classes of Turkish citizens. Represented among the protesters were environmentalists concerned about the destruction of the forests surrounding Istanbul; secularists and nationalists convinced that the AKP is undermining the secular nature of the Republic; minorities such as LGBTQ individuals, Kurds and religious such as Alevis who continue to be face institutional discrimination; and leftists and anti-capitalist Muslims who are opposed to the governments neo-liberal economic policies. Much has been made of the detente between the Kurds and nationalists in the park, while the interaction between secular and religious Turks has largely been dismissed as trivial. Most research done on the participants does indeed suggest that the majority of active protesters were both young and secular. However, ignoring the very real and significant shift in the treatment of public religion and its use as a method of protest during Gezi simply plays into the AKP government’s that only they can truly represent and protect the rights of pious Turks.
In an article yesterday, Claire Berlinski commented on the eerie and depressing similarities between the Gezi protests last year in Turkey and the ongoing protests in Ferguson, MO. Indeed, there is a trend in the images produced by protest movements- clouds of tear gas, police in armor and choking but defiant citizens. The post 9/11 world have given rise to the nearly universal militarization of police forces. Whether recent protests have taken place in an autocracy, democracy, or one of the many semi-democracies, police have again and again erred on the side of excessive force.
Both Ferguson and Gezi are examples of a dangerous world-wide trend in law enforcement. However, the demands and demographics of the protesters in these two cases actually have little in common. A more apt comparison to Ferguson in the Turkish context would be the intermittent and chronic protests by Kurds against government repression, particularly the building of gendarme outposts, in Turkey’s Southeast. Both involve an ethnic and socio-economic underclass that largely inhabits marginal areas. Both groups have been the target of brutal police repression but are often ignored by the mainstream media.
Of course comparing these two very complex and very different cases of minority repression is dangerously reductive on many counts. That being said, at this particular moment in Turkish history, Turkish politicians would be wise to take a broad lesson from the history of African-Americans in the US, of which Ferguson is only the latest manifestation. Turkey is in the midst of a much heralded attempt to finally reach a settlement with its indigenous Kurdish armed movement in return for increased cultural rights for Kurds. Even if this process reaches the ideal outcome of granting equal cultural and legal rights to Kurds, the residual social and economic discrimination faced will not be erased. The Turkish government cannot drop its focus on Kurdish issues and concerns once the settlement process is deemed complete. Even if a formerly second-class group group of citizens is recognized as having full legal parity with the majority, in all likelihood discrimination will continue in practice for many decades to come. Leaders on both sides of Turkey’s settlement process need to realize that the current legal negotiations are only, and should only, be the beginning. In the decades to come, social, educational and economic inequalities will have to be addressed in order to truly reach equality between ethnic Kurdish and ethnic Turkish citizens of Turkey.
The anniversary of last year’s Gezi protests has reopened the lively debate regarding what if anything these events say about the changing nature of Turkish society. The political impact of the protests is highly debatable but there is no doubt that Gezi marks a turning point in the relationship between the AKP government and it grass-roots opponents. The Gezi movement initially caught the government off guard and put them in a defensive position. In Turkey, with its history of strong-man politics, being put in a defensive and weak position can spell death for a political party. The AKP’s need to maintain its aura of power doomed the chances of a peaceful and productive ending to Gezi from the start. The AKP sprang back with an offensive campaign designed to crush Gezi physically and politically and reassert its power.
Unfortunately for opponents of the government, this offensive campaign hasn’t ended. The AKP has allowed and probably encouraged the police to adopt a shoot first ask questions later strategy when dealing with any government opposition groups. It is this kind of reckless behavior that has led to the vicious cycle of protests and deaths, particularly in Alevi towns and neighborhoods. The government did not even bother to take a more nuanced approach to the understandably angry crowds that gathered in the wake of the Soma disaster. Many outside observers were shocked by these tactics, but most Turkey watchers have come to expect nothing less from the current government. Erdogan has made it clear in his nearly daily speeches that all opposition or discontent will be considered traitorous. Grief over the preventable death of a loved one is no excuse for lashing out against the AKP or its leadership.
Soma proved that no one is immune from the AKP’s offense against opponents, but those with any association with Gezi, however tenuous, have been the target of an organized government legislative and propaganda campaign. The AKP’s strategy for preventing another Gezi is to eliminate all places of refuge for protesters, whether they be physical, legal or social.
The government eliminated physical refuges by outlawing the emergency treatment of injured citizens without authorization. Part of the impetus behind this law is to force injured protesters into state owned hospitals where the police can document and arrest them. Erdogan has also done his best to discourage private or religious institutions from offering protesters shelter during clashes with the police. The Koc conglomerate, which owns the hotel off Taksim square which allowed protesters to take shelter in its lobby, was hit with an unexpected audit. One of Erdogan’s favorite antidotes regarding Gezi is the instance where protesters turned a historic mosque into a shelter and triage site. Erdgoan has accused these protesters of not only desecrating the building but also drinking inside the mosque. The muezzin of the mosque, who had reportedly invited the protesters to take shelter there, was soon after exiled to a small town. The protesters themselves are also facing criminal charges.
Desecrating a mosque isn’t the only crime Gezi protesters have been charged with. The AKP has used every legal maneuver and thrown every criminal charge they can at protesters, from creating an illegal organization to wearing inappropriate clothing. The Turkish government has also prosecuted dozens of people for “thought crimes,” prosecuting or suing twitter users who dared criticize the government.
The social offensive against Gezi protesters and their supporters may be the most damaging in the long term. Erdogan has ensured the continued political domination of the AKP by characterizing “Gezi People” as the ultimate “other” from good Turkish citizens. They are traitors who burn the Turkish flag. They are terrorists. They are guilty of murder and assault. No one in their right mind would support the goals of such people.
Despite this multifaceted attack on grass roots opposition in general and protesters associated with Gezi in particular, Erdogan has failed to eliminate the serious undercurrent of discontent in Turkey. Instead, he has created a dangerously polarized society, with supporters of the AKP convinced of evil of government opponents, and opponents of the AKP (correctly) convinced that the government is out to get them. This is unfortunately the contemporary legacy of Gezi: a government which is determined to reinforce its power through the persecution, prosecution and demonization of the opposition. The good news is that grass-roots opposition to the AKP has not been crushed and barring a catastrophic crackdown, most likely will remain active. The AKP and Erdogan in particular have compromised their moral and politically authority in the process of undertaking this blanket offensive against opponents. Soma starkly highlighted that the government has overstepped the boundary of who and what they can legitimately include in their smear campaign. As I stated previously, Soma will not bring down Erdogan. However, it would be ill-advised for Erdogan to repeat the performance he put on for the crowds gathered at the mine. Telling mourners that certain people are simply fated to die tragically, then kicking and punching members of the angry crowd that subsequently gathers is not the way to win votes; and Turkey is (still) a democracy.
Yesterday Berkin Elvan, age 15, died in Istanbul. He had spent nine months in a coma after being hit in the head by a gas canister when he went on an errand to buy bread. His death sparked demonstrations at Turkish universities and cities around the country. Many of the protests were quite large and resulted in violent clashes between police and protesters.
Berkin was a child bystander, making his innocence in his fate undeniable. Thus far, PM Erdogan has remained silent on his death, though other high government officials, including President Gul, have expressed their condolences. I will be curious to see how, if at all, Erdogan tries to spin this death so it is connected to one of his long list of enemies. Perhaps we are about the see the uncovering of the bread lobby.
Like shoeboxes before it, bread has become a symbol of protest against the government. As sociologist Zeynep Tufekci pointed out in her must read post on yesterday’s events, bread has a deep social significance in Turkey. You quite literally cannot eat a meal in Turkey without an accompanying pile of bread. Bread symbolizes life and nourishment in Turkey, more so than in other cultures. The use of bread during demonstrations yesterday not only represents the circumstances of Berkin’s death, but his short life itself.
Since December 17, Turkey has been embroiled in a government corruption scandal in which both PM Erdogan and his son Bilal have been implicated. Tapes of phone conversations between Erdogan and his son as well as high ranking members of the media and government are being gradually leaked on the internet via anonymous sources. During one particularly infamous series of leaked phone calls, Erdogan is purportedly heard telling his son to get rid millions (it is claimed up to a billion) dollars in cash before investigators can find it. Erdogan’s protection of his own son, while he was coldly complicit in the death of another person’s son, was an unspoken undertone in yesterday’s protests. Berkin’s mother made the provocative statement that “It wasn’t God who took my son, it was Erdogan.”
As I wrote previously, Turkey has been on edge, just waiting for a spark to reignite the “resistance.” It is too early to predict whether Berkin’s death will spark a demi-revolution a la Ukraine or fizzle out like many of the protests over the past year. Berkin’s funeral, which his family has made a public event, is scheduled for 3 pm Istanbul time (9 EST due to daylight savings). The reaction of the police to the crowds gathered to mourn will speak to the level of insecurity of the government. A government that is confident of its control over its population and its hold on power does not tear gas the funeral of a child.
A true liberal democrat is a rare species in Turkish politics but it appears that they do in fact exist. Last week I attended a talk by a Turkish MP from Bursa Aykan Erdemir. Erdermir is an interesting figure: a young Harvard PhD and former professor who was elected as a CHP MP from the AKP dominated district of Bursa in 2011. His talk, titled “Prospects for Pluralist Democracy in post-Gezi Turkey” painted a clear-eyed picture of the causes of the Gezi protests and real problems Turkey faces if it is to become a truly liberal democracy.
Erdemir identified a number causes that worked in conjunction to create popular uprisings in Turkey this summer. He believes demographic changes that Turkey has been undergoing for the last several decades are central to growing political discontent. The shift from large, extended families to small, nuclear ones has changed a formerly heavily patriarchal society into what he dubbed a “child-archal” society. Erdemir believes that the patriarchal state is out of sync with the changing family dynamic; a dynamic which has resulted in an more individualist world-view amongst the younger generations. He also mentioned the population shift from rural to urban areas, the growing export based economy and the increasing educational attainments of the average Turk as factors that have resulted in a significant societal shift. Erdemir emphasized the ubiquitous of technology in Turkish society, specifically the use of smart phones, which has created greater access to larger world and competing ideological view points.
Erdemir quite rightly observed that this trend toward greater engagement with the world and intellectual pluralism cannot be “undone.” However, he identified a number of challenges facing those who wish to promote greater liberalness in Turkish society. The Turkish State has few checks and balances and is becoming more efficient and competent and the bureaucracy is expanding. This is bad news for groups such as the Gezi protesters as the government has more coercive power without any internal mechanism to check it. Erdemir also discussed the phenomenon of the increasing conflation of the State and the ruling party in the minds of both those in power and the Turkish masses in general. The ruling party has also engaged in what he termed “state capitalism” or “clientalism” but could also be given the cruder moniker of crony capitalism. Erdemir also criticized the government for its censorship of the media and the increasing surveillance of citizens. He did not criticize capitalism itself however and made a connection between market freedom and political freedom.
Erdemir did not shy away from another problem with a more personal connection: the lack of a credible opposition to the AKP. He was optimistic about some of the changes his own party has undergone since Kemal Kilicdaroglu became chairman in 2010 but said that the party was only about halfway to where it needed to be. Erdemir does not think that there will be a massive shift in favor of the CHP next election and believes that Turks would prefer the AKP with new leadership in place. Clearly this is a reference to the more moderate Gul potentially replacing Erdogan as Turkey’s premier (either in the form of Prime Minister or a more empowered President).
From his district of Bursa, Erdemir has been able to observe what the more conservative elements of society think about the Gezi tumult. Growing out of an Islamist past, the AKP has been criticized in recent years by numerous observers (including myself) for failing to remember the state oppression they fought against for so long and co-opting the same repressive measures of the previous, strictly secular governments. Erdemir reported that at least some of the ordinary conservatives in his district were sensitive to the fact that the oppressed seemed to have become the oppressors. He found that those ordinary Turkish conservatives were disillusioned to a certain extent by the events of this summer and expressed that this is not what they wanted from the AKP.
Erdemir emphasized multiple times that the CHP was a “social democratic” party but mentioned nary a word about the party’s “eternal chief“. The CHP is officially a socialist party, in that it is part of the Socialist International association of political parties. Interestingly, Erdogan’s newest yes-man Yigit Bulut recently made headlines in Turkey for asserting that Erdogan is a “true socialist.” This seemingly out of the blue comment could have been an awkward attempt at undermining the appeal of the CHP (though it was quickly dismissed by the official party spokesman).
In regards to the difficult regional problems Turkey is coping with, Erdemir criticized the “adventurous” foreign policy that the Turkish government has pursued over the last few years. As Assad himself recently warned, Erdemir believes Turkey’s funding of Syrian militants and the increasingly sectarian nature of the Syrian conflict could come back to haunt Turkey. However, He also believes that Turkey can not be a democratic “island” in the sea of increasing chaos in the region and there needs to be a promotion of democracy in the region. To quote: “You can’t be a democracy with Al-Qaida as your neighbor.”
From this talk as well as in his other media appearances and commentary in English, one can conclude that Erdemir is a rare true liberal in Turkish politics. However, my Turkish is not good enough for me to fully analyze how he presents himself to a domestic audience. I of course want to believe that there are real democrats in the Turkish government, but remain skeptical until I can get a good report on Erdemir’s rhetoric and reputation in Turkey. If you are someone who is thus informed, please let me know about the “Turkish” Erdemir in the comments!
Yesterday a tragic incident provided proof that Gezi is far from over. Many of the facts surrounding the event are still in dispute, but what is clear is that during the course of a protest in Antakya early Tuesday morning, 22 year Ahmet Atakan died. His death triggered renewed protests across the country, including Istanbul, Ankara and the AKP stronghold of Bursa. Istiklal Boulevard in Taksim was once again the scene of police intervention with tear gas and water cannons.
Though eyewitnesses report that the protests were smaller than those at the peak of the Gezi uprising this summer, the renewed clashes between police and civilians is an important and potentially dangerous sign. Many reports state that Atakan died during a protest related to the previous death of a Gezi protester. However, some also mention that the protest Atakan participated in was against Turkey’s involvement in Syria’s civil war. Whether or not Atakan went out with the intention of protesting Turkey’s current and future involvement in Syria, his death is perfectly poised to exasperate an already tense situation.
Atakan’s hometown Antakya is located in a small peninsula of Turkish territory that sticks down like a thumb into Syria. The area has a proud history of religious and ethnic diversity, even through the periods of ethnic cleansing that homogenized much of the rest of Turkey during the 20th century. However, the Syrian civil war is putting a strain on both inter-communal relationships and the relationship between the citizens of the province and the Turkish government. Potentially making this situation even more explosive, Atakan was apparently an Arab Alawite, the ethno-religious group to which Assad belongs. Most Alawites both in and outside of Syria continue to support Assad’s government, if for no other reason than they fear the consequences for their community if the rebels prevail. So far the Alawite community in Turkey has largely kept a low profile, but this death could energize the community to lash out against the Turkish government or even Sunni refugees and fighters from Syria. Resentment of Turkey’s unofficial involvement in the Syrian civil war is not isolated to the Alawite community. Polls consistently show that the majority of Turks are against further intervention in Syria. The bombing in Reyhanli earlier this summer, which was assumed to be connected to the Syrian regime, already demonstrated the potential for retaliatory attacks against Syrian refugees in Turkey.
In addition to it’s involvement with the Syrian war, Turkey is also currently confronted with another extremely delicate internal situation. A few days ago, the much hailed peace process between the Turkish government and the PKK broke down. The Turkish government has claimed that the PKK has not withdrawn enough of its fighters from Turkish territory and now the PKK has stated that it will halt its withdrawal until progress is made on the issue of Kurdish cultural rights. Ethnically Kurdish areas generally refrained from participating in the protests this summer. However, there were representatives of the Kurdish BDP party at Gezi and the movement in general has shown itself to be sympathetic to the issue of Kurdish rights. If the protests we witnessed on Tuesday result in a revived Gezi movement, Turkey’s frustrated Kurdish minority may find this an opportune moment to revive protests for their rights as well.
The Turkish government has a potentially explosive situation on its hands. In the case of the Gezi protests of this summer, the repeated use of force by the police encouraged protesters to seek out creative non-violent ways to continue their resistance. However, if the government chooses to meet minority protesters in Turkey’s south with violence, past experiences demonstrate the potential for prolonged, deadly conflicts to erupt.