Protests in Turkey Reveal a Larger Fight Over Identity

#direngeziparki Tim Arango in the New York Times has a good piece on some of the social discontent with the ruling Freedom & Justice (AK) party that is behind Istanbul's Gezi Park protests. The protests have lasted for seven days and at time paralyzed Istanbul, closing major roadways and transit hubs, particularly those at Taksim Square, a major tourist hub and centre of protest adjacent to Gezi Park.

Arango points out that much of what protesters and commentators alike call Erdogan's "increasingly heavy-handed style" is related to his nouveau-riche economic policy, which supports the interests of religiously conservative Anatolian businessmen over both the underclasses of Istanbul and the city's former ruling "old money" economic elite. He writes:

Mr. Erdogan’s decade-long rule has dramatically reshaped Turkey’s culture by establishing civilian control of the military. It has broken down rules of the old secular order that now permit the wide public expression of religion, seen in the proliferation of women wearing head scarves, by the conservative masses who make up the prime minister’s constituency. His rule has also nurtured a pious capitalist class, whose members have moved in large numbers from rural Anatolia to cities like Istanbul, deepening class divisions.

The old secular elite, who consider themselves the inheritors of the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey’s secular founder, have chafed under these transformations. So, too, have liberals, who do not label themselves Kemalists and are tolerant of public displays of religion. But they object to Mr. Erdogan’s leadership style, which they describe as dictatorial, and are put off by many of the development projects on the grounds of bad taste, a view imbued with a sense of social elitism.

For many, it has also created a sense of resentment and loss — for longtime residents, urban intellectuals and many members of the underclasses who are being pushed from their homes so that upscale housing complexes and shopping malls can be built.

Istanbulites quoted and writing in regional news publications, like Aslihan Agaoglu in Your Middle East, stress that these protests are not as close to Egypt's revolutionary Tahrir Square protests as some mainstream media would like to think. For one, they argue that the Gezi Park protests are apolitical and oppositional, less ideologically motivated and more an expression of general social discontent.

That discontent stems not just from the sense that Erdogan's uncompromising politics are behind the brutal police tactics of past days, which have seen possibly thousands injured and tourists, elderly, and children gassed alongside peaceful protesters. It also comes from a very real understanding of the AK party's history of economic nepotism, which sees conservative outsiders rewarded with controversial and divisive construction projects in Istanbul in an effort to shore up continued support for the party. Worst of all, they bring with them both a social and economic outlook that is representative of a creeping conservativism unwelcome in this cosmopolitan city.

Perhaps most notable about the protests is that the opposition parties seem to be unable to claim a spokesperson role on behalf of the protesters. Though the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) has organized marches in significant numbers in the past week, and remains at the forefront of media criticism of the government, there is yet to be any identifiable political movement at work.

In this way, the Gezi Park protests resemble the Occupy protests of 2010-11, although even here media comparisons sometimes go too far. Though some of the protesters, who have taken to wearing Guy Fawkes masks, spray painting anarchy symbols, burning down banks and even defecating in chain restaurants, are definitely anti-capitalist in their motivation, this protest began as a simple environmental/urban community protest. It seems to be primarily motivated, as Arango points out, by a more general discontentment at the cultural, economic, and social direction of Istanbul and Turkey under AK party administration.

Its similarity to Occupy, then, is more just in that it has become a catch-all for discontent, a protest to which the many different disenfranchised groups in Istanbul and across Turkey may attach themselves as a means of collective public expression. The more general dissatisfaction with parties in power who take 51% victories as mandates for majoritarian, even autocratic rule, will be all too familiar to Canadians, who've watched a Prime Minister do the same with an even lesser mandate.

Read the full article here.