[This piece is part of a roundtable held in Paris last July at the 4th GISMOM Conference (July 2019) of the French network on the study of the Middle East and the Muslim World. This panel included lectures by Cihan Tekay, Muriam Haleh Davis, Thomas Serres, Bassam Haddad, Alain Gresh, and was organized by Eric Verdeil. All lectures from the panel will be posted in the coming weeks.]
Beginnings: Gezi Uprising
When I joined the Turkey section of Jadaliyya as a co-editor in June 2013, the Gezi uprising was underway. I remember the excitement and sense of urgency that made us review and post articles on the page every single day, while were simultaneously glued to Twitter, the main site of information and misinformation during a multi-day news blackout.
At the time, Jadaliyya had already been publishing pieces on Turkey for a couple of years, but there was a general deficiency of online knowledge production about Turkey in English. Aside from making critical interventions against the regime’s narrative, we aimed to bring forth some of the political questions that the movements on the left had to address. With the onset of the peace process and of the Gezi uprising in 2013, optimism was high and there was a lot of space for reflection and analysis. Thus, we were eager to publish pieces that communicated the exciting political experiments that were initiated. We also wanted to provide our readers with in-depth analyses that superseded the binary categories that were often used by mainstream media, which had no explanatory power.
We did not have much trouble finding and publishing authors willing to share their critical perspectives on the political events during this time. Our inboxes were filling with original pieces from the ground every day. The authors asked poignant questions, examining the role of the uprising in the context of Turkey’s recent political history. They asked, for example, if we should understand the use of the flag as a symbol of nationalist sentiment among protesters, or as the default expression of communal solidarity. They questioned if there were a new awareness developing among the protesters, of the conditions that the Kurds had been living under for some time. They considered the uprising from the perspectives of various groups including religious and ethnic minorities, women and LGBTs, as the latter were at the forefront of the protests. We also featured pieces reflecting on the question of those who didn’t participate in the protests, or those who participated in the counter-rallies organized by the government.
During this time, there was also an explosion of creativity, which manifested itself in graffiti, music, photography, and video, which we published examples of on Jadaliyya. The strong foundations and diversity of coverage that we developed here stands on its own as an archive: in addition to browsing these pieces on our website with the keyword “Gezi”, you can also read a “best of” compilation published as a Jadmag titled Resistance Everywhere”: The Gezi Protests and Dissident Visions of Turkey, available from Tadween Publishing.
State Violence and New Networks of Solidarity
Consequently, the uprising faced increasing police repression and the park was evacuated. People’s Democratic Party, HDP for short, was founded as a political platform seeking to answer some of the questions raised during the protests and the years preceding them, reflecting the political optimism that emerged through the park. The Turkish and Kurdish left had had previous attempts to unite their efforts in parliamentary politics. However, the bases of their political parties had not witnessed such a big transformation of consciousness in the West of the country since 1968. During this time, we published pieces on Jadaliyya that analyzed the new avenues that the Gezi uprising and the peace process opened, while keeping an eye on the ongoing democratic experiments beyond the ballot box in Turkey and Kurdistan.
Meanwhile, a fissure that had been opening within the right-wing exposed the extent to which corruption and surveillance had grown in the last few years. Critical analysts watched nervously, as reshuffling within the state has often led to consequences for many dissenters beyond the apparent conflict. In the meantime, our authors witnessed the impunity of police during the trials that failed to deliver justice to the families of protesters murdered during the uprising. Leading up to the elections of June 2015, a new wave of optimism spread, as young people joined political platforms in big numbers, both the newly formed HDP and the established secularist stronghold of Republican People’s Party, shaking the latter’s entrenched cadres from below. During this time, Jadaliyya authors and editors provided original commentary on politics in Turkey, especially from feminist and LGBTQ perspectives. We also paid special attention to urban political economy and the ecological destruction of the urban hinterlands, as megaprojects led by the government and crony real estate companies continued. The destruction of nature and urban public space was the spark that had fired the Gezi uprising in the first place.
A minor yet important victory for the emerging new left in the June elections was accompanied by a simultaneous rise in nationalism, which then brought on a wave of repression that increasingly grew more violent. The peace process failed, as the revolution in Rojava took hold and the Islamic State threatened public safety in various parts of Turkey, especially in protests organized by the opposition. The frontier between Syria and Turkey became porous, as refugees, fighters of all ideological pursuits, and arms flowed in and out. Turkey’s involvement in the war in Syria grew more and more complex, and a new nationalist alliance emerged from the marriage of the Nationalist Movement Party with the ruling AKP.
While elections were rescheduled within a mere six months, a new uprising took hold in the Kurdish cities of Turkey. Jadaliyya published extensively on the urban redevelopment schemes that followed a brutal destruction led by the Turkish government in these cities. However, people continued to build solidarity networks from below. The socialist youth group who were bombed on their way to bring toys for the children of Rojava, the academics who signed a petition protesting the state violence rained upon Kurdish cities, queer and feminist alliances across Turkey and Kurdistan are a few examples of these solidarity networks.
During this period on the Turkey page, we started regularly publishing statements from groups of activists, trade unions, professional associations and the like, expressing their solidarity. Examples of these include solidarity with miners who died from the neglect of safety precautions post-privatization, with Saturday Mothers whose children were disappeared during the post-1980 coup period, or with imprisoned activists, academics, politicians and journalists. We also lost many comrades and colleagues during this time to various forms of state violence, so we started memorializing them on our page, hoping that commemorating their lives would provide windows into the struggles they forged out of their unique perspectives.
Post-2016: Darker Times
A major shift occurred during the 2016 coup attempt, where it became increasingly difficult to verify information and to make predictions on the directions in which politics in Turkey were leading. This was for two reasons. First, the optimism surrounding citizen journalism in the early 2010s died out, due to massive amounts of manipulation and misinformation on social media, often involving government-sponsored trolls, in Turkey as is elsewhere. In Turkey, this problem was exacerbated by the ubiquitous censorship of websites used to access basic information. Second, the alliances within the state and the military that had been showing signs of discord completely collapsed, a situation which was exposed during the failed coup attempt.
As a result of these processes, it became more difficult to assess political events accurately, as we could not rely on the frameworks we had inherited from the last several decades. This is an ongoing problem that makes those who have an eye for long-term changes reluctant to write their analyses on the go. As well, the price of making critical interventions has increased, as there are fractures not only within the state but within the solidarity networks that critical knowledge producers have built. Nevertheless, our authors and editors continued to publish their thoughts on refugees, diasporas and the new migration regimes in Turkey and Europe, analyses of the relationship of religion and secularism to politics, the rising tide of nationalism and state violence, inter-right political conflict and transformations of Islamism, cultural hegemony and soft power, as well as several rounds of election and referendum commentaries.
It is now possibly more urgent than ever to attempt to make some critical interventions and to rebuild networks of solidarity. Across the world, as well as here in Europe, the populist right is usurping the language of freedom, solidarity and the common good. As alliances shift within and across in all levels of the political world, we can’t afford to be reluctant in our work, but at the same time, the conditions for producing critical analyses have dramatically changed in the last few years. In Turkey, while the regime lost the leadership in the two major cities to the opposition and the constitutional court affirmed Academics for Peace’s rights to free speech, the trials targeting the Gezi uprising continue, while political figures of the opposition are imprisoned, and hunger strikes are ongoing. Furthermore, Turkey has recently initiated a major crackdown on its Syrian refugee population, who have become the scapegoats for the economic downturn and political turmoil that the country has been experiencing and most recently launched a military invasion of northeastern Syria. The big challenge ahead for those of us seeking to make interventions on our political present is to continue building the networks of solidarity that allow us to continue the conversation in the absence of familiar frameworks.