This is a guest post by Burak Kadercan, a Lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Reading.
What is happening in Turkey?
This is the question that many around the globe have been asking for a week. To be fair, people were already interested in Turkey before protests broke out on May 28th, but their curiosity was directed more at its miracles. In the past decade, Turkey has become known as the “model” country for the rest of the Muslim world, proving — almost single-handedly — that political Islam and democracy can co-exist. According to all dimensions of power, Turkey has also been on the rise. Its economy is growing while much of the world struggles with recession. Its voice is being heard and consulted in the regional politics of the Middle East as well as global affairs. Turkey also projects a peculiar sort of soft-power across Eurasia and the Middle East through its popular TV dramas and movies. While it might have been “news” for Turkey to show up on global media in some shape or form 15 years ago, Turkey and its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have now become staples of the global media.
The rising profile of Turkey cannot be exaggerated. When I moved from Istanbul to the so-called Western world more than 10 years ago, people were asking me if Istanbul was its capital. Until last week, they were asking what I thought of the latest episode of Muhtesem Yüzyil — a royal soap opera about Ottoman Empire’s most glorious century (it was the sixteenth) that is broadcast in dozens of countries — or advice for where to eat in Istanbul next time they visit. Now, people keep asking me a different question: what is happening?
“What is happening?” is in fact the wrong question, for something has been happening in Turkey for quite some time. What the world has come to see lately is not the problem, but its symptoms. The symptoms are the country-wide protests and accompanying police brutality, which itself has come to be defined in terms of tear gas (or, simply “gas” in the Turkish lexicon). The chain of events, as any international media outlet can tell you (Turkish media have been playing dead until very recently), started with a handful of peaceful protestors comprised largely of environmentalists and university students occupying Gezi Parki, a relatively small park that is situated right by the Taksim Square, which is not only the financial and cultural epicentre of the city, but also the witness of and meeting place for many mass protests.
Gezi Parki was set to be demolished so that an Ottoman-era barracks that itself had been destroyed in 1940s could be reconstructed (alongside a hyper-mall, hotels, and possibly a mega-mosque) in its place (to be sure, the barracks came before the park). The initial protestors were not political, as the term is used in the Turkish context. They were not criticizing the government per se, but a particular decision that they thought not only would destroy the only green space left in the center of the city, but also was forced on the city without proper dialogue and consultation with its inhabitants. Just a few days before the incident broke out, Erdogan had delivered the final words: “we have made the decision.” This was not the first time that Erdogan used these words when sealing the deal over a contentious issue.
On May 28th, the police forces responded to occupiers with their signature method: gas. In an interesting twist — interesting for Turkish politics at least — the occupiers found extensive support from thousands, who responded not only to the destruction of Gezi Parki, but also, and even more so, to the unprovoked police brutality that has become the norm and not the exception in the last couple of years. Increasing intensity of the “gas bombardment” to disperse the demonstrators, whose numbers were growing exponentially, then triggered a chain reaction. Before anyone knew it, tens of thousands of citizens across the country took to the streets in order to show support for the demonstrators in Taksim. This was most certainly a spontaneous incident. The national news channels had embarrassingly turned a blind eye to what had been happening in the streets, and the protestors coordinated their efforts mainly through Facebook and Twitter.
So, who are the protestors? It is easier to identify them by highlighting who they are not. They are not a homogenous group (not by a long shot). They are not bound by religious beliefs, ethnicity, or even political leanings. What unites them is their anger at AKP, but even more so, at Erdogan. Erdogan, in turn, has done little in the way of calming the demonstrators and defusing the situation. If anything, he called the protestors “looters,” framed the protests in “ideological” terms, blamed the left-wing opposition party for taking part in what he presented as yet another scheme to illegally topple AKP, and in a most alarming turn announced that he and his party were “barely restraining” the so-called “fifty per cent” (which stands for AKP voters per 2011 elections). In an even more frightening and explicit note, Erdogan suggested that if the opposition brings “one hundred thousand” demonstrators to the streets, he can easily summon “one million” to counter them.