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The odour of Gezi: On the dangers of crass populism

The Gezi protests have shown us that 'White Turk elitism' has created its own Frankenstein - 'Black Turk populism'.

Last Modified: 24 Jun 2013 15:15
Umut Ozkirimli

Umut Ozkirimli is professor of Contemporary Turkey Studies at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University, Sweden.
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It is still too early to fully grasp the nature of Gezi protests, let alone predict its political implications, writes author [Reuters]

Much ink has been spilled in the last two weeks to explain the wave of protests that has swept Turkey - most of it based on hasty analogies, banal platitudes, archaic conspiracy theories and a heavy dose of wishful thinking.

As is the case with most social events, it is still too early to fully grasp the nature of Gezi protests, let alone predict its potential political implications.

We can still offer preliminary analyses of aspects of the protests, however, drawing on the statements of various actors who played an active role in the event.

One such aspect, largely overlooked by most commentators, is the anti-elitism, or "crass populism" displayed by Prime Minister Erdogan and his supporters in the media, who have given a new lease of life to the old distinction between "White Turks" and "Black Turks".

White Turks versus Black Turks

The origin of this distinction goes back to the 1980s, when the phrase "White Turk" was used by journalists to depict the rising urban bourgeoisie. It had a clear elitist and exclusionary undertone, distinguishing the so-called Kemalist secularists from the so-called anti-Kemalist "Islamists".

The "Black Turks" had no qualms with the distinction either. It was none other than Prime Minister Erdogan who declared in an interview, as early as 2003: "In this country, there is a segregation between White Turks and Black Turks. Your brother Tayyip belongs to the Black Turks."

The phrase "White Turks-Black Turks" quickly became a code word for the ideogical and cultural cleavages of the AKP era. Now, the distinction is based on lifestyle differences, with the urban, Westernised, educated and relatively wealthy classes opposed to rural, illiterate, backward and poor masses. 

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The class racism inherent in the distinction is mixed in certain cases with a strong dose of biological racism, as the infamous case of Mine Kirikkanat, a journalist who talked about Black Turks "with short legs, hairy and long arms, ruminating, burping and scratching" in an article she wrote in July 2005, illustrates.

It is often accompanied by an element of welfare chauvinism as the elites are no longer willing to share their prosperity with the poor masses.

Black Turks strike back

The Gezi protests have shown us that this distinction is more deep-seated and pervasive than we thought, and that White Turk elitism has created its own Frankenstein, Black Turk populism.

That a defiant Erdogan would rely on the imagery of the oppressed, yet silent and law-abiding majority, is not in itself surprising.

"We are a party which received 21.5 million votes. Almost 50 percent. Aren't we supposed to have the final say [on Gezi Park]?," Erdogan said in a televised interview on June 2, covertly threatening the protesters with the power of the numbers.

"Those who say they believe in democracy are not honest. What we see here is the hegemony of the minority over the majority," he claimed a couple of days later.

But few could anticipate the moralistic and outright derogatory tone Erdogan would adopt. Once again, the bone of contention was lifestyle and culture. "If one drinks, one is alcoholic," he ruled in the same televised interview, when asked to comment on the recent controversial alcohol legislation which was perceived by some as an encroachment of their lifestyle and cited among the causes of Gezi demonstrations.

And then there was "odour". Yes, odour, smell. The occupied Gezi Park smelled bad, according to Prime Minister Erdogan, who hardly disguised his contempt for the protesters.

"It is interesting," he said on June 13, "that this Gezi Park, and I am going to be blunt for the sake of environmentalism, is full of trash, litter. It smells urine. Some are defecating there [using a religiously-loaded term, 'buyuk abdestini yapmak']."

Not the genuine, sincere ones. The latter use the toilets in nearby hotels, thereby introducing a moral hierarchy between the "clean", hence sincere, and the "dirty", hence the insincere.

AKP supporters were quick to adopt their leaders' discourse. Thus, caricaturist Hasan Kacan claimed (in the wake of his meeting with the Prime Minister on June 12) that he knew what was going on in Gezi since his son was there: "There is no shower, no food. It terribly smells urine… Gezi Park is no longer a place a human being can live."

A journalist and researcher posted a tweet on June 9: "I have been to Gezi Park for two hours, to observe. There is no need for the police to spray pepper gas. Those who are there will get tuberculosis because of the dirt and the smell. Very bad."

Others were more "ironic". "The hygiene of Gezi is below the standards in India. The TOMAs (armoured vehicles used by riot police) should come and fire their water cannons before an epidemic starts," tweeted an activist and founder of a civil society organisation, famous for its satirical opposition to military tutelage on June 8. 

Gezi and the 'politics of odour'

Yet, irony or satire does not conceal the contempt. In fact, this kind of language propagates hatred. This is precisely why any attempt to contest the truth value of these claims is futile.

At the end of the day, the language used by the prime minister and his supporters - the "Black Turks" - is no different than that of Mine Kirikkanat, who complained about "carnivore Islamistan", that is, the Black Turks doing barbecue in the parks.

The "politics of odour" is simply old wine in a new bottle, a battle between elitism and anti-elitism (masquerading as benign populism) fought over the symbolically and ideologically charged field of culture and lifestyle. 

There is no shower, no food. It terribly smells urine… Gezi Park is no longer a place a human being can live.

Hasan Kacan, caricaturist

This is also reflected in the class composition of Gezi Park protesters. KONDA, a public opinion poll company, conducted a survey of 4,411 respondents on June 6 and 7 and found that most of the protesters had an urban, educated background - 35 percent of the respondents were high school graduates compared to 27 percent, the average in Turkey.

What is more, 52 percent of the respondents were employed and 37 percent were students, as opposed to 35 percent and 7 percent, the average in Turkey. These are precisely the characteristics that make them White Turks in the eyes of AKP supporters that in turn rekindle enduring fears about a White, secularist takeover.

In this context, I would argue that Gezi protests should be read as an early warning, a premonition so to speak, exposing the poisonous nature of the discourse of "White Turks versus Black Turks".

They remind us that the power structures that lie behind these labels, in fact the labels themselves are self-perpetuating; that the internalisation of this discourse by the "victims" and its subsequent use for political purposes lead to its reification and reproduction; that Black Turks, the "oppressed", could be as contemptuous and at times, racist as the "oppressors".

Most importantly, they show us that contrary to the assumptions of White Turks who are the root cause of the problem, the Black Turks are not inherently anti-systemic, but quite conformist when it comes to the control of the state and its ideological apparatuses, provided that they could be mustered to implement their own agenda. 

Whatever the case, we must not be fooled by the identity or the social status of those perpetrating the discourse of White Turks versus Black Turks, for elitism and anti-elitism are two sides of the same coin. We must be equally vigilant in our fight against rabid elitism and crass populism (and the recent incarnation of the latter in the current politics of odour).

As Patrick Suskind notes in his best-selling novel Perfume: "Odours have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will. The persuasive power of an odour cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it."

Umut Ozkirimli is professor of Contemporary Turkey Studies at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University, Sweden.

Follow him on Twitter: @UOzkirimli

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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