The protests in Turkey started on May 27 with a modest resistance movement against the destruction of Istanbul’s Gezi Park and the planned construction, in its place, of a replica of the Ottoman artillery barracks that formerly stood there (which, however, was also to include a shopping mall). The Occupy Gezi movement has since grown exponentially and spread to other Turkish cities, largely in response to police brutality and to the inflammatory speeches of Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The unprecedented scope and duration of the protests—and, even more importantly, the emergent movement’s pluralistic composition and inclusive political style—make it a genuinely new phenomenon in the ninety-year history of the Republic. As Cengiz Çandar, a prominent liberal journalist has put it, these protests represent “the most serious and meaningful civil society uprising that the Turkish society has ever witnessed.”
The protests and the government’s response have opened to debate all aspects of Turkish social and political life, from freedom of the press to restrictions against participatory democracy to the urban renewal wave that has swept over all Turkish cities within the last decade. Given that Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) comes from a long line of Islamic parties, and that the emergent Occupy Gezi movement represents, among other things, a reaction against the government’s increasing imposition of religious-conservative values on the population, the question of religion and secularism may also be seen as a central dimension of this conflict. Even the central dimension, according to some observers. But do these events really involve the good old “fault line that runs through Turkish society and politics” between “religious conservatives” and “secular, leftist, liberal” people, as a New York Times analysis argues? In other words, is there nothing new under the sun, except perhaps for the fact that the secular citizens are being more vocal and persistent than before?
While religion is a very important factor in the recent events—as in virtually all political conflicts in contemporary Turkey—to see the protests through the secular-vs.-religious framework is to overlook the complexity of what is actually going on. It is also to miss the transformative potential and the genuine novelty of the Occupy Gezi movement.
Surely, the prompt and widespread mobilization of the protesters, many with no prior experience in activism, is partly due to the accumulated resentment that people with non-conservative lifestyles as well as religious minorities feel toward the policies of the government. The most emblematic issue here is the government’s imposition of increasingly strict regulations on the sale and consumption of alcohol. Although the alcohol consumption rate in Turkey is the lowest among the OECD countries and its taxes on alcohol are some of the highest in Europe, the government has recently proposed new legislation that will place further restrictions on the retail sale and public consumption of alcohol. Erdoğan defended the recent legislative proposal in his typical style, declaring that he does not want “a generation that drinks and wanders about wasted day and night,” and suggested that this was a regulation, not a ban: “if you are going to drink, then drink your alcoholic beverage at home.” The proposal followed the removal of outdoor tables in the Beyoğlu district—the heart of entertainment and nightlife in Istanbul—by the AKP-controlled municipal government last summer, as well as Erdoğan’s infamous remark that his government aims to “raise religious generations.” (In response to criticisms, Erdoğan asked rhetorically, “do you expect us to raise an atheist generation instead?”)
The Alevis, a substantial non-Sunni Muslim group in Turkey, have historically approached the Sunni-dominated Islamic parties with suspicion and mostly voted for the secularist Republican People’s Party (RPP). Their demands for equal treatment by the state—e.g., the official recognition of the Alevi cemevis as places of worship—have thus far been denied by the AKP government. In the weeks leading up to the referendum on constitutional amendments in 2010, Erdoğan claimed that “the judiciary is ruled by the dedes” (the Alevi religious leaders), while in his campaign speeches prior to the 2011 elections, he repeatedly referred to the Alevi identity of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the RPP. These strategic moves sought to mobilize the support of the conservative Sunni constituency in central Anatolia. The latest symbolic affront to the Alevis came on one of the first days of the protests, when the government declared that the third bridge to be built across the Bosphorus will be named after Yavuz Sultan Selim, the sixteenth-century Ottoman sultan whom the Alevis widely dislike on the grounds of a massacre that he carried out against their ancestors. It is very likely that the Alevis have played a central role in the diffusion of the Occupy Gezi movement beyond Istanbul.
But religion was brought into play most explicitly by Prime Minister Erdoğan himself. In his public declarations in the midst of the protests on June 2, Erdoğan claimed that along with “marginal” and “extremist elements,” the RPP was the main force in Occupy Gezi and suggested that it was resorting to street action because it had failed in the ballot box. Refusing any compromise with the movement, he reasserted his determination to remake the Ottoman artillery barracks, which “the RPP mentality,” in his words, destroyed in 1940. He also underlined that a mosque would also be constructed as part of the larger Taksim project.
In a TV interview on the same day, Erdoğan argued that a distinction between “you” and “us” is a fact in Turkey, and proclaimed that “we and people like us have been oppressed in this country for a long time. […] Now this group has won 50% of the vote. But […] some people still want to oppress it.” Erdoğan made sure to remind the viewers that women wearing headscarves were still not allowed to work in civil service. He also defended the attendant in an Ankara subway station who, in a much discussed incident, made an announcement about rules of propriety over the loudspeakers after seeing two students kiss each other on the subway platform. (“In this society, would any mother and father demanding respect for their values want their daughter—I beg your pardon—to sit on the lap of somebody?” Erdoğan asked.) In response to a reporter’s question about the Gezi protests the next day, Erdoğan claimed that there was at least 50% of the country that he could “barely keep at home.” This thinly disguised threat of unleashing civil violence against the protesters was reciprocated by Erdoğan’s supporters four days later. As Erdoğan addressed the crowd from an open-top bus, they chanted: “Let us go, and we will crush Taksim.” Another slogan warned “the minority” not to test their patience.
If one looks beyond the chilling irresponsibility evinced in these remarks, Erdoğan’s political strategy throughout his public pronouncements has been very consistent. He has wanted to portray Occupy Gezi as the work of the secular, westernized elite that seeks to repress the religious, conservative majority through extra-electoral means. Since the late 1980s, Islamic parties in Turkey have consistently increased their votes by claiming to represent the periphery against the secularist center, and Erdoğan’s political career—decisively marked by his imprisonment in 1999 by the secularist courts—has depended on this good old formula. Now, in the face of the challenge posed by the protesters—and in preparation for the local and presidential elections upcoming in 2014—he has played the game that he knows best and aimed to consolidate the religious-conservative constituency of his party.
The irony in all of this is, of course, that he has been the prime minister of Turkey for more than a decade now. The AKP has single-handedly controlled the government for three consecutive terms and gradually brought all sources of bureaucratic opposition under its firm control, including the judiciary, the military, and the civil service. In other words, Erdoğan is crying victimization while his party firmly controls all branches of government, applies immense pressure on the press, and liberally uses police violence against opposition in civil society.
Does the actual picture of Occupy Gezi confirm the existence of a deep fault line between secular and religious citizens that Erdoğan and the New York Times alike posit? It is true that most religious-conservative citizens are not participating in Occupy Gezi, and it is rather safe to assume that many maintain their support for the AKP and for Erdoğan himself. However, there are many significant crosscurrents that complicate this picture. First, Occupy Gezi brings together many different groups, including Kemalists, liberal-minded secular citizens, environmentalists, revolutionary socialists, anarchists, feminists, LGBT groups, highly politicized activists, and young people who simply oppose police brutality and the government’s authoritarian policies. As opposed to what Erdoğan has repeatedly implied, Occupy Gezi is fundamentally different from the Republican Rallies of 2007, which were organized by militant secularist organizations and aimed to prepare the ground for a military coup against the AKP government. While Kemalist groups may chant “we are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal” during the demonstrations, calls for the military to intervene in the political process are hardly ever heard. Moreover, all participants in the movement seem to share a general respect for religious citizens.
On June 4, the day after newspapers close to the AKP started to advance Erdoğan’s agenda by depicting Occupy Gezi as an anti-religious movement, movement participants announced that alcohol should not be consumed on the park’s premises that day as a sign of respect for the Miraç Kandili, a Muslim holiday commemorating the prophet’s ascent to heaven. Throughout the day, volunteers offered thousands of traditional kandil bagels to anyone entering the park.
More importantly, while constituting a minority in the movement, many pious Muslims, AKP voters, and some Islamic organizations have participated in the protests. One social justice-oriented Islamic group in particular, Anti-Capitalist Muslims, has been part of the campaign against the destruction of the park from the very beginning and has a major presence in the movement. On the Miraç night, following the reading of verses from the Quran, İhsan Eliaçık, a religious author and the intellectual guru of the Anti-Capitalist Muslims, gave a sermon:
Miraç means ascendance. Muhammad the Holy Prophet has brought Islam by ascending to God. Islam means peace. Peace is a state of harmlessness. Do not harm anyone. Greet everyone, greet also those who are different from you. Be brothers and sisters, spread love and compassion. Today this synergy is spreading out from Gezi Park. With God’s grace, completely new things are happening in Turkey.
Then he addressed the religious leaders and politicians in Turkey, alluding in particular to Erdoğan’s reference to the protesters as “a bunch of looters”:
Those who say one does not read the Quran and pray in such places are wrong once again. […] With God’s permission, the prejudices will also collapse and disappear. […] They tell us, “what business do you have there?” We tell them in return, “why are you not here?” They tell us, “there are drunks there, what are you doing there?” We tell them in return, “we can get along with drunks, as long as they are not treacherous.” They tell us, “they are looters”; they tell us “they are a criminal gang.” We tell them, “people who sleep in the streets and in green parks cannot be looters.” The looter state has forty rooms, and forty tricks are played in each of them. The looters are those who plunder; the looters sit in offices of the state; the looters walk around in neckties; the looters are those who enjoy the spoils. […] The real gang is in the city hall; the real gang is the shopping mall gang; and you are the leader of the real gang. Friends! Congratulations on your resistance; congratulations on your kandil. Be entrusted to God.
The liberation theology of the Anti-Capitalist Muslims shows that it is difficult to categorize the religious circles in Turkey as a single, uniform bloc under the unbreakable spell of Erdoğan’s AKP. The same is true for secular people, many of whom have learned to respect the religious practices of their fellow citizens, including their right to wear headscarves in public institutions. The transformative potential that emerges from the respectful coexistence of different political orientations and social groups in Occupy Gezi should not be underestimated, both in the park and in the movement more broadly. As soccer fans who use homophobic epithets in their slogans against Erdoğan are learning from the LGBT groups in the park why this is problematic, and as many Turks in the movement increasingly seem to empathize with the Kurds now that they are also experiencing indiscriminate police violence and witnessing the indifference of the mainstream media, a transformation is likewise taking place in the relationship between secular and religious citizens who together protest the authoritarian policies of the government and the violent practices of the police. The careful respect that the mostly secular participants in the movement exhibited on Miraç Kandili, voluntarily giving up drinking in public—although they vigorously defend their right to drink in public—and Eliaçık’s statement of solidarity with alcohol drinkers are manifestations of this rapprochement.
What is happening within the confines of the Gezi Park has its limits, of course, in terms of its wider ramifications, but it is indicative of larger political learning processes in a society increasingly suffering from the authoritarian tendencies of the government, Erdoğan’s paternalistic style of rule, and the disproportionate use of force by the police against groups as diverse as soccer fans, university students, and environmental activists.
The authoritarian policies of the Kemalist state elites who imposed a secular, modernist nationalism on an unwilling population have now been replaced by the authoritarian policies of a conservative government that is imposing religious-conservative values and a neo-Ottoman public culture on a diverse society. Neither has respected the autonomy of civil society, minority rights, the freedom of the press, and individual liberties. Whether Turkish society will ever move beyond the political impasse between secularist Kemalists and “religious Kemalists” (A. Altan) will ultimately depend, not on anachronistic political elites who seek to revive and retrench old cleavages, but on religious and secular civil society actors who might build the grounds of their coexistence on the basis of mutual respect for each other’s freedoms. The spiritual experience they have shared in their solidarity recently would be a good point from which to start.