Prior to his departure to Morocco on June 3, 2013, Prime Minister Erdogan asserted that he was having a hard time keeping at home at least 50 percent of the population, a reference to his ‘silent majority’, ready to be unleashed against the protestors on the streets. For the most part, the counter-narrative of the protests that might be told by members of this obscure category, must be read through the speeches of the Prime Minister himself. As I write, thousands have gathered at Ataturk Airport to show their support for the Prime Minister, whose plane is expected to land shortly. Their voices have not been heard. My aim is to take politicians out of the space of the political, leaving the floor to those to whom it truly belongs.
Selma and Guy Fawkes
On June 5, 2013, my walk through the streets of Bursa, Turkey was interrupted by an unusual altercation. What I encountered was a highschool girl writing on a placard a list of accomplishments achieved by the Turkish Prime Minister. On the placard she had written, among other things, that “he has nullified our debt to the IMF”; “he has banned smoking indoors” and “he improved Turkey’s economy.” When I approached her, I saw that she was standing next to a boy wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, who, unlike her, had sided with the protesters. As I approached, a middle-aged lady had just been accusing the highschool girl of being disrespectful to Turkey’s heritage and Ataturk’s legacy: “May God’s curse be on you! [Allah belani versin]”, she shouted over her shoulder.
I began to introduce myself to the highschool girl who we shall call Selma, just as the police approached. They told both protestors to get rid of their placards, allegedly agitating passersby. After a short exchange with the police officers, they both decided to end their short-lived performance. As they packed up, I asked them to have a cup of tea with me and tell me what they thought about the environmentalist protest in Gezi Park that had spread from Istanbul to all around Turkey, quickly developing into a powerful critique of the AKP government’s policies and the Prime Minister’s attitude. I was curious to hear how these young people saw things and what kind of future they wanted for themselves. Only Selma accepted my invitation. My account of our discussion follows.
Selma was still fuming over her elderly critic: “She congratulated me for my efforts, thinking that I was protesting against Prime Minister Erdogan; however, when I told her that I supported him, she was furious. What right does she have to shout at me?”
What led Selma to go to a very central and populated location (Heykel, which also hosts Bursa’s iconic Ataturk statue) and start writing down the deeds of Prime Minister Erdogan on her placards? It is a bold move, considering she attends a high school in Bursa, a city where hundreds of people have been flocking to the very streets in which she decided to disagree, calling on successive nights for the Prime Minister to step down. On June 5, she did the opposite. It turned out that the boy with the Guy Fawkes mask had provoked her into doing something! She had gone to the city hall and asked the authorities to tell her whether it was possible for her to protest too; she was told she could if she wanted to, and so she did. “If he can do it, why can’t I….I also have something to say!”
Selma’s anger was built on her past experiences, until she felt that, “she could not take it any more.” She repeated various points that the Prime Minister himself also raised prior to leaving Turkey: that many other trees were being cut for other construction projects, and no one protested against these projects; that the protests were rather provoked to bring the Prime Minister down by those who could not come to terms with his success; that the protesters were suffering the consequences of their very own actions (which she described as throwing stones at the police, vandalizing public property, speaking in a disrespectful manner about the country’s Prime Minister). For Selma, that it was the police who suppressed the protests with tear gas and their excessive force did not matter. Police violence was a direct outcome of the protesters’ misdemeanor.
It was the disrespect that irritated her. “We continue to suffer too,” she said: “I live in a dormitory, and in that dormitory, the only newspaper we receive is Sozcu [a pro-secular, anti AKP daily]. The newspaper speaks of the government and the Prime Minister in such a demeaning way that it disturbs me. Everyone around me in that dorm reads it and wants me to read it and believe in what it says too. We live as a minority in the dorm. In my classes, however, the situation is different.” Her classmates were mostly supporters of the AKP (“only two in our class of 25 supported the opposition party”), and many of her close friends shared her loyalty towards the Prime Minister even if they did not consider themselves as sympathizers of the AKP, and sided with her in her support for Erdogan. Her friends were “only a call away”: but her one-person protest had been organized so hastily, they were not with her on that day.
She agreed that maybe Erdogan cursing the protesters as a bunch of “capulcu” [looters] might have escalated the events out of hand. But this was a response to people speaking of him without respect,” Did you know that some protesters called for the third bridge[i] to be named Emine [referring to the Prime Minister’s wife], so that people could run [do] her over?” Selma asked.
Why didn’t people sign collective petitions instead to make the AKP change its policies? When I suggested this might not be as effective as public protests, she responded that its failure should not translate into throwing stones either.
Prime Minister Erdogan, who had become the persona non grata for certain segments of the population in Turkey as well as abroad, was Selma’s role model. “He has done so many good things for his country, provided so many services to his people. He ended a 30 year war [referring to the recent agreement with Kurdish guerillas] and still, some people are not satisfied.” In her understanding, his good deeds were not to be wiped away by these protests. Furthermore, Selma did not think that the Prime Minister would step back, and apologize for his words: “He’s a man of his word. If he says that he will not apologize, then he will not. And he should not!” She hinted that she and her friends would soon start protesting too, if need be, to show their support for the Prime Minister. Unfortunately, the crowds chanting “Allow us and we will run over Taksim” during Prime Minister Erdogan’s address to the crowds at Ataturk airport the night of his return to Turkey seems to support Selma’s undertaking.
With a system that fails to produce a viable alternative to the current government and its leader, calls for elections or for the Prime Minister to resign may be unrealistic. Selma was quick to ask: “They want Erdogan to step down; they want elections? But who will take over? Kilicdaroglu? [leader of the opposition].” But it is after all a mutual understanding of reciprocal vulnerability and the need for inclusiveness - and not an affiliation with a political party, leader or ideology -that truly lies at the heart of these protests. And it is such an understanding that brings us together at a subtler yet stronger level; that of the individual and of the human being.
If we only think of politics in relation to politicians, who are unwilling to listen, let alone open to change, the confrontation risks further escalation. So don’t we have to find ways to listen to the Selma’s of this world too? It is our collective responsibility to save the people from the politicians’ tyranny by inventing ways of communicating with each other.
[i] A new bridge is on the verge of construction in Istanbul, linking Asian and European shores over the Bosphorus. The bridge will take its name after the Ottoman Sultan, Yavuz Sultan Selim. The name itself led to protests in the province of Erzincan for the Sultan is accused of the massacre of thousands of Alevis in Anatolia.