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One building, several facades: political showcasing in contemporary Turkey

An iconic building is erased, together with the successive faces it has worn as Turkey hurtled from secular modernity via Gezi Park, to the latest experiment in religious nationalism.

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Atatürk Kültür Merkezi under demolition, March 2018. Wikicommons/MHIRM. Some rights reserved. Atatürk Cultural Center (the AKM) is gone. An iconic building for modernist architecture and prominent space for cultural production is to be replaced with a massive cultural complex that will host an opera house and exhibition center among other facilities, according to Turkey’s popular newspaper, Hürriyet Daily News

Atatürk Cultural Center (Atatürk Kültür Merkezi in Turkish and AKM in short) was an important example of 1960s’ architecture and a physical focal point in Taksim Square in the Beyoğlu district, a major transport hub where crossroads connect the various multicultural neighborhoods of Istanbul. The square gives onto Istiklal Street, a street long synonymous with social and cultural events, eateries, bars, pubs, and entertainment around the clock. Being a popular spot for more than a century, it went through several architectural changes in its lifetime.

Atatürk Cultural Center in Taksim quarter of Istanbul, Turkey, 2007. Wikicommons/ Chapultepec. Some rights reserved.

Besides its architectural and topographical value, the AKM is considered a Republican project, a symbol of the Turkish modernism that aimed to westernize the country’s cultural life. It was no coincidence that the building was named after Atatürk in 1978, having  survived a fire that accompanied one of the peak moments of political polarization and violence. A number of institutes, departments and buildings in Turkey are named after him, which might be also seen as a statement, especially when (or where) the nation-state as such, democracy, and most of all, secularism are under challenge. Traditionally, these public buildings and sites are decorated with Turkish flags and Atatürk posters on national days.

AKM, 2004. Wikicommons/ Bryce Edwards. Some rights reserved.The first president of the modern Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938), is considered more than a mere national hero. When the Ottoman Empire was falling apart after the First World War, he was the leader of a national movement and succeeded in establishing a nation-state of a modern and secular character, taking a clear distance from all religious influences. The last step certainly was not favored by all, however, public and private efforts remained strong for decades to come in maintaining a repressive hegemony around this legacy. There was unquestioned, constant exposure to his legacy in every corner of daily life.

Following his rigorous secular agenda is considered by many to be the true way to maintain Turkey’s democracy. This replacement of religion by a quasi-sacred secularism, embodied in Atatürk, became a cult that was even protected by law against any insult. Such democracy came at the expense of repressive measures on freedom of speech, freedom of association, and the right to education, among other systematic violations of human rights of people who were found not to be secular enough – and also towards those who were not Turkish, heterosexual, white etc. enough. Several incidents in the 1990s, such as the ban on the veil in public institutions and universities, and the imprisonment of Erdoğan in 1998, then mayor of Istanbul, for inciting religious hatred through reading a poem, are still fresh in the living memory of Turks. When Erdoğan left prison and made his way to the parliament in 2002, many felt that secularism, synonymous to democracy in Turkey for decades, was at stake. When the AKM came onto the government’s radar, it was also suspected that Erdoğan wanted to erase Atatürk’s secular legacy from Taksim Square, a location that had served as a showcase on various occasions. The government’s move to pursue a long-existing idea of building a mosque in the square further supported this suspicion.

The plans to demolish the building began to be conceived as early as 2005 and were soon joined by several other urban transformation projects. The plan received considerable public criticism, claiming that the political and cultural legacy of AKM was more important than its material value. Several art and architecture platforms and grassroots organizations came together to start a legal process, which only succeeded in slowing down the overall project. Shut down and evacuated in 2008, AKM stayed unused for a decade. The demolishing work began on February 13, 2018 and President Erdoğan announced the date of inauguration of the new building as early 2019, while identifying those who were against the project as terrorists: “…Those Gezi protestors also yelled against this. You can yell as much as you want. Eat your hearts out! Rant and rave, (but) we demolished it.” It is no secret that Turkey’s president often adopts an angry tone, but one may still wonder quite what the building has to do with a social movement that started as a sit-in protest aimed at protecting a few trees in Gezi Park.

The Gezi movement

Before growing into one of the biggest social movements in modern Turkish political history, the Gezi movement, or Gezi in short, initiated as a small resistance with an environmental aim: to prevent Gezi Park, right next to the AKM, from turning into a shopping mall. From the first day of the protests, May 28, 2013 until the first week of September, approximately 3.6 million people joined the protests in the streets, participating in 5,532 actions in 80 provinces out of 81, according to official reports.

Clashes with the police left more than 10 dead and thousands injured. Failure of the mainstream media to properly cover the protests resulted in protesters finding alternative ways to communicate and reach out. A dramatic increase in social media subscription numbers was followed by creative practices and interactions filled with humor, satire, and irony, which were unprecedented in this country’s annals of collective activism. The movement stood against the transformation of Gezi Park into another in that series of massive urban projects that pose a threat to environment and neglect the intangible values of the asset. The AKM was certainly on the list as well. As a familar showcase, the facade of the AKM was soon to be singled out for attention (and decorated) by the Gezi activists.

Screenshot detail of posters, banners and flags on AKM building, 7 June 2013. Wikicommons/ Infestor. Some rights reserved.This photograph tells us a lot about the composition and the atmosphere of the Gezi movement. In addition to the urban and environmental issues, the movement sported a great diversity in the motivations of participants, varying from women’s rights to LGBTQI issues, from worker’s rights to Internet bans. A major concern also crystallized around the deterioration of the secular state and popular belief in the government’s growing tendency towards involving religious values in politics.

The first banner, which is top centre in the image reads BOYUN EĞME (meaning “do not bow down” in Turkish), and was placed on AKM’s facade on June 2, shortly after the start of the protests in Gezi Park. Several other banners quickly followed this first one and gave the building a colorful look. BOYUN EĞME is the title of the weekly magazine of the Turkish Communist Party, although the title itself and the visual features of the banner (a red brush effect on a white background with text in black and white font) do not reveal much about the party identity for an average viewer with untrained eyes.

But it was a privilege to be placed top centre as the first-comer, and obviously it had to share the spot with a Turkish flag and Atatürk’s poster portrait. Another flag in the centre of the facade, is joined by one on the rooftop right. These were probably arranged arbitrarily or due to the practicalities of fixing banners. The rest of the composition is an odd but straightforward depiction of how unusual people rubbed against each other, shoulder to shoulder at Gezi. A photo of Didier Drogba, an Ivorian football player, then playing for Galatasaray football club, soon joined the collection, placed right under the banner of ÇARŞI, which is the ultra group of Beşiktaş. It read in English: “We have Drogba, they don’t!” Both clubs, as well as Fenerbahçe, were well-known to be eternal foes. However, the prominent presence and friendly collaboration of all three in the protest actions, and their humorous posts on social media attracted thousands, regardless of team affiliation.

Another easily recognizable face is of Deniz Gezmiş (1947-1972), who was a political activist sentenced to death for attempting to overthrow the constitutional order, after engaging in armed struggle. Images of some other martyrs of the political left and renowned figures such as Marx, Stalin, and Lenin are also on the facade, along with banners of several other grassroots initiatives and groups with slogans such as “shut up tayyip!” (addressing Erdoğan by his second name). One banner added later read “Don’t Touch Mor Gabriel!” (aiming to protect an Assyrian monastery in the city of Mardin from being confiscated by the government), joining calls that invited the Government to resign and trade unions to go on strike, and demands for women’s rights. A number of banners are written in Kurdish or Turkish/Kurdish bilingual.

When compared to all the other protest actions that have taken place in Turkey, the number and size of images of Atatürk and the Turkish flag must be regarded as modest. These two visual elements were extremely high profile in earlier protests and demonstrations, especially those concerned with secularism. The photograph of the facade shows that besides being “safe symbols” to represent democracy, secularism, and national identity, both the Turkish flag and Atatürk’s poster were only a small part of the mosaic that constituted Gezi. Indeed, a number of groups that participated and supported Gezi were considered antipathetic to these two visual items. In this sense, while raising a strong voice against the deterioration of human rights over the previous 11 years under the same party government, Gezi did not favour the old paradigm either. It did not demand a democracy enforced through rigorous secularism. This was a particular strength of the movement, emerging as a new collective demand on the political scene of Turkey, taking no particular sides in the conventional secular/non-secular divide in that society, despite the fact that a fair proportion of its participants were secular.

Across borders and boundaries

The AKM facade, along with the overall imagery of the movement, was a visual statement of the multiplicity of identities, demands, and hopes. Gezi was home to an exciting companionship of erstwhile foes, where all looked for ways to coexist and collaborate. Even if it did not always work, a determined collective effort to transgress the long-standing borders of social divides, such as class, ethnicity, religion etc. was evident.

AKM after police intervention, June 2013. Barış Karadeniz/Flickr. Cropped from the original. Some rights reserved. Gezi Park stayed occupied for more than two weeks, while the protesters created an environment of festive solidarity, where many cultural and artistic activities took place. A day before it was evacuated by force, the police also charged the AKM building and took the banners down. The facade was quickly dressed with Turkish flags and a large poster of Atatürk, not a favorite figure in the eyes of the government by then. It was an attempt to give the square a “safe and normal” look, but more thn this, a reluctant concession to soften secular indignation.

In the aftermath of the evacuation of the park, activists continued to gather in the neighborhood parks throughout the summer of 2013, holding more discussions andplanning further local initiatives. However, soon afterwards, several participants in Gezi and the movement itself were suddenly accused of being associated with a newly-identified terror organization named FETO (Fethullahist Terror Organization). Fethullah Gülen, a US-based cleric of Turkish origin and a long-term ally of Erdoğan’s, was accused of committing a plot to overthrow the government by force and take control of the constitutional order.

Although a number of people faced arbitrary arrests and charges in this period, most of the solidary networks and grassroots initiatives that were established and/or grew bigger throughout the Gezi days are still functional today. Some of these have continued to voice their concerns regarding the hazards of urban transformation projects, including the demolition of the AKM building. When Erdoğan assumed presidential office in 2014, there was no expectation that tensions would cool down. However, these voices found little purchase in the mainstream media, as the country descended into political turmoil, punctuated by a series of violent attacks and the imprisonment of politicians of opposing parties, as well as activists and journalists. Soon, Turkey was to be hit by another major incident.

Coup attempt changes politics

On the evening of July 15, 2016, the country was shaken by a military coup threat. Erdoğan called for mass resistance through a live video conference connection on the news and immediately found a response. Thousands of people, mostly either AKP local branch members or simply sympathizers of the party, took to the streets and risked their lives to stop the military advance. Several hours of clashes left more than 300 dead and long-lasting damage to the country.

When the threat was over and the soldiers surrendered, more people took to the streets with Turkish flags to celebrate. The morning after, enthusiastic crowds in streets and squares rejoiced in the victory of people over military firepower, while many others  mourned the loss of life. FETO was soon blamed for the attempt and the government declared a state of emergency. The AKM building was quickly dressed again, this time most probably by a pro-government group.

Screenshot twitter. AKM after military coup attempt. Courtesy of Alev Scott. All rights reserved. A banner on the AKM facade, accompanied by two Erdoğan portraits read: “(You) FETO (Gülen), the dog of Satan, we will hang you and your dogs by your own leash. With God’s will, we’ll have the flag of democracy flutter in the sky.” The signature in the bottom line said: “The brave men of this beloved nation.” The photograph of this hateful banner was swiftly and widely circulated  in social media with an additional upper script: “Let the Gezists, who claim Taksim their stronghold, see a (real) banner.” The belief (and propaganda) that the Gezi movement had been incited by FETO only became stronger after the coup attempt, while the discontent around Erdoğan and his government was also growing. Now the banner marked a shift from the long-existing secular/non-secular tension into a new decisive division in Turkish society, between supporters of Erdoğan and his opponents, including Gezi activists and FETO supporters among others.

It is not common practice for public buildings to feature the portraits of presidents, apart from those of Atatürk, regarded as the founding father. But this now seems to be part of the ongoing efforts to build a cult around Erdoğan’s personality that is to compete with that of Atatürk: an omnipresent and omnipotent leader, whose single-handed guidance helps the nation to thrive. So, the visual presence of Atatürk and his iconography has been slowly vanishing, as Erdoğan’s, at least partially, takes over.

The banner, threatening FETO, stayed on display for two days before it was replaced with a massive Turkish flag, covering the overall facade of AKM and bearing the firm message: “Sovereignty Belongs to the Nation.”

The phrase, an Atatürk quote, has spawned an article in the Turkish Constitution since 1921 and it is written on the main wall of the parliament. Although the original phrase was in Ottoman Turkish, it was translated into modern Turkish within years. The selection of wording on the flag is a simplified Ottoman version, a version frequently used by Erdoğan himself. The flag was not any more in its Gezi context, a single component of its diversity, and was not even used in a relatively modest way next to an image of Atatürk. Küçük and Türkmen observe that this is a symbol of the etent to which a mixture of religiosity and nationalism has come to penetrate and occupy all sections of social and political life. The AKM facade, once claimed by Gezi activists as a public space to acknowledge diversity and coexistence, has been usurped in the name of a particular section of the society. 

Now, Erdoğan urged people to flood the squares and start democracy watches, emulating the organised sit-ins of Gezi and other Occupy movements. Certain scenes such as the occupation of squares with tents, the organization of culture and art events, and marriages taking place during the watches reminded everyone of Gezi and other protest events as well. However, they lacked the collective decision-making and practice mechanisms and remained government-controlled performances tsow 'our' strength against the archenemies: foreign powers, terrorists, FETO and its alleged extension, Gezi.

The democracy watches came to an end upon Erdoğan’s suggestion after a few weeks, but the state of emergency continued for a period of two years, solidifying Erdoğan’s executive powers as president. Societal polarization and indignation was skillfully managed into an exacerbated state of fear, terror and instability. The usual division of the society across a secular/non-secular axis was upgraded into a religious nationalism embodied within the new cult of Erdoğan. This embodiment eventually laid the grounds for constitutional change in 2017 towards a presidential system, and for Erdoğan to win the elections in 2018.  

Conclusion

The state of emergency was lifted shortly after the presidential elections, and a new system secured a permanent state of exception, whereby Erdoğan, as president, has consolidated and expanded his administrative powers. Denouncing those who opposed the demolition of AKM and the Gezi protesters as "terrorists" was a reminder of his power and commitment to smash any  dissent.

The struggle over the AKM reveals one permanent aspect of political contention in contemporary Turkey, formed traditionally through leader-embodied ideologies. Meanwhile, solidarity networks and grass-roots initiatives promise today more ways to communicate and interact than ever. These may one day inspire our thinking and acting beyond the usual paradigms.

How to cite:
Zik M.R. (2018) One building, several facades: political showcasing in contemporary Turkey, Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 17 October. https://opendemocracy.net/mrag-p-z-k/one-building-several-facades-political-showcasing-in-contemporary-turkey
About the author

M. Ragıp Zık is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the Freie Universität Berlin, working on contemporary visual and digital practices in political struggle. He is also a board member of the International Sociological Association’s Visual Sociology Research Committee. More of his publications are accessible here.  

 

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