Echos of Chicago in Gezi

Echos of Chicago in Gezi

For the past week, I have been transfixed by the bravery, intelligence and humor of the 20, 30 and perhaps 40-year-old men and women who have occupied Gezi Park. Day and night, they have camped in the park in an effort to forestall its destruction, in yet another example of the current Turkish government’s willingness to sacrifice its heritage for profit. More specifically, it is the Prime Minister’s willingness to create a neo-Ottoman (read Muslim only Ottoman) Turkey in the image of a sanitized and Disneyland style. For the past decade, the leaders of the AKP have presented an anodyne, modernist vision of a rising and prosperous Turkey, one that will become the true center of the 21st century.

All of this went very smoothly for quite some time and Istanbul and most of western Turkey boomed. Turkey became both a “tiger” economy and the go-to place for the international glitterati. In the meantime, Erdoğan and his inner circle as well as their friends and business partners became extremely rich. The Prime Minister became the hero of the Arab Street and a luminary in the Islamic world and beyond. As the years have gone by, the Prime Minister has come to see himself not only as the political leader of the country but also as a global figure to be respected and feared. In the wonderful Şener Şen film, Kabadayı (tough guy in the quarter) plays the local honcho who one day finds he no longer has the same strength and vigor as he did. His comeuppance is an education. It would seem that we are witnessing a similar comeuppance for the PM, a Kabadayı in his own right.

For an interesting parallel to current events, we might look back to the Chicago Convention of 1968 in America. That year the Democrats were trying to settle on a candidate to replace the retiring Lyndon Johnson. The Vice-President, Hubert Humphrey, looked to be the shoo-in. The only problem was the pesky demonstrators. As with Gezi, they were young, largely powerless and very angry about the continuing war in Vietnam. As with Gezi, the reaction by the government leadership was one of disdain. Police were let loose on the young people. Tear gas, beatings and violence became the preferred vehicle for the Chicago police to “communicate” with the protestors. What the police did not anticipate was how much the television footage would cause the American public to feel revulsion and anger toward the government.

Gezi, I believe, is a watershed in Turkish history. The young people in Gezi endured great savagery with grace and humor. The police behaved in the same miserable way they have for years. For me the images of policemen savagely beating young women should cause even the most hard-hearted to rethink their ethical values. Turks have a deep-seated sense of morals. A policeman beating a young woman lying on the street is a man without morals, ahlaksiz. No doubt he beats his wife and probably, his children.

Gezi is both a high point and a low point in Turkish history. It is a high point as it marks the arrival of the younger generation onto the Turkish and World political stages. This is exciting as they are smart, intelligent and hold modern values close to their hearts. It is a low point for the old political order. Apart from a few remarks from the President and the Speaker, both of whom were calming and conciliatory, the silence from the febrile Turkish political class was underwhelming. So was the predictable anger and thundering from the Sultan and the bloodlust chorus of his bashibazooks.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan once looked to be the greatest leader of the Turkish Republic since Mustafa Kemal. Today, he is in great danger of sharing the inevitable legacy that Vladimir Putin one day will be tarred with. Chicago Mayor Daly’s reputation never recovered. If Erdoğan truly aspires to greatness he will look at himself in the mirror, tone down his rhetoric and reach out to all members of the Turkish political spectrum. His ability to charm could make this quite achievable. His ability to listen, however, is more difficult. Fortunately, he has a partner and teacher in Abdullah Gül.