Taksim Square is not Tahrir Square

The main actors in Turkey’s ongoing protests are motivated by reactionary ideology, not environmental concerns.

Erdogan reads hand
Erdogan's AK Party has paved the way for once-marginalised groups to enjoy democracy, say authors [EPA]

The unrest in Istanbul’s Taksim Square and Gezi Park has been underway for almost two weeks now. Initially an environmentalist protest against the Istanbul municipality’s Taksim Project, which would have removed some trees from the corner of Gezi Park, the reaction has spread to various other cities around the country and turned into organised unrest against the AK Party’s government, which has been in power since 2002.

A decisive factor in the spreading unrest was the police’s excessive use of pepper spray and tear gas to evacuate the Gezi Park protesters on May 31, behaviour that government officials have acknowledged and harshly criticised.

The Taksim Project was announced by the AK Party during the 2011 elections. In addition to expanding pedestrian roads and re-building an old military barracks, the project would also, contrary to popular belief, not decrease but increase the amount of green area in Taksim. Automobile traffic would be diverted underground and the entire Taksim Square, one of the largest squares in Istanbul, would be reserved for pedestrians only.

It is ironic to observe that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has taken democratic steps to end Turkey’s 30-year-old problem with terrorism and the Kurdish group PKK, and who has been praised universally for his fight against corruption, military tutelage and judicial oligarchy, is now accused of being a “fascist dictator” by the main actors of the unrest, who are motivated by ideological reactionarism rather than mere environmental anxieties.

Known for its stance as a far-right extremist group with totalitarian and militarist tendencies, members of the Turkish Youth Association (TGB) have been filling Gezi Park and Taksim Square with their chanting and slogans, such as: “We are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.” Devotees of Turkey’s first president Ataturk, who have been some of the fiercest opponents of Erdogan for his decisive struggle against groups trying to overthrow the government during the 2000s, currently constitute the majority of the protesters. They attempt to legitimise their militarist reactionarism by tying themselves to the environmentalist and democratic protesters at Gezi Park.

Following the acclaimed Turkish sociologist Serif Mardin’s analysis, Turkey has witnessed conflict between the “centre” and the “periphery” since the foundation of the republic in 1923. In the course of “modernising” the country with a Western outlook, the Kemalist “centre” constituted the Muslim majority, with the Kurds and non-secular Turks as its “other”.

The AK Party’s rise to power in the 2002 elections, its continuing success in subsequent polls, and its recognition of Turkish Kurds’ demands for equal rights has revolutionised the centre-periphery relations. For the first time in republican history, the periphery has been the decisive actor in the shaping of politics and culture, and not the country’s republican elite.

The AK Party has paved the way for Muslims, Kurds, the lower-class suburban poor and non-Muslims to enjoy a democratic society.

It is no surprise that Selahattin Demirtas, the co-president of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and a Kurdish representative in parliament, openly declared that they do not support far-right nationalist and fascist groups in their attempts to overthrow the government, by turning the environmentalist response at Gezi Park into a plot against the AK Party.

While several Kurdish activists are involved in the communal life at Gezi Park, it is significant that Turkey’s heavily Kurdish regions did not organise any demonstrations against the government. PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan also declared his support for the environmentalist and democratic demands of the Gezi Park activists, but warned against the possibility of a plot against the AK Party government by far-right nationalists and the “Ergenekon” terrorist organisation, members of which were tried and punished for their coup attempts against the AK Party government since 2002.

During the 11 years in which the AK Party has democratically held power, the party has paved the way for Muslims, Kurds, the lower-class suburban poor and non-Muslims to enjoy a democratic society. With the new constitutional law and the necessary democratic steps to be taken for the Kurdish democratic opening, we believe that the AK Party has a lot to offer to the democratising process of Turkey, and has the chance to turn the passive revolution into a radical transformation of the society in terms of democracy, welfare, the demands of the subaltern and human rights.

In sum, “Taksim Square” is not “Tahrir Square” and this is not a “Turkish Spring”. The Turkish Spring occurred long ago, when the AK Party revolutionised the country after winning a majority of seats in parliament in 2002. As anthropologists and Marxist academics constantly observing the field, we observe that the AK Party still holds the support of the subaltern, the real subjects of a possible revolution. Since 2002, the people on Turkey’s periphery have become the centre. Today’s chaos threatens to reverse this.

Dr Ali Murat Yel is an anthropologist and teaches in the school of communication at Marmara University in Istanbul.

Follow him on Twitter: @alimuratyel

Alparslan Nas is a research assistant in the school of communication at Marmara University in Istanbul.

Follow him on Twitter: @alparslannas