Starting on May 28, 2013 and still continuing as this article goes to press, Turkey has witnessed the several-week occupation of Gezi Park in Istanbul and huge protests, which have spread to 78 out of Turkey’s 81 provinces. The protests, which originated in reaction to plans for replacing the park with a shopping mall, were not simply about this park, but became a lightning rod for grievances against the policies of the governing party, the AKP. Those policies promoted unfettered neoliberal growth—including “urban renewal”—with creeping Islamization, conservative regulation of lifestyles, political repression, and police brutality that choked political dissent. The scope of protests have exceeded what anyone even imagined in the initial days of action in the park. The largely unplanned protests, especially those in Gezi Park and the adjacent Taksim Square, offer three surprises that may promise a better future for Turkish politics.
One of the those surprises has been the widespread involvement of youth in the protests. Since the military coup of 1980, which violently suppressed most oppositional parties and political groups, it had seemed that the generation that grew up since the 1980s was apolitical. The protests have proven this assumption wrong. Youths have participated in the protests in large numbers. They have shown passion, courage, energy, creativity, ingenuity, and humor. From the graffiti on the walls to the music that has been produced (or old songs adapted to the new situation), we have seen an enormous creativity in the political messages. Not only has the seeming political apathy been overcome in the demonstrations but, through their passion for justice and the euphoria of solidarity, people also seem to have lost their sense of fear.
A second surprise of the Gezi Park protests has been the emergence, from the midst of a culture and society immersed in market values, of a rich culture of sharing. During the more than two weeks of protest, the camp in Gezi Park has become a “commune.” It has transformed into a collective space where protestors, as well as the homeless who took shelter in the park, have enjoyed free food, medicine, books, music, plays, films, even yoga lessons. Doctors and lawyers have offered free services and made their contacts widely available. Residents of the apartment buildings and luxury hotels in the neighborhood have opened their doors to the protestors, providing refuge for those escaping tear and pepper gas and providing a makeshift medical facility for the wounded. The sense of collective responsibility has gone beyond concern for the environment, the city and the country, being expressed in cleaning the park and ensuring people’s safety. On the days when the police had withdrawn from the park, protestors, especially women, said they had never felt so safe in their lives.1 The camp at the park was a space where everyone looked after each other’s safety; where nobody was hungry, lonely, or excluded. This culture of sharing, an atmosphere of collective action, responsibility and joy in the Gezi/ Taksim “commune,” has created euphoria among participants and some observers alike. In her newspaper column, Turkish academic and public intellectual Nuray Mert observed:
“We have been saying ‘a better world is possible.’ But we did not know what it would look like and how it would be achieved. Those in Taksim already have, if temporarily, built a different world. Power to them!”2
The third surprise of the protests, one that could potentially be the biggest “present” for the future of Turkish politics, with real implications for a just peace, has been the nature of political solidarity established in the park. The camp in Gezi Park has brought together groups organized around vastly different politics and identities: environmentalists, secular Turkish nationalists, socialists, anarchists, feminists, and Kurdish, Muslim, and LGBT activists. Solidarity among these groups has started to transcend the divisions that have characterized Turkish politics in the last few decades. In Gezi Park and Taksim an atmosphere has emerged where political fault lines (especially those dividing the Turkish/Kurdish, the secular/religious, and the Sunni/Alevi) have started to be reduced.
Ironically, this has been not the outcome of an organized movement or long negotiations, but rather of an “accidental coalition” that has coalesced. Groups of nationalist Turks and Kurdish activists who distrusted each other’s politics until a few weeks ago, have started to “tolerate” each other and recognize their common concerns and ideals. The social and political divisions between religious Muslims and secular people also seem to be overcome. Even though most protests have been organized around secular concerns, groups of religious Muslims have expressed solidarity with the grievances and visions behind them.3 A number of Muslim feminists and Muslim intellectuals have publicly criticized government policies of urban “renewal” and development based on Islamic values and notions of social justice. They have also expressed their full support for the protests.
Taksim Square has been the site of Friday prayers by the group, Anti-Capitalist Muslims. On June 5th people showed their respect there by refraining from alcohol for the celebration of Miraç Kandil, one of the five holy evenings in the Muslim calendar. As Gülay Türkmen-Dervisoglu observes, the unexpected solidarity of vastly different groups that emerged in Gezi Park / Taksim Square has given us a glimpse of a “dream world”:
“It could be said that Gezi Park is now a microcosm of Turkish society; a microcosm that is much more tolerant of diversity and much more peaceful than its bigger version. A dream world where different opposition groups sleep in tents adjacent to each other without fighting each other; a dream world where slogans of oppositional nature are chanted.”4
There have also been other gestures of solidarity. When they heard rumors that in different parts of the city there were harassments of women in headscarves (such scarves are supposedly worn by supporters of the ruling party) women in Gezi Park immediately declared that they were against provocations designed to instigate a secular/ Muslim divide. Feminist and socialist women marched under the leadership of Muslims Against Violence Against Women and firmly condemned the attacks with slogans like “Take Your Hands Off My Body Headscarf,” “We Want to Claim the Night, the Streets, the Squares, the Parks and the Mosques,” and “Stop the Harassment, Continue Resistance.”5
While I am writing of this article, protests are still continuing in Istanbul and several other Turkish cities, even after the government took a harder line and decided to violently clear Taksim Square (June 11th) and Gezi Park (June 15th). Perhaps more serious than the police violence are the instigations of social and political division by the prime minister and right-wing journalists against anybody who criticizes government policies. Despite the hope that the protests have inspired, a politics of divide and rule has returned. It is fanning the flames of “us” and “them.” In contrast to the spirit of good will that we witnessed in Gezi Park and Taksim Square, some politicians’ speeches and some media coverage are full of provocative stories. They have exaggerated or even possibly fabricated unspeakable stories about the harassment of women in headscarves; about protestors having entered a mosque with their shoes on and having consumed alcohol in the mosque – both considered offensive in Islam.6 In addition to provoking religious Muslims against protestors, they are trying to divide the groups that have made overtures of unity—or at least, mutual tolerance—in Gezi Park/Taksim Square.7
The odds are stacked against those struggling for a more just, equitable, democratic and peaceful Turkey. What I have identified as the pleasant surprises and promises of exemplary political activism witnessed in Gezi Park/Taksim Square are still very fragile, and can easily be undermined in the present environment of violence and repressive politics. Still, the Gezi/Taksim commune and the protests across Turkey do provide a breath of fresh air, glimpses of what is possible, and the potential for a new type of politics in Turkish society.
If people of Turkey learn from this newly emerging politics and beat the odds of being divided once again, there will be a much better world emerging out of these challenging times.
1 Beyza Kural. Polis Gelene Kadar Gezi Parki Güvenli (Gezi Park is Safe Until the Police Comes) Bianet, June 13, 2013 www.bianet.org/bianet/insan-haklari/147528-polis-gelene-dek-gezi-parki-guvenli?biasource=rss
2 Nuray Mert. AKbabalarin Dunyasina Isyan (Revolt Against the World of Vultures), Birgün, June 7, 2013 www.birgun.net/mobile.php?category_code=1357909199&day=07&month=06&year=2013&action=writer
3 For example, see: Dindar Aydinlar: Eskiden Mazlum Olmak Zalimin Yaninda Olmamizi Gerektirmez(Religious Intellectuals: Being Oppressed in the Past Does Not Mean We Need to be on the Side of the Oppressor) T24: Bagimsiz Internet Gazetesi, June 14, 2013. t24.com.tr/haber/emek-ve-adalet-platformu-toplumun-taleplerine-kulak-tikayan-siyaset-tarzi-sorun-uretiyor/232015
4 Gülay Türkmen-Dervisoglu. Petri Dishes The European June 9, 2013 www.theeuropean-magazine.com/gulay-turkmen-dervisoglu/7002-the-taksim-square-protests
5 Çiçek Tahaoglu. Tacizi Durdur, Direnisi Sürdür (Stop the Harassment, Continue Resistance) Bianet, June 7, 2013 bianet.org/bianet/toplum/147365-tacizi-durdur-direnisi-surdur
6 Even after the müezzin (the person who does the call to prayer) of the mosque, who gave refuge to protestors escaping police violence or needing medical help, explained the context for the rushed entry into the mosque and refuted the claims about consumption of alcohol, the stories are still repeated.
7 At a speech in a rally for his supporters on June 16th, Prime Minister Erdogan tried to shame and provoke Turkish nationalists in Taksim by questioning how they could tolerate having their Turkish flags and posters of Atatürk stand side by side with Kurdish flags and pictures of the terrorist leader (of the Kurds) Öcalan. See: Erdogandan Eylemcilere: Git Çadirini Yaylalarda Kur (from Erdogan to the Activists: Go Put up Your Tent in the Plateau) T24: Bagimsiz Internet Gazetesi, June 16, 2013 t24.com.tr/haber/Erdogan-uluslararasi-medyaya-ragmen-turkiye-fotografi-icin-kazlicesmeya-bakin/232111
Sedef Arat-Koç is a sociology professor at Ryerson University.