The moon is full and rising over Fatih, as we sit atop Saray restaurant, waiting for kebab, tea and ice cream. A chill is in the March air and the outdoor heaters are on, making us glow a strange orange. Nocturnal birds fly around the dome of the Fatih mosque. Istanbul is beautiful even in times of extremis. I have been a visitor many times since 1998, and we are again in such times.
I sit with veterans of the struggle against an unreformed Kemalism. Friends, who were former political prisoners – all were writers and journalists. Tortured, languishing in modern day dungeons, with broken bones, extracted toenails and all the physical, psychological and family scars such heroes must suffer. These men and women became friends were an in inspiration to a cynic like me. They gave hope, that in times of intense darkness, someone somewhere was brave enough to fight, even at the expense of everything. It is hard to remember that even I was once young and full of hope.
Our friends this evening and many others like so many journalists, activists, authors, students and teachers, were often imprisoned for voicing the mildest criticisms of the leaders of the soft coup of 1997 – when the then more powerful secular / military elite simply decided they weren’t having an elected ‘Islamic’ government. The soft coup that followed, rather than being condemned in the West, was more or less roundly applauded as a victory against creeping Islamism / Islam / Muslims. Kemalism, for all its violent, authoritarian ills was still the preferred demon in Western circles. I revisited Istanbul and parts of the South and North East of the country in the mid to late 2000s. It was a different era, with the last of the remaining prisoners we campaigned for released, and an infectious if trepidatious excitement. The AK Party was in power. Unlike its predecessors Refah and Fazilat (one ousted from government by the deep state, both banned by the state), AKP carried diverse constituencies, promised inclusivity, rapprochement with the Kurds, and an overall re-envisioning of Turkey as something new. Demons banished, Turkey was free of the threat of the military (a protracted fight against the deep state saw the enchanted Prime Minister Recep Tayyeb Erdogan emerge triumphant), open discussions about the treatment of Kurds, a no problem foreign policy: Turkey promised a way of political organisation, specifically Muslim organisation, that could be counted amongst the successful and the sane, in an ever crazier world.
That Islamophobic response, the whitewashing of a coup, the demonisation of ‘political’ Islam are the same whether we talk about Iran post revolution or Egypt post-Morsi coup et al. Yet, the lessons that need to be learned – a discussion elsewhere – are never even read, let alone analysed by those that are affected by them. The narrative is internalised and all our responses focus on how we are not the demonised other, ‘they’ are. The fact that the demonised other is someone, some group, some nation you must defend – for all their faults – in order to create and develop that new and better world, is traded for the chance to be feted (in small measure, for some small time) by the very world we need to change. As protests over Gezi Park erupted and morphed into something much bigger, observers like myself saw many things and interpreted issues in many ways, but how many of us even tried to understand the demonstrations as part of what was happening in Turkey itself?
As Islamic activists we recognised the anti-Muslim discourse that pervaded Western news coverage: this is a battle over alcohol sales restrictions, the resurgence of the secular contingency in Turkish society, fed up with ‘creeping’ Islamisation. We can decode all the problems with that narrative, except for the utilisation of that same narrative by the AKP government, playing to an external ‘Islamic’ crowd. Yes, we are battling those who would undo our gains, was the not so subtle response of Erdogan and his supporters, and sympathisers swallowed the argument wholesale. It is an indictment of our activism that the connections we make transnationally are always mediated by the groups and institutions we ally with. Maybe we should have asked people on the ground who knew.
Back in March this year before the protests erupted, catching up with old friends, the disappointment was palpable. I should have heeded the many warnings many years earlier. Various friends became disenchanted along the way, but sitting in London, I could happily ignore their critique. Many left their political activism. Now in business or teaching, their frustration at the process was openly expressed, though with little hope of being enacted upon. Those who had been prisoners, with closer party affiliations were released from detention early on. Others we had to beg and pull strings for. Outspoken, and naively supposing they were in a new era of political ‘freedom’ many friends found themselves being smeared or ‘outed’ as Iranian sympathisers, Marxists, even deep state cronies by the circles around the ascendant and charismatic Prime Minister.
For our part naivety was an excuse that should have been discarded long ago. A delegation led by IHRC and Citizens International visited Ankara in 2010 to lobby the PM and President to veto Israel’s application to the OECD. Only one dissenting voice was required to keep Israel out of this elite club and send a blow that even the upper echelons of the international community were turning against the apartheid regime. They refused what was perhaps the easiest diplomatic resistance available to Zionists aggression; I tried to justify the lack of courage as one of a politician sitting in precarity despite the denouement of the battle between Turkey’s political classes and the deep state coming to sweet realisation with victory after victory in court against the last vestiges of embedded Kemalism authoritarianism. The illegal and militarised organisations that had been able to manipulate and even violently scupper any change, let alone one led by so-called Islamists, had been definitively beaten.
Now, having become the doyen of US foreign policy in the region, the current government have come up against a raft of internal opposition. Gezi Park, though exploited by some with old affiliations to the military past, saw a diverse opposition declare enough – and feel the full wrath of a government spurned, in their demonisation, in their state sanctioned police brutality and in their chemical water cannons.
Friends sent me messages and explanations. One of the new generation – an observant Muslim – did state that she opposed the restrictions on alcohol consumption. She didn’t believe that the state had the right to interfere so much in people’s lives. On the Ankara protests everyday, she stated the main cause of her frustrations was the arrogance of government hellbent on transforming Turkey into a supermall, with no heed for the moral, economic, cultural or above all environmental impact. Capital was pushing Turkey into an unsustainable and divisive future. Another friend, a journalist, provided an extensive analysis. Averring to the Hurriyet poll, he stated that over 70% of citizens were against Turkey’s intervention in Syria; deployment of patriot missiles by NATO; fomenting; hyping up the idea of neo-Ottomanism specifically as a bulwark against the resistance axis, evidenced by highly inflammatory criticisms of Hizbullah were but three reasons he cited that related solely to foreign policy. His take as a committed Islamic activist, mirrors that of a secular AKP supporter (yes, plenty exist) and academic I spoke to last year. Why suddenly, she charged, did Turkey abandon its no problem foreign policy? Having acculturalised the country to the idea of new brotherhood with Syria, overnight the government deemed the same sibling a demon that needed eradicating. The Turkish street hasn’t bought the argument.
What about internal issues? Sectarianism has been raised by protestors, and overlooked in coverage. Erdogan and senior officials are charged with inflaming Sunni-Shia tensions as a part of their new foreign policy, but also an old sectarianism against Alevis within its borders. A new bridge was named by Erdogan after a figure known for shedding much Alevi blood. The resurgence of internal demons came up in another conversation with a think tank member from Ankara. Most protesters, he claimed, were Alevis. He provided no evidence, but the pejorative tone – a way of dismissing the demonstrations as instrumentalised sectarian hate – is noted.
Other critiques forwarded to me are more familiar, in particular the description of Erdogan as dictator and the AKP government as authoritarian. Maybe it is an exaggeration, but it is one widely held. I sign off with the words of senior Islamic activists – brave women and me who have put their names to this letter – those who were imprisoned and harassed during the secular dictatorships of the past. Their words speak for themselves and any serious observer of events in Turkey need to listen, if only to disagree, for the expose the lie that the Gezi Pak aftermath is an attack on Islamic values or political organisation. The implicit question is whether a reinvigorated Islamic movement can rise from the shell of what has been left bearing its name in power in Ankara.
Arzu Merali is a writer and one of the founders of Islamic Human Rights Commission.
24 June 2013
The intention behind transforming Taksim Gezi Park, replacing it with malls and hotels, springs out of a particular way of thinking that regards city space as property for rent. In every location undergoing gentrification, attempts are being made to clear the path for a new and elite style of life -partly modern, and partly conservative. We are witnesses to the fact that while urban renewal projects in Ayazma, Sulukule, Tarlabaşı or Taksim did not improve life standards of the poor and citizens in large, but rather they infuriated people.
Those opposing the rapaciousness of urban gentrification had been silenced before. They cannot brush a similar act of silencing under the blanket this time, as they are faced with an opposition that broke the wall of silence, an opposition that speaks louder in voice and is claimed by the people unlike ever before. People who fought for trees harboring the poor and homeless faced with the harshest form of State’s hubris for protesting the top-down decision to transfer this park into capital. Desecrated by the police, protestors were forced to leave the park. Previously, they attempted to voice their reasonable demands through legitimate channels. However, assimilated in the tradition of Republican Sovereignty that was wayward and confrontational, the conservative ruling party closed its ears to these criticisms. Suppression of each and every reasonable and legitimate protest turned into a habit, throttled people and led them to a politics of resentment. An opposition block that is unprecedented in its diversity conjured up spontaneously and came to light with a new style of opposition.
Wrongs done by the coup of ‘98 are still in the memories of people, those atrocities remain unaccounted for. The party that claimed to be the voice of oppressed mirrors the barbarity of the tyranny it fell victim to. Though now possessed by other hands, unlawfulness still reigns. Thus, tensions that took over the streets this week were triggered by those who wanted to gentrify the city, while ignoring the opinions of its citizens and last but not least by those who ordered the police to violently suppress the demonstrators.
We declare that it is a non-contestable right to make politics about decisions affecting one’s life. Ruling parties that came to power by elections are responsible for listening and consulting its citizens. Politics of the people cannot be reduced to voting every four years. The government should stop blocking legitimate protests and terrorizing the opposition.
Meanwhile, we are aware of the fact that Kemalists of ancien regime, who have been trying to delegitimize the elected government, and daydream about bringing down the government by manipulating the rightful protests are ill-intentioned. We condemn in the strongest terms the enhancement of the secular-religious conflict in hopeful or fearful anticipation of a coup. We invite everyone involved in the making of these collisions to calm down. We reprobate attacks made to hijabis -misappropriation of these harassments by politicians is also despicable.
Ignoring Gezi Park protestors’ demands, and subsequently labelling them as ‘plunderers,’ reflects the arrogance of a political power that mistakes itself to be the country’s landlord. Ravaging of the environment, cars and stores were triggered by the rough treatment of the police, whenever police violence stopped, protests took a peaceful turn.
Independent of the personalities occupying government, we reprove the use of police violence against people. Legal arrangements to stop violent suppression of the right to protest must be made immediately. This country has not made justice to Kurds yet, neither Alevites found peace, nor workers and the poor are taken care of, people are still dying in labor accidents, a small minority is getting rich more and more with the support of State’s invisible hand, millions are growing poorer. A political grammar in which capital and domination sets the scene, that sanctifies political power and economic growth does not reflect Islamic ethics.
In opposition to the arbitrary interventions into the city space, we cry out the priority of the poor. One way or another, pauperized ones exiled to urban fringe will return to the center one day for their rights. Destruction, Derision, Expulsion: this cannot and should not be the only path for regenerating the city. Transformations can be legitimate and persistent only when people are empowered by processes that embetter his life world -not by coercion.
We declare that our sole criteria is justice & tyranny, our primary interlocutors are Muslims. We declare:
Our lives are changing. We will be leaving a different world to our children. We are constituting a new generation that finds its value in what it consumes. A way of life that is ignorant of ethics altruism, that is arrogant and cruel leads to a society that values power, status and money. This path must be abandoned. Our neighbourhood is dying out. We almost turned into a society whose poor and rich are praying in different mosques. Don’t you want our kids to neighbor the poor, and befriend them? Consumption culture that finds its expression in malls is leading us all into a future from which we cannot return.
We are thankful to the protestors who curbed prime minister’s spoiled fantasies about building a barracks/mall/residence. At least, everyone should be a good judge of the protests.
We, as Muslims, have not forgotten how media abused the whole country, and sullied the innocent fifteen years ago. Today, conservative and mainstream media is using the same language to terrorize a certain part of the population -what has changed then? Did we forget what police forces have done to our kids? Why police should be rightful in persecuting others who are not like us? Is not justice a divine command that has to be kept alive against every form of hatred?
Did we forget our responsibilities before our -muslim or not- neighbours? Are not we entrusted the rights of others who do not resemble and think like us? Are not we obliged to defend the rights of those who want to execrably tyrannize over us with power and force?
If we want to regenerate the city, our method should not be destruction, expulsion and derision, we should share our meals with others, we should keep up the justice, we should respect their lifestyles and keep in mind that we are responsible for calling them to rightful path. Remember that prophets spoke softly to everyone. If we do not respect others’ rights, there is no way we can hold on to the rope of God.
If we are inclined to find governors who are unjust justified for we fear for our religious rights and holy spaces, we should know that our religion cannot be protected by a state or a party. By the will of God, our only guarantee is our belief and the sense of justice.
Being victimized in the past neither requires us to turn into tyrants nor to take the side of the tyranny. Quite the contrary, it is our responsibility to appreciate others’ pain, fear and demands. Suffering belongs to all. May God rest souls of the ones who died in the events: Abdullah Cömert, Mehmet Ayvalıtaş, Mustafa Sarı and Ethem Sarısülük. We are sorry for each and every nameless injured.
We find the following five demands made by Gezi Park protestors, and ask for the government to negotiate with the representatives of Taksim Solidarity Coalition: 1: Gezi Park must stay as a park 2: Governors and the police chiefs, and everyone who gave orders for, enforced or implemented violent repression must resign 3: Tear gas, bombs, and other similar materials must be prohibited 4: Detained citizens must be immediately released 5: All the meeting and demonstration bans effecting all squares and public areas must be abolished and stopped.
Protests we are witnessing show that a politics that closes its ears to legitimate demands of society and ignores different opinions continues to produce problems. After all, and in spite of everything, if we learn to appreciate people’s right to city and the ways in which they express this demand as legitimate protest and not a threat, this process will contribute to the transition to a more democratic and free Turkey.
Labor and Justice Coalition
Fatma Akdokur – Cihan Aktaş – Ümit Aktaş – Hilal Alkan – Nurten Ceceli Alkan – Kamile Batur – Mehmet Bekaroğlu – Ayhan Bilgen – Osman Bostan – Ali Bulaç – Sadi Celil Cengiz – Fatma Çiftçi – Yasemin Çoban – Mehmet Bülent Deniz – Mehmet Efe – Hikmet Eren – Alper Gencer – Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu – Cihangir İslam – Gülnur Kara – Gülsüm Kavuncu – Mualla Kavuncu – Hüda Kaya – Kadrican Mendi – Beytullah Emrah Önce – Ali Öner – Ahmet Örs – Yıldız Ramazanoğlu – Reha Ruhavioğlu – Cüneyt Sarıyaşar – Özkan Şahin – Abdülaziz Tantik – Mehtap Toruntay – Sabiha Ünlü – Ahmet Faruk Ünsal – Fatma Bostan Ünsal – Halil İbrahim Yenigün