The unbearable lightness of drowning in your own myth: Tamer Söyler

This guest post by TAMER SÖYLER is the third of a three-part series on Istanbul’s Taksim Square protests.


This is the final segment of a three-part account of the unrest in Turkey. The first part of the commentary discussed the unrest from the perspective of the political life course of Erdoğan. According to the protestors it was the Prime Minister as the key political figure who set the cat among the pigeons. Neither the opponents and nor the supporters of Erdoğan can make sense of Erdoğan’s turn to authoritarianism on the eve of critical election season. There are two possibilities: First, Erdoğan could have lost his emotional equilibrium and started to react to the events carelessly. Since the Prime Minister surrounded himself with advisors and party members who cannot dare to challenge him, he lost his bearings. Second, as an experienced politician Erdoğan must have a political strategy. Even if he is emotional his emotions are closely related to the concrete problems he faces.

For the purposes of this commentary it is important to assume that Erdoğan’s strategy to revive the politics of piety is intentional and it could be best understood against the background of his political life course. Erdoğan lost the liberal milieus. The only way left for Erdoğan for bypassing the opposition is to press against archaic political categorizations to stigmatize them. This is how he plans to secure the presidential seat and control the opposition within his party. According to the Prime Minister this is a question of all or nothing. If he wins, he alters the system and in the eyes of his supporters he acquires a status of prestige akin to the founders of the Republic. If he loses, in the eyes of his opponents, he will be dismissed as an unpleasant figure who occupied an unnecessary amount of time in the Turkish political field and in the collective consciousness of the people.

The second part simply argued that in order to achieve his objectives Erdoğan is determined to go as far as it is needed.  By exploiting –and most of the times inventing– the social-structural tension between the central and peripheral milieus, the Prime Minister is playing a dangerous game of polarization. Erdoğan knows that the military is back in their barracks –and they will not intervene– and the police force is loyal to his government and willing to suppress any sign of dissent. He wants to show that he has the upper hand and he will not hesitate to use whatever he has to preserve the interests of his political milieu. The third part will highlight a set of specific issues which informed the unrest against the background of the social-structural setting that was already discussed in Part II.

Visible factors

In addition to the social structural factors contributing to the social tension playing out in Turkey, one can also highlight a dozen of substantial immediate matters which are suspected to have fuelled the protestors’ anger. The list obviously is much longer and many important issues are left out (e.g. gender politics). The only purpose of this list is to give the reader a rough framework of the unrest. It does not claim to be exhaustive.

(1) Taksim is the main hub of nightlife in İstanbul. A visit to Taksim Square and Istiklal Street (Turkish: İstiklâl Caddesi) in one of the national holidays would be more than enough to support the thesis that the square is not only visited by urban secular İstanbulites but also by local and international tourists, and by various social milieus of İstanbul. It is possible to come across all kinds of people in the neighborhood. The government decided to implement large-scale projects that would alter the neighborhood drastically. Protestors share a collective psychology. They cannot overcome bitterness and resentment. They say it feels like a home invasion. They are offended. They are insulted. Despite their persistent demands the government refused to hear what they needed to say. The Prime Minister was aware of the objections. Erdoğan declared numerous times on television that his government was keen on implementing the urban development projects. He stated loud and clear that the government was not willing to have a further discussion on the subject matter. The protestors felt that they were forced to accept a fait accompli. Therefore, they decided to raise their voice against a regime which they view more and more as a plebiscite dictatorship on the go.

(2) Erdoğan promoted a set of restrictions on the consumption of alcohol. Contrary to the popular belief, secular milieus did not turn their thumbs down on restrictions at the very beginning. After all it could have been related to legitimate concerns of public health. They, for example, had made peace with the regulations to clear the streets from outdoor tables in the neighborhoods where there are plenty of bars and places of entertainment on the grounds that in cases of emergencies fire-fighters and ambulances cannot have easy access to the scene of accident. Nevertheless, as if the Prime Minister was disappointed of not receiving the reaction he was hoping for, he went for extra publicity to justify the restrictions as measures to protect the Turkish youth from destructive un-Islamic habits. As a result, Erdoğan was again a success in the box office. Seculars raised their voices against the Prime Minister underlining that they would question the legitimacy of any regulation if it was based purely on non-secular principles. Similar objections were made against enactment of new regulations on abortion. People raised their voice: This is my health! This is my body! My body, my decision! Get government hands off me! Erdoğan did not miss the opportunity and he remarked that a regulation based on Islamic principles had to be regarded as legitimate as any regulation that was proposed by “two drunkards.” Erdoğan was openly being provocative. His government officials rejected the claims that Erdoğan was referring to the first two presidents of the Republic (Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and İsmet İnönü) as drunkards. May this be the case, Erdoğan supporters and opponents have received the message. Erdoğan was leading an assault on the symbols of the secular Republic. As of now, in the pubs of İstanbul, people will not start drinking without shouting vocally: Cheers Tayyip!

(3) People from all walks of life opposed the government’s decision to destroy one of the few green spaces left in the city. Although it was Erdoğan who personally announced that the building could be used as a mall or a hotel, under immense public pressure he quickly retracted his words. If a politician does not stand behind his or her words, this is often tolerated as a political maneuver and partly accepted as part of the political game. Let us all sit crooked but talk straight. In a liberal democracy no one expects a Prime Minister who ruled for more than a decade to be a Mr. do-right. In this case, however, Erdoğan gave the impression that his primary concern was not building a hotel or a mall. As it was evident in the case of alcohol restrictions, Erdoğan aims to alter the symbolic aura of the square. The government’s plan to destroy Gezi Parkı, and build a replica Ottoman Army barracks is part of a bigger project. The plan to build a large mosque in the square and demolishing the AKM building (a concert hall on the square considered as one of the major symbols of the modern Republic) are the real nubs of the dispute. Erdoğan wants to create new symbols that the modernism of the Republican period has come to an end. This is the post-modern neo-traditionalist period led by him and his party. Against this background, it was of course an important factor for the protestors that the Prime Minister was concerned more about the business interests than social policies and environmental issues. While İstanbul is literally suffering from an inflation of shopping malls, Erdoğan has made it his personal business to build more hotels and shopping malls to support the balloon of a growing Turkish economy. But one should not miss the key symbolic assault.

(4) When the Prime Minister was the major of İstanbul between the years 1994 and 1998, he argued against the idea of a third bridge on the grounds that it would generate an environmental disaster in northern İstanbul. This is understandable as it is almost common-sensical. One does not really need to be an expert on urban and regional planning to know that a third bridge could not do any good to the city (e.g. it will bring more traffic into the city, forest land will be destroyed, fresh-water basins would go under great stress…etc.) Erdoğan is very well aware of all these issues. However, the Prime Minister also knows that the superficial growth of the Turkish economy needs support. Since manufacturing in the country is far from providing the necessary resources, Erdoğan needs gigantic projects of infrastructure to boost the economy. The third bridge is already in construction. The government named the bridge after one of the influential Ottoman Sultans ‘Yavuz Sultan Selim’. Not only the government did not feel the need to seek public opinion about the project, the Prime Minister has personally chosen the name of an Ottoman Sultan who is regarded by the Alevis (the largest religious minority in Turkey) as the murderer of thousands of Alevis during his east Anatolia campaigns. It is virtually impossible for Erdoğan not to be aware of Alevi sentiments and point of views. He simply decided to ignore them. The government has not retracted the name and it seems unlikely that they will alter the bridge’s name. Alevis are publicly offended and humiliated by what they regarded as an intentional assault from the Sunni majority to perhaps give a message to the Syrian regime (though disputed, still headed by a Ba’athist minority).

(5) As if it was not enough that Erdoğan altered his opinion about the third bridge, his government also decided to build a third airport (and another city) in the same region to deal with the stress related to the growing population of İstanbul. In addition to this, they also promoted an even more ambitious project: Kanal İstanbul. This is an artificial sea-level waterway which is proposed to be built on the European part of İstanbul. Environmentalist groups have posed similar objections that one does not need to rehearse here.

(6) Erdoğan ignored public opposition to introduce nuclear power plants in the country. This is a point which hardly needs any elaboration.

(7) AKP government has done a great job and successfully transformed İstanbul’s infrastructure. Developing more railways is an idea which has always been supported by virtually everyone in this country. Nevertheless, the government has a tendency to over-egg the pudding. For example, the mayor of İstanbul, Kadir Topbaş (an architect by profession) personally designed a Golden Horn metro crossing bridge. Golden Horn is one of the most important historical sites in İstanbul. Large-scale construction projects in this part of the city constitute a direct threat to natural, cultural and historical values. Turkish Armenian photojournalist Ara Güler (He is widely acknowledged as one of the world’s great photographers) is said to have remarked that the only place left which still reminded him of the old İstanbul and worth taking a picture of is the Golden Horn area. This architectural landmark is getting ruined by careless projects.

(8) Gentrification of historical neighborhoods of İstanbul (e.g. Sulukule, Tarlabaşı, and Balat) is going on. Not only low-income people are kicked out of their homes, there is evidence to prove that AKP supporters are benefiting from the new configuration.

(9) Although Erdoğan is perceived to have full control of the media (e.g. in the first days of the Taksim resistance, mainstream media did not cover the protests) he continues to complain that “some groups in the media” are trying to discredit him. Put all other cases aside and take only the particular case of the unrest in Taksim Square and the related media coverage, facts prove Erdoğan wrong.  This is after all why during the peak of the unrest; people of Turkey were watching CNN International to see what was happening in Taksim Square.

10) Government’s foreign policy is perceived to be neo-Ottomanist and imperialist by the opposition and it is not well-received. Incidents like the Marmara (2010) and Reyhanlı (2013) are seen direct consequences of Erdoğan’s aggressive foreign policy. A protestor mocked Erdoğan: “He wants to be the Sultan of all former Ottoman lands.”

(11) One has to make a long list to explain the symbolic importance of Taksim Square. Put the symbols of the Republican era aside, the square has an important place in the collective memory of the socialists in Turkey (e.g. Bloody Sunday in the year 1969 and Taksim Square massacre in the year 1977). Erdoğan knows the importance of the square in the collective memory of the left and the labor movement in Turkey. This is why while he treats it as an ordinary meeting ground for public demonstrations; he has been trying for years to put his mark on the square. The most recent even was the May Day. The government declared almost a state of martial law in İstanbul to prevent people from celebrating the May Day in the Taksim Square.

(12) Some of the protestors are devoted Kemalists and they are convinced that Erdoğan has an İslamist agenda. They are suspicious that the government will do everything to destroy the secular foundations of the Republic. Even though allegations that the government has a secret plot to transform Turkey into an Islamic Republic like Iran have always lacked substance (other than Erdoğan’s provocations), Kemalist concerns today are widely shared by the liberals as well.

All of these factors played out on top of the everlasting social structural tension. Therefore, although the unrest was initially perceived as ‘unexpected’, a careful eye could have easily seen that a great social stress was already present in the society. Against this background, one needs to understand why the upheaval was perceived as a surprise by scholars, public intellectuals, the government and the opposition. The main factor that rendered the tension invisible has been economic.

Affluence and authoritarianism

The dominant rhetoric both in Turkey and elsewhere is that Turkey is a booming economy. There are two immediate reasons to dispute this bold claim. First, economic figures are not self-evident. One can interpret them in all other ways. Second, even if one agreed that the economic figures are mainly positive, it is hard to know how much credit the Prime Minister deserves for the performance of the economy. The government, however, claims that there are at least two self-evident success stories in the economic field. First, per capita income tripled in the last decade. Second, economic growth rate was unprecedented. Both claims can be interpreted differently. Per capita income and growth rates should be calculated in reference to national currency unit. Growth rates do not fluctuate in real terms according to the appreciation or depreciation of the national currency. When calculated with this method, the increase in per capita income in the last decade does not read more than %50. Economic growth rate of Turkey is %5. The average annual economic growth rate has been more or less the same in the last 80 years. Therefore, despite the rhetoric, most of the growth strategies are still aspirational. This is why the protestors are not convinced or impressed by Turkey’s alleged growing role in global capitalist economy.

Considering growing inequality and lack of social welfare net, most of the protestors feel more fragile than a decade ago. Erdoğan might be impressed by the impact of the privatization waves. There is a good amount of international investment flow into Turkey. According to the protestors, what impresses Erdoğan terrify them. There is a growing discontent among workers created by privatizations and they are not even allowed to express their concerns in May Day demonstrations. Speculative growth rates hardly matter for a worker who recently lost her job or for a pensioner who find it more and more difficult to make her money last until the end of the month.

The most recent events have proven that there remains a great danger that Erdoğan directs his attention day by day to the ideological issues close to his heart. Although he is a businessperson at heart, Erdoğan does not convince either his supporters or the opposition that his real interest is in economics. He gives the impression that when he is equipped with full power and authority he would rather work for his real interests. The protestors suspect that the government is using the resources to strengthen its international and local prestige. The government has recently paid off the last of its IMF loans. Closing the IMF debt was a great symbolic gesture for the common folk. This created a great chance for Erdoğan to flatter the nation’s pride. Erdoğan was able to sketch a success story: although his government received a legacy of a bankrupted country, in less than a decade Turkey has become one of the strongest economies of the world. The truth is ‘slightly’ different. Foreign debt of Turkey has almost tripled in the last decade. In that sense, depending on the story-teller, ‘undisputable’ economic figures can tell many other stories. This must be why when government supporters were asked to provide substantial examples of what has become better in their socioeconomic statuses; they could not do better than reciting the government discourse.

As in any other country in the Global South (e.g. South Africa, Brazil, India), foreign visitors seem to be more convinced of the emerging character of the Turkish economy than the locals. Istanbul has always attracted tourists. In the last years, however, it received more tourists than major European tourist destinations. International magazines are promoting İstanbul as the new ‘cool’ city where Asia and the Europe meet. The protestors view the portrait of ‘cool’ İstanbul as part of the global expansion of capitalism. One narrator claimed that the gentrification of the city has initially started with the process of gentrifying the city’s image. Yesterday’s third world city today has become the cool city to visit.

Having self-fulfilling strong economic figures and a self-made prestigious international posture, Erdoğan has perhaps become too confident, arrogant and patronizing. He does not register the protestors’ criticism that democratic practice in Turkey has become increasingly monophonic. The on-going demonstrations have injured the image government worked hard to build: a model country with a vibrant civil society. Most of the protestors expressed that they had a personal issue with Erdoğan’s uncompromising character and attitude. As an experienced politician, the Prime Minister surely did not want to upset the applecart on the eve of important elections by displaying clear signs of authoritarianism. After all the rhetoric of fighting against authoritarianism and injustices has once been Prime Minister’s source of strength.

Conclusive Points

The government has successfully exploited certain aspects of the development experience of Turkey. Development in Turkey has been as complicated as it would be in other countries of the Global South. Erdoğan’s main target is the Republican period that comprised the first three decades of the modern Republic. The Republic was founded after a war of independence. The memory of the war and the national leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s presence dominated the early days of the young Republic. Turkey has inherited massive amounts of problems from the Ottoman Empire. According to the first rulers of the country, the troubled Ottoman legacy has legitimized authoritarian practices. Erdoğan’s ideology is founded on a reaction to this bold republican authoritarianism. The CHP (main opposition party today) governments in this period favored top-down approaches until the 1950s. There is no doubt that Erdoğan is suffering from a certain sense of hysteria and paranoia about the opposition party. But he finds ways to legitimize his irrational attitude by invoking CHP’s authoritarian past as a precedent. All of these issues are after all quite vivid in the collective memory of the people of Turkey. Although politicians from different ideologies feel free to exploit these issues for political gain, Erdoğan proved to be the master of the craft.

Nevertheless, challenges to the country’s development course are not limited to the early days of the Republic. As the protests clearly demonstrated, Turkey’s journey with the democratization process has not completed yet. Fully motivated by his own idiosyncrasy, the Prime Minister started to reproduce the authoritarian state mechanisms for his own purposes. Erdoğan has created a winning formula. He has a political rhetoric, a full-fledged myth that has worked for the last decades. Today he gives hints of not being able to get out of the world he created. According to this rhetoric, AKP rule has nurtured a pious capitalist class which moved in large numbers from the peripheral Anatolia to the core cities like Istanbul. These ‘Anatolian Tigers’ terrify the old secular elite. According to the latter, conservative rural ideology has been invading big Western coastal cities and posing a direct threat to the secular legacy of Atatürk. Seculars perceive this shift as a direct threat to their lifestyles and what they regard as their highbrow urban culture. The reason Erdoğan has always received popular support and had landslide victories was because he always made sure that his rhetoric drew on facts. Today he is missing basic facts. Not only liberals but also moderate Islamists turned against him. Erdoğan must understand that what he is dealing today is not the typical republican elitism that is widely shared by seculars in Istanbul and elsewhere. Protestors are mostly young people who think it is getting increasingly difficult to communicate to the Prime Minister. Unless Erdoğan starts drawing on facts he is likely to drown in his own myth.

Final Words from the Author

This commentary was not written as an academic piece. It is sketched as an album of ideas in the first two weeks of the unrest. The media coverage of the unrest in Turkey has been extremely superficial and the commentary wanted to fill in the blanks by providing a broader perspective to an international audience. The author hopes that it was at least thought-provoking and stimulated the social-scientific imagination of the readers. Although the author aimed for having each part of the commentary to have a theme of its own, the points can be best understood when the commentary is read as a whole. When the reader reads the three parts together, couple of points that are not stated head-on will be evident.

As rest of the protestors in Turkey, the author is extremely delighted to see people on the streets protesting and standing for their rights. It is clear to the author that there is a great number of people who used to define themselves as apolitical are finally politicized. This is emotionally satisfying. But there is an important question remains to be tackled. Can this emotionality be transformed into analytically constructed demands? This question cannot be answered with sheer romanticism. It is impossible to miss a vital point. Small groups of ideologically well informed protestors constituted the core group at the beginning. Today there is an apparent risk of losing the movement to middle-class based concerns. In that sense there are family resemblances with the unrest in Brazil. This is why it is becoming more and more difficult to argue confidently that the movement takes issue of primary concerns such as emancipation and equality.

The overall picture of the movement can be perhaps best summarized by paraphrasing what Murat Paker (a physician and clinical psychologist who has written on human rights and the psychology of torture survivors in Turkey) recently wrote in one of the Turkish newspapers (Radikal). There are five waves in the movement that could be clustered into five groups: This-is-our-park, enough-is-enough, you-will-never-walk-alone, neo-nationalists, solidarity-feels-good.

The first group was rather small and it comprised people who were solely interested in opposing the government’s urban development plan. They fought for their park and for the rest of the green areas in the city. The second group was massive and it comprised people who flowed to the Taksim square to protest the police intervention. These people were not particularly interested in the park though they would be happy to keep it. They were rather agitated by government’s authoritarianism. Government officials were perceived to be disrespectful towards the people. People felt that they were humiliated and not taken serious. Their message was loud and clear: enough is enough! This group was emotionally highly charged. Third group inherited the psychological victory of the enough-is-enough group. They were now not scared that police intervention could break their solidarity. Their primary concern of loneliness was dealt with. They knew that if they wanted to oppose the government they would never have to walk alone again. Fourth group was led by the neo-nationalists. Their archaic militarist slogans (e.g. we are all soldiers of Mustafa Kemal!) were quickly disliked by the protestors. Nevertheless, their presence proved that the nature of the movement was altered by massive participation to the movement. This also signaled the disintegration of fundamental socialist principles that were informing the movement from the very early beginning. Finally, the fifth group joined the masses. These were a great number of people who never joined a protest in their entire lives before. Since there was no more a risk of police intervention, they were dominated by a curiosity to go and see what was happening. They liked the feeling dominating this political carnival.

Against this background, if one constructs a hierarchical pyramid, from the first group to the fifth group, ideological awareness on social-structural matters quickly dissolves. If one explains with a metaphor, one can claim that especially for the last two groups this was nothing more than an emotional discharge against the oppressive father. This served the purpose of an anti-depressant for the less politicized oppositional groups. There is plenty of empirical evidence to convince one that the unrest has already turned into an identity-driven middle-class movement. Make no mistake about it. Identity-driven middle-class movements are not fancy looking political gestures which in reality are all vine and no taters. The author simply wants to play the role of a gadfly and encourage the readers to level with him about the nature of the unrest in Turkey so that all can learn the necessary lessons from the movement. As aforementioned, the unrest was triggered by a colorful coalition of an ideologically informed opposition. This is perhaps why Erdoğan labeled the protests as “ideological” in the first place. He was right. The question is whether or not it will continue to be an ideological movement. One inevitably develops a strong suspicion when one witnesses that getting rid of Erdoğan has been established as the primary goal. This brings to one’s mind the question of democracy. It seems that within the rhetoric of democracy there is quite a bit of space for addressing surface level phenomena (e.g. identity issues) while there is no space left for tackling social structural issues (e.g. inequality). Today the protestors are finally focusing on one pragmatic goal: the removal of the election threshold. The idea is becoming more and more popular. Without the election threshold, different segments of the opposition can get into the parliament and the government can be confronted strongly. Time will tell how we will remember the unrest in Turkey in the future.

(Tamer Söyler is a PhD candidate and a guest lecturer at the Institute of Asian and African Studies at Humboldt University in Berlin. He was born in Turkey and lived most of his life in Istanbul. He studied at the Jawaharlal Nehru University for a semester and has often visited India.)

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