Support in London for the 'Turkish Spring'. Demotix/Peter Marshall. All rights reserved.
It was one month to the day since the Turkish government – without any international attention – mobilised 40,000 police and stopped public transport, in order to suppress turnout for Istanbul’s May Day demonstration. At the corner of Marble Arch, London’s Turkish community gathered, as they had done the day before in Milan, to assemble in solidarity with protesters in Istanbul, beaten and set upon in a sustained onslaught of police brutality that would best be described in terms of sadism.
The nature of the Turkish demonstration, which has now erupted into nationwide rioting, had already become scarcely recognisable from its origins. In a city that seeks to define itself as much as a consumer destination for Arab petrodollars as western European bohemians, one of central Istanbul’s few remaining parks is still set to be demolished to make way for a shopping mall.
Seven protesters are unofficially reckoned to have been unofficially killed. One woman crushed under an armoured police vehicle, a man dead from his injuries having been hit in the head with fire from a water cannon. Stop a moment, that doesn’t quite cut it, because they aimed the water cannon at his face. I say ‘they’, and yet, as is so often so in Turkey, we know the perpetrator. The ‘they’ will be the police. The police, every time, and always, the police. Western readers have heard about eyeballs pulled from sockets by water cannon, the man beaten until his scrotum split has also grabbed a few column inches for the cause. Aside from these grotesque titbits, the details will remain hazy, and we should take no consolation in the fact that the official death toll, having belatedly crept to one, will likely remain low. On a day when a wave of people took and crossed the vehicle-only Bosphorus bridge to march on Taksim, the Turkish media were still reporting minor skirmishes at the Syrian frontier. Hundreds of incarcerated journalists, and the overlaps between government ministers and media conglomerates, are the combination of hard and soft power that has stopped the mouthpiece of Turkey’s civil society from articulating its own trauma. Those inside Turkey say consistently that social media has become their best information source.
Police spray teargas at Taksim square protestors. Demotix/Can Erok. All rights reserved.
Much is made of the consent that undergirds capitalist democracy, and yet in Turkey, that consent is founded in a coercive memory of the disappearances, torture and brutality with which the police have crushed the nation’s leftist resistance for half a century. The consent is based on such cruel enforcement that Turks, as with leftists elsewhere, are provided no option other than their consent. With tacit western approval, a nation’s civil society was kept down at the expense of a once-marginal politics, one that merged conservative political Islam and economic neoliberalism. The sort of violence meted out at Gezi Park, itself evidence of the impunity with which Turkish police can act, is what has protected an otherwise fragile status quo for so many long years. It has taken deaths, horror, and suffering, but the trees that sparked the Gezi Park protests have – with luck – announced a time when Turkish people will be made to stand no more for the injustice and fear we have been made victims of.
Beyond this basic morality, the story will not be simple. “A government that oppresses its people will lose all legitimacy”, were words that came not from radicals, but from Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan - the sentiment dispensed in the direction of Hosni Mubarak as Egyptians rioted in 2011. Erdoğan, who now witnesses his own country overrun with the fury of its citizens, will no doubt continue to believe in his own words. He will instead question their correct application - no oppressors ever perceive themselves quite so. Ministers who early-on tweeted that not protesting was the way to end the violence, betray quite clearly the extent of the very dictatorial thinking that has brought protesters to the street.
If this is to be the Turkish Spring, it shows the true face of a dictatorial regime is not its brutality – western democracies also know a thing or two about violence – but its isolation, its lack of awareness, the way it can remain oblivious to the rage it evokes, even as it regards its own rule as benign. Gezi Park, with luck, will be Erdoğan’s apocryphal Timişoara moment, when Ceauşescu was made to see he was not the well-loved leader he believed. Gezi Park, we can only hope, will burst the bubble of the AK Party, reminding them that – despite their 49% election victory – half of the country loathe their rule, and that even among the 49%, doubts persist that the government has become corrupt and self-seeking, more master than servant. All over the world, we too often forget that Democracy is a matter of more than just elections.
If ‘hope’ and ‘luck’ looms a little large in this prognosis, then that is because Turkey cannot go it alone, and so far the western voices that count for so much in this world have been shamefully quiet. In a time when, internationally, populations fear government surveillance, censorship, and the appropriation of our states, we must conclude that should Cameron, Obama, Hollande and Merkel remain tight-lipped about the disorder spreading across Turkey, it is because they share Erdoğan’s contempt for their own electorates, and because they regard the measure of police force as an expedient that they themselves could ultimately resort to.
Outside the political class, so too have the western media been largely silent over abuses in Turkey. The narrative of a country sliding to dictatorship had longevity to it, a yarn to be teased out until Gezi Park, rather than fired prematurely with what was already old news in Turkey – that the dictatorship was well-established.
Foremost in this omerta have been the financial media, and while left-leaning papers at least made to-do about the excessive social conservatism of the AKP, financial writers went weak at the knees for the destruction of labour rights and - in the banking sector - the acquisition of strong, solvent, Turkish banks by European giants including BNP Paribas, ING and Groupama. For years, Turks tore out their hair at the ubiquitously prefixed ‘mildly’ or ‘moderately’ before ‘Islamist government’, and the blood of Turkish protesters is partially on the hands of those journalists who preferred to peddle a desperately tired "Turkey at a crossroads” line, rather than telling the truths that can save lives, and fulfilling their foremost obligation as journalists. Jeffrey Sachs and Prosyn, the self-proclaimed “World’s smartest opinion page” were – with chronically bad timing – singing of the Turkish success story even as police were setting fire to the tents of Gezi Park protesters. It is – tragically – only bloodshed and peril that has given journalists a sense of the urgency that was waiting and present all along.
The lessons from the protests now taking place all over Turkey will continue to be learned as events progress. We can be certain that many in the west will use the violence to their own ends. Most dangerous will be those who cynically use this as an opportunity against Islam, voices seemingly oblivious to the fact that in Turkey, the protesters are Muslims too. The name of Allah is being invoked in scenes that contain greater passion for democracy than can be found in any western electorate.
What Turkey is now witnessing is as much Syntagma Square as it is Tahrir, and yet all with a set of grievances uniquely Turkish, and always equating to the fundamental demand that the people must be heard in the legitimate governance of a country. It is, quite certainly, the spectre of Islam that has often impeded western opinion from grasping this throughout the Arab Spring. It was a secular issue of urban development, just as it was the self-immolation of an impoverished Tunisian grocer, that started the Arab and Turkish uprisings. To better-understand our domestic and international affairs, we should take note that Muslims have political concerns beyond religion. It is brash neoliberalism, as much as Islam, and an autocracy that the human spirit will never indefinitely tolerate, that has driven Turkey to violence.
Amongst the blame and the bloodshed, there must also be an optimism, and one that should stretch outside of Turkey. For those who believe the Occupy movement went away, the events of Gezi Park, which the protesters set out specifically to Occupy, prove expressly the significance of what happened when the Occupy Movement came about. Foremost amongst its success was to load a single word with socially-minded political values, and to appropriate it for all those who believe the rights of humans to take primacy over those of capital and government decree. There was no question of whether Istanbul's protesters would ‘take-over’, ‘sit-in’ or ‘lay siege’ to Gezi Park, they were always to Occupy it. Likewise, whether or not this is the first blossom of a Turkish Spring, it is invaluable that what happened in Prague 1968, and across the Arab world in 2011, now offers an emotive word behind which people can rally in their efforts at socially-minded resistance.
In Turkey, this process is in its infancy, it will require international support, and remains dangerously vulnerable, but at least it has been started. On Monday, the BBC's Paul Mason reported that the success of the protest required workers. At noon on Tuesday, Turkey's unions begin their strike.