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See Mustafa Dikeç's most recent contributions to Society & Space: Badlands of the Republic? Revolts, the French State, and the Question of Banlieues, The ‘Where’ of Asylum, Space, Politics, and the Political, and Politics is Sublime
(One finds peace in revolt)
Graffiti in Istanbul
Democracy is a fraudulent contract, José Saramago once remarked; from the moment you cast your vote, you have abandoned power until the next election. This may be the way democratic elections work, but it is not how democracies should. Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan, however, seems all too content with this fraudulent contract. Once an election is over, he will rule over the country, doing whatever he thinks is right, without the slightest opposition, not even criticism—which he, notoriously, cannot stand. He will tell you how many children you should have, that you should not smoke and not eat white bread, and that you should drink the non-alcoholic ayran rather than getting drunk with rakı or any other alcoholic beverage (also trying, unsuccessfully, to criminalize adultery and abortion, and toying with the idea of imposing visa restrictions for Turkish citizens to move to Istanbul). Ever the social engineer, the prime minister has an idea on how everything should be, ranging from the private lives of citizens to the planning of cities, all of which he has been trying to regulate the past ten years.
The problem is that he has the power to regulate many things. After all, he has won three elections since 2002. His power is legitimate, although it certainly should not extend to some of the areas he has shown a keen interest in. Furthermore, he has to understand that although his power is legitimate, it is not absolute. What is absolute is the legitimacy of revolt, and if Turkey is to become ‘fully democratic’ one day (this is the stated aim of the government’s project for a new constitution), going well beyond a democratic-election regime, then he and his followers will have to come to terms with this. Brutalization, demonization and incarceration of those who disagree and resist will lead elsewhere. We have been there before, and I don’t think anyone remembers it fondly.
Politically the most promising aspect of the revolts in Turkey’s cities is that they show people can still revolt against democratically elected governments even in times when economic conditions are not dire—revolt for political ideals, dignity, and aspirations. And revolt with courage, too, despite bones broken, eyes lost, lives terminated. The revolts are the spatialization of the resentment that has been growing over the years because of authoritarian governance, repression, and erosion of civil liberties, but also a spatial manifestation of these ideals and aspirations, and of the dignity and courage of political subjects constituted in the here and now, demonstrating their political capacity in the city. By standing up against a democratically elected government, the protestors remind us that politics is the business of anyone and no-one in particular, with no privileged subject, specific time or pre-determined space.
The triggering event for the revolts was the extreme violence exercised by the police on protestors in a dispute over the redevelopment of Gezi Park in Taksim Square, Istanbul, into a commercial complex. Taksim Square is a symbolic place for the secular Republic as well as for Left politics. At the center of the European section of the city, it is the place for official ceremonies celebrating the Republic (with a monument to its founders) as well as for May Day celebrations (though this is only occasionally allowed). When the first Islamist prime minister of Turkey, Necmettin Erbakan, came to power 1996, he promised to construct a mosque in Taksim Square. He was ousted the following year.
On 28 May, the police attacked the peaceful protestors of Taksim Gezi Park with tear gas. Just before dawn on 31 May, a brutal attack was waged by the riot police against protestors who were staging a peaceful sit-in in the park. Then all hell broke loose, police violence continued—as one female protestor put it, “it was as if they [the police] were trying to kill”—in an attempt to disperse thousands of citizens in Istanbul, as well as in other cities, notably Ankara, which did not fail to follow suit (with solidarity protests organized in several cities in the world ranging from Los Angeles to Athens). Many protestors have already died, thousands have been wounded (some seriously) and arrested. Excessive use of tear gas not only made thousands of protestors, including children, sick, but also killed the birds and dogs in Taksim—and we do not yet know the long term effects on humans of tear gas that expired two years ago (but was nevertheless used by the police). The protesters were labelled by Erdoğan variably as “marauders,” “vandals,” “marginals,” and, of course, “terrorists,” denying them all political legitimacy and capacity (they were following, so went his reasoning, orders from “foreign powers”). In the meantime, the prime minister did not fail to emphasize that the government would carry on with the controversial urban redevelopment project, which was at the origin of the revolts. Constructing a third bridge over the Bosporus (to be named after an Ottoman Sultan who had ordered the massacre of thousands of Alevis, who today represent more than 10 percent of Turkey’s population) and a canal to join Marmara and Black seas are also on the agenda.1
But it would be a mistake to focus merely on Erdoğan’s personality and the Gezi Park controversy. The resentment has been simmering for years over the erosion of civil rights and liberties, suppression of dissent, and authoritarian urban neoliberalism. This is a revolt against state-led neoliberalism, state-led Islamization, and ever-increasing repression.
Since coming to power in 2002, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party—the AKP—has implemented a revanchist politics against the military, journalists and intellectuals, and against what Erdoğan named the “White Turks” (the urban secular elite as distinguished from the “Black Turks,” poor and poorly educated classes and his voting base). Through reforms and practices that established networks of reciprocity or dependence—largely facilitated by religious connections and a clientelistic political culture—or, when those did not suffice, through the mobilization of the state’s coercive powers, the AKP has tightened its grip on the media as well as on business. As AKP’s power consolidated over years, dissent was suppressed and civil rights and freedoms started to erode. Thousands of activists (mainly Kurdish) are jailed through the use of loosely formulated anti-terror laws that make the flimsiest charges possible. There is ample anecdotal evidence of how the social pressure arising from this revanchist politics is felt at the workplace and universities by secular classes that do not subscribe to AKP’s worldview. Critical journalists are jailed (Turkey is now ahead of China for the number of jailed journalists) or fired, at best—those who are not are intimidated to the point of self-censorship.2 The silence of the Turkish media during the first days of the protests was staggering, which is best exemplified by the difference between CNN-International and the local channel CNN-Turk: while the former was airing live coverage of the revolts, the latter was treating its viewers to a documentary on penguins—which turned these lovely creatures into a symbol of resistance.3
The judiciary is filled with AKP nominees, army generals are jailed (not that anyone wants another military coup), and the opposition has been so incapable over the years that referring to them as “opposition” seems overly generous. Erdoğan must have felt he could forever exercise his legitimately acquired power with no checks. What he did not see coming was a new generation of urban citizens and new forms of solidarity cutting across social, religious, gender, political divides, and opening up spaces of politics and contestation, willing to risk losing their freedom and lives, rather than further submitting to the closure of all political space for dissent.
It is no surprise that these new solidarities and political subjectivities are constituted in and through urban spaces. We must remember that the AKP and its mayors have been zealous city builders, and not just in Istanbul (the citizens of Ankara remember well the provocative urban projects of Melih Gökçek, conceived and implemented undemocratically).4 This city building, ranging from large-scale urban redevelopment projects to changing street names, not only suited their economic ideology, but also played a symbolic role by leaving its mark on cities. This re-ordering of urban space was supplemented by interventions that were more explicit in their religious motivations, such as rendering public spaces and municipality-owned facilities “family friendly” by establishing separate sections for single men and families, and banning alcohol.
Privatisation and selling of public land to developers have been integral parts of AKP’s economic strategy since the early 2000s, and the contracts went to friends and followers (including a company whose CEO is Erdoğan’s son-in-law).5 The AKP has effectively used the state’s legal, financial and coercive powers—as well as its land—to consolidate an economic strategy focused on the development of urban property markets regardless of concerns over its social and environmental consequences. Resistance to top-down urban projects were met by repression; protestors in Turkey’s cities are not unfamiliar with the excessive use of tear gas, water canons, and violence by the police.6
The AKP has been quite successful in articulating neoliberalism and Islamism, consolidating a regime of governance characterized by market-oriented property development and mediated by Islamic codes of conduct, which became more mainstream.7 While Erdoğan and his followers hoped the people of Turkey would find peace in Islam, thousands now believe they will find it in isyan—in revolt—as the graffiti that opens this piece suggests (“Huzur isyanda”), which is adetournement of the popular Islamist slogan “Huzur Islamda” that means “one finds peace in Islam.”8
This is a revolt against state-led property development by those who are enraged by the rebuilding of cities for profit maximization with little or no democratic possibility of contestation, and definitely no consultation.9 This is a revolt against state-led Islamisation by those who are enraged by the increasing social pressure that seeks to impose certain moral codes on what they do, how they dress, how they behave, what they drink. This is a revolt of urban citizens who want to be considered as legitimate partners in the production of their urban spaces and maintain a way of life that is not regulated and restrained by moral codes imposed upon them by an Islamist government. Gezi Park was the last drop in growing resentment and urban resistance, as was the recent passing of a law aimed at restricting alcohol consumption; one clever graffiti in Istanbul suggested that the ban on alcohol had resulted in the sobering up of the people (the Turkish word for sobering up also means “waking up to something”). This is a revolt of citizens with political dignity, ideals, and aspirations. What unites them is their desire to affirm their political capacity, forming solidarities in urban space rather then falling back into tired divides of old. There are women in headscarves, “anti-capitalist Muslims,”10 gays, lesbians, transsexuals, union members, football club fans, Alevis, Sunnis, Jews, Christians, atheists, Armenians, Kurds, as well as Turks. The revolts are not organized or structured around established social, cultural, gender, ethnic, religious, or political identities or affiliations. What brings the protestors together, what brings them to stasis, is their political capacity as equals and political desire to resist repression and authoritarian governance.
This is an urban stasis.11 This Greek word rich in meaning seems to me to characterize best the situation in Turkey’s cities. Stasis does not merely mean inertia in a negative sense. Even if it suggests stillness, it is a disruptive stillness. Stasis means “standing up against” (which might bring something to a stop, hence the more commonly known meaning of stasis as inertia), “standing for,” and, following perhaps unsurprisingly from these two meanings, “uprising.”12 The protestors at Gezi Park stood up against what was yet another commercially driven project imposed on their urban spaces for private profit maximization without the slightest procedure of consultation, let alone contestation. The protestors in Turkey’s cities now stand for political ideals that reject social engineering imposing moral and religious orders, authoritarian forms of governance, and repression. The urban citizens of Turkey have stood up against authoritarian governance, standing for their right to the city and right to difference, not understood in a folkloric, exotic, or nostalgic way, but as a right to resist top-down imposition of moral and spatial orders. The urban uprising has begun, we have come to a stasis. But this is not the end, just the beginning.
I am grateful to Bahar Sakızlıoğlu, Ozan Karaman, Walter Nicholls, and the editors of Society and Space for their comments on an earlier version. Many thanks to Peter Gratton for inviting me to contribute to this forum.
1 Alevis practice a more liberal form of Islam, which has led to their exclusion by those committed to Sunni Islam, who consider them unbelievers. The AKP is firmly committed to Sunni Islamic principles.
2 According to Reporters Without Borders’s Press Freedom Index 2013, Turkey (‘the world’s biggest prison for journalists’) is ranked 154th among 179 countries.
4 Since 1994 the majority of Turkish cities have been governed by mayors coming from the Islamist movement that eventually led to the creation of the AKP in 2001 by Erdoğan, who was the mayor of Istanbul between 1994-1998.
5 See, for example, H Gürek (2008).
6 For examples of resistance from Istanbul, see Kuyucu and Ünsal (2010) and also Sakızlıoğlu, van Weesep, and Rittersberger-Tilic (2012).
7 The articulation of neoliberalism and Islamism is convincingly argued and empirically demonstrated in Karaman (2013). For state-led property development and its consequences for the urban poor, see Lovering and Türkmen (2011). This article is part of a special issue on Urban Development and Planning in Istanbul, edited by J Lovering and Y Evren, in International Planning Studies.
8 A literal translation of "Huzur Islamda" would be "peace is in Islam," but what this phrase suggests is that one finds peace in Islam. Same also with "Huzur isyanda": a literal translation would be ‘peace is in revolt’, but what is suggested is that one finds it in revolt (or in revolting).
9 A common practice is to inform the concerned citizens, if they are informed at all, after the decisions have already been made. In the two case studies examined by Kuyucu and Ünsal, the concerned citizens found out about the news only by chance, by which point the allowed time for legal objection had already expired. Here Prime Minister Erdoğan’s statement made on 29 May, a day after the first police attack on the protestors, exemplifies well the AKP government’s general approach to democratic consultation and contestation procedures: ‘Taksim Gezi Park is like this, like that, they will go there and protest, whatever. You [the protestors] can do whatever you want. We have made a decision, and that is what we will put to work."
10 "Anti-capitalist Muslims" (Antikapitalist Müslümanlar) is a movement by devoted Muslims who are particularly outraged by the government’s manipulation of Islam for its capitalist agenda.
11 This reading of the revolts as stasis owes greatly to a discussion at a workshop on "commons," organized by the "Inside/Outside Europe" Research Network, 7-8 June 2013, Winchester University. For their comments and suggestions I am grateful to Marissia Fragkou, Philip Hager, Evangelos Konstantelos, Lizetta Makka, Grant Tyler Peterson, Myrto Tsilimpounidi, Ally Walsh and Marilena Zaroulia. Efharisto!
12 For those familiar with Turkish, stasis brings together "karşı durma" and "ayaklanma."