Turkey’s Protests: A Watershed Moment?
In December of last year I had a long conversation with writer Haroon Moghul. One subject we touched upon was the Arab Spring, I asked Moghul about the eventual confrontation with neo-liberal economic policies and institutions and how this was going to effect the long term outcomes of these revolutions. Moghul replied that this was a “challenge” and brought up the example of Turkey and the AKP in terms that are quite prescient in light of the recent protests:
LW: In the Arab uprisings you have Islamists who have come to power or who are reaping the rewards of change and who are essentially agreeing with the neo-liberal economic order and I know you have written elsewhere in regards to the problem of economic stagnation that,
“what difference does it make what government you have? Left or right, the market seems always to win.”
It seems like the next battle will be with multi-national corporations and institutions and we will continue to see discontent and protests until we have a real reckoning with world bodies such as the IMF and the World Bank?
HM: Yeah, this is a challenge; this is something we see in Turkey for example. AKP has done some very good things in Turkey but if you study say Istanbul closely, some of their decisions have been extremely problematic: putting up skyscrapers, ruining the skyline, proposing bridges and infrastructure projects that prioritize development over the environment, there are real problems there and this is the danger when we identify a particular worldview with religion and a particular worldview with un-religion, it eliminates space to be creative.
Moghul wasn’t the first to identify the problematic nature of AKP’s prioritizing development over environment but his comments touch on the very heart of the reason why protests in Turkey initially began.
Protesters opposed the demolition of Gezi park (one of the few remaining green spaces in Istanbul) and its replacement with a reconstructed Ottoman-era styled “military barracks” that formerly used to occupy the site; the military barracks would also contain a shopping mall and mosque.
The police responded to the protesters with excessive force, as co-founders of the AKP, Deputy PM Bulent Arinc and President Abdullah Gul have admitted. Police employed water canons and tear gas, exacerbating the situation and bringing to the fore prominent grievances and anxieties within Turkish society.
Some commenters are over-eager to describe the protests as a “Turkish Spring.” Michael Rubin of the neo-Conservative American Enterprise Institute was quoted by Oren Dorell of USA Today, (one of a few reporters still willing to quote Islamophobes such as Robert Spencer and Charles Jacobs as “Islam experts”) saying,
“In the Arab Spring a lot of the protesters were Islamists” bringing down long-standing dictatorships, Rubin says. “In the Turkish spring, people feel the country’s no longer democratic.”
Aside from the faulty attempt to imply that the fall of dictatorships in Arab countries was a result of “Islamists,” describing the protests in Turkey as a “Turkish spring” is nothing more than an exercise in useless rhetoric.
Whatever one might say about the nature of the Turkish government, the protests in Turkey are not against a dictatorship; the AKP is a popularly elected party that came to power through the ballot box.
The real similarities between the protests in Turkey and recent protest movements such as the “Arab Spring” and Occupy Wall Street is that they are: leaderless movements, composed largely of youth, from a cross-section of society, demanding to be heard and demanding respect for their human dignity.
“My impression is clear: this is a youth movement, leaderless and nameless, so far, composed of a curious blend of Muslim radicals to anarchists to gays and mainly secular and urban, and this curious blend is angry with the way they are treated. This is all about human dignity for who they are and this is what they say.”
There have also been rather lazy attempts to simplify the protests as one of “Islam vs. Secularism,” or to use Moghul’s terms “Islam vs. unIslam”; as can be gleaned by the fact that there are many Muslims of various stripes partaking in the protests and being Muslim does not necessarily entail being in conflict with secularism.
This reductionist impulse to say ‘Islam explains it all‘ seems to occur almost anytime something takes place in the Muslim majority world; it remains true that events are viewed in the “West,” to quote Maxime Rodinson (La Fascination de l’Islam) through a “theologocentric” lens.
It is also true that while Erdogan and the AKP are conservative they have officially embraced the secular structure of Turkey.
What they haven’t done a good job of is listening to all the voices of Turkish society while at the same time acting as if having a majority mandate is license to push through whatever agenda they see fit; such an attitude can lend itself to authoritarianism.
Just as the AKP did much in the way of combating the authoritarian nature of the secular fundamentalist/military dominated governments that preceded it they now have come face-to-face with a wave of discontent that is pushing back against their own authoritarian actions.
It remains to be seen whether or not the protests will be a historical milestone, viewed as helping Turkish society turn the corner and mature towards a stronger and more transparent democracy. What the protests have done is put leaders in the government and political groups on notice that the citizens of Turkey will not stand for any attempt to silence their voice or degrade their dignity.