Standing protestors on Taksim Square. Demotix/Akin Aydinli. All rights reserved.
In the burgeoning days of the Taksim protests, Prime Minister Erdoğan made an interesting statement to the members of international press in a meeting in Morocco. Asked to comment on the fact that Ömer Çelik, his minister for culture and tourism, had said of the protests that, ‘the messages had been received, noted and would be evaluated’ – he replied that ‘he couldn’t imagine what message his minister had received’, indicating that he for one could make no sense of the protests.
In fact, it is very understandable that not only Erdoğan but everyone, including those most involved in the protests, who experienced or witnessed the whole process, have had similar difficulties in making sense of what was going on. For, this kind of social movement expresses itself in quite creative and innovative ways. It brings together highly heterogeneous groups of actors with diverse political interests, combining liberals, socialists, secular-nationalists, feminists, environmentalists, as well as those who had kept aloof from any political and ideological engagement in the past.
Any attempt to figure out the meaning of the Taksim protests will thus be vulnerable to criticism. Nevertheless, it is the duty of social and political theorists to show enough courage in trying to account for what is going on at the price of taking some stick. It should yet be possible to moderate, even if not to completely ward off, the force of such criticism by conceding that any account of the meaning of the protests will be somehow lacking something. Each will be like trying to define a cube from a standpoint that sees only one or several surfaces. It is still worth trying to provide for such lacks; for, less incomplete accounts might only come after the articulation of a plurality of the former.
Having expressed my claim to modesty, I can now present my view of the Taksim protests which I hope will contribute to the enlargement of the horizons of understanding, ultimately making better sense of what is going on, on the part of the prime minister as well as that of other people.
Irish standing protest. Demotix/Adele King. All rights reserved.
Even though the Taksim protests reflect the peculiarities of the mood of the ‘90s generation – those who were born into the age of revolution in communication symbolized by internet and who thus have access to a remarkable degree of creativity and innovation in their diverse forms of self-expression – still the political demands underlying the Taksim protests are connected to those that have been raised by political social movements in the past. The demands formulated in Taksim are universal demands that have already been staged in some places in the past and will be staged in some places in the future. And it is important to acknowledge this because, this will be important if we are to reveal the meaning of what is now going on in a way that communicates across different societies and times.
When I speak of ‘connecting Taksim protests with the movements of past’, I do not mean to engage in a thoroughgoing historical analysis in such a very short essay. As a student of political philosophy, I already expect such studies from historians. In order to catch a glimpse of how the demands raised by Taksim protests can be seen as connected to the universal demands raised in the previous struggles, I would rather content myself with pointing out a parallel to a challenge staged in Europa centuries ago, namely the challenge brought forth by Martin Luther before the Worms Diet.
Indeed, the connection has occurred to me thanks to the new phase of protests embarked upon by the “standing man”. As you might know, after the police brutally evacuated Gezi Park upon the directive of the prime minister, a man came out in the very centre of Taksim square, who just stood up facing the building of the Ataturk Cultural Centre (AKM) – a hall functioning as an opera-house which the Government had every intention of demolishing. Many other women and men followed the “standing man”, looking either towards AKM, or towards Gezi Park that had been the focal point of the protests up till then.
To my mind, these women and men, who stood peacefully and pacifically, but also in resistance and insistent in the face of the authority of the state - incarnated in the personage of Tayyip Erdoğan, embody and reveal the essence of the Taksim protests. In other words, the message the prime minister confessed to having failed to receive might be extracted from the “standing women and men”.
What is then the “standing man”? Anyone, who is familiar with the history of political thought or theology and who comes across such a question, must inevitably recall Martin Luther’s incredibly impressive exclamation when he was put on the trial by the Worms Diet in 1520: ‘Hier stehe ich und kann nicht anders!’. With these words, Luther spoke to the court that was judging him for his religious beliefs. I understand Luther’s remark to mean that, ‘I am present here with my all ideas and beliefs; I cannot be or do otherwise; so, it falls upon you to decide on what you are going to do with me, as I am present before you. For, I will not cease to be what I am with my own beliefs and thoughts, just because you wish me to do so’.
Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach. Wikimedia/Lucas Cranach. Public domain.
Whatever Martin Luther might personally have thought about freedom of conscience and the freedom of expression of thought – or, without regard to whether or not he had defended these freedoms throughout his life beyond his trial – the above quoted remark is an undaunted assertion of freedom of conscience and the freedom of the expression, truly considered as the archetypes of the basic liberties.
Now, if we turn back to Taksim protests, we should at first underline the fact that what bothers the standing women and men is restricted to neither Gezi Park nor to ‘a few trees’ here or there, as the prime minister himself argued in a manner designed to discredit the protesters. Protesters are concerned with asserting that they ‘exist’ and furthermore that they ‘exist with their own ideas, beliefs and ways of life’. But, why? Why or how have they come to a situation in which they feel themselves obliged to assert these things? This is because the prime minister’s avowed project to build ‘a Great Turkey’ upon Conservative-Islamist values identified with the ideal of a purified and fully authentic generation as it was imagined by Mehmet Akif, the respected Islamist-Conservative poet, seems to presume that they would come to be extinct or disappear from the social terrain.
This is because the prime minister’s ideal of ‘Great Turkey’ seems to point to a social order in which young people neither ‘flirt with each other in the publicly owned subways’, nor ‘display themselves in such publicly owned streets and avenues as the beautiful Besiktas of Istanbul in a naughty nude manner’, nor ‘wander around drunk’. Hence, it seems as if the prime minister has in his mind a distinction between those who pursue the ideal imagined by Mehmet Akif and in this way represent both the past and future of Turkey, on the one hand, and those ‘drunkards’, ‘marginals’, ‘marauders’, and even ‘vandals’ who can claim neither roots in the past nor hopes for any future. It seems that in the view of the prime minister, there is one ‘real tableau of Turkey’, on the one hand, and then there are “those riff-raff” who are bound to cast dirty shadows on that very decent tableau.
No need to belabour the point! The message that the standing women and men try to send is that they do not and will not share the Conservative-Islamist values and ideals of the prime minister. Indeed, they do not oppose Erdoğan’s presence and values in themselves; they only try to show that they too are also present. They demand that their presence ought to be respected by Erdoğan, who had until not so long ago, been perfectly capable of presenting himself as a kind of ‘standing man’ and his political struggle as a one for basic liberties and rights in the face of the paternalism of the military elite.
They warn Erdoğan that if he really wills the ‘Great Turkey’ that will be founded upon a particular way of life determined by a particular set of values, i.e. Conservative-Islamist values, he will have to suppress their ‘standings’ by brute force. They also point out the peaceful and reasonable alternative: Erdoğan might choose to respect their presence and forms of existence (their Sosein as well as their Dasein) and thus give up behaving as the new father of the people of this country.
In this way, the ‘standing man’ in Taksim stands for an alternative hope and promise for Turkey: a ‘Country of Freedom’, a ‘Unity in Plurality’, founded upon basic rights and liberties, permitting the co-existence of diverse values and modes of life given an equal and peaceful standing.
The Luther Monument in Worms, Germany. Wikimedia/Photoglob AG. Some rights reserved.