Turkey – a struggle against authoritarianism

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University of Sussex Students from Turkey offer their reflections on the wave of resistance that has swept across Turkey.

Much has been said and written on the recent events in Turkey. And more will surely follow. Many rushed to put a label on the events or to identify the main fault-lines in society, which may explain the “sources of conflict”. We have written this note not as yet another analysis of Turkish troubles, but as a reflection to simply highlight several points of significance. We have no wish to impose a name on them, for the protests have so far defied any distinct political colour.

But the apparent spontaneity of the protests or the social and political diversity of protesters should not bar from view the fact that something has been wrong in Turkey. Current protests, as many commentators note, are an outburst of anger accumulating for years now. The point was reached on the night of May 28 when news quickly spread via social media that the municipality of Istanbul was demolishing Gezi Park in Taksim square in Istanbul. Demolition was part of a wider “redevelopment” plan for the Square, which would erect yet another shopping mall in Istanbul – a plan without any democratic participation. An impromptu occupation soon followed with the number of protesters growing by the hour. Then, despite the absence of any provocation or violence by the protesters, the police forces started a violent assault on peaceful protesters, which instigated a further cycle of increasing numbers of protesters and police violence, spreading beyond Istanbul.

Gezi Park protests are a response to the grim authoritarianism of the Prime Minister and his government, which is encroaching upon basic rights and freedoms. The latest chain of events, taking decisions about the city – or about the country for that matter – without even a semblance of democratic participation and suppressing dissent with force, have been repeating in cycles over the years. Recent protests spiralled as Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, rather than taking a conciliatory role, went so far as to call the protesters looters. The Prime Minister’s attitude, neither new nor surprising, is a major key to understanding the events. Combining all distinguishing traits of authoritarianism, Erdogan has a very limited and instrumental understanding of democracy. He constantly entertains the fact that he/his party (distinction is irrelevant) was elected by 50% of the electorate. Erdogan understands this as an unquestionable mandate to do literally anything he wishes. With no tolerance towards criticism, over the years he has consistently labelled anyone with a different opinion to him as ‘ideological’ or ‘marginal’. His contempt towards political dissent, his arrogance and textbook authoritarianism continue to draw national and international criticism, yet without a sign of regret or even tacit apology from the Prime Minister. Erdogan acts, as one commentator aptly put it, “like an elephant in a china shop”. In a matter of days, he managed to call the protesters; alcoholics, looters, and deviants. Even Twitter, which protesters are using effectively, received its share of wrath from the Prime Minister. To add insult to injury, on June 3, that is, on the fourth day of on-going protests, he left for a four-day trip to North Africa!

Following in the trail of the Prime Minister are the police forces, which have unleashed a violent attack on peaceful protestors. Tear gas usage exceeded any reasonable measure. Arbitrary beatings, aiming directly at protestors with tear gas launchers, and shooting tear gas cartridges into houses by the police have been well documented over the internet. These are only several examples of police violence and misconduct. To enumerate all of them will require much more space and it will not even begin to cover the “open secret” of torture and beatings suffered by detainees in the police stations.

A singularly depressing matter has been the blackout imposed by the mainstream media. All major TV channels and newspapers in Turkey are owned by Turkish corporations, which profit from government contracts. At the height of the protests, when police forces almost turned the city into a war zone, these channels broadcast programmes like a documentary on penguins or a cooking show. The newspapers, if they did not remain silent, rushed to fabricate wrongdoings by the protestors. Not a single word of blame fell on the government. In the last several days the “professional conduct” of the Turkish media has been – not to put too fine a point on it – disgraceful.

On a brighter note, despite the terror unleashed upon them, people have shown an unprecedented degree of solidarity. Groups hitherto thought to be worlds apart have come together to defend what belongs to them by right, taking a stand against arrogance and authoritarianism with nothing but human dignity. It was these very people tormented, gassed and beaten, not to mention labelled as looters and deviants by their own prime minister, who cleaned up their streets and squares the next day after the devastation by the police. They claimed what belong to them.

The park protests are symbols of a wider social struggle against authoritarianism that has an illusion of omnipotence, that believes it can dictate who should drink alcohol and when, how many children women should have, what nationally appropriate art should be, and what university students can and cannot say. This is a struggle against a government that keeps ordering how people should live. Well, not anymore.

We believe that an important threshold has been passed and that society will keep defending itself. This is a point that cannot be emphasised enough. We hope that you will find this note informative.

University of Sussex Students from Turkey

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