Turkey: It’s about the Right to be Different (Soysal)

Ayşe Soysal, in Istanbul, writes for ISLAMiCommentary


Ayse Soysal

Ayse Soysal

It was a ‘Wow!’ weekend indeed. My niece Elif, a college student, was one of the protesters in Taksim Square — the first time ever that she participated in a public protest. She was there for the environmental concerns she supports, and the protest movement at Taksim was initiated mainly by young people of her profile. When eventually things got out of hand, Elif and many others tried to prevent those who were trying to provoke the police, but to no avail.

It was, at the start, truly a grass roots movement. The only event that I can recall which was similar to this past weekend’s events (grass roots participation, diversity of representation, but on a much larger scale) was the public march of an estimated 200,000 hundred thousand people that took place on the funeral day of Hrant Dink, the Armenian journalist and human rights activist who was assasinated in early January 2007.

This weekend, it was refreshing to see that we Turks could behave as individuals and not in accordance with categorical political positions. I am hoping that this mood will survive; if it does, it may define a new, fresh (and much desired) opposition movement. ‘Categorical positions’ is how our prime minister (Erdogan) sees things – in black and white: the conservative, law-abiding citizens vs the bad guys who want the military junta back in action.

The protests, however, were an expression that there are many who don’t fit into these two molds. To me, the definitive proof that last week’s protesters were different from traditional protester profiles is a photograph taken in the aftermath of the protests, which shows a chain of protesters equipped with garbage bags, who were collecting the trash scattered on the ground. Protesters collecting their own garbage? Nobody in this country has seen such a thing before; this is unheard of!

Many people I know participated in the protests. The information I get from them is that the diversity of people there was tremendous: liberals, young Muslims, fans of rival soccer teams, gay and lesbian groups, grandmothers, students and housewives, Kurds and Turkish nationalists, and of course, citizens of Istanbul who are fiercely protective of their beloved city — who fear that the city is being reduced to a collection of look-alike shopping malls and monuments with pseudo-Ottoman kitsch architecture.

Remarking on the unity of purpose among the diverse groups of protesters, the Minister of Education said ‘What the opposition could not do in ten years, we did it ourselves in six days.’ This sentence sums it all up, but I don’t think Prime Minister Erdogan has gotten his message, not yet, anyway.

What issues brought people to the protest? I would say many. Concerns about Istanbul, its environmental and cultural heritage, certainly. However, people feel threatened by other things as well: A law was passed recently, regulating the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages. There is nothing in the new law that prevents us from imbibing as we choose, but discussions in the parliament revealed that many MP’s from the AKP (including our prime minister) do not see any difference between drinking alcohol and being an alcoholic. This attitude scares people, and their fear makes them angry.

Another deeply rooted issue (which is not verbalized, but I believe it is an issue) is the divide between people with cosmopolitan, metro/city backgrounds and those from conservative small-town backgrounds (who form the backbone of the supporters of the AKP). And underneath it all, the threat to alternative life styles (alternatives to a devout Islamic lifestyle, that is) continues to simmer.

Prime minister Erdogan was insensitive to people’s dissatisfaction and the unduly severe, prolonged reaction of the poliçe forces was uncalled for. The fatal flaw in Erdogan’s government is that people close to the prime minister have started to let him dictate everything, and this inner circle does not offer critical analyses to him any more; they acquiesce. When the police arrived at the scene and it was clear the demonstration was not one of the usual ones, someone should have gone to the prime minister and said, ‘Sir, with all due respect, I think we should reconsider our response.’ Nobody did, hence the resulting overdose of police brutality.

Good things are happening. Though the Turkish media gave little coverage to the protest — for many of us, yet another example of the kind of shoddy journalism that seems to define the Turkish media — this time around the citizens (protesters and observers alike) were online, and everyone shared their pictures through social media. Self-censure by traditional media could not prevent people from seeing what was happening.

Yesterday there was a big crowd (mostly of white collar affluent professionals) in front of the headquarters of NTV, a mainstream TV channel, protesting the channel for its biased coverage of the protests.

One of the big questions now is, after all is said and done, whether any dissent will emerge from within the prime minister’s party. If so, it will influence the political situation greatly, since next year is an election year. This remains to be seen.

This is what I can read of the situation right now. As the Chinese proverb goes, we live in interesting times indeed…

Ayşe Soysal is former President of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, one of Turkey’s elite universities. She received her master’s (1973) and doctoral (1976) degrees in Mathematics from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Prior to becoming the first woman President of Boğaziçii University in 2004, Prof. Soysal also held office as dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, and chair of the Department of Mathematics. She has been highly visible as a promoter of academic freedom who welcomed controversial conferences to her campus. She is also a tireless promoter of raising educational investments in Turkey at all levels and through both public and private sources. She served on the Science Board of TUBITAK, the Turkish Science and Technological Council from 2008 to 2012 and is presently a board member in the Turkish Council of Higher Education. She is also a member of the Duke Islamic Studies Center Advisory Board.

Mirrored from Islamicommentary

Posted in Turkey | 11 Responses | Print |

11 Responses

  1. It is interesting to see how the CIA agents pose as progressive who support a baby killer and an assassin, Obama who should be arrested and put on trial for his crimes against humanity, paint a DICTATOR, Erdugan, differently. These phony ‘progressives’ never uses ‘dictator’ for the war criminal Obama and readily uses the US government propaganda against independent leaders. I am glad all of you have been exposed beyond repair. US must fuck off from the middle east and Africa. Obama was selected for his blackness not his leadership, and he knows it.

  2. Turkish newspaper, also in English, and available on the web.

    I find the diversity of comments refreshing. Could one find over a dozen articles on OWS in any US publication on a given day? True, the protest activity in Turkey today is unique, but still to have the diversity of opinion in one place is amazing. And the stories are well written.

    I would appreciate replies about this paper. The political positions in Turkey are very strong and some think that this work might be troublesome. In my mind, it is like the US papers used to be in the 1950’s before news became a business. Many of the articles have a historical perspective and they are informative.

    Here are some articles by columnists. If you go down the page there are additional Blog comments.

    First an article that says that this is a plot against the prime minister but even in this paragraph the author notes that the attempt at media censorship backfired.

    “As the tone of the protest changed over time, the insidious groups that have been watching for an opportunity took the stage and exhibited their violent acts. As the tone of protests and protests changed, their demands changed from the protection of Gezi Park to the resignation of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. As a result of the censorship on the mainstream TV networks, the sole means of learning about the incidents were the marginal TV channels or through social media where all sorts of provocations, manipulations and sensational instigation were running rampant. Thus, the government’s policy of censorship on the mainstream media backfired.”

    link to todayszaman.com

    I don’t have the time to go through these columns and pick out paragraphs, but they do give a picture of the arrogance of the Prime Minister, the suppression of free speech, and the connection of different interests against the Prime Minister. As someone pointed out, the last few days have mobilized people better than a decade of opposing parties.

    Politics are very in your face in Turkey. As pointed out in an earlier column in this newspaper, the opposition parties have not been strong enough. In other words, a better level of political dialogue is needed across the political spectrum.

    And they do have very complex issues and they live in a dangerous neighborhood.

    So, here are links to several columns from yesterday. The title of the column is followed by the link.

    The messages we can take away from Taksim

    link to todayszaman.com

    Can the damage Erdoğan caused be repaired?

    link to todayszaman.com

    Erdoğan should realize that perceptions matter

    link to todayszaman.com

    Taksim events

    link to todayszaman.com

    Erdoğan — time to learn lessons

    link to todayszaman.com

    Turkey will go on

    link to todayszaman.com

    • TZ has a limited “balance”; it’s owned by Fethullah Gulen. I’d also recommend Hurriyet English, more aligned with the CHP, but home to Turkey’s best-known (to the US) spokesman for liberal Islam, Mustafa Akyol, and also the Turkey Pulse from al-Monitor, which has a range of authors and also translates opinion pieces from a range of papers — Taraf and Radikal to Sabah.

      Hurriyet link to hurriyetdailynews.com

      Turkey Pulse link to al-monitor.com

  3. “.. the diversity of people there was tremendous: liberals, young Muslims, fans of rival soccer teams, gay and lesbian groups, grandmothers, students and housewives, Kurds and Turkish nationalists, and of course, citizens of Istanbul who are fiercely protective of their beloved city…”

    The downside of this is that diversity can look more promising than it really is — so long as it is defined by a common ‘enemy’ — in this case Erdogan or his party — but what happens in that absence?

    The opposition should take heed of Egypt’s recent history after the fall of Mubarak — most of them would not say now that they got what they wished for.

    The opposition needs a unifying leadership which it does not seem to have, without it success may lead to paralysis.

    Their motto should be “reform yes, revolution no” — to demand more than modest changes from Erdogan and his party may be unwise.

    • I can’t imagine what you think they’re calling for. TC is, as many have noted., already a democracy.

      As much as it’s true that no one body is the entire movement, a platform has been released:

      Taksim Solidarity press release 05-06-13

      To The Government of The Republic of Turkey and The Public

      Citizens have been expressing their democratic outrage in Taksim Istanbul and all around the country against the insensitivity of the government for the public concern about the de-facto destruction of the Taksim Gezi Park that took place around 10 PM on May 27th.
      We share the pain of Abdullah Comert’s and Mehmet Ayvalitas’ families and wish to extend our get-well wishes to thousands of wounded citizens.
      Unfortunately, the government insists on its violent, repressive and prohibitionist policies against the public’s wish to express its democratic and human rights based demands. We would like it to be known that we are making an extreme effort to reach a social climate where no one is hurt, tensions are resolved and democratic demands can be expressed.
      For these reasons, as Taksim Resistance, we are waiting for the government to take substantive steps towards the realization of the demands below.
      • Gezi Park should remain a park. There should be no construction on the park under the name of TopcuKislasi or under any other name. An official statement should be made announcing the cancellation of the project. The attempts at the demolition of Ataturk KulturMerkezi should be stopped.

      • Starting with the Governors and Chief of Police of Istanbul, Ankara and Hatay, all responsible persons who have stood in the way of people’s right of expression in the resistance at Taksim and other places; persons who ordered the use of violence; and persons who supervised and carried out these orders should be removed from office. The use of tear gas bombs and similar devices should be banned.

      • The citizens who have been detained all around the country for supporting the resistance should be freed immediately. There should be a statement announcing that no further investigation will be pursued against these individuals.

      • The prohibition and de-facto obstruction of meetings, protests and demonstrations in our squares and public places should end, starting with Taksim and Kiziliay Squares, the sights of May 1st celebrations. Barriers to freedom of expression should be lifted.

      Furthermore, we think that the authorities should understand the content, spirit, hopes and demands of the reaction that came from the streets and all kinds of public places since May 27th, 10 PM. Trying to explain away what happened by referring to “marginality” would be the same as ignoring these events. We can see that citizens interpret the intervention in Gezi Park, which symbolizes the government’s general thinking, as “an intervention in their beliefs and lifestyles and a sign of condescension,” eliciting a cry of “we are here and we have demands“ and a public outrage from all kinds of people, whether they be women, men, young or old.

      We would like the ruling authorities to realize that the reaction of the citizens is also about the Proposed Law on The Protection of Nature and Biodiversity that came into National Assembly’s agenda and the projects that plunder our ecological riches, starting with the third airport in Istanbul, the third bridge over The Bosporus, the construction on AOC, and the hydro-electric power plants (HEPP). The reaction is also an expression of “the wish for peace, and resistance to the war politics being played in our country and in the region; the sensitivities of Alevi citizens; the rightful demands of the victims of urban transformation projects; the voices raised against the conservative male politics that control women’s bodies; the resistance to the coercion against universities, the judicial branch and artists; the demands of all workers, starting with the employees of Turkish Airlines, against the appropriation of their rights; the struggle against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity; and the demands for the clearing of the way for citizen’s right of access to education and healthcare.”


  4. “Elif and many others tried to prevent those who were trying to provoke the police, but to no avail.”
    Right, the peaceful police were provoked. Things like a woman in a red dress and no scarf just cannot be ignored.
    This is some kind of fence-straddling apologist merde, I think. The police were provoked? Back your statement up. Where’s the beef?

  5. thank you, Ayşe Hoca, for writing this and Juan for publishing it at a time when, predictably, AKP supporters (e.g. Zaman Today editor and many on his staff) are fanning out trying to distinguish a “legitimate” initial protest from a bunch of chapullers in the streets and squares from Friday onward. those chapullers are the diverse Turkish public that Professor Soysal describes.

  6. Thank you, Prof. Soysal for underlining the diversity of people that are making up this protest. In my time in the Middle East, I became aware when meeting people of their not wishing to identify their ethnicity as they wished to be listened to as a human being without filters and prejudices being applied to view through some particular political stance.

    That filter is what we all do as a matter of expediency and Mr Erdogan is no exception, except he is the Prime Minister. These events seem very healthy and hopeful for the future. Would that they were repeated in other countries, including my own.

  7. Turkisn FM (and clown) Ahmet Davatoglu weighs in:

    “These sorts of incidents happen everywhere and they are considered unexceptional. Then why are they regarded extraordinary when happening in Turkey?”

  8. The protests reminded Turkey what it is to be a nation as one and helped us work out our ethnic, religious, political differences. Even though I love the new peaceful state of Turkey and wish it remains forever and ever, let’s accept that there were strict prohibitions for religous people’s lives outside home before AKP took the head of government. But on the other hand I hate that AKP exploits our religious sensitivites to consolidate his voting base by restricting non-religious people’s lives as well. We don’t buy it. But there is no other alternative in the ballot for religious people so we need a brand new, young, energetic, democratic, non-polarizing, environmentalist political party and a brand new constitution.

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