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Turkey’s Protests: A Watershed Moment?

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by Garibaldi

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:

LWIn 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.

Turkish journalist Yavuz Baydar succinctly points this out in an interview with AlJazeera English:

“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.

Related:

-Is There Really a Turkish ‘Jihad’ Against Alcohol?

-Insulting the Turkish Nation

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  • Sodium

    It is always good hearing from you, Garibaldi.
    I am sorry I did not have a chance in the last 2-3 days to check what was going on at loonwatch.com. I have been busy reviewing a book entitled,” A World Without Islam,” By Graham Fuller, since I have started publishing a review for each chapter of the book. I have just finished publishing the review on chapter three, on my website. I have yet a long way to go, since the book has fourteen chapters, with so connective complexities. The good aspect from all this is the fact that I learn from my self-inflected suffering. Perhaps, I enjoy suffering-just perhaps.
    Pleased with myself for publishing the review for chapter three, I felt I had time for checking my e-mail. I have found an e-mail note from D, telling me I had/have a comment from Garibaldi. I clicked the line provided by D and the comment was from you. I said to myself: what a pleasant surprise, and indeed it was.
    Well, Garibaldi, as long as the Associated Press keeps refraining from using the ugly adjective, Islamofascist, about Islam and Muslims, in its news reporting, it is fine with me, if AP decides to cleans its vocabulary from other nomenclature that sound unappealing to its ways in reporting the news. There is no worst description than describing Islam and Muslims as “fascist. ”
    As I said in the beginning, it is always good hearing from you. Thank for the gesture.

  • http://therumi.blogspot.com/ Mustafa Rumi

    I’ve just read a poll result myself. 75 per cent of the protesters turned out to be CHP voters –higher than even I expected! Around half of the remaining 25 per cent vote for BDP, which is the political wing of the Marxist-Leninist-nationalist terrorist organization PKK. The rest are voters for the fringe communist parties.

    I used to think that followers of the fringe communist parties would make up more of the protesters because of their high level of political activism. Interestingly, they constituted around ten to fifteen per cent, dwarfed by the 75 per cent CHP voters, who are staunch followers M. Kemal.

    As I said before, among the “supporters” of the protesters of Taksim, the percentage of CHP voters is logically even higher since those fringe communist parties have a lot of activists but very very few voters. (All of them together get only around 1 per cent of all votes in elections).

  • http://therumi.blogspot.com/ Mustafa Rumi

    And actually, some of the protestors and especially their supporters have recently accused Erdogan of calling Atatürk and his closest comrade Inönü “drunkards”. What Erdogan said was, like, “we will pass this new alcohol regulation and won’t leave the law as it was made by a couple of drunkards”. Probably he didn’t mean Atatürk and Inönü, but I’ll assure you that if he was allowed to do so by the military and by the social reality, he would call them not only drunkards but many other things as well.

    Yes, it’s not only the law. Except the core Ak Party voters who are the so-called Islamists like myself, comprising some 20 per cent of Turkey’s population, Turkey’s population heavily adore Atatürk and anything said openly against him is conceived like blasphemy. When you criticize Atatürk, people simply get shocked. I sometimes criticized Atatürk openly when I was too angry and therefore too courageous. I received shocked responses from people who had just heard their beloved idol blasphemed against.

    Like me, Erdogan is not taken in by this deception. He comes from the same background as me, seeing Atatürk as a major enemy of God. But he has to pretend to respect Atatürk in order to avoid scaring people away from himself and his party as well as to avoid being accused of having committed a big constitutional crime, a treason. But I hear that the new school curriculum is constantly being revised by his Ministry of Education, and Kemalism is gradually being purged from schoolbooks, alhamdulillah. This is necessary in order to save the Turkish youth from the worship of Atatürk. He can do this gradual change in curriculum but openly criticizing Atatürk? No way. That will be at best a political suicide.

    I hope these comments of mine aren’t being followed by the way. If I’m jailed, know that you provoked me. :) Just kidding. Probably that won’t happen, for although the comments I’m writing here are probably very illegal according to the laws in Turkey, the police seem to no longer investigate them (EDIT: as long as such comments are not too public like in a newspaper or in a public speech). But if Ak Party goes down as the protestors want, Allah knows what will happen to me.

  • GaribaldiOfLoonwatch

    Interesting comment Sodium.

    In fact the term was not invented by haters of Islam.

    Muslims created the concept, politicians who are religiously rooted or oriented.

    I did hear about the AP dropping the term in its reporting, I haven’t come to that conclusion yet, mainly for the reasons I’ve stated already. The AP also dropped usage of the world Islamophobia, Homophobia, Ethnic Cleansing.

    I am sensitive to the last point and think it is a strong one, why aren’t others described as Christianists and Judaist, etc. The differentiation comes down to self-description.

  • http://therumi.blogspot.com/ Mustafa Rumi

    In Turkey, you cannot condemn M. Kemal’s reforms. Even I won’t do so in public. The reason is simple: The constitution, which Erdogan is trying to change despite opposition from people like these protestors, strictly bans any criticism of Atatürk’s reforms and even personality, let alone condemnation.

    The majority of the protestors are fringe communist groups and the second biggest protesting group are CHP voters. As for the supporters of the protestors, at least 99 per cent of them are CHP voters. I won’t argue with you about your manipulated polls and dishonest friends.

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