A Commentary by Ismail Doğa Karatepe and Özgür Genç
A crackdown on environmentalists in Taksim Gezi Park in Istanbul sparked protests across Turkey on the 31st of May. Since then, Turkey has been experiencing mass demonstrations covering almost the entire country. An occupy-style movement against the demolition of this relatively small park was suppressed on that day which included the arresting and injuring the hundreds. It is evident that neither police chiefs nor the governor of Istanbul could have expected that the police raid would attract the attention of and mobilize hundreds of thousands of protesters across the country. This protest already became a large scale rebellion on the night of May 31, however, apparently, not only against demolition of the park but also against, as a graffiti puts it, “something” (“Kahrolsun Bağzı Seyler!”/”Damn with somethings!” as in the picture on the right corner). It is not easy to meld the demands of the protesters in the same pot; however the government encroachment on freedom thus far appears to be common concern.
The massive protests are perhaps the biggest challenge for successive AKP governments since November 2002 when AKP won the general election. Among all other possible responses to the demonstrations, the government and Erdoğan himself seems to choose a coercive response similar to his counterparts in many Middle Eastern countries. The police and military forces have been mobilized to suppress the demonstrations, along with paramilitary pro-governmental groups. Mainstream media outlets have either been silent or broadcasted pro-government “news” due to AKP’s vast ability to control the media despite escalating protests against it.
As Tayyip Erdoğan is the most powerful figure in the party – concomitantly the discourse used by him has been quickly adopted by the party and its supporters – and “Tayyip Resign!” is the most common slogan among protestors, the discourse that the PM has been utilizing since the very beginning of the anti-government unrest needs to be discussed to understand political confrontation. Rather than providing an elaborate account of discourse analysis, we would like to highlight 2 important elements being contradictory to each other.
1- ) Tayyip Erdoğan tries to benefit from ideological divergences among protestors. He has been so often pointing out the existence of Kurdish movement in the protests to the nationalists and other way around. He has been also aiming to separate the socialist movements which are the driving force of the demonstration especially around Taksim square from the other protestors through criminalizing (marginalizing) the former and minimizing the demand of the latter.
2-) Since the protests began, he has been not only raising islamist values, but also touching upon nationalistic elements in his speeches more frequently in comparison to the other speeches before the protests. The speeches seem to be designed and revised to gain the consent of those who identify themselves as Muslim (more specifically Sunni) Turk. Strong emphasis of the Turkish-Islamic element in his discourse resembles the discourse utilized by prominent figures of the 12th of September Junta regime in the 1980s. The military had benefited from such a discourse, aiming to articulate Islamic elements as nationalism, widely known as Turkish-Islamic synthesis. Considering that similar discourse has been also used against increasing Kurdish opposition in 1990s, it would not be wrong to say that it has been the sole response to any sort of escalating dissent movements. Combining various components of the traditional right, AKP/PM seems to want to portray the other components of the islamists/nationalists politics as its own political line. Such a strategy attempting to consolidate right wing politics against broad alliance would have, however, serious consequences. Rather than operating democratic mechanisms, erecting a bloc against opposition could escalate the protests and street clashes. Four people have been killed already; thousands have been injured or arrested.
The coalescence of such a bloc in conjunction with police violence, however, unifies the different groups and aggregate the movement even the existence of ideological divergences (as in the picture left corner above, a man with pro-Kurdish party flag and a women with a Turkish flag helping each other against police violence). The immediacy of standing together against the police violence and government suppression may seem momentary. Yet, it should be kept in mind that the production of alternative relations and possibility of existing together are already internalized by the resisting groups. This is irreversible. Furthermore, it points at a dilemma for the government. The AKP, particularly Erdoğan has already adopted a discourse to divide the protestors and AKP supporters into oppositional forces. However, the language and practice used to embrace the Turkish right finds its echoes in the other side of the spectrum. In so far as the government fuels the polarisation, embraces more islamist/nationalist discourses and practices armoured by police violence, the resistance will likely gain in strength.