Gezi Park: Revolutionary ethos and the hope of history being a bad teacher

Unfortunately political polarisation seems the destiny of Turkey for the foreseeable future, writes Richard Falk.

turkey clashes
A gas-masked man during clashes between riot police and protesters near Taksim Square in Istanbul Turkey [EPA]

As the dramatic Turkish protests subside, or declare an intermission, this is a time to take stock, but cautiously. 

Precisely when political reality explodes in unexpected ways, pundits come along suggesting comparisons, offering hastily constructed explanations, and cite influences and antecedents. Surprise is suppressed by most ‘experts’ who do all that they can to hide these awkward exposures of how little they knew about the explosive forces in society, which erupted without any advance notice. After the explosion these wannabe gurus step forth with undiminished confidence to tell us with learned demeanour why and how it happened, why it was almost inevitable to turn out as it did, and the most arrogant and often most influential even dare tell us what to expect next, and why it is good or bad. 

While appreciating this fact of public life, let us take note that even the most wily intelligence agencies, with billions at their disposal, total command over mountains of secret data, running roughshod over the privacy and  legal rights of even their own citizens and others to get it right on behalf of their government employers, still invariably miss ‘the jumps’ of change that are the real substance of history. 

Why are we so bad at anticipating these jumps of history? Partly, for the same reasons that even the most sophisticated vulcanists cannot predict with any accuracy an earthquake or volcano—as in politics, the tipping points in nature and society cannot be anticipated by interpreting scientific trends or through the analysis of incremental changes, but disclose themselves with an unforeseeable abruptness.

In reaction, an appropriate level of humility and tentativeness goes a long way, acknowledging these limits of understanding, taking due account of their distinctiveness and admitting our inability to access what lies beneath the surface. Another part of the difficulty associated with such interpretative ventures is the bias associated with the observer’s gaze. We are habitually trained and experienced to look at politics from above, whether our perspective is that of elites or counter-elites, but revolutionary impulses come, if and when they come, almost invariably from pressures generated from below, that is, from the ‘multitude,’ pressures that materialise by suddenly bursting forth as happenings that startle and reverberate (e.g. Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the velvet revolution, the Jasmine Revolution, Tahrir Square, Occupy Wall Street).

The Gezi Park Protests

Was Gezi Park in Istanbul such a happening, as many here in Turkey hope, or did it reflect the wishful thinking of those among the protesters who were seeking a genuinely inclusive democracy in Turkey respectful not only of the environment and cultural identity, but dedicated to the rights of all, especially such habitually abused minorities as Kurds and Alevis? 

Professor Asli Bali, a highly regarded young law scholar teaching at UCLA School of Law, persuasively encapsulated the core of the struggle as an epic encounter between two models of democracy– the majoritarian entitlement claims of Erdogan (but not necessarily all elements in the AKP) versus the participatory and populist ethos of the younger generation, which is almost as opposed to the republican (anti-democratic) ethos of the secular elders who were mainly aligned with the recently inept and anachronistic CHP as it is to Erdogan’s leadership of the AKP.  It is persuasive that Bali pins her hopes for the political future of Turkey not on an anti-AKP challenge being mounted by an opposition party, but rather on a split within the AKP that will give control to the more inclusive moderate wing, which I presume would be led by the current president of Turkey, Abdullah Gul.

Such an unusual outlook on political alternatives, which I share, is significant for at least three reasons. 

First, it validates the positive contributions of AKP governance over the past eleven years, while rejecting the style and some of the substance of the Erdogan leadership. Secondly, it implicitly rejects the idea of an electoral transfer of governmental authority to the traditional opposition represented by the old Kemalist party, the CHP, which despite its strong presence in Gezi Square and in the protests throughout the country, was viewed by the core protesters as politically irrelevant to reshaping the political future of Turkey. Thirdly, strong doubts as to whether this radical character of the protests, with neither party, program, agenda, nor leaders, would grow into a movement on behalf of what Derrida calls ‘democracy to come’ as an aspirational vision that is dramatically different from existing forms of ‘democracy.’ If the past teaches us anything, it suggests that such revolutionary moments do not last, either because they become institutionalised in stultifying bureaucracies, and lose their revolutionary identity, or they don’t, and simply fade away. Of course, many of us hope expectantly that history this time is a bad teacher!

What Future for Turkish ‘New Politics’?

The dust has not yet settled, and thus it is too early to know whether a new political subjectivity has been born in Turkey that will fill the political vacuum created by the absence of a credible and responsible opposition during this period of secular displacement and AKP consolidation. It is uncertain whether this recent venting of frustration and resentment can be converted into a sustainable political movement that offers the Turkish polity a post-Kemalist alternative to Erdogan’s AKP, and does so without losing the very substantial achievements of the last decade.

We also should not underestimate the capacity of the AKP, including Erdogan, to learn from Gezi Park. Despite the bluster and the inflammatory tirades about the evils of social networking, foreign provocateurs and domestic ‘looters’ and ‘terrorists’, the excessive police force (hardly a novelty in the region, and even Europe, but no more excusable for being ‘the old normal’), Erdogan did eventually back down considerably as the pressure mounted. Erdogan seems now willing to put the Gezi Project on hold for the indefinite future, awaiting a judicial determination of the acceptability of the project and a citywide referendum in Istanbul that will give the municipal citizenry an opportunity to kill the project. And we should not idealise the protesters, a minority of whom did vandalise and demean Islamic sensibilities with obscene graffiti and beer bottles thrown on the floor of a nearby mosque.

The government’s new approach to the Gezi controversy may yet prove to be problematic. The referendum may endorse the project as a reassertion of popular support for Erdogan.  A referendum in such situations can often dangerously infringe upon fundamental social values that should be protected regardless of how ‘the people’ vote. 

The preservation of Gezi Park would seem to qualify for meta-political protective treatment. Gezi Park as a green enclave, along with its proximity to Taksim Square, possesses a vivid resonance for the whole city of Istanbul, including even the revitalised Ottoman heritage so dear to Erdogan and the AKP generally, but equally for the younger generation that often have cherished memories of the park from their childhood, and above all for those who continue to find their political identity via an almost hallowed adherence to the principles of governance laid down by the founder of the republic, Kemal Ataturk. 

There were other serious grievances that need to be addressed if the AKP wants to build a more legitimate structure of governance in the country, including the release of journalists and other prisoners of conscience presently held, greater reassurances about freedom of expression and dissent, more public accountability of police and government. At the same time, the depth of opposition in some sectors of Turkish society makes reconciliation a mission impossible. Polarisation seems the destiny of Turkey for the foreseeable future.

There is, to be sure, some peculiar features present in the litany of opposition complaints. For instance, there are frequent allegations that anti-government criticism is absent due to intimidation. It is true that Turkish TV seemed at first to ignore the events in Gezi Park while the international media was fully attentive. Yet the reality in Turkey, as I have experienced it, is one of widespread and harsh criticism of Erdogan from many angles, not the slightest evidence of media intimidation or alleged self-censorship, and a greatly exaggerated contention that the voices of censure have been silenced by imprisonment. There are many journalists imprisoned, to be sure, but apparently less for their views than for their alleged involvement in anti-government activities.

The puzzle I have encountered after recently arriving in Turkey is why so many people seem honestly to believe that freedom of expression has been so severely encroached upon when it seems at least as robust as what is found in other democracies. What can be more aptly complained about here in Turkey, but less so than in the United States, is the shrillness of the critical media that offers no space for those with moderate views cleaving to ‘the golden mean.’ 

In the US where talk radio features inflammatory voices of the extreme right such as Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and the Murdoch tabloid mendacities of the Fox Network given more intelligent reactionary spins in the editorial columns of the Wall Street Journal.  Yet there is also present influential middle of the road media, New York Times, Washington Post, PBS, Rachel Maddow, MSNBC, which although far from objective still helps readers understand that there are at least two sides to many contested issues.  Controversially, I find Today’s Zaman the most consistently informed and balanced of the major media sources, but interestingly almost unavailable at most newsstands throughout Istanbul that seem to favour the secular media. 

A Preliminary Balance Sheet

Up until now the unsettled immediate situation in Turkey has discouraged me from commenting on what remains a still confused and complicated situation. Despite their marginalisation in Gezi Square itself, the mainstream Turkish secular opposition to the AK Party leadership of the country over the past 11 years, welcomed these protests with unreserved enthusiasm misleadingly claiming in the media and throughout the world that was their moment of vindication. It should be remembered that the Kemalist republicans and the traditional left have feared and hated the AKP from the moment of their initial electoral victory in 2002. They have particularly detested Recip Teyyip Erdogan even before he became prime minister. These political elements of the Old Turkey stubbornly refuse to credit the achievements of his leadership in elevating Turkey’s regional and global stature in dramatic fashion, while managing to do what was thought to be impossible—excluding the Turkish military from political arenas while presiding over an unprecedented period of economic growth and political stability. The embittered opposition angrily explained that these positive results would have occurred under whatever government was in power, and besides, the AKP was deceitfully pursuing a secret agenda that was intent on placing the country within the iron cage of Sharia law, with the goal of making Turkey into ‘a second Iran.’

It seems clear that these essentially partisan and polarising attitudes do not seem to have animated the original protesters in Gezi Park who were mainly reacting with appropriate anger to a grotesque urban renewal plan that would have destroyed a sentimental park adjoining the richly symbolic centre of Istanbul in Taksim Square, replacing it with a vulgar reconstruction of Ottoman Era army barracks, incredibly given an ugly modern face as one more shopping mall.  

In some respects, such a future for Gezi Park did strike many of the early protesters as a fitting expression of consumer capitalism gone wild, sometimes characterised as an instance of ‘crony capitalism.’ The second wave of protest was the spontaneous outpouring of youth, appalled more by the brutality of the police response than the environmental agenda, and thirsting for a new form of emancipatory politics, beyond the greed for power of the traditional parties with their hollow promises and interest-driven programs. It was this outlook, difficult to categorise precisely because it was discovering and revealing itself as the events unfolded, exemplifying their distance from traditional politics by relying on humour, satire, inclusiveness, and a political style that seemed more inspired by ‘performance art’ (e.g. ‘standing people’ and other tropes) far more than on bombastic political speeches enunciating political demands.  

Such a politics of protest, despite its carnivalesque tone, was fully committed in its critical posture of ‘search and explore’ and an extreme reflex of disgust when political leaders tell their citizens how to live their lives.  It is this acute sensitivity about this sacred zone of private autonomy that does make this new protest ethos seemingly join forces with seculars in their denunciation of Erdogan and the AKP. Imprudently, Erdogan has had the temerity to propose restricting where and when alcohol can be consumed, how many children a mother should produce, and why kissing in public and wearing of lipstick should be discouraged and avoided. There is no doubt that Erdogan does irresponsibly fan the flames of discontent in Turkey by his inability or refusal to distinguish his conservative personal preferences about social issues from being the elected leader of the whole public of a modern nation composed of diverse ethnicities and outlooks. Especially in Turkey’s principal cities many young people, above all, want to live their lives as they please without any guidance from Ankara. As we should all know by 2013, ‘the personal is political.’ 

These traits of Big Brother also lend some credibility to the deeper fears that Erdogan has dreams of being an autocratic ruler in the manner of the great Ottoman sultans or that his vision of majoritarian democracy is at odds with substantive democracy, that is, the establishment of a society where the views and identities of minorities and dissenters are respected and protected alongside the preferences of the majority. In effect, Erdogan should not be blamed for the acute polarisation of Turkish society of which he is in many ways an unjust and long-term victim. At the same time, his blunt style of communicating with the citizenry and the opposition, is also polarising. It suggests that Turkey remains an immature political culture, but it is far being alone in this regard.

Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.