Rethinking secularism, World affairs:

An excursion through the partitions of Taksim Square

posted by Jeremy F. Walton

TaksimTaksim Meydanı. Partition Square. Although it has taken on potent new resonances in recent days, the name of Istanbul’s throbbing central plaza commemorates a now-forgotten history, the function of the site during the Ottoman period as a point of “partition” and distribution of water lines from the north of the city to other districts. Already long the favored site of demonstrations in Istanbul, Taksim is now the scene of the largest anti-government protests in Turkish Republican history. And the name of the square speaks volumes—what better word than “partition” to describe the increasingly politicized cleavages that have defined Turkish public life over the past decade, finally achieving international reverberation with the current protests? A host of trenchant, difficult questions, both analytical and political, accompany and orient the ongoing demonstrations in Taksim and elsewhere throughout the country. How rigid and inexorable are the partitions that demonstrators and government spokespeople alike identify as the cause of this outpouring of populist indignation? Above all, what should we make of the near-inescapable insistence that one particular partition, an irreconcilable antimony between secularism and Islam, is the tectonic arrangement responsible for the upswell of political tremors in Turkey?

First, a cautionary word is in order. As a close friend in Istanbul advised me by email several days ago, it is far too soon to pin a single, panoramic interpretation on the demonstrations, which began with a handful of protestors resisting the demolition of Gezi Park, a small strand of sycamores and green space in Taksim Square, to make way for a shopping mall and replica Ottoman-era military barracks. Like a spark in dry underbrush, the disproportionate, violent response of the police to the initial protest ignited the broad-based frustration and dissatisfaction with the decade of Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi; AKP) rule on the part of a swath of different demographics and groups: old-guard secularists, communists, liberals, Guy Fawkes-masked anarchists, feminist and gay rights organizations, and trade unions, among others. It would be impertinent to reduce the motivations and aspirations of the protestors to a single, uniform political position or identity, even while many of the desires and criticisms that the demonstrators have voiced—calls for greater transparency in governance, frustration over the government’s insatiable appetite for the privatization of urban space—evoke a certain immediate, uncomplicated sympathy. Nor, as Kabir Tambar has cogently noted, is secularist populism entirely new to Turkey’s political terrain. Nevertheless, a few general patterns have emerged from these remarkable protests that bear directly on the forms and fates of secularism in the contemporary world.

Three linked objects of criticism define the Taksim demonstrations: 1) AKP governance in general and the increasingly authoritarian inclinations of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in particular; 2) neoliberal transformations of Turkish society and built space, especially in the city of Istanbul; 3) the ostensible influence of conservative Islam, or Islamism, on Turkish politics and public life. It is the link among these three objects of complaint that I want to interrogate here. Arguably, the first two objects of criticism—state governance and the effects of neoliberalism—are neutral in relation to questions of secularism and religion. To adopt and adapt Hussein Agrama’s influential argument (which I discuss in more detail below), debates over governance in the context of neoliberalism do not necessarily take place within the problem space of secularism; they do not imply a partitioning of religion and politics, nor a stipulation as to what the relationship between them ought to be. Zuccotti Park and Occupy Wall Street demonstrate this, as do, from the opposite position, the annual meetings of the World Economic Conference in Davos. In contemporary Turkey, however, political debates surrounding governance and neoliberalism are inseparable from those around Islam and secularism. This, perhaps, is the most astounding lesson that the demonstrations in Taksim offer: neoliberal governance in Turkey has to be understood through and within the problem space of secularism.

One particular image from the demonstrations in Taksim Square encapsulates the dense set of relationships among secularism, the assertion of populist sovereignty, and the critique of neoliberalism. A young demonstrator drapes a banner depicting Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic and charismatic embodiment of Turkish secularism, over a police water cannon. Far from a daisy clogging a rifle’s muzzle, this is not a tableau of simple pacifism. Since its establishment some ninety years ago in the wake of the battered and dismembered Ottoman Empire, the Turkish Republic has been the legatee of Atatürk’s secularist imagination, which envisioned the radical transformation of Turkey from an agrarian, “traditional” society to an urban, modern one. The internal civilizing mission of Kemalism—the secularist state project in Turkey, named after Atatürk himself—has frequently been heavy-handed, even violent, in its suppression of dissent, especially dissent articulated on religious or ethnonational grounds. Thus, as the young protestor in Taksim Square sought to cloak an instrument of police violence in a symbol of national solidarity, he also invoked and implicitly valorized a particular history of authoritarian, homogenizing secularism—he articulated, in Esra Özyurek’s provocative phrase, a “nostalgia for the modern,” in this case a modern secularity intransigently exclusive of religion.

Many loose, careless comparisons have quickly been drawn between the demonstrations in Taksim Square and those in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that initiated the Egyptian Revolution. As I have already implied, however, the relationship between neoliberal governance and secularism in the two contexts could hardly be more different. Egypt, as Agrama argued on this very blog, underwent an “asecular revolution”—the “bare sovereignty” of the Tahrir protestors stood “apart from the modern game of defining and distinguishing religion and politics, and [did] not partake of it.” By contrast, the demonstrations in Taksim posit an inherent link between criticism of neoliberal governance, as practiced and preached by the AKP, and valorization of secularism as a political ideology, expressed by the statist tradition of Kemalism and embodied in the person of Atatürk. Rather than the “bare sovereignty” that Agrama identifies in the context of Tahrir and the Egyptian Revolution, the populist sovereignty of Taksim is rooted in the history of the unquestioned legitimacy of secularist-laicist governance in Turkey, which the protestors have now positioned as the antithesis and antidote to the neoliberal governance of the AKP. It is by no means clear to me that this contrast between two modes of governance—Kemalist-secularist, on the one hand, and neoliberal-AKP, on the other—is absolute or even persuasive, but the protests have succeeded in framing it convincingly as such. In doing so, they have articulated an historically new mode of secularist sovereignty and politics, what we might call anti-neoliberal secularity. Again, to be clear, neoliberalism is not inherently located within the problem space of secularism. In today’s Turkey, however, the questions asked of neoliberalism and the questions definitive of secularism are inextricable from each other. Provocatively, the critique of neoliberalism in Turkey also implies a critique of political Islam and a celebration of secularism. Two conceptually and ideologically distinct questions—to what extent the state and government will continue to be the handmaidens of neoliberalism (an asecular question), and what the relationship is, or ought to be, between Islam and politics (the cardinal secular question)—are inseparable in contemporary Turkey.

How, then, might we think outside the over-determined problem space of secularism in relation to the neoliberal tribulations and transformations currently wracking Turkey? The carnivalesque diversity of the demonstrators themselves suggests that the partition between the secular and the religious is an insufficient rubric for interpreting the Turkish present.  Yet the demonstrations err in reasserting Kemalist secularism as the sole solution to contemporary ills, which are conflated with the problem of AKP governance and embodied in the person of Prime Minister Erdoğan. In contrast to the rigidity of the partition and its constitutive polarities—Kemalism and Islamism—I suggest that we take inspiration from both the carnivalesque ebullience of the demonstrations themselves and from the name of the modest green space that initially inspired the protests—Gezi Parkı, Excursion Park. Indeed, through the motif of the excursion, we can perceive an opening to a radically different reading of neoliberal Istanbul and the politics that undergird it. Throughout the several years that I lived in the district of Kurtuluş, adjacent to Taksim, my own excursions (geziler) as a flâneur through Istanbul’s urban flux consistently bore witness to the instability and porousness of the partitions (taksimler) that demonstrators and the government alike tirelessly invoke.

Allow me to describe one such excursion, beginning from my former fifth-story apartment in Kurtuluş. Descending the steep hill just to the north of Taksim, I enter the valley of Dolapdere, a rather infamous district of Istanbul where older forms of ethnic exclusion have merged with newer modes of neoliberal urban poverty. To my left, a clutch of heavily paunched men squat near the entrance to the modest neighborhood mosque, smoking after prayer; further down, a cluster of giddy children glance somewhat nervously at a few of the young West African men who have recently arrived in droves in the neighborhood. In addition to Turkish, the sounds of Kurmanji Kurdish, Arabic, and Romani filter through the air, already thick with coal-smoke. As I approach Dolapdere’s nadir, I pass sweatshops and smithies where Iraqi immigrants work at open flames; the smell of goat’s head soup, sweet and acrid, assaults my nostrils as I stare upward toward the towers of the new luxury hotels lining Taksim Square, which seem to have sprouted up overnight. Beginning my ascent, I pause to admire the teetering wooden Ottoman facades that appear to grow fewer by the day, clinging to the hillside in the shadows of a massive Armenian Hospital, Sırp Agop Hastenesi. Suddenly, the narrow passage up the incline opens onto the frenetic light and sound of Republic Boulevard, and I turn right toward the bustle of Taksim. Individuals of every imaginable countenance—the beautiful and disturbing farrago of the global metropolis—greet my eyes: the perpetually hunched and deeply-fissured faces of cobblers and shoe-shiners, the platinum blonde indifference of Slavic-accented prostitutes, the haute fashion of Istanbul’s glitterati, out to dine before slumming through the Beyoğlu clubs until morning, the curious, slightly nervous smiles of wealthy tourists from the Gulf, seated outside a falafel restaurant opened by a Palestinian from Hebron. . . .

We should not romanticize this tableau of urban heterogeneity, of course. Beyond the insidious icons of neoliberal privatization—the hotel towers, the ubiquitous consumerism—the multiplicity of global cities such as Istanbul is itself arguably a neoliberal effect. And yet, this multiplicity is also instructive: the rigid partition between secular and religious, and the politics that adheres to this partition, unravels in the bright light of Istanbul’s heterogeneity. To appreciate this staggering diversity thoroughly, I recommend losing oneself, in Walter Benjamin’s sense: “[…] to lose oneself in a city—as one loses oneself in a forest—that calls for quite a different schooling. Then, signboards and street names, passers-by, roofs, kiosks, or bars must speak to the wanderer like a cracking twig under his feet in the forest, like the startling call of a bittern in the distance, like the sudden stillness of a clearing with a lily standing erect at its center.” It may seem a bit naïve, I realize, to prescribe peregrination and losing oneself as a political strategy in a context of inordinate police violence and escalating recriminations on the part of both protestors and the AKP government. And yet, I sense keenly that just this sort of strategic naïveté, which both produced and informed my own excursions in Istanbul, can constitute a key means to thinking and acting outside of the problem space of secularism and the seemingly unassailable partitions that it at once mandates and naturalizes.

* The author would like to thank Arzu Ünal, Kabir Tambar, Karin Doolan, Kelda Jamison and Noah D. Salomon for their invaluable comments and advice.

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One Response to “An excursion through the partitions of Taksim Square”

  1. avatar Manouchehr Shiva says:

    I enjoyed reading this piece. I would utilize the carnivalesque, performative, and ritualized aspects of the movement more. I would emphasize (intersections of) generation, class, and gender (from afar, just by viewing the images, videos and reading about the event, they seem to be very important), and how the ritualized event is representing and yet creatively reconstructing and transforming the social. I would include the Alevis when discussing Islam in Turkey. Again from afar, it seems to be important, specially when we broaden the spatial point of view and include the new bridge (Yavuz Sultan Suleiman). So, the Neighborhood (Partition), and the Park (Excursion), could be complemented by the Bridge (Bridging/Excluding) as an important third contested element (Sultan Suleiman’s violently excluded the Alevis). Also, I would point to the religious aspects of neoliberalism itself (commodity fetishism, malls and theme parks as sacred spaces, etc.). Furthermore, Turkish secular nationalism (like all secular nationalisms) has so many religious-like characteristics (sacred founder, sacred narrative, sacred sacrifice, sacred rituals, etc.).

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