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On Injustice and Development: Seven Days of Resistance in Erdoğan’s Turkey

2013-06-01 16.33.51Thursday, June 13, Ankara

I am waiting through an intense thunderstorm outside, periodically reading facebook posts from my students gathered in Ankara’s Kuğulu (Swan) Park, which has been the capital’s version of Istanbul’s Gezi Park, and from some at Gezi Park itself.  Erdoğan has announced that “this will be over within 24 hours” and has reportedly organized separate rallies in Istanbul and Ankara with the “fifty percent” that he has said “he will not be able to keep at home,” and some are worried that he is going to let these people loose on the demonstrators as he has done in Izmir where men in civilian clothes have been beating people with sticks, alongside the official police violence.  Some of our friends are sending messages instructing people not to spread panicked rumors, even if they are well intentioned.

I don’t want to do so myself, but I can’t help reflecting on how the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was born.  Or rather, I can’t help thinking about a particular incident indelibly tied to the founding of that party: the 1993 Madımak Hotel Massacre, in which arsons set fire to a hotel housing a conference of alevi (Turkish Alawite) and leftist intellectuals, killing 35 and wounding many more, while outside over ten thousand people from among the local Sunni population shouted “Allahüekber.”  Among the legal defenders of this pogrom were some founding members of AKP, including more than one who went on to become Parliamentarians.

I hope that nothing like that ever happens here again.  But insofar as a majority can crush a minority in the names of democracy and of God, that is indeed what is happening here on a systematic basis.  How did it begin?  The story will not be surprising to those familiar with Marx and Naomi Klein.

When in the late nineties Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan got into trouble with the constitutionally appointed guardians of the secular Republic—the judiciary and the military—and had to step down, a splinter group from his Islamist “Welfare Party” decided to try a new amalgam: stealth Islamism + neoliberal capitalism.  The new party’s founders seem to have bet that courting international finance capital was a good way to make themselves immune to the threat of being deposed by Turkey’s secular establishment.  And this of course proved to be astute reasoning.

Turkey had already undergone a solid decade and a half of neoliberal reform, launched in the early 1980’s in the aftermath of a military coup that enjoyed clear American support (12 September 1980).  The generals’ economics advisor Turgut Özal, who in the years of reorganization served as both Prime Minister and President of the Republic, was the prime mover in this phase.   Himself a former World Bank economist, Özal implemented economic policies in accord with guidelines set by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Here it might also be relevant to mention another aspect of the 1980 coup: the attempt to utilize Islam as a unifying factor in a society deeply riven by political strife.  Turkey was on the front lines of the cold war and its political divisions prior to the era of Reagan, Thatcher and Özal reflected this fact.  In the late seventies violence between left and right factions had reached the point of claiming thirty lives per day, primarily but not exclusively on university campuses.  When the coup finally came, even some Communists were momentarily relieved.  The coup government instituted mandatory (Sunni) religion classes in public schools.  Within a few years full-scale privatization got under way.

Erdoğan and his party are the heirs of this new amalgam gradually emerging in the eighties and nineties, and for most of AKP’s time in power they have echoed its liberal rhetoric.  For some time it has been on the world community’s agenda for Turkey to redress the perceived repression of the orthodox, allowing the headscarf into schools and government offices and removing power from those non-elected bodies formally capable of closing political parties and voiding majoritarian decisions.  Of course one speaks primarily of the military here, but a more important player is the judiciary.

2013-06-01 13.09.20

In 2010 Erdoğan succeeded at passing a referendum that so reorganized how the judiciary is appointed as to hand permanent power over the courts to the legislative branch.  This step was welcomed by bien pensant western opinion as an imperative measure of democratization, to the point that Hannes Swoboda, head of the Social Democratic faction in the European parliament, demanded that the oppositional Republican People’s Party (CHP) support the referendum “if they wish to remain a Social Democratic party.”

The results of this referendum have not been surprising: judges who argue that women who have been raped should marry their rapists, students sentenced to twenty-year prison terms for demanding “free public education” while wearing scarves that the government considers symbols of “illegal organizations,” Turkey’s foremost classical pianist sentenced for quoting Omar Khayyam on twitter, the Armenian writer Sevan Nişanyan sentenced and imprisoned for “insulting religious values.”  Two of the elected Parliamentarians for the city of Izmir (“infidel Izmir” as Erdoğan calls it) have served their entire terms of office in prison, without being convicted (or until recently, even charged) of any crime, in spite of the constitutional guarantee of parliamentary immunity; and AKP can do this because the courts are theirs, the cops are theirs, and in much of the country the street is also theirs—though now we have finally been seeing a challenge on that front.

Why do we in the west never hear about the imprisoned columnist and Parliamentarian Mustafa Balbay?  Why do we hear so little about the officers, journalists and even artists now in prison for alleged subversion, in some cases based on faked evidence that contradicts itself and doesn’t even bother to spell names correctly?  It could be that some of these people are Turkish nationalists of the sort formerly considered mainstream, and thus of little interest to an international media whose engagement with human rights violations in Turkey has traditionally focused on the plight of ethnic minorities.

No doubt the world owes respect to those representatives of the Kurdish and Armenian communities who attract most notice when international attention is turned to the appalling number of journalists and other intellectuals in prison in Erdoğan’s Turkey.  But we should also respect those Turks who have spent the last years watching all of their national traditions dismantled in the court of international opinion while at the same time literally being trampled by riot police.

In much of what you read about Turkey today, you still see the opposition referred to as “the secular elite.” This may have been apposite at some point but is certainly very misleading today.  The statistics on campaign finance show AKP with over twice the amount of money collected by the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), which Ataturk founded.  That’s some elite that can’t even collect money to avert theocracy.  There may have been a time when capital was largely in the hands of people with secular ways, but those days are gone, and have been gone since long before I arrived here.

In the radical transition through which Turkish society has gone in the era of privatization, large masses of people have joined a practically itinerant work force, living on the edge of large cities in squatter settlements on public land, working for minimum wage in jobs without security, grateful for any small gifts such as coal to heat their homes in the winter, which local AKP politicians have universally been rumored to offer them at election time.  These people have fallen out of (or indeed were never part of) Turkey’s labor movement and the traditional left-wing parties have not been able to court them.  Most of these people practice starkly conservative mores, and many see such fellow transplants as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, once mayor of Istanbul with roots in the distant Black Sea town of Rize, as one of their own.

In such cities as Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir as much as 60% of the population lives in such squatter settlements.  The more settled locals distrust these newcomers and worry about what internal immigration is doing to the character of their cities.  Some snobbery is clearly at work here, but so is the desire to go outside (as a woman, for instance) in a skirt without being harassed or worse.  The squatters of course distrust and dislike the middle-class urbanites in turn.

 Without much pull on the internally displaced and lacking deep connections to the newly developed corridors of finance capital (from which its ideological background in any case debars it), Turkey’s secular opposition finds itself limited to the traditional center-left alliance of members of the liberal professions (esp. doctors, lawyers and academics) and organized labor (shrinking here as it is everywhere).   Among those at the demonstrations recently are indeed a good number of well-paid professionals, but also many members of the DISK and KESK labor unions rallying for their members in prison on trumped-up charges of subverting the state, and sadly also such people as Abdullah Cömert, the farm laborer from Antakya killed by police in that city.  He was the first of four demonstrators to die during the course of the police repression.

AKP’s alliance, on the other hand, brings together major players in the new neoliberal economy with those who labor in it: the financial heavyweights and those on the margins (the margins having become the center).  Many capital owners and merchants great and small find themselves at home in this movement to sweep away the dominion of those with university degrees, army commissions or careers (formerly somewhat privileged) in public service.  Add to that some Kurds encouraged by Erdoğan’s periodic willingness to negotiate with the PKK (as opposed to other Kurds still angry with his imprisoning most of their intellectuals and killing 34 of them for no reason at Uludere a little over a year ago), as well as a few die-hard classical liberals who will not give up their illusions even after Erdoğan and his men say openly that they no longer need them, and you have the current AKP coalition.

And you have signs in downtown Ankara declaring that “the true foundation of government is Islam.”  And you have the mayor of Ankara recommending that women thinking of having an abortion consider suicide instead.  And you have the ban on all advertisement of alcoholic beverages and other restrictions dismissed as silly lifestyle issues by people who will never have to live with them.

And you have a public relations official in Erdoğan’s party declaring atheists “mentally ill” and calling for them to be “annihilated.”

And you have perplexed liberal intellectuals like Daron Acemoğlu lamenting that AKP’s drive for greater freedom “has stalled or even gone into reverse,” ignoring that AKP is not now going in reverse, that this is the direction in which it has always been travelling.

They might have been fooled by some of what Erdoğan did in his early years in power, in that period he now refers to as his “period of apprenticeship,” in contrast to his current “period of mastery”—when in 2003 AKP changed some family laws to bring them into accord with the EU, criminalizing rape in marriage, and implying, in their communications with the EU, that they might introduce a law to enable Turkish women to keep their surnames after marriage.

(I can personally testify that this latter proposal went nowhere, as I had to testify in court on behalf of my wife’s desire to keep her surname, before a secularist judge who was clearly sympathetic but let us know we would almost certainly lose as the Constitutional Court had barred compliance with the European Court of Human Rights on this subject and had even changed procedures such that it would take seven years for the decision to be reached.)

I wonder how many people have actually been prosecuted under the rape-in-marriage law.  We do know that since AKP took power the number of honor killings in Turkey has increased fourteen-fold.

They might not have noticed when in 1997 Erdoğan said that “democracy is a tramline, which we can get off when it has taken us where we want to go.”  He now feels that he has arrived.  But there are some people blocking his descent.

 Saturday, June 15, Izmir

They’re not letting people into a hotel that has become a kind of makeshift hospital for the wounded and now they appear to be attacking people in the hotel with tear gas; now the police have entered the hotel; they are keeping records of the doctors treating the wounded presumably for the purpose of recrimination.

2013-06-15 16.58.59They have started detaining & arresting lawyers in large numbers so that their opponents will have no one to defend them in court. They have been blocking access to the square to journalists (or trying to anyway), but that’s nothing new.

After the Reyhanlı bombing in which 53 people died on the border with Syria, the government imposed a block on reporting only their own story got out (except for some leaks revealed by the hacker outfit Redhack).

Today Erdoğan held a rally in which he blamed the main opposition politician Kemal Kilicdaroğlu (an alevi) personally for the bombing and vowed to seek revenge, and now their violence has by all accounts escalated.  They are assaulting their own people as they did at Madımak, and they find themselves justified because they have a parliamentary majority.

Monday, June 16, Izmir

The police did indeed enter the Divan Hotel and fired tear gas inside at people still recovering from their attack in the square.  Last night they shot a fourteen-year old boy in the back of the head with a gas canister, leaving him in critical condition.  A fourteen-year old girl is in a coma as the result of similar attack.  She was attending the funeral of Ethem Sarisülük, whom police in Ankara shot in the head at close range a few days ago.

In Ankara last night the police sprayed tear gas into people’s homes and balconies.  The motive for these attacks has not been clarified.  Possibly they were an attempt to ferret out demonstrators taking refuge in sympathizers’ homes; I met such neighbors in Ankara on one of the two days when I joined the demonstrations there.  Or the police may have been targeting residents who expressed their sympathy with the demonstrations by cheering or waving Turkish flags, as did many people I saw on their balconies or in their windows on the day of our procession to Kızılay.

Last night Prime Minister Erdoğan referred to all the demonstrators as “terrorists” and singled out “those inside that hotel” as “collaborating with terrorism.”  Referring to the leader of Turkey’s largest opposition party by name, Erdoğan declared his will to bar demonstrators from Taksim Square “in spite of Kilicdaroğlu, in spite of terrorists.”  Once again, he blamed the demonstrations on a conspiracy of foreign media, a nefarious “interest rate lobby,” and “illegal organizations and those considered legal” (a purposefully vague expression pointing to Turkey’s opposition parties).

Wednesday, June 19, Izmir

Everyone is now talking about “Duran Adam” (Standing Man), a guy who spent eight hours standing motionless in Taksim Square, apparently contemplating the enormous modernist façade of the Atatürk Cultural Center with its twin banners and large portrait of Atatürk in between, a building which Erdoğan, in one of his recent speeches to supporters, vowed to destroy.  As you will no doubt have heard elsewhere, Standing Man turned out to be the performance artist Erdem Gündüz.  Would it be fanciful of me to invoke Simeon Stylite and enlist Standing Man as an example of political spirituality?  That star is no doubt higher in today’s constellation than that of secularism.  Indeed Gündüz was already known in some circles for a previous performance in support of permitting women to wear headscarves in university classrooms (he wore a headscarf himself).  Evidently Gündüz is not among the traditional opposition’s uncompromising secularists, but rather someone who takes AKP’s early rhetoric of individual freedom more seriously than the party itself does.

As standing men and women began gathering, this silent form of protest gave halktv a spectacle unusual to television, as the camera panned slowly back and forth among rows of motionless demonstrators, occasionally coming to rest on a pair of young women dancing.  Halktv is a channel until recently relatively obscure, its advertisements alternating from Atatürk paraphernalia to lengthy informercials presenting hair-removal products and hoses that coil themselves after use: an unlikely venue for John Cage finding his voice as a revolutionary.

One of the things performance art does best is call attention to what is already happening in a given milieu by taking it to an extreme—in this case daring the police to interfere in a group of people doing nothing but occupying space in a public square.  While Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arιnç announced the government’s intent not to take the bait, referring to this as a “peaceful demonstration” as if the others somehow were not, we have now begun reading of “standing people” taken into custody by the police, seventeen of them so far.  Meanwhile people are standing motionless in Brazil and Mexico to show their solidarity.

With the threat of state violence pressing the resistance into increasingly creative (and humorous) forms, the question arises which has been floating on the edge of organized resistance worldwide since at least the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street protests.  To what extent will the community of demonstrators form autonomous structures that can outlast or even replace those of traditional politics?  On the two days, over two weeks ago now, when I participated directly in the demonstrations in Ankara, I heard a good deal of annoyance directed at representatives of the parliamentary opposition claiming to speak for the demonstrators.  Many seemed suspicious that established politicians might co-opt a movement that the demonstrators felt strongly was their own creation.  One woman I spoke to specified that CHP or MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) parliamentarians were welcome to join the demonstrators if they did so as private citizens, not as representatives of their party, and the others in the small group of largely middle-class demonstrators nodded in consensus.  To be sure, this wariness seemed to characterize only those not demonstrating under the banner of a specific organization, such as the DISK and KESK labor unions or the Worker’s Party, or for that matter CHP itself, all of which sent sizable contingents to the protests on the days when I attended.

Yet I heard similar sentiments a few days later among a group of students in hippy-type garb camped out in tents in Ankara’s Kuğulu (Swan) Park, on the day I went to donate some books to the open-air “library” the students were setting up there.  The conversation had turned to expressions of support offered by the sub-municipal district government of that part of the city, which annoyed several of the students.  I pointed to the case of Antalya, a large city on the Mediterranean coast where support for the secularist CHP has remained strong; there the city government denied the nationally appointed police further water supplies for use in their water cannons, thus weakening the police’s capacity to pursue peaceful demonstrators.  When one of the students confirmed that he too had heard that news story, others acknowledged—it seemed begrudgingly—that already existing organizations can indeed play a role in the resistance.

I wonder if the commitment that drives people to spend days and nights in the streets, exposed to state violence and to some degree dependent on the good will of fellow citizens, conduces almost by necessity to a certain misappraisal of their own mission and power.  A movement capable of sweeping away existing power structures and recreating social order in its own image would be in the full sense of the word a revolution; but can peaceful protests that leave the other side’s structures intact honestly lay claim to this term?  It may be that the other side has itself been shaken, with Erdoğan’s camp driven to ever more outlandish caricatures of itself: closing public transport in Istanbul one afternoon in order to commandeer buses to transport citizens to an AKP rally, at the state’s expense; forcing demonstrators taken into custody to watch videos of that rally; threatening to expand its prosecution of oppositional twitter users under the heading of pursuing “cyber criminals.”  Meanwhile, on his own twitter feed the mayor of Ankara has gullibly forwarded the accusation, culled from a humor magazine, that demonstrators camped out in Taksim Square were trying to build an atom bomb.  It is the hope of such a demonstration movement that the grotesque face that power reveals when threatened may lead, however indirectly, to its downfall.