I was in Istanbul during Occupy Wall Street, as the protests spread across America. By winter, of course, the protestors had been evicted from Zuccotti Park and the movement vanished from the headlines. I had arrived in Istanbul in September 2011, two weeks before the movement began. I was still there the next spring (just after the brief life of the so-called Russian Winter) when three friends from college who were traveling around Europe came to visit me. I remember one conversation as the sun came up at a hookah café on the city’s Anatolian side, after a night drinking in Taksim Square. I was defending Occupy Wall Street: the first stirrings of what could signal a resurrection, I thought, for a left withered by decades of neoliberalism. Perhaps more modestly (this played better with my friends), the protests could radicalize Obama, persuade him to take a bolder Keynesian stance. They were dismissive. I hadn’t been in America, one said. I didn’t understand how trivial the movement was, how absurd it was perceived to be by the actual 99 percent. When I got back to America I learned that an old friend who had moved out east had been heavily involved in Occupy. I told a mutual friend who had just landed a job with a financial firm in Minneapolis. “Is that what he’s going to do?” he asked. “Occupy things?”
I returned to America nearly a year ago, and now a separate occupation has taken over Istanbul. (How is it that I always miss these things? In August I’m moving to Shanghai: Who knows what could happen elsewhere then?) Something tells me, though, that my friends wouldn’t be as flippant about the protests now raging across Turkey. The Turkish protests began, as you likely know, when the first trees started being felled in Gezi Park. The park is the only extensive green space in the city center. The plans, from which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has refused to budge, are to replace it with a luxury tourist hotel and shopping center.
The dominant Western narrative of the events so far is serious, if formulaic, and well suited to a liberal appetite. The battle is against Erdoğan, a religious conservative, and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Part of the antipathy towards Erdoğan is due to his assault on the urban middle-class lifestyle. Istanbul, for a Westerner, is quite a cheap city: not much more than a dollar for a kebab, half that to ferry across the Bosphorus, and under five dollars for an excellent, multi-course meal at a neighborhood restaurant. Alcohol is a different matter; because of taxes levied by the AKP it costs roughly the same to have a drink in either Istanbul or Chicago. Under a new law, alcohol can’t be sold after 10 p.m. I can’t recall a time, though, when I made it to Taksim Square much before midnight. Crowds buy beer from small convenience shops and drink outside before going to bars. On warm nights students often stay outside, sitting underneath Galata Tower. Many of those small shops, I have to imagine, won’t survive under the new laws. People are afraid the new alcohol legislation is symptomatic of a wider push to impose a regime of conservative social values in a country regionally renowned for its secularism.
This is the partial story the Western media has done an admirable job covering: the occupation as a reaction to an assault on liberal rights. And so the Western media has in a certain sense maintained a legitimacy in Turkey not afforded to the Turkish press: in a much-discussed incident on June 2nd, while CNN covered the brutal police reaction to the occupation, the satellite network CNN Türk broadcast a documentary on penguins. (Protestors have since taken to the street in penguin masks.)
Taksim, by now the focal point of the protests, is the de facto city center. It’s in Beyoğlu, around the part of town built by Genoese merchants in Byzantine times. The merchants of the first wave of capitalism, or “first systemic cycle of accumulation,” as Giovanni Arrighi has it, the Genoese and their wealth didn’t have incredibly close ties to Genoa, a politically weak city-state. They were instead scattered throughout the Mediterranean, a diaspora who would become the first bourgeois hegemons. The Spanish crown plundered the so-called New World, but in order to trade with Europe they had to go through the transcontinental commercial and financial networks controlled by the Genoese merchants. These networks contributed to the development of a distinctive Mediterranean character: a sort of imperial, trade-based ethos of cosmopolitanism that extended, in Istanbul (or Constantinople: still the loaded name many Greeks use for the city), from Byzantine rule through the Ottoman Empire and into the early twentieth century. Charles Glass describes the effect of the imperial city in the eastern Mediterranean: “The peasant from Mount Lebanon in Beirut, the caravaneer from central Anatolia in Smyrna and the Nile Delta fellah in Alexandria: all had their eyes opened, senses aroused, prejudices questioned and curiosity satiated.” Here, “’[i]n these cities between worlds, people switched identities as easily as they switched languages.’”
These cities no longer exist. They’ve turned inwards, their diversity weakened by competing nationalisms after the fall of the Ottomans. Cosmopolitanism lives on, though, in a spectral way, in architecture. The narrow cobblestone alleyways around the Genoese Galata Tower, just off Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul’s version of St. Petersburg’s feverish Nevsky Prospect; the foreign consulates off Taksim Square that date from Ottoman times; the Greek church on the Square’s edge, and the Roman Catholic cathedral further down Istiklal: all mark the city’s multicultural past. But in the middle of Taksim Square, where protestors now drink well past 10 p.m., is the Monument of the Republic, a statue honoring the national heroes who fought for Turkish independence. Now the center of a city of historical contradictions, the Square betrays faint signs of the cosmopolitan overwhelmed by the invention of nationalism.
Quiet ironies abound. The protests have taken on a historical dimension. The AKP turns for its political myth-making not to Turkey’s first president Kemal Atatürk—a liberal-minded, Western reformer who was integral in fostering a sense of Turkish nationalism and whose legacy has solidified into a political ideology known as Kemalism—but to the Ottoman past. Erdoğan made a pop-culture intervention late in 2012, coming out publicly against a popular Turkish TV costume drama set in the Ottoman court for vulgarizing Ottoman history (“Too postmodern,” he perhaps thought). More recently, the AKP has proposed a third bridge connecting the city’s European and Anatolian sides named after Ottoman Sultan Selim I, notorious for killing 40,000 Alevis, a Muslim sect he considered heretical. Erdoğan, it appears, has opted to work around referencing Ottoman history’s long periods of cosmopolitanism.
Another concern for the protestors, rarely mentioned in Western media coverage, is Turkey’s role in Syria. “In my opinion these protests have nothing to do with Syria,” I heard one NPR commentator say. But Erdoğan has said that Turkey must “move with the spirit that founded the Ottoman Empire,” and this is precisely what worries many who oppose him. As Patrick Cockburn details in a recent essay in the London Review of Books, the Syrian civil war is already spilling over the border:
On 11 May, two bombs in a Turkish border town killed 49 people, almost all Turkish. An angry crowd of Turks marched down the main street chanting ‘kill the Syrians’ as they assaulted Syrian shopkeepers. Arab politicians wonder whether the Turks know what they are getting into and how they will handle it.
The anxiety, as Sunni-Shia conflicts continue to rage throughout Syria and Iraq, is that Turkey will pursue an aggressive foreign policy of Sunnism, consolidating a heavily militarized set of alliances that threatens to explode across Middle Eastern borders.
The AKP, then, has reclaimed the Ottoman legacy. What of the protestors? They’ve been looking to Atatürk (literally, “Father of the Turks”), a less interventionist, nationalist figure who enjoys a powerful personality cult without parallel in the United States. His picture hangs on the wall in every classroom, t-shirts and other kitsch bearing his face line the shops of every tourist bazaar, and his signature has found an afterlife as a common tattoo. A series of Atatürk photographs are featured on large walls on the side of the road stretching beyond Dolmabahçe Mosque (which protestors were falsely accused by Erdoğan of entering with beer and their shoes on). In one, he’s looking stately, signing an official document; in another, he’s going for a recreational swim, as if to say: Look, this irreproachable God-like figure is also just like you!
The occupation’s embrace of Kemalism has put the Turkish left in a curious position. Throughout the Kemalist years, one of the left’s noble duties was to challenge the exclusion of minority groups from what became a singular Turkish identity, often taking ghastly form: the subjugation of Kurdish culture, or the still unmentionable Armenian genocide. Now, though, it appears the left is joining with liberals in celebrating the legacy of Kemalism. Perhaps as much as anything this is because Erdoğan did the unthinkable. Defending his party’s new alcohol laws, he referred to Atatürk, who initiated the country’s liberal policies, as a drunk.
Protestors, of course, are being called similar things. The “culture war” line (religious conservatives vs. the liberal urban middle-class) plays into the dominant Western media narrative of a movement, in yet another Muslim country, for liberal rights. But this narrative has always glossed over something more subtle and surprising: the steady advance of neoliberalism alongside either dictatorship or religious conservative rule. Politically Turkey is far from Egypt, and Erdoğan is far from Mubarak, and yet from Tunisia to Egypt and now, a couple of years later, to Turkey, each protest movement has been animated by a disgust with an unwavering neoliberal course.
Indeed, the Gezi Park privatization project had become a symbol of neoliberalism. As Çağlar Keyder writes,
The neoliberal AKP [. . .] is all too happy to privatize public assets: displacing the inhabitants of shantytowns to make land available for developers; selling public land in Istanbul to construction firms to build middle-class housing; and now dispossessing the public of their trees and parks to build a private space for the global rich.
With the US economy lagging and Europe still deep in a recession exacerbated by austerity, Turkey’s economy continues to boom. But inequality has only increased; Turkey has one of the highest levels of inequality in the developed world. Undoubtedly part of the protestors’ motivation lies here: Turkey’s gap between the rich and the poor is becoming untenable.
Erdoğan is a modern religious conservative. It would be convincing, I think, to argue that the global rise of religious conservatism is due to the disorienting effects of neoliberal capitalism. Erdoğan, however, has performed the trick of drumming up support with symbolic laws that favor the former while pushing through the deregulating policies of the latter.
The peculiarity of the modern religious conservative gives rise to different shades of Erdoğan. Views of the controversial Prime Minister vary across the ideological spectrum. There’s the religious conservative Erdoğan, who called Turkey’s founder and most popular political figure a drunk; there’s neoliberal Erdoğan, who insisted, even as a court has delayed the “renovation” of Gezi Park, that a mall will be built; there’s pro-democracy Erdoğan, who fired military leaders allegedly involved in plotting a coup against him; there’s dictatorial Erdoğan, who fired those same officers (throughout modern Turkish history, the military was the protector of Kemalism, pulling coups, as it claimed, in order to restore democracy) in a scheme to amass more power; and there’s conspiracy-theorist Erdoğan, who lashed out against a mythical interest-rate lobby when foreign investors reacted negatively to a bloody police crackdown on protestors, and who has blamed the protests on the sinister alcohol lobby.
The strength of the protests has been their pluralism, banding together labor unions, liberals, anti-capitalists, feminists and environmentalists. They’ve been able to combine critiques of each shade of Erdoğan. Meanwhile, in a major break from Occupy Wall Street, the protestors have been quite clear on their demands: to preserve Gezi Park as it is; to free those involved in the protests who have been detained (including more than 50 lawyers at an Istanbul courthouse and a number, more recently, of volunteer doctors); and to end the violent police repression of the protests. Perhaps Erdoğan’s absolute refusal to compromise can be traced back to these demands—or, if not to the demands themselves, then to the form in which they reached him: If people out in the street can influence policy, what might they ask for next?
Just as Erdoğan appeared to consider compromising on the park by offering a referendum on its fate, his refusal assumed its most violent form yet: late on June 15th the occupation of Gezi Park was uprooted. A frequent line of argument now casts the real antagonism at the protests’ center as between autocracy and democracy. But the conflict has always been too subsumed by ideology for that to be the whole truth. The AKP’s main tactic has been to pummel protestors with water cannons and cloud the streets with tear gas. A hotel downtown opened its doors to protestors fleeing the park—Turkey’s EU minister said anyone who returns to Taksim will be considered a terrorist—and police responded by tear-gassing the lobby. Erdoğan defended police violence with this logic: “Look at the best countries in the world. Do they use pepper gas or not? They use it.”
Working days on end without adequate provisions, police have become self-estranged, in disbelief about their own violence. The Turkish daily Hurriyet reports that six policemen have committed suicide. Erdoğan has now threatened to send in the army. But the PM and the army have a tense relationship, stemming from Erdoğan’s purge of the top command. Will they obey?
His other strategy has been to boast of organizing counter-protests, which materialized during an AKP rally, not far from Gezi Park. Toward the end of Cockburn’s London Review of Books essay, written before the protests began, he warned that a “long war in Syria could open up divisions in Turkey just as it is doing elsewhere.” Already these divisions have erupted, and the civil war in Syria has played its part. Across the country separate occupations began and were viciously concluded. But the city and country don’t appear to be sinking into a placid unease. Five trade unions announced nationwide demonstrations and a one-day strike beginning on June 17th. The protests continue, as the movement’s political horizon widens.