Exactly three years after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the state of Israel of inhumane behaviour for the massacre of nine Turkish activists on board the Mavi Marmara aid ship en route to Gaza – an event that sparked pro-Palestinian protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square and other locations – Turkey has launched its own latest form of inhumanity against its own citizens.
According to Erdogan’s rhetoric, the ongoing brutal police crackdown on what began as a peaceful sit-in to protest the government’s determination to convert Taksim’s Gezi Park into a shopping centre is ultimately the fault of “extremist elements” potentially aligned with foreign troublemakers.
Not included in the “extremist” category, apparently, is a domestic police force that has over the past days dedicated itself to saturating protest areas with tear gas, burning protesters’ tents, and wantonly inflicting injuries with the help of items ranging from batons to water cannons.
As might have been expected, state repression has merely caused demonstrators’ ranks to swell, while Gezi Park has become the latest icon for disenchantment with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
How just is development?
An article [TR] in the Turkish-language Zaman newspaper reports Erdogan’s reaction to incidents of damage to “public vehicles” by protesters: “What does this [destruction] have to do with Gezi Park?”
By the AKP’s neoliberal logic, of course, minimal damage by anti-government protesters qualifies as destruction while rampant state destruction of the environment and public spaces qualifies as development and modernisation.
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In a widely-circulated article for the Jadaliyya website, Jay Cassano notes that the scheme to raze the park is “only one component of a plan to entirely redesign Taksim Square into a more car-friendly, tourist-accommodating, and sanitized urban center“.
Emphasising the AKP’s “complete disregard for the city in ecological and social terms”, Cassano explains that the planned construction of another bridge over the Bosphorus “is expected to complete Istanbul’s deforestation by subjecting the northern Belgrade Forest to development”. He describes the “rapid process of gentrification” in the city centre – entailing the displacement of unaesthetic elements such as the Kurds and the Roma – as an effort to secure foreign investment and “remov[e] working class urban dwellers who might scare off tourists”.
Conveniently, “development” on behalf of elite capital will also assist in the squelching of future opportunities for exercises in basic rights by the Turkish public, and Cassano observes that “[t]he new Taksim will eliminate mass pedestrian entrances from all sides in favor of car tunnels, making it an impractical site to protest and congregate”.
It is precisely Turkey’s whitewashed neoliberal oppression that has propelled the country into the position of hallowed economic development “model” for the Arab world and elsewhere, and the US State Department regularly trips over itself to swear by Turkish democracy – despite the fact that, for example, said democracy imprisoned more journalists in 2012 than either Iran or China.
It is only fitting that, in the midst of domestic turmoil, Erdogan has embarked on a brief tour of North Africa, where he is scheduled to receive an honourary degree from Morocco’s Muhammad V University on account of his “historic stance on the Palestinian issue” and Turkey’s alleged function as “a prime example for other countries who strive for development”.
Never mind that Turkey’s stance on development in Palestine has involved none other than complicity in Palestinian dispossession. In an exclusive 2012 report for The Electronic Intifada, journalist Charlotte Silver revealed machinations by a Turkish corporation linked to the government to rule over a proposed neoliberal enclave in the West Bank, with the blessing of the like-mindedly oppressive Palestinian Authority but with no consultation of area residents.
Reinterpreting Article 301
For further evidence of why Turkey should under no circumstances be hailed as a champion of oppressed populations with aspirations to statehood, it’s useful to review another contemporary park-related item from Turkey’s English-language newspaper Today’s Zaman, which reported in 2012 that “members of the Dogubeyazit Municipal Council in the [Turkish] province of Agri were given jail sentences of one month and 20 days, and the district mayor six months, for naming a park in the district after Kurdish poet and philosopher Ehmede Xani”.
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In a testament to the grossly one-sided application of terror terminology, the British Guardian noted in September 2012 that “8,000 pro-Kurdish politicians, lawyers, academics, writers and members of the media [had] been arrested on terrorism charges” since 2009.
The national arsenal for silencing dissent and the pursuit of civil liberties also includes Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which was tragicomically updated in 2008 from criminalising insults to “Turkishness” to criminalising insults to the “Turkish nation”.
As the Gezi Park demonstrations continue, Turkish journalist Ahmet Sik has meanwhile found his head on the receiving end of another item in the arsenal: a police tear gas canister.
In the end, the official denunciation of legitimate protest as a manifestation of “extremist” collaboration with foreign forces is itself an insult to the Turkish nation – and all of its components.
Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released by Verso in 2011. She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blog, The Baffler, Al Akhbar English and many other publications.
Follow her on Twitter: @MariaBelen_Fdez