Turkey: A Nation of Joiners

(Editor’s note: The following is a guest post by Candas Pinar, PhD candidate in Sociology at Yale University, focusing on state-society relations and political demography in the Muslim Middle East.)

Given the sheer breadth and volume of demonstrators and the rapid proliferation of political slogans across social media platforms, the Occupy Gezi movement would have us think that political engagement has always thrived in Turkey. But that hasn’t always been the case.

The United States has traditionally been described as “a nation of joiners,” a phrase used by Alexis de Tocqueville to capture the willingness of American citizens to form and join associations. Turkey, on the other hand? Not so much.

For decades, academics and policymakers have underscored the importance of a vibrant civil society for viable democracy. In the 1960s, Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba argued that the vitality of democratic institutions is dependent on a robust “civic culture,” which entails “civic cooperation and trust,” “expectation of fair treatment from government authorities,” “an emotional involvement in elections,” and “self-confidence in one’s competence to participate in politics.” More recently, Robert Putnam has written that “networks of organized reciprocity and civic solidarity” are what sustain democracies.

And for equally as long, these academics and policymakers have bemoaned the lack of such a civil society in Turkey. A 2011 report, prepared by the Third Sector Foundation in Turkey and CIVICUS, revealed alarmingly low rates of civic engagement in Turkey. In the past five years, only 12% of Turks engaged in political activism (e.g., signing a petition or attending a peaceful demonstration). And just 5% of Turks are members of civil society organizations, such as youth groups or trade unions. It was widely believed that democracy in Turkey could not take hold until citizens became involved.

Many point to the 1980 military coup as the cause of this widespread political disengagement. The coup came after more than a decade of sustained clashes between labor activists and student movements on the left and Islamists and ultra-nationalist groups on the right. Leftists and laborers sought to liberate Turkey from what they considered to be an unhealthy dependence on the capitalist West, and adopted guerrilla warfare to do so. Right-wing youth groups retaliated in kind, targeting schools and homes of prominent intellectuals. In total, approximately 5,000 lives were lost to the conflict.

During this period, the country was paralyzed. Martial law was declared and renewed every few months. Strict curfews were enforced. Universities across the country were shut down. In the name of “law and order,” the government banned all student groups, as well as teachers’ unions. The country was so divided that even a man’s facial hair revealed his political leanings (mustache = left-wing; sideburns = right-wing).

It was around this time that my own parents chose to emigrate to the U.S. to seek respite from the chaos. As university students, they were in the thick of it, whether they wanted to be or not. Their classes were often abruptly canceled because professors had been arrested. Social gatherings on campus were often forcibly dismissedwith gunfire. Childhood friends went missing, and resurfaced after years of imprisonment or torture. The military coup in 1980 brought an end to the civil unrest, but at great cost.

After the coup, parents strongly discouraged their children from becoming involved in politics. In the wake of such national turmoil, political activism – beyond the casting of a ballot – was thought to be dangerous and divisive. Not unlike personal traumas, national traumas stay with people. They become embedded in the collective consciousness of a nation. What happened in the ‘60s and ‘70s was not just an individual memory of those who experienced it, but a collective memory. Personal experiences with political activism – and the often deadly consequences it entailed – were transmitted from generation to generation, through story-telling, music, literature, and film.

Among subsequent generations, civic engagement and political participation dwindled. University students and leftists groups continued to organize annual Labor Day protests in Taksim Square, but most everyone else was too frightened or too disillusioned to engage.

Until now.

After riot police cracked down on peaceful protesters in Gezi Park more than two weeks ago, Turks were enraged. They cried. They shouted. And they joined.

Environmentalists joined. College students and their professors joined. Marxists, Kurds, and Alevis joined. Rowdy football fans not only joined; they mobilized. Doctors, lawyers, artists, and musicians all joined. Mothers and fathers joined. Grandmothers and grandfathers joined too. My mother – who was once so traumatized by what she had witnessed as a student – joined, in her own capacity. She attended a demonstration in Rhode Island, where my parents live now.

Images, videos, and anecdotes from Taksim Square continue to proliferate across social media sites. They reveal a strong and merciless state apparatus – police brutality against peaceful demonstrators, silencing of domestic and international media, and the detention of lawyers and doctors attempting to provide assistance to protestors. But they have also revealed an equally strong, revitalized civic culture in Turkey. Protestors, from all walks of life, organized trash disposal and street sweeping; provided urgent healthcare delivery for injured people, veterinary services for injured animals, and legal counsel for those detained; circulated and signed petitions; and held public piano concerts and yoga sessions. These are all concrete manifestations of the social cooperation and trust characteristic of an engaged civil society. We can still talk about the strong state in Turkey, but we can no longer call the civil society weak. No longer can we point to a disengaged public as the barrier to democratization in Turkey.

It’s still unclear what triggered the Occupy Gezi movement. Was it the park? The alcohol?

And we still don’t know how it will end. This past weekend in Istanbul has showcased the lengths the state is willing to go to in order to silence opposing perspectives. EU Minister Egemen Bagis and Prime Minister Erdogan have called the demonstrators “terrorists.” Reports of a draft law intended to limit social media content are emerging. And riot police, under government instruction, continue to disregard basic democratic principles, such as due process and medical neutrality. The current scene is beginning to look eerily similar to what happened four decades ago.

This is a dark chapter in Turkey’s history. But let us take a moment to recognize that the Occupy Gezi movement is testament to the renewed will of the Turkish people to engage, to care, to protest. Demonstrators continue to regroup in any alleyway or street corner that has been cleared of tear gas, and this shows that one thing is clear. Turkey is now, undeniably, a nation of joiners.


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