Taksim: The Public’s Square

Amnesty International.

(Editor’s note: The following is a guest contribution by Jonathan Endelman, PhD student in Sociology at Yale University)

Ostensibly, the protests in Turkey began after the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan planned to place a shopping center and luxury housing complex in the Taksim Square’s Gezi Park in Istanbul, an historical gathering point for protest movements of the Turkish left. However, the current controversy over the proposed shopping center in Taksim square in Istanbul is a much larger matter than a construction project. As many analysts have recently pointed out, it was never really about the trees. What we are seeing today is nothing less than a power struggle between two opposing sides with radically different visions for the country’s future.

On one side we have the CHP, the classical secularist party committed to the founding ideals of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the country’s founder. On the other, we have the moderately Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) headed by Recep Tayip Erdogan, current prime minister of Turkey.  Ataturk sought to radically transform Turkish society by expediting a speedy divorce from its Ottoman and Islamic religious heritage by fostering Westernized culture and imposing a policy of staunch secularism or laiklik modeled after the French laïcité.

In recent weeks, Erdogan has moved to stop the sale of alcoholic beverages from ten at night to six in the morning, prohibit alcoholic beverages from being sold close to mosques, and ban all advertising from companies that sell alcohol. These changes, while relatively modest when compared with other such restrictions in the Middle East, have reignited a fear among some Turkish secularists that Erdogan seeks to impose a religious agenda upon society. While many Turks may denounce their prime minister’s Islamist overreach, the root of their unease lies in the absence of adequate constraints over his exercise of political power. A brief foray into Turkish history will help us understand what is going on.

Historically, the CHP and the Kemalist secularists have had the political upper hand in Turkish politics. However, an undercurrent of Islamist opposition has from time to time surfaced its head and briefly experienced some electoral success. From the Progressive Republican Party (PRP), suppressed after its founding in 1924, to Turgut Ozal’s tenure as prime minister in the eighties and Necmettin Erbakan’s Welfare party in the 90s, this subaltern strand of Turkish politics has occupied a low profile.  With one party after another being disqualified or disbanded by the army and the court system for violating the principles of state secularism, it was not able to enjoy much success.  During the past eleven years, however, it has experienced something of a political renaissance in the form of the reign of Recep Tayep Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party that first came to power in 2002. 

So what are the current protests about really? Are they a backlash by a formerly powerful secularist current in Turkish politics against this formerly suppressed Islamist party that has forgotten its “place”? Are they a reaction against the new restrictions on alcohol, the last straw in what they view as a dangerous Islamization of society?  Partially, but I believe that fears about the increasingly autocratic nature of Erdogan’s rule lies behind the recent spate of civic unrest. What motivates the protestors on the streets of Turkey is not so much the policies that Erdogan has pursued or the fact that he is in power, but the way that he has governed. 

Erdogan seems to have developed a “Mubarak complex”. When he says that the shopping center is going in “no matter what they (the protestors) do,” when he calls the protestors terrorists and trouble makers, agents of unrest and rabble rousers, when he uses the police dressed in riot gear with water cannons and tear gas, beating back people in the streets, he has crossed the line from democrat to autocrat. This mode of thinking interprets all political opposition as personal opposition to his will and political agenda and identifies the state’s interests with his own. It is the height of the personalization of political power. The Gezi park protests represent merely the tip of the iceberg in this process of creeping authoritarianism and the slow lurching of the current government towards autocracy.

What is unfortunate from the perspective of Turkish politics is that the AKP really had a chance to open up the public sphere as an inclusive space of dialogue. Say what you want about the Kemalists, but the principle of strict state secularism enforced by military power is not in any sense liberal. Neither is the version of political Islam espoused by the AKP. Both are in essence conservative. They aim to conserve the nation by suppressing threats to its identity that go against their ideas of its “imagined community,” to use Benedict Anderson’s phrase. While in the first case that community is imagined as a country free from religion, and in the other based on religion, both groups aim to shield their vision of the nation from perceived threats from the other side. Both groups possess a fear that if they give up any ground, their opponents will seize upon it and pull Turkey away irredeemably into the path of ruin and destruction. Only by strictly enforcing their vision for the country’s future can catastrophe be averted.  

When it came into power, the AKP had a chance to change this. It had the opportunity to be the “liberal” party by restoring Islam to a place in public life that did not give it an advantageous position but merely the same chance to find expression as every other creed or ideology. Religion should not be singled out as being unacceptable for public expression by those who wish to express it. A liberal Turkish government would abolish compulsory secularism as a violation of the freedom of individuals to express their faith in public. People would be able to choose. Female citizens could wear headscarves and manifest their religious belief or they could wear mini-skirts and espouse staunch secularism and all possible combinations in between. A liberal politics should be able to accommodate both Islamism and Kemalism. A strong republic should be able to withstand strong public criticism and remain intact. A citizen should be able to argue for her vision of the public good in the public sphere, to borrow Habermas’ terminology, whatever that good might be without possessing the power to impose that vision on anyone else. 

Unfortunately, however, the AKP has not availed itself of this opportunity. It has not sought to open up the square of public dialogue to be more inclusive and allow for a greater expression of opportunity. Instead it has narrowed the acceptable range of expression of policy preferences to those that it deems most desirable.  In so doing, the AKP has perpetrated the same mistake made by the Kemalists of imposing their political agenda on society at large and brooking no dissent. People protest today in Turkey not because of Erdogan’s religiosity, but because of his autocracy and disregard for the opinions of his opposition. 

So where do we go from here? Erdogan has two options. One, he continues his current response to the protests, places his hands over his ears, closes his eyes, and remains obdurate to all calls for reform.  In which case, his only real choice is to go the Mubarak route of suppressing political dissent with force. His alternative is to realize that these people are protesting not because they disagree with him, but because their objections are completely ignored. Once he sees this, he must make clear gestures that convey the message that he realizes that he has miscalculated, that he has listened to their objections, and that he will make more of an effort to include a greater variety of viewpoints in his political decision making.

A warning for those who put blind faith in the institution of democracy: elections are only as good as the spirit in which they are held. Turkish democracy has broken down before in several military coups. To assume that the Mubarak complex cannot affect Erdogan because Turkey is “a democracy” is to make a grave error in judgment. If the military has usurped the reins of power in the past in the name of the republic, then there seems little to prevent Erdogan from doing the same thing in the future. The possibility for the development of a genuine autocracy here is very real and should not be ignored. Ultimately, Turkey needs to develop a middle path in between Kemalist secularism and Islamic conservatism that incorporates elements of both and allows the free expression of all political opinion without filter or censorship. Either of these alternatives constitutes an unacceptable level of autocracy that will not serve the country well in the long run. If Turks want to have a democracy and maintain it, the first step in doing so is opening up the space for free discussion of opinion in the political arena. Only when debate replaces demonization will democracy be safe in Turkey. 


One thought on “Taksim: The Public’s Square

  1. Pingback: Weekly Links | Political Violence @ a Glance

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