Gezi Spirit: The Possibility of an Impossibility

  • January 8, 2014

City & Commons

If the Gezi Uprising was enough to turn a scholar of non-westernized Ottoman prose like myself into a political activist, then surely there is hope.

The Gezi Park occupation ended on the night of June 15, 2013 when riot police forcibly cleared the park of protesters, using tear gas and water cannon to chase occupiers into the five-star Divan Hotel abutting the park to the north. My wife and I had been in the midst of the protests since June 4, and were among the handful of people — around 200 at most — who spent that night in the hotel lobby, besieged and harassed by police, largely cut off from the outside world, and unsure exactly what was stopping the police from marching in and hauling us off. By the time the sun came up, though, a mixture of exhaustion and disgust had overcome us, and we left the hotel, walked through the police barricades, and went home. No one tried to stop us. There was no need — the occupation was over.

After that night, protests continued sporadically. Neighborhood assemblies came together, attempting to recreate the Gezi experience in local parks and establishing forums for the continued discussion of issues raised in the protests. But clearly, the revolutionary moment had passed. The AKP government assumed the offensive. More than 60 journalists were removed from their posts for covering the protests. Citizens were detained for offenses as innocuous as tweeting messages of support. Most of the protesters left the active movement. An atmosphere of fear and paranoia spread over the country and threatened to acquire an even tighter grip on citizens’ lives than before the protests had taken place.

There was no revolution. There were no removals from office. There was not even a single resignation from among the AKP ranks. Riot police were awarded with perks and paychecks for their efforts. Turkey’s EU negotiations, which had been postponed due to the events, recommenced. And the AKP looked strong in the polls, its political future, and that of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, not imperiled in any perceptible way.

What is more, while the AKP government clearly did not emerge from the debacle with all democratic credentials intact, its handling of the crisis appeared lenient compared to Turkey’s past military juntas, the most recent — and ferocious — of which had laid waste to the country’s leftist opposition movement and paved the way for the establishment of a neoliberal economic order in the 1980 coup, during which thousands of people were killed, went missing, or were arrested. If this was the end of the Turkish Uprising, then what end did the Turkish Uprising actually serve? And why is it still an interesting phenomenon for us today?

Or is it?

In answering this question, one might look at two aspects of Turkish political culture: firstly, its lack of institutional checks on centralized political power, and secondly, a deep-seated tradition of conducting politics through societal division. This short piece will only focus on the latter.

The advent of the nation state

Division and polarization are venerable traditions in Turkish politics, legacies of the Ottoman Empire. The empire, which was founded around 1300 and survived until the end of the Great War, is well-known for its multiethnic and multireligious character. The Ottoman ruling elite was a societal stratum unto its own, skimming off taxes, goods, and human resources from the population while remaining relatively uninvolved with the lives and ways of the majority of its subjects. These subjects were subdivided, not according to geographical location, but mainly according to religious belief, resulting in the millet system, under which ethno-religious groups such as Jews, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholics, and Greek Orthodox enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy.

Doubtlessly, the Ottomans were ruthless in their suppression of any perceived threat to their rule, for instance during the Alevi massacres perpetrated by Selim I, remembered as “the grim” (r. 1512-20). Nonetheless, many religious groups were granted semi-autonomous institutions such as their own courts of law, where disputes were settled according to the norms of the religion in question. To a certain extent, subjects enjoyed freedom of movement, and freedom of conversion from one religion to another (with the obvious exemption of conversion from Islam). Until the late 19th century, the Ottoman rulers of the empire made no major attempt to homogenize their population.

This model fell apart in the late 19th century, with the advent of European nationalism. Bit by bit, the weakened Ottoman Empire disintegrated, getting replaced by nation states that were, in most if not all cases, client states of Great Powers such as Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Britain. The implementation of nationalist policies in the territories of a formerly multiethnic, multireligious empire resulted in a demographic catastrophe, the effects of which are still being felt in the region today. From the Armenian Genocide to the ethnic cleansing of the Yugoslav Wars, from the anti-Greek pogroms of 1950s Turkey to the ongoing civil war in Syria, the entire region became, and still is, engaged in the Sisyphean task of creating homogeneous nation states out of what was an ethnically and religiously mixed polity for more than half a millennium.

In this process, Turkish nationalism was an after-the-fact phenomenon, a reaction to the other nationalisms that had sprung up around the core of the Ottoman Empire. Until the late nineteenth century, a Turk, to the Ottomans, had meant a country bumpkin, an uncouth, semi-pagan nomad with no understanding of civilization and culture. But as the empire fell apart, Turkish ethnicity and culture were “rediscovered,” and to a large extent reinvented, to serve as the glue that would hold together whoever and whatever was left after ethno-religious groups had chipped off as much of the empire as they could, and the Great Powers had taken hold of as much as they could agree upon.

Turkish nationalism was bolstered by brutal policies of ethnic cleansing, most notoriously the destruction of the Armenian community in Anatolia during the Great War, but also the population exchange with Greece in 1923. Around 2 million Armenians were killed or displaced, and around 1 million people of Greek Orthodox faith were expelled from the newly-founded Turkish republic. But in spite of all these efforts, the population remained heterogeneous, and the faultlines that divide Turkish society today were discernible from the outset. From the outset, Kurds made up around 20% of the population. From the outset, Alevis made up another 20%. From the outset, a rural Sunni Muslim majority was a given. And from the outset, the state fostered an urban, educated, militantly secularist and nationalist elite.

Turkish rule against

Ever since, Turkey has been divided along these faultlines. The secular elite, consisting of professionals, bureaucrats, military officers, city-dwellers, and wealthy landowners, was the coalition that kept the Turkish one-party state in power until it cracked under the pressure of World War II. The Sunni majority was courted by populist parties since Turkey’s first democratic elections in 1950, at the cost of minorities as well as the struggling Turkish Left. The Left sought to unite ethnic groups, while being staunchly opposed by Islamists. The Kurds found common religious ground with the majority, while clashing with it over nationalism. The Alevis sided with the secular elite over fear of persecution and assimilation at the hands of the Sunni majority.

Whoever has ruled in Turkey has always ruled against someone. Secularists ruled against Islamists in the early days of the state. Since the Cold War, Sunni Muslims and nationalist elites have ruled together against the Left. Nationalist sentiment has prevented any ruling party, whether Islamic or secular, from recognizing minorities such as Alevis and Kurds. And overlaps between groups and ideologies have complicated the picture, making the above divisions seem ultimately hypocritical.

In this kind of hypercharged political climate, one might argue that occasional uprisings, rebellions, and coups are par for the course. What, then, makes the Gezi occupation different or special, if anything?

Perhaps it was not different or special at all. Perhaps it was simply a retread of already-established tendencies in the Turkish body politic. Prime minister Erdoğan was quick to blame secularists for the movement, arguing that their aim was to provoke a military coup, in time-honored Turkish style, ousting the legitimately elected AKP government by force. And when the police retook Taksim Square from the occupiers on June 11, their justification was that images of Abdullah Öcalan, jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), were being hoisted in the square: the government could not let such an insult to the Turkish nation stand. The old faultlines were activated: religious versus secularist, nationalist versus Kurd. Even the Sunni-Alevi divide came into play: the vast majority of those killed in the protests were Alevi, suggesting that Alevi segments of the population were protesting, and being suppressed, with special vehemence.

The possibility of an impossibility

It is true: many of those who came out to protest in the Turkish Uprising really did converge on Gezi Park under the banner of one or another movement. Secularists were there in force, as were Kurds and Alevis. This was not special. What was special was that, once there, they ran into each other. And not just each other. They also met LGBT activists. They met anti-capitalist Sunni Muslims. They met football fans from across the political spectrum. They met people from whom they were divided by lifestyle and worldview, but with whom they were united in their grievances against the state violence that the AKP was bringing to bear on all groups equally. And this encounter produced an epiphany.

The epiphany was stunning for me personally. I had grown up around Gezi Park. My Turkish grandparents, true children of the Kemalist revolution, had raised me in the shade of the Galata Tower, the southernmost point of Istiklal Avenue, the iconic Istanbul pedestrian zone leading up to Taksim Square. And to see Kurdish flags up at that square next to banners depicting Atatürk, to hear of LGBT activists sheltering praying Sunnis from rain, all in a zone temporarily liberated from the controlling arm of the state, was more than simply something I had regarded as utopian. It was something that had never even crossed my mind. It was like seeing a new color for the first time, like learning the first letter of an unknown alphabet, like discovering that I had been living in the Matrix. It amounted, in the words of my wife Evrim Emir-Sayers, a philosophy scholar, to “the possibility of an impossibility.”

During the occupation and the weeks that followed, these disparate, protesting groups learned to respect each other’s space and opinions, joined marches for each other’s causes, made fun of each other’s ideological clichés, and stopped allowing the traditional faultlines of Turkish politics to determine who they had to be allies and enemies with. The divided and ruled of Turkey had gotten an inkling that what ruled them had been their prejudices, and that the only thing that could unite them was a demand for respect, not only for their own rights, but equally for the rights of those protesting right next to them.

The Turkish Uprising has ended. People have withdrawn from Gezi Park and, to a large extent, behind their customary ideological barricades. And there is nothing strange about this. After all, no one who went to the park knew what was awaiting them. The “Spirit of Gezi” took everyone by surprise, and it vanished before the lesson could sink in. The Gezi occupation remains not so much an event that has come and gone, but a vision, a moment in which Turkish society caught a brief glimpse of something that has yet to be. Whether that vision will ever come to fruition is an open question. But it was enough to turn a scholar of non-westernized Ottoman prose literature like myself into a political activist. And if that feat can be accomplished, surely there is hope.


Reflections on the Gezi Uprising

1. Editorial
Gezi and the Spirit of Revolt

2. Rüzgar Akhat
Gezi: Losing the Fear, Living the Dream

3. Dilan Koese
Revolt of Dignity: Gezi and the Global Legitimation Crisis

4. Burak Kose
The Culmination of Resistance Against Urban Neoliberalism

5. David Selim Sayers
Gezi Spirit: The Possibility of an Impossibility

6. Cagla Aykac
Strong Bodies, Dirty Shoes: An Ode to the Resistance

7. Stephen Snyder
Gezi Park and the Transformative Power of Art

8. ROAR Collective
The Sultan Is Watching: Erdoğan’s Lust for Power

9. Yasemin Acar & Melis Ulug
The Body Politicized: The Visibility of Women at Gezi

10. Elif Genc
At Gezi, a Common Voice Against State Brutality

11. Erkan Gursel
Sarisuluk’s Story: A Family Fighting for Justice

12. Beatrice White
Cracking Down on the Press: Turkish Media after Gezi

13. Matze Kasper
To Survive, the Gezi Movement Will Have to Compromise

14. Mark Bergfeld
Beyond the Hashtags? Gezi and the AKP’s Media Power

15. Emrah Güler
Is Social Media Still the Way to Resist in Turkey?

16. Lou Zucker
Reclaim the Urban Commons: Istanbul’s First Squat

17. Christopher Patz
From Madrid to Istanbul: Occupying Public Space

18. Sinan Eden
The Mayonnaise Effect: International Inspiration from Gezi

19. Mehmet Döşemeci
Superman, Clark Kent, and the Limits of the Gezi Uprising

20. Editorial
Beyond Gezi: What Future for the Movement?

David Selim Sayers

David Selim Sayers is a lecturer in Turkish Studies at San Francisco State University. He holds and MA from the Department of Turkish Literature at Bilkent University in Ankara.

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