by Basak TANULKU
I dedicate this piece to those who lost their lives, limbs and loved ones during the Gezi Uprising in Turkey…
Turkey was in the frontline of news in June 2013, due to a series of unpredicted events, in a country with a tradition of obedience culture, summarised by the well-known proverb “Let the snake that doesn´t touch me live a thousand years”. The events started with a very naïve sit-in in the Gezi Park, a public park in the midst of Istanbul nearby Taksim Square, where large left-wing demonstrations were held during the 1970s. The sit-in was organised through Facebook and Twitter to invite people to gather and camp there. The sit-in aimed at protecting the park from being regenerated, one of the few green areas of Istanbul covered with grown trees, which later transformed into large-scale street demonstrations aiming at freedom and equality.
Taksim and Beyoglu: The Western Face of Istanbul
Before I explain how we came to this point, I will provide the reader with a sense of the spaces which will be mentioned in this piece, being Gezi Park, Beyoglu, and Taksim Square, all located in the largest city of the country, Istanbul. Until the June 2013 uprising, Gezi Park, instead of a place of destination, was a neglected and in-between place connecting work and education amenities. Its neglect was also fuelled by the proximity of Beyoglu, Cihangir, and Galata, old neighbourhoods with a cosmopolitan city life, including night clubs, cafes, restaurants, exhibition and art centres. Istanbul has always been a city of neighbourhoods segregated on the basis of a particular identity and way of life. In this respect, Taksim and the main district to which it belongs, Beyoglu, have been known for centuries as the western face of Istanbul, due to the non-Muslim and Levantine populations who lived in the area involved with trade and especially banking during the Ottoman Empire. These people were early adopters of a bourgeoisie lifestyle in the Ottoman Empire who brought a westernised way of life with particular consumption habits. Beyoglu has various non-Muslim places of worship (synagogues and churches) and is characterized by a built environment reflecting a European taste. After Non-Muslim populations gradually left Turkey during the Republican Era, Taksim and Beyoglu experienced periods of neglect, leading to the inflow of migrants from Anatolia. However, the area is still dominated by beautiful buildings and a mixed population of tourists, locals and passers-by, becoming more popular due to its gradual renewal and gentrification since the 1980. Similarly, Galata and Cihangir also experienced gentrification, and are preferred as a place of residence especially by artists, intellectuals and academics, being two neighbourhoods famous for their night life, arts and cultural events, cosmopolitan way of life, and old built environment. During the Republican period, the secular nation builders were clever to transform Taksim Square into a symbol of modern Istanbul. Taksim Square, where Gezi Park is located, is also home to the Ataturk Monument, erected in 1928 to commemorate the Independence War and its heroes, including Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. Since then, it has become the symbol of secularism and later of socialism during the 1970s, hosting large left-wing demonstrations, to commemorate 1st of May, Workers’ Day. The area was closed off to the public for left-wing demonstrations by the 1980 coup d’etat starting a neoliberal period of oppression. The Square’s modern identity was complemented by the Ataturk Cultural Centre, built in 1969 and then rebuilt in 1977 after a fire, as the main centre for classical music concerts, opera and ballet performances until its closure in 2008, all of which make Taksim Square the “door to the modern Istanbul”.
The Taksim Square: Ataturk Monument is located in the round area, with Gezi Park in the upper right of the picture, the green area. The large block to the right is the Ataturk Cultural Centre, closed to the public since 2008. The Square is in the middle of the picture which became the site for left-wing demonstrations during the 1970s. The picture is taken from Google Earth.
Justice and Development Party: From Aspiration to the EU into a Society of Fear
Here a couple of sentences are needed on the Justice and Development Party, the ruling party of Turkey since 2002 which adopts neoliberal economic policies but uses populist and conservative discourses to win over the masses, discussed also in recent blogs written by Taskale (2013) and Dikec (2013). The party can be regarded as the melting pot of different right-wing ideologies and is supported by the Islamic capital and denominations (Tanulku, 2012a). Its main supporters are the immigrant masses living in large cities lacking in cultural capital, and unconcerned about the arts/culture (high culture) and the protection of heritage and environment. The Justice and Development Party’s populist discourses identify with the masses, who felt isolated and exploited, economically and socio-culturally in the face of an established secular urban culture. The party also wins over the masses through economic subsidies, which are reminiscent of “sadaka”, the aid mechanism used during the Ottoman Empire, a period which Justice and Development Party seeks to imitate due to its loyalty to Islamic and Ottoman roots, using discourses relying on the Empire’s traditions to build its power in the Middle East. Economic subsidies replaced the state’s welfare mechanisms since the 1980 coup d’etat, and instead, the government provides economic support for needy populations through informal means. The party was also supported by the established ruling classes who encouraged the existence of religiously indoctrinated masses due to a common belief that a religious person would not claim anything “this-worldly” and accept their lower statutes as “God given”. However, at the same time, the ruling classes are also threatened with the fact that the Justice and Development Party also created its own bourgeoisie, adopting a conservative way of life which is against anything secular and western. They also threaten the share of secular and established upper classes in the economic wealth. Labelled as “White Muslims”, the rising Islamic upper classes also created a dilemma due to the belief that Islam should reflect modesty and an ascetic way of life while capitalism reflects greed and consumerism (Tanulku, 2012a).
Despite adopting neoliberal economic policies and using discourses which show no respect towards women, minority groups, LGTB people, and no interest in heritage, arts and culture, and basic human and animal rights due to its anti-enlightenment roots, the party was well-supported by a majority of Turkish people since it was seen as a step towards the Turkey’s EU membership and its aim of reducing the military’s domination over Turkish politics. This support is eroded in time due to the party’s policies limiting liberal freedoms, creating debates on the number of children a couple should have, discouragement of women’s participation in the workforce and political life, insufficient preventive measures and punishment towards sexual offences, as well as persecutions against people who criticise party politics, the long “Ergenekon” trial to sequester the secular and anti-imperialist wing of the Turkish Army and other important institutions, the censorship on the social media and the overtake of the mass media. Lastly, its aim at restricting abortions, controlling alcohol consumption, transforming all secular secondary schools into religious schools and describing the founding fathers of the Republic as “alcoholics” were widely criticised, including in the social media, the space where people can raise their voices.
A New Urban Process under the Justice and Development Party’s Rule
The party which also governs most of the Turkish cities has also a bad record on the protection of urban heritage and green areas, seen by them as sites to be transformed into profit. In the last years, Istanbul has witnessed several urban renewal projects, which eradicated old inner neighbourhoods, consisting of mainly the urban poor. This process ended in dispossessing local populations, breaking their social ties with urban life and moving them into new and soulless housing complexes outside the city, while selling these properties at high prices. Their main rationale is that these old buildings should be renewed since they are too old to resist to a potential earthquake, used as an excuse to transform these old neighbourhoods into sites of consumption and residence to fuel the housing boom. Lastly, in May 2013, the building which contained one of the oldest movie theatres of Istanbul, Emek Sinemasi, host to various international movie festivals and the old Inci Patisserie, one of the symbols of Beyoglu known for its delicious profiteroles, was totally demolished, a widely-criticised event especially by intellectuals, academics and movie-goers. The building is being transformed into a shopping mall, one among many others in Beyoglu, which would radically transform the soul of the area from a cultural milieu into a consumption space. Major developments in the north of the city, such as “Kanal Istanbul” and Third Bosporus Bridge and the Airport will also lead to the eradication of all native forests on both sides of northern Istanbul. The construction of a large mosque imitating its Ottoman predecessors on the Camlica Hill, one of few hills covered with trees, a breathing space for people in a highly-urbanised city, also caused strong opposition.
More particularly, local and national authorities aimed at transforming the Gezi Park into an imitation of Ottoman Halil Pasha Artillery Barracks, a symbol of Sharia uprising repressed by the secular Ottoman army officers in 1909, demolished during the Republican Period in 1940. The new building is rumoured to include a shopping mall, residences as well as a city museum. However, the underlying aim of the current local authorities is to take revenge from the secular nation-building process which transformed the Taksim Square into an open space full of modern symbols in the centre of Istanbul. The re-erecting of the old military barracks is only one step towards the transformation of the area into a neo-Ottoman space of consumption and destruction of its image of left-wing political activism. The second step is to demolish Ataturk Cultural Centre, another symbol of modernity, sealed off by the authorities governed by the Justice and Development Party to replace it with another cultural centre. These buildings and structures in the Square were coincidentally constructed in modern style, while conservative government aims at building structures in baroque style, reflecting their conservative taste. However, their principal wish is to erect a mosque in the midst of the Square to complete the conquest of the Square, and erase its heritage full of secular and modern symbols, which was concealed by their excuse to answer the need of a place of worship for Muslim population in Beyoglu, despite the fact that the area has already a couple of small mosques.
The events started at the end of May, the boiling point of a growing opposition developed over the last ten years against the ruling party. When workers from the city administration tried to evict the sit-in arena in Gezi Park, several MPs from the opposition parties, namely CHP (Republican People’s Party) and BDP (Peace and Democracy Party), joined the protesters to support them. The events turned into a guerrilla-warfare in the streets of Istanbul, which were transmitted through informal channels of the social media, instead of the mainstream media, which censored the news due to the fear of the government. That Saturday, on 1st of June, the demonstration planned to be held in the Asian side of the city by the largest opposition party CHP was transferred to Taksim Square to support the events. It turned into one of the largest gatherings in recent Turkish history, which was supported not only by people in the streets, but by also by residents of apartments nearby and by drivers of cars passing by. Over the days, the PM Erdogan used aggressive discourses against the protesters, whom he called “capulcu” (looters) in order to debase them in front of the masses voting for him. Erdogan also tried to encourage his supporters by saying “I have difficulty in holding back the 50% who support me”. The clashes between police and the protesters ended in several casualties, hundreds of wounded and imprisoned. However, instead of retreating, the numbers of protesters grew rapidly in Ankara, the capital city, and other large cities in Anatolia, and answered Erdogan back through a humoristic language “I am chapulling!” (I am looting!).
The Taksim Square, during the uprising in 2013
The People Revolting
The people on streets consist of several groups: the first and the largest section comprise young people, with high educational and possibly cultural capital, coming from families of urban social origin. These young and restless people’s main concerns are of lifestyle related, which would be restricted due to the ruling party’s policies. They are also concerned about Turkey’s current environmental and heritage problems. The second group consist of the secular middle classes, together with nationalists, who are concerned about their liberal freedoms once guaranteed by the secular state. In addition, they are also concerned about the Kurdish question in Turkey, which is regarded as a threat to the continuity of the Turkish Republic. Another important group consist of women, who think their liberal freedoms would be restricted due to the conservative policies of the Justice and Development Party. There are also fifty shades of left represented by trade unions, political parties, and public sector workers, from different standpoints, which are against the increasing inequality, the growing insecure working conditions and general pressure on unions and other organisations working for class solidarity and social equality. Other groups have different concerns, such as Alawi and/or Kurdish people, LGTB people, human and animal rights activists, neighbourhood organisations, environmental activists, arts and cultural groups, and anti-capitalist Muslims, becoming more visible in the last years, refusing Justice and Development Party’s neoliberal and authoritarian policies as well as a consumerist/greedy lifestyle while accepting a devout Islamic way of life. All these people, united against the ruling party and its policies and even if they have opposing views, were able to gather and camp together in the Gezi Park, before their eviction by the police forces. However, the events turned into a “multi-layered and packaged opposition” which consist of informal TV channels such as “Capul TV” established in Gezi Park at the height of the uprising in order to broadcast the events directly, several demonstrations held in other large cities, slogans thrown during football matches uniting fans of rival football clubs, environmental camps to enlighten others, festivals and concerts to raise aid for those who were wounded due to police violence, urban forums held in several neighbourhoods of various big cities organised by ordinary people as well as certain non-violent civil obedience examples such as “Standing Man” in front of Ataturk Cultural Centre to raise awareness about the events and the fast production of several books and documentary movies. This packaged opposition, which also created its own jargon and language based on humour, can lead to an increasing awareness among people who can find new ways of resistance and solutions to the on-going problems.
The Events and Beyond
What are the consequences of these events? Their first and foremost outcome is the confidence reclaimed by Turkish people from diverse backgrounds. They acted against the powerful despite the lack of a leader, or vanguard organisation or the protective wings of the Turkish Army, seen as a guarantee against enemies, especially by the secular middle classes. Instead, the young Turkish generations did not wait until a saviour comes to save them. These young people, despite their high economic and social capital, joined their comrades in Gezi Park when they left their offices to join the crowds. By becoming Supermen of the current era, ordinary people working during day and rebels with a cause during night, they rediscovered the beauty of coming together. Once accused of being narcissistic, apolitical and egoistic, they paid the price of going into the streets by losing their eyes, being wounded and partially disabled until the end of their lives and dying so young, signalling the end of a post-political age. The second actor which gained confidence was political enemies in the left and opposition, which also led to the building of new bridges between them, a dream and hope for years. This was seen in the cooperation between nationalist feminists, supporting the national secular state policies and the new generation of feminists emerging since the 1980s, who were usually against the policies of secular nation state due to its top-down process of organising which seemed as tyrannical. Now, in Gezi Park the old and the new generation feminists gathered together. In addition, there is also some rekindling in left parties in order to enter the local elections together.
Second, these events also showed the importance of the open urban space as the centre of becoming, revolution, and change. In this respect, the material space in its urban form reclaimed its power and became the site of conflict, and change. The protesters claimed their right to the city by occupying the most important centre of Istanbul from being transformed into a closed space. This also signals the end of the domination of neoliberal spaces such as shopping malls, which received criticisms for being “too many” for Istanbul and other large cities. The events also indicated that the people made their own spaces, which altered urban topography, signalling a bottom-up process of space-making based on the interaction between space and people. This space is made by the protesters instead of practitioners and politicians, through their everyday interaction with each other and conflict with the police forces. This is especially seen in Gezi Park and Taksim Square, when Gezi Park was occupied with the protesters and became an arena of life, cooking, eating, drinking, debating, dancing, singing, praying, practicing yoga, and even studying and preparing for university exams! The Gezi Park, considered to be the first “commune” of Turkey, was also surrounded by several buses and cars abducted from the police, to protect the commune and the trees in the Park from being demolished. Before its occupation, Gezi Park, located above the Square, was segregated from the Taksim Square by the barriers erected by the Municipality to close off the area for regeneration. However, the occupation transformed the area into a very large open space, extending towards the upper class shopping district of Sisli. However, this human-made urban topography had already been planned during the early Republican Era by architect Henry Proust, who was invited by Ataturk to help in the master planning of Istanbul. Proust planned the area as a large wooded land for recreation, called Plan no. 2. Now people themselves made an open space by demolishing barriers which revived the once–planned but never realised Plan no. 2. The making of space was completed by the occupation of Ataturk Cultural Centre which was covered by the posters and banners of various organisations, political parties, and activist groups. Once a soulless black box, it transformed into a living building reflecting the various shades of the Turkish left that was silenced since the coup d’etat of 1980. In addition, this material space is connected with the virtual space, by the help of the social media which became crucial in organising these “real life events”, signalling the amalgamation of the virtual and real realms. Social media became both a tool for action in real life and the space of meeting, when real life cannot provide opportunity to come together.
The Ataturk Cultural Centre covered with banners and posters of various shades of the left.
Third, these demonstrations made people reflect on the Zeitgeist of the events. The Gezi Park events are based on the ideals of secularism and enlightenment, which do not exclude conservative people. This is also against the idea that the Gezi Park uprising is similar to Arab Spring. Instead, it is against everything put forward by Arab Spring, which ended in the takeover of several dictatorships by Islamic fundamentalists. Rather, Gezi Park uprising is against Islamist tyranny and resembles an Occupy Event. Second, the uprising also reflects a search for a moral society that became more degenerate, due to the long and greedy 1980s, leading to the rise of a culture dominated by celebrities and consumption, apolitical youth and a general lack of interest in politics (Tanulku, 2012b). This can lead younger protestors to think on what would a young student of economics do who played the role of the rebel in the streets of Istanbul, when she/he starts working in a multinational bank owned by those people, she/he hated once while a student? Can this person have the right to behave like those people who once she/he hated? And how would a rebel person behave when he/she takes the power? Can capitalism be moral? Or can socialism transform into a hell due to basic human nature? Can the space, soul and morality of Gezi Commune be expanded towards the other realms of the everyday life? Can soulless cities re-gain their life back due to the new culture of Gezi commune? During their rule, the Justice and Development Party also led to a change in everyday beliefs due to the rise of a new upper class, “White Muslims” who adopt an Islamic way of life but do not find difficulty in exploiting the workers and relying on a conspicuous way of life. Together with the scandals of the ruling party, this led to reflections on the relation between religion and morality, and capitalism and Islam. This is seen in the emergence of “anti-capitalist Muslims” who joined the protests and prayed while they camped together with other groups in the Gezi Park, claimed by Erdogan to be “marginal and atheists”. This might lead to new cooperation between leftists and conservative/religious people, something missing in everyday debates.
Fourth, the events also led people to reflect on the condition of the working classes. The Gezi revolt is criticised by the left due to the under-representation of the urban poor in the events. The lack of success of leftist politics among the urban poor is related to various factors in Turkey. First, due to the neoliberalisation of the economy and society, the unionisation among the workers declined in the last several decades. Second, the urban masses, including the working class, do not support leftist politics. Instead, they support political parties which use populist discourses, and in the case of Turkey, those using religious and to a certain extent nationalistic discourses. Leftist politics cannot address the majority of the voting population, due to the popular belief that socialism and communism would bring anarchy and atheism, and would ban religious freedom if take power. Third, as noted above, the conventional labour markets changed radically since the 1980s due to the rise of new forms of capital accumulation, and new groups within the working population, who are well-paid. As a result of their high educational, social and economic capital, which conceals their class exploitation, they are not aware that they also belong to the working class. However, it should be noted that young people also experience unemployment and even if they are well-paid, face insecure working conditions. This is a very different condition from that experienced by their middle class parents who lived during the Golden Age of the welfare state which provided secure working conditions and a predictable future. In addition, the young student generation in universities do not know what the future will bring them. As a result, these people, who normally should not feel insecure about their future, can become more preoccupied with their economic as well as psychological well-being which can lead to more radical leftist and/or humanitarian movements. In addition, together with the coming economic crisis in Turkey due to the government’s economic policies, people might wish for a more equal distribution of wealth. This would also address a need of a different kind of policy making among different strands of the working classes, based on their needs, jargon and culture. These events continued during hot summer months of 2013, despite the long summer vacation, which leave large cities relatively empty. Despite the uncertainty about the continuity and direction of the events, Turkish people indicated that they have a voice over the fate of their cities and futures, signalling a more promising future at least in the developing world, where people from very diverse backgrounds came together and formed an amorphous, vertical, and pluralistic opposition. This will hopefully continue as signalled in the slogan used during the events “This is only the beginning, our struggle will continue”…
TANULKU, B. (2012a) Gated Communities: From Self-Sufficient Towns to Active Urban Agents, Geoforum, 43 (3): 518-528.
TANULKU, B. (2012b) “Moral Capitalism” and Gated Communities: An Example of Spatio-moral Fragmentation in Istanbul, http://citiesmcr.wordpress.com/2012/11/27/moral-capitalism-and-gated-communities-an-example-of-spatio-moral-fragmentation-in-istanbul/
For the information on the historical transformation of Taksim Square, I referred to “Gezi Parki Kitlelerin Evi” (Gezi Park: The Home of the Masses”), Kemal Tayfur, pp. 70-76, the Atlas Magazine Special Issue on Gezi Park, July 2013.
For a good analysis of the Justice and Development Party and the socio-political logic behind the Gezi Park revolt see Taskale, A. (2013) “Gezi Revolt: Critique, Courage-A Commentary”, http://societyandspace.com/2013/07/08/gezi-revolt-critique-courage-a-commentary-by-ali-riza-taskale/ and Dikec, M. (2013), “Fraudulent democracy and Urban Stasis in Turkey”, http://societyandspace.com/2013/06/14/commentary-by-mustafa-dikec-fraudulent-democracy-and-urban-stasis-in-turkey/.