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From my field notes on June 16, 2013:
On the boat from Eyüp to Kazlıçeşme. Fatih [a pseudonym] is sitting across from me. “You know history,” he says. “You’ve read this. What they’re doing”–he’s referring to the people protesting in Taksim–“what they’re doing is exactly what they did to Abdulhamid II and [Adnan] Menderes.” Fatih is a supporter of the AKP and the Prime Minister, and when we’ve run into each other over the past two weeks, on-line and off, he’s often made similar comments. The reference to Abdulhamid and Menderes draws upon a prevalent narrative that the two leaders were brought down by foreign powers frightened by Ottoman/Turkish power. I nod my head, acutely aware that my being American here—even one who speaks Turkish—is still cause for comment.
I begin with this anecdote because it highlights two important and interrelated dimensions of the narratives which has emerged against the ongoing protests in Turkey: First, it gestures to the conflation of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with the nation of Turkey. As I’ll argue in more detail below, the protesters’ frequent calls in the first weeks of the protests for Erdoğan’s resignation fed the development of a counter-narrative in which the prime minister’s very life—and by extension the success of Turkey as a nation on the world stage—was in doubt. The mass rallies that have been organized by the prime minister over the past two weeks speak to a project of redefining him as the nation’s privileged political subject. Second, Fatih’s use of historical references speaks to a broader effort to evaluate the present in terms of a particular past. This (re)presenting of the past, I argue, helps to authorize the government’s response in the present.
Now entering their third week, the protests that began in Istanbul’s Gezi Park and spread over the following days throughout the country are one of the most unprecedented social and political events in recent memory. As Mustafa Dikeç has recently argued:
These 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.... [T]he protesters remind us that politics is the business of anyone and no-one in particular, with no privileged subject, specific time or pre-determined space.
While it is too early to say for sure, one of the most encouraging and optimistic movements to emerge from these protests has been the convening of public forms in parks throughout Istanbul. Deliberately structured as open and participatory forums, they seem to gesture towards a new form of shared civic experience, something that might echo Mark Purcell’s recent comments on this site about democratic communities.
In what follows, however, I would like to chart a slightly different course, instead exploring some of the geopolitical and historical imaginaries woven into the government response to the protests. I do so because those imaginaries—particularly those that frame democracy and human rights as universal values—are paradoxical: the visibility of the protests in Taksim in particular has both attracted wide international media coverage and enabled many government supporters to discredit the protests as a minor incident organized and orchestrated by foreign powers bent on meddling in Turkey’s domestic issues.
As Prime Minister Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan has argued repeatedly over the past weeks, “Taksim is not Turkey.” Closer attention to the spatial and historical imaginaries through which “Turkey” has come to be articulated helps us understand how politics and the political come to be defined as the work of privileged subjects in particular times and spaces. Taking these imaginaries seriously pushes us to explore not only potentially emergent democratic networks but also the longer histories and distinct spatialities of manufacturing democratic consent.
The Protests in Brief
On May 28, 2013, a small group of people gathered in Gezi Park to protest the uprooting of trees.1 Ostensibly, only a small number of trees were to be removed to facilitate the widening of several boulevards in conjunction with an ongoing pedestrianization project in Taksim Square. However, many worried that those trees’ removal would be taken as an excuse to render the park’s destruction as a fait accompli. While the initial alert was put out by Taksim Solidarity, a broad coalition including many activists working against broader projects of urban transformation in Istanbul, the protests dramatically expanded in response to what has been widely seen as excessive police violence2 Following another dawn police raid on the morning of Friday, May 31, the protests moved out beyond Taksim and the park itself, spreading to cities around Turkey. Over the past month, the Turkish Medical Association reports that as of June 20th nearly 8,000 people had applied to hospitals for medical treatment, 60 in serious condition; 101 people had suffered head trauma, 11 people had lost an eye, and 4 people had lost their lives. Though Marijn Nieuwnhuis is right to criticize the “atmoterrorism” of the police, it is equally important to remain conscious of the other forms of violence which continue to be inflicted upon vulnerable bodies3
Interest Lobbies, Foreign Agents, and Global Capital
Within the first week of the protest, a complicated—if not entirely consistent—narrative emerged to discredit the protests: They were the work of foreign forces bent on disrupting Turkey’s political and economic emergence on the world stage. Prime Minister Erdoğan spoke darkly of “interest lobbies” seeking to take advantage of Turkey’s economy. Government-leaning papers published reports of unnamed European intelligence services having planned these disruptions long before; news that Mehmet Şimşek, Turkey’s Finance Minister, had been spied upon in 2009 while participating in a G-20 meeting in England received front-page treatment. Jealousy at Turkey’s recent success in paying back the last of its loans to the International Monetary Fund was taken as a motive for planning these events; others fingered German jealousy at the planned construction of a third airport in Istanbul, one that would ostensibly draw away air traffic from German airports. These narratives circulate in the speeches of government ministers, in the media, and in everyday life.
Many of my fieldwork conversations with people who oppose the protests often return to these narratives; as one interlocutor told me the other day, “These events have been decoded, we know what they really mean.” While explanations differ from person to person, the introduction to a recent article in the government-leaning newspaper Yeni Şafak provides a representative framework:
Ömer Bolat said that the AK Party government had stabilized macroeconomic factors in the economy, had lowered inflation and interest rates to the single digits, had secured the value of the Turkish lira and passport, and had reduced the burden of interest payments and public debt in the debt. Evaluating the situation, Bolat added, “As a consequence, the internal and domestic interest lobby doesn’t love the AK Party, because in the past they used to make easy money from the interest-exchange rate-stock market triangle from what was called a crooked economy.
In basic terms, the protests—and their subsequent visibility in the “international” media—were a project to derail Turkey’s economic success (realized most recently in its zeroing of its International Monetary Fund debt, the groundbreaking for the 3rd bridge across the Bosphorus, and the tender of a bid to build a massive 3rd airport to the north of Istanbul). In more sinister terms, some people point to what is seen as Germany’s continued attempts to thwart Turkey’s growth; others will summon histories of British intrigues against the Ottoman Empire; still others will draw connections between the current “interest lobby” and a cabal of Masons arrayed against the Turks for centuries.
All of these narratives might be conveniently lumped under the category of “conspiracy theories.” Such an approach, however, risks two mistakes: First, as a recent column in Today’s Zaman points out, there is a history of foreign involvement in domestic affairs in Turkey and throughout the broader Middle East. Indeed, to deny outright the possibility of any foreign involvement and thereby imply that any narrative of foreign involvement is irrational reduces the debate to competing claims about the “truth.” More productively, we might ask about how these competing understandings of what these protests “are” are themselves situated in complex networks of authority, privilege, and power. Rather than defining at the outset some positions as “objective” and others as “biased,” we might consider what perspectives come to be dominant, how those perspectives are established, and the kinds of political and social bodies that are variously included (and excluded) from them.4
On June 17, 2013, the Prime Minister spoke in front of a mass rally in Kazlıçeşme, Istanbul. “Istanbul means Turkey,” he said. “Istanbul means the Middle East. Istanbul means the Balkans. It means North Africa. It means Europe, Asia, Africa. From this ancient Ottoman capital, from this world city, from this capital of the world, I salute the whole world, all my friends, all my brothers.” He continued, “I understand at this moment the world is watching us,” declaring a moment later, “If there’s someone who wants to see Turkey’s fotograph, if there’s someone who wants to see despite the international media, the photograph is here.” The crowd roared its support.
It’s telling that the Prime Minister’s rhetoric was explicitly directed against the “international media.” In his view, and in the view of many protest opponents, organizations like CNN and the BBC have engaged in a systematic propaganda campaign against the government.5 This campaign, they argue, is one important part of the plot to destabilize and derail Turkey’s growth. The rally was, in many respects, a choreographed attempt to present a different image of Turkey. This image was not only intended for domestic coverage—indeed, images of the prime minister speaking in front of mass rallies are ubiquitous in the Turkish media at the moment—but self-consciously addressed to an international audience.
This meeting was one attempt to reposition the prime minister as the privileged subject able to articulate the nation on the world stage. In the same way, the proliferation of narratives about foreign involvement in these protests and about foreign attempts to derail Turkey’s growth do a similar kind of work. They redraw the boundaries between the foreign and the national once more and place the prime minister at the head of a nation facing down foreign threats. What is more worrisome about narratives that claim to have “deciphered” the true meaning of the protests is the way those narratives close down other possible narratives. And given a domestic situation in which many of the major news conglomerates are reluctant to critique the Prime Minister openly, alternative narratives become increasingly difficult to hear. Further, these narratives and images that place Erdoğan at the privileged center of political life in Turkey simultaneously authorize continued police violence against those figures on the arbitrarily defined “margins” of public life.
The Past Made Present: Menderes, Erdoğan, and the National Will
Yet the appeal of the prime minister is not simply rooted in his personification of a Turkey standing up to “foreign” powers; it is tightly woven with ways of telling history. These histories—and the supposedly incontrovertible messages they carry—further ground the narratives of foreign plotting. Consider, for example, a recent full-page story in the government-leaning Star newspaper entitled, “They played a similar play in the 1970s in Chile.” The story begins,
In recent days these hot-blooded youth and young girls who are revered as the 90s generation probably don’t even know the name; a full 40 years ago Chile’s socialist President Salvador Allende was overthrown by a military coup amid the sound of pots and pans.
One of the sounds that has reemerged during these protests is of protest supporters standing on their balconies every night at 9:00 pm to bang pots and pans together. For some, those pots and pans brought up memories of the months prior to the February 28, 1997, “post-modern coup” that brought down the government led by Islamist Necmettin Erbakan, and fueled accusations that the wider phenomenon of the protests was an attempt to spark a coup to topple Prime Minister Erdoğan. What made this article significant was precisely its seeming irrelevance; under normal circumstances, one would not find an article about pots and pans and the fall of Allende. Yet it functioned as a didactic project, one that defined and limited the meaning of the pots-and-pans in today’s Turkey as something associated with anti-democratic regime change. More broadly, the story draws our attention to an important dimension of the response of government supporters to these protests: the past.6
Yet as we know, the past is never simply present; rather, it is made present through a variety of means and media. If the responses to these protests have been framed in terms of a set of geopolitical imaginaries—foreign agents out to disrupt Turkey’s growth, global interest lobbies seeking to profit from renewed economic instability in Turkey—they have also drawn on a diverse set of historical references. The (re)presenting of these pasts plays an important role in enabling and authorizing the government’s response to the protesters.
In the case of the pots and pans, the references to the 1997 coup—which continues to occupy an important site in the social memory of people in Turkey today—and to the 1973 coup in Chile do two things: First, they draw upon the past to define the meaning of the present; but more significantly, the references to the past serve to frame the present pots and pans as the seemingly innocuous signs of an anti-democratic coup. It is crucial to recognize that these references to past coups are not isolated; rather, they help to constitute a broader discourse within which the government is necessarily democratic and those who protest against it—whether they are aware of it or not—are siding with anti-democratic interests. Not a day goes by that government-supporting media outlets do not reference the threats faced by the government. The deployment of the past helps to lend credence to those claims.
The presenting of the past is also deeply affective. Nowhere do we see that more clearly than in the constant parallels drawn between Prime Minister Erdoğan and Adnan Menderes, Turkey’s prime minister between the years of 1950-60.
Menderes came to power in 1950 after the Democrat Party won the first multi-party elections in Turkey’s history. His ten years in office mark a watershed period in the country’s history. From Turkey’s entrance into NATO to its participation in the Korean War to its rapid industrialization and urbanization to a range of cultural shifts, the 1950s were a moment of rapid change in Turkish life. Today, many hold up the 1950s as a sort of golden age in Turkish history, one in which mosques were reopened, in which the Westernizing excesses of Ismet Inönü were rolled back, and in which the government represented the (true) national will (milli irade). It is also a period that closes with a military coup on May 27, 1960. Tried before a military tribunal under questionable conditions, Menderes was sentenced to death and hung in September 1961. Both the military coup and Menderes’ execution continue to be fiercely contested topics. The image—and the broader history it evokes—is a polemical intervention that grounds present political debates in a set of historical events. In referring to the “you” who hung Menderes and poisoned Özal, the image summons up the specter of an interventionist military which engineered coups in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997. This “you” conflates the present protests with the specter of a “deep state” prepared to usurp the people’s will by any means necessary.7 Yet it is important to see that this historical linkage is not a necessary one; rather, it speaks to a specific project of bringing the past forward to frame the present. The power of the image and of the history it evokes is precisely that it presents itself as incontestable. The past, in its seeming factness, becomes the ground upon which the present is built. Thus when Prime Minister Erdoğan travels the country today conducting mass rallies knows as “Meetings for the Respect of the National Will” (Milli İradeye Saygı Mitingleri), it helps to define the events of the present as an extension of the past. Erdoğan’s choices in this present become less a matter of personal responsibility—for which he may be held responsible—as of historical necessity. As for those who oppose Erdoğan, regardless of their professed motives? This history tells us that behind the critics and opponents of the prime minister is a military regime intent on suppressing the will of the people. Yet dangerously, this is also a past that heightens the stakes of the present. Instead of being simply a protest against a creeping authoritarianism and heavy-handed police tactics, this past turns the crowd’s chants of “Tayyıp Resign!” and “Government Resign!” into threats.
Taksim, the prime minister has insisted, is not Turkey. He is right. Indeed, many accounts were too quick to liken the protests against Hosni Mubarak in Tahrir, to call this a “Turkish Spring.” Paradoxically, it was the very visibility of Taksim that both galvanized international attention and provoked the counter-claim that the international media was biased against the government. Yet when the prime minister stands in front of hundreds of thousands of people in a carefully choreographed display, that, too, is not Turkey. Rather, those public rallies seek to produce a particular vision of Turkey, one in which the Prime Minister is the privileged arbiter of the political. He embodies the nation standing against foreign and domestic threats. What is crucial to recognize is that the unity of this “Turkey” has emerged only in response to the challenge of the protests. This “Turkey” is one defined in opposition to the "international" and that draws upon a volatile history. One of the most worrying dimensions of current events in Turkey is the possibility that what will emerge in the short-term is even more restrictions on the kinds of subjects able to participate in politics, on the kinds of spaces available to them, and on the kinds of mechanisms used to enforce democratic consent. Yet by the same taken, it is equally important to acknowledge our own partial perspectives. Our critiques of state violence in Turkey ought also to push us to consider the global projects through which consent is established, maintained, and controlled in a variety of places. To point to the scaffolding upon which Erdoğan has built his stage is not to pretend that we speak from an innocent position. Indeed, our own positions have their own histories and geographies of exclusion; what is sometimes lost in foreign critiques of the “lack of democracy” in Turkey is an awareness of precisely how those critiques feed a domestic, insular narrative of persecution. That narrative—in which Erdoğan is once more the privileged victim who speaks for an infallible nation—paradoxically makes use of the past and removes it beyond critique. What is needed is not less critique, but more of it, critiques that take seriously not a single history, but the multiple ones that come together to provide us one view upon the world.
1 See here for a useful illustration of the events of the first 10 days of the protests. For the most recent statement regarding the protests, please see the statement released on June 22, 2013 by Taksim Solidarity.
2 This overview draws upon Timur Hammond and Elizabeth Angell, “Is Everywhere Taksim? Public Space and Possible Publics,” Jadaliyya June 9, 2013.
3 It is also important to recognize that the bodies of police are also vulnerable in these situations. While some –– as many as 600, according to the Turkish Interior Minister –– have been injured in isolated clashes with protestors, the majority are struggling with exhaustion and poor working conditions. See recent articles from The Guardian (June 14) and Today’s Zaman (June 23).
4 This is an approach indebted to Donna Haraway’s description of ‘situated knowledges’. See her “Situated Knowledges; The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” In Simians, cyborgs, and women: the reinvention of nature, 183-201. New York: Routledge. See also Timur Hammond. 2013. “A Region in Fragments: The Middle East From Istanbul.” The Arab World Geographer. Vol. 16, no. 3, 125-145.
5 What is left out of this critique of the international media is the failure of the domestic media to cover large segments of the protests. For some background, see Zeynep Alemdar, “Turkish Media’s Moral Bankruptcy: An Interview with Haluk Şahin,” Jadaliyya June 10, 2013.
6 On the importance of a different past to one facet of these protests, see Edhem Eldem, “Turkey’s False Nostalgia,” New York Times June 16, 2013.
7 See Kerem Öktem, “Contours of a New Republic and Signals from the Past: How to Understand Taksim Square,” Jadaliyya June 7, 2013 for some background on these coups.