'Public life’ against ‘public order’
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could not take it when young people started a protest against the building project in Gezi Park. It was not because the project was terribly important, but rather because Erdoğan is neither used to being challenged, nor can he tolerate any dissent. That is why it turned into a major crisis and echoed all over Turkey, with events culminating to the point of an international crisis that even hit the economy.
It is true that it started as an environmentalist demonstration but turned out to be a social and political movement and unrest. The government thinks that it was so, because there were provocateurs behind the scenes or it was “an international plot against the rise of Turkey.” Even this sort of perception of events, alone, tells us a lot about the standard of democracy and of the present government’s political understanding. In the mind of the PM and his government, political authority cannot be challenged by any means, other than contesting elections. According to this mentality, democracy is all about elections and whoever wins it has the upper hand until the next elections.
It is an ultimate authoritarian perspective to think that the public sphere is defined and determined by the absolute authority of the central government, let alone by a single man, namely PM Erdoğan himself. Moreover, according to this mindset, the public sphere is designed by the priorities of “public order” rather than the dynamics of “public life.” At the time of secularist hegemony, a very similar understanding tended to design and dominate public life, by expelling religious symbols and convictions from the public sphere. The talk of the rules of the “public sphere” was used as a bulwark against headscarves and religious freedoms, for a long time.
Nevertheless, it was the conservatives who won eventually; because secularist cultural hegemony could not and would not be able to resist social dynamics. It was the persistent demands for more rights and freedoms by the conservatives to take on a greater role in the public sphere and life that led to the victory of the Justice and Democracy Party (AKP) in the 2002 elections. It was secularists who could not get it right then, and it is conservatives who cannot get it right now.
The conservatives thought that their victory was all about their being “the majority.” In fact, it was more than that; it was their mobility for more free space in public life that gave impetus to their politics. It was their dramatic mistake to think that only the majority can be mobilized for more public sphere and can turn into a political force. Then, it was their tragic mistake to try to use this force against others’ demands for more space. As a result of such delusion, they turned into the guardians of “the new public order” against the voices of “the public life.”
“Gezi” turned to into a symbol of resistance which represented resentments from various folks against the authoritarian politics of the present government. Some may define the dissent along the lines of secularist revolt against alarming Islamist policies like the recent limitations on alcohol sales. It is true that the Taksim event reflected the anxieties of the liberal urban classes, more than anything else. Nonetheless, it was a more general revolt against the control of public life, in the name of public order. And again “life” won a victory over “order,” even if it is a small victory for the time being.
Finally, “public life” should not be taken as an apolitical name given to the defense of a liberal urban lifestyle, but it is an expression which includes all sorts of social and political expressions. In this sense, it is very misleading to think that the “Gezi” mobilization was apolitical; on the contrary any defense of freedom concerning the public sphere is political by definition. After all, it was a “pro-life” challenge against pro-order conservatives.
PS. A reader suggested that I check the meaning of “mob” in the dictionary before using “mob rule” in my previous article. I used it deliberately to show a paradox. Only student papers deserve to be read and checked according to the dictionary meanings of the words.