Brave New Turkey

Brave New Turkey

Depending on whom you ask, it looks as if Turkey may be undergoing something like the Arab Spring or Occupy Movement or even an international plot masterminded by London-based financial capital, as is often claimed by pro-governmental quarters. According to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish popular uprising that began at the end of May 2013 cannot be considered as similar to the waves of civic resistance movements in the Middle East. Rather, they are the work of “opposition parties,” “alcoholics,” “extremists,” “vandals,” “looters,” “bums,” “foreign agents” and even Twitter!

In an attempt to restore confidence in the market, President Abdullah Gül said in a meeting with Turkey’s International Investors Association (YASED) on June 4, 2013 that the popular uprising in Turkey recalled the Occupy protests in the West rather than the uprisings in the Middle East. On June 7, the prime minister repeated similar arguments. According to the governmental view, the Turkish uprising cannot be compared with the Arab uprisings because Turkey enjoys competitive politics.

 Sociologists, however, compare social movements in terms of their scope – i.e., reform or radical, goals, grievances, methods of work and organizational structure/membership base. I argue that although the Turkish uprising shares similarities with the Occupy Movement in terms of membership base, methods and scope, it differs in terms of participants’ goals and grievances. While the latter was predominantly motivated by socio-economic inequality and “the corrupting effect of money on politics,” the movements in Middle East and Turkey were motivated by the growing authoritarian and repressive rule of the political leadership. In both Tahrir and Taksim, for instance, the disproportionate use of force by the police forces increased the initial grievances, unleashed old resentments and triggered unprecedented unorganized street backlash against the authoritarian governments.

In terms of organizational structure, methods and scope, all three movements were unorganized, peaceful reform movements outside settled politics and without a leader. In both Taksim and Tahrir, however, a broad coalition of opposition forces led by young people was united under the common goal of political change and recognition. In the Turkish case, for instance, even though more than half of the demonstrators have never been involved in a demonstration before, less than week later hundreds of thousands of protestors from 60 out of 72 Turkish cities, including LBGT associations, football team fans, socialists, nationalists, Kemalists, communists, anarchists, labor unions, artists, musicians, academicians, Alevis, anti-capitalist Muslims, teachers and public servants have united under the common slogan of “Resign Tayyip, Resign.”

The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) growing “moderately Islamist” authoritarianism and attempts to impose Islam-inspired morality constitute the core of the protestors’ grievances in Turkey. As a comparison, in 2002, more than 300 individuals stood trial for charges related to freedom of expression; by the end of 2012, this number reached 1,088. Turkey, often presented as a model country for the region, by the end of 2012 had in fact been dubbed “the world’s biggest prison for journalists,” cited as jailing even more journalists than China or Iran.

Against this backdrop of the AKP’s growing authoritarian tendencies, this uprising is a test case for both Turkish and Western governments, if they are indeed in favor for a liberal democracy or an authoritarian political stability in Turkey and the broader Middle East.

Tuba Eldem is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto.