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Can the 'Spirit of Gezi' Transform Progressive Politics in Turkey?

[Students, unions, NGOs, women's organizations, and rival football fans at Gezi Park, 8 June 2013. Photo by Mehmet Kaçmaz/Nar Photos.] [Students, unions, NGOs, women's organizations, and rival football fans at Gezi Park, 8 June 2013. Photo by Mehmet Kaçmaz/Nar Photos.]

One of the humorous slogans invented by the Gezi Park protesters was: “We are Mustafa Keser’s soldiers!” The namesake of this insider joke is a folk singer who has nothing to do with politics except the accidental similarity between his name and that of the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk). The slogan was minted in response to the Kemalist protesters, who identified themselves as “Mustafa Kemal’s soldiers.” Despite this joke and many other reasons for division, the Kemalists and anti-Kemalists managed to coexist peacefully throughout the protests, perhaps because all participants realized that their differences mattered little in the face of the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) government’s concerted plan to eliminate all organized resistance to its neoliberal and socially conservative agendas.

The protests have brought together people from a broad political spectrum, as well as those who had no history of political activism at all. Why did they join forces? What kept them united for weeks? One is tempted to think, à la Hannah Arendt, that part of the answer lies in the magic of political action itself—the experience of freedom that only appears while acting in concert. In addition, I believe that the origins of this new civility, witnessed in the past couple of weeks in Istanbul and other cities and sometimes called the “spirit of Gezi,” are to be found in Turkey’s recent history.

Past: The Spirit of 28 February

On 28 February 1997, the National Security Council (a decision-making body composed of the military and civilian leadership) met to discuss the rising trend of Islamism. In essence, the generals forced the Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, to resign. What followed was a series of legal and extralegal acts that dismantled the Islamist political movement, outlawed its leading politicians, and initiated an atmosphere of social exclusion against the public display of Muslim identity—most notably the strict enforcement of the headscarf ban in universities, which had already been in place since the early 1980s. The military’s solution to a perceived domestic threat was thought to be decisive: militant secularism would put the nation back on the “right” track toward civilizational progress, ushering in an era of Turkish Enlightenment that would last for a thousand years. Two unstable coalition governments, several political blunders, and one economic crisis later, the moderate wing of the Islamists captured political power with a landslide electoral victory in 2002. The AKP has since ruled the country, increasing its vote share in every single election. Some of the leading figures of the 1997 military intervention are now facing lengthy prison terms for plotting against a democratically elected government.

The trauma of 1997 is not merely a macro-political affair. What made the intervention of 28 February possible was the coup plotters’ skillful management of the fears and resentments of the Westernized, secular sections of the population. Throughout the 1990s, there was a genuine fear that the Islamists in Turkey were attempting to overthrow the secular republic to institute sharia law. Islamist politicians constantly entertained the rhetoric of an Islamic revolution; angry mobs burnt alive thirty-five people in Sivas in 1993 to punish what they saw as an atheist provocation; and center-right politicians seemed to cater to political Islamism in return for short-term political benefits. Beyond these undeniable truths, there were many half-truths and outright lies that secularists believed, or chose to believe, which led them to support the military uncritically. Newspapers and televisions were covered with stories and pictures of bearded men, mostly members of very small sects, whose outlandish rituals or sexual behavior were portrayed as proof of the quintessentially dirty and backward mindset of the Islamist masses. Prime Minister Erbakan’s ill-fated meeting with Muammar Qaddafi in Libya in late 1996 was represented, quite literally and with racist overtones, as Turkey getting humiliated in a Bedouin tent. The publicity campaign, carried out before and after the 1997 intervention with the collaboration of media groups, the military, and its civilian collaborators, reduced the complexity of Turkish politics to a binary: the evil, immoral, patriarchal, and essentially Middle Eastern world of sharia, in contrast to the bright, enlightened, liberating, and Westernizing option available through uncritical allegiance to the armed forces. The educated urban middle-class chose the latter.

Every single assumption of the choice was problematic. First, the secularists chose to ignore the grievances and demands of the Islamists, or only heard a selected few. For example, studies find that for many Muslims, sharia is understood to be a call for social justice rather than a total elimination of the secular republic. The dialogue that could have eased the tensions between secularists and Islamists never took place. Second, the comfort of caricaturing the enemy blinded the secularists to the multiplicity of identities, values, and interests among citizens who call themselves “Islamist” or “conservative.” Even today, many secularists find it hard to realize that Islamists can have a variety of reasons to support, but also oppose, the AKP government. Third, the secularists assumed that their worldview constituted a set of self-evident truths that required no justification, only enforcement. As the whole world was beginning to debate the resurgence of religious identity in the 1990s and 2000s, and as secular philosophers like Rawls and Habermas were seriously pondering the relationship between religious justification and the public use of reason, the Turkish secularists chose to stay content with the received wisdom of the 1930s.

Furthermore, this dogmatic worldview not only reduced all social cleavages to the binary of secularism and Islamism, but because it treated the secularist position as a truth beyond doubt, it conceded all power to the military, courts, and the leadership of the Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (CHP) as enforcers of the political order. This has been the most harmful legacy of the spirit of 1997: secularism, once a living element within the broader movement for social justice and political equality, now became an administrative matter, which effectively deactivated progressive civil society organizations or made them appendages to the military-bureaucratic apparatus.

Finally, the delegation of political initiative to a small civilian-military elite meant that grassroots progressive movements had very little power to formulate their own solutions to the country’s problems. The last time a citizen initiative decided to resist the AKP’s policies, in April 2007, the military and its allies hijacked the civic process to reassert the old binary of secularism-under-military-tutelage versus Islamism. This strategy backfired miserably, when the AKP won the general election two months later with an even wider margin and interventions into civilian democratic politics were further delegitimized.

Present: The Spirit of Gezi

Most of the Gezi protesters are too young to have taken an active political stance in the late 1990s, but are old enough to have suffered the consequences of those years: a depoliticized secularist identity that has lost much of its progressive content and became an elite ideology; a Kurdish political movement that severed its ties with the increasingly nationalist Turkish center-left; and a moderate Islamist party that capitalized on the atomization of political alternatives and the population’s overall dissatisfaction with the cultural and political elite.

At the risk of over-simplification, the picture in the 2000s was something like this: splinter socialist groups could not stand each other, and political liberals (many of them former socialists) could not stand any of them. For the typical the CHP voter, any hue of Islamic identity signified a longing for the so-called Dark Ages, but the new progressive movements like environmentalism, LGBTQ activism, and minority politics were also dangerously “fringe.” For the latter groups, CHP was simply the coup-mongering old guard. The widening rift between the Kurdish political movement and Turkish social democracy led to a point where erstwhile comrades began to see each other as the foremost enemies. Turkish secularist feminists were drifting further apart from their Islamist and Kurdish counterparts, in great part because the secularists idealized the fully Westernized “republican woman” as the unique standard to defend women’s rights. Put two self-identified progressives in a room, and they would walk out, accusing each other of ruining the country.

The Gezi protests represent a conscious effort to overcome this bitter legacy. The burden on the shoulders of the mostly twenty-something-year-olds is nothing less than the entire history of exclusions and marginalizations in Turkey. An additional challenge is that the AKP’s leadership has appropriated the rightful grievances of its mostly conservative voter base quite cynically: Prime Minister Erdoğan and party spokespersons unleashed a campaign to discredit the protests, claiming that the protesters attacked veiled women, drank beer inside a mosque, and worked in close connection with coup-plotters. Despite government propaganda to the contrary, devout protesters’ religious observances were respected by the non-devout throughout the demonstrations, and fellow protesters were constantly warned against using discriminatory rhetoric against veiled women. In the same spirit, Turkish secularists and Kurds resisted police brutality together; feminists urged caution about the use of sexist curse words to vent anger against government officials; the stereotypes of the “pretentious intellectual” and the “lumpen” have been breaking down, thanks to acting together on the streets; and the flags and banners of numerous participating groups were hanging from the cultural center building across from Gezi Park before the police crackdown on 11 June. The fact that the fans of Istanbul’s rival soccer teams demonstrated together (no small achievement given the passion and violence that accompanies soccer viewership in Turkey) speaks to a greater political aspiration: maintaining a spirit of unity in diversity in the face of a long history of division and an overbearing rival whose near-total control of the country’s political and social institutions has begun to threaten every walk of life.

Future: A New Imagination

Can the “spirit of Gezi” bring this vision to life? The question has two interrelated aspects: on the one hand, it is about transforming social interactions hitherto marked by social, cultural, and emotional gaps; on the other hand, it is about imagining the possibility of a new progressive politics that can pose an alternative to the AKP’s hegemony at the local and national levels. The protesters did not start out with either goal, but their success in holding together a rainbow of political agendas and expanding the limits of different agendas through dialogue (not forgetting that many protesters had no previous experience with political activism) created these new demands performatively. It is a new responsibility for those who never signed up to become revolutionaries or career politicians, but one that the protesters have already proven to shoulder quite well when they were on the streets.

Especially for urban, educated Turks, nothing can be more detrimental to the legacy of the protests than to revert to the “spirit of 28 February”: resting content with lifestyle choices (such as wearing Western clothes, not observing religious norms, or having a “refined” sense of humor) as markers of social superiority, and refusing to understand the injustices that have characterized Turkey’s modern nation-state formation and capital accumulation processes. These injustices long preceded the AKP, but the AKP has been adding its own repertoire of symbolic, physical, and structural violence. The fact that young working-class men were murdered by the police in Ankara and Hatay, hundreds of kilometers from Gezi Park, should be a constant reminder of the cross-class and national character of the protests, and the sacrifices that resulted. Given the interconnectedness of subnational, national and even transnational forms of injustices, and the struggles against them, it is an ethical and political dead-end to imagine progressive pockets in major cities that leave the rest to their fates.

A new progressive politics is possible and necessary in Turkey. It will be a movement of those who could not stand each other until yesterday. It requires nothing less than the transformation of the Hobbesian political landscape and a move toward a Levinasian ethics and politics of the Other. Is it too much to ask of this generation? Perhaps it is, but since their acting together inspired this vision, one hopes that they will fulfill the promise they themselves never imagined making before taking it to the streets.  

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