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#OccupyGezi or Taksim Square?

by Zeynep Gulsah Capan

Define, periodise, prioritise and fit in a narrative.

This is the struggle that characterises the events happening in Istanbul. Who will get to tell the story of #occupygezi and who gets to tell the story mean different definitions, periodizations, prioritisation of issues and narratives than the ones #occupygezi protesters might have initially intended. The last couple of days has seen endless debates about what the events signify and research into which political party do the protesters feel closest to, how do they identify themselves[1] yet how they identify themselves is increasingly getting lost within the polarising discourse of Prime Minister Erdogan. It is not just him though. Even if unintentionally the binary of the modern/traditional, secular/islamist Turkey is being reproduced even within certain sectors of the protest movement.

The cover of Economist demonstrates this point clearly. A democrat or a sultan? It can not be anything else. What is more troubling than the cover (the orientalisation of the debate and reducing it to binaries was something expected of the Western media) is that this cover has been posted on Facebook and Twitter in a congratulatory manner. If the Economist backs your argument you must have been right. Is that really so? Or are we so stuck within Western centric conceptualisations of ourselves that we can’t see the problem with this picture?

KAL’s Cartoon

The reaction to the cover and the interaction with the Western media and the discourses employed is representative of the discourse that seems to be increasing as the protests continue. It is also a discourse that reverts us back to reproducing binaries. The call to the West, the references to ‘backwardness’, the constant discussion of secularist vs islamists, this othering is the reason for the state of Turkey right now. his discourse re(produces) the (in)securities of the pious muslims especially veiled women who were forcefully removed from the public sphere and silenced for decades and still are to an extent.Their fear that this discourse signals the possibility of again having to abdicate their right to freely exist in the public sphere causes them to (re)align themselves with the JDP as the only party that “protects” their rights. .In turn they also, as can be seen in twitter and Facebook, revert back to the discourses of polarisation and re(produce) their own othering, of equating the protestors with the Kemalist establishment that had silenced them for so long and military interventionism. It needs to be pointed out that it is not only the discourse itself but also the hundreds of Turkish flags, pictures of Ataturk and references to being Ataturk’s soldiers are also a source for insecurity. The flag and Ataturk might represent a sense of pride and sign of unity for many but it was also the reason for years of silencing, torture and deaths for others. The (in)security one might feel when they are bombarded with constant images of people with Turkish flags should not be overlooked and it also points out to a continuing problem that the ‘national’ flag itself is a source of ‘othering’.

This process of othering reifies the discourses on polarisation as if this is the only way to make sense of Turkey: modern/traditional, western/eastern, secular/islamist. It is not just the Western gaze that is producing these narratives, Turkey is complicit in this production. The pleas to the Western media to recognise the plight of the protestors while underlying that this is happening because of JDP is not modern, developed, Western enough to be democratic, the constant references to ‘what will the Westerners think of us now’, the endless search for ‘foreign agents’ and foreign involvement to explain the protests, the branding of criticism as only possible if it is allied to military interventionists are all complicit in the production of the discourses on polarisation and reducing the debate about the events in Turkey into clearly delineated and in no way explicatory binaries of modern/traditional, secular/islamist and as the Economist put it: democrat or sultan!!!

The cover and its reception point to a greater problem of defining what is happening in Turkey and how it will be framed; is it #occupygezi or Taksim Square? There have been endless articles discussing whether or not the events can be considered Turkey’s Tahrir Square.[2] This of course would put Turkey within the narrative of Middle Eastern revolts and part of a process of democratization in the Middle East and Third World countries. Or is it part of the Occupy movements that have manifested themselves in Western democracies. Which is it? #Occupygezi or Taksim Square, one or the other, both or neither!

This is a trick question in many ways because whichever way you answer you will be promptly put in a narrative prioritising one dynamic over the other, narrating Turkey as part of one spatial construct over another. One way or another you will orientalise Turkey, simplify its history and obscure many voices. Yet this is the main struggle presently over twitter, over Facebook and in op-ed columns. Who are the protesters (define yourselves), what are your demands (prioritise), what do you represent; fit into a damn narrative!!!!!!! And if you do not choose one and start framing yourselves accordingly soon enough you will be forcefully packaged into one of the readily available ones of modern/traditional, secular/islamist, left/right, establishing order/inciting anarchy, independent republic/foreign agents.

Pick a side, any side!!!

#Occupygezi will have failed if it does end up picking a side, if it does end up in one of the neatly packaged narratives Turkey has of itself. From its start I have been hopeful about the prospects of what this movement (if it can be characterised as such) means for Turkish politics exactly because it does not belong to a side, it is not part of the polarising discourse that aims at and feeds from creating an other, it is not part of a neatly packaged narrative about modernisation or democratisation. It has been coming under attack from all sides exactly because its existence, its success means that politics in Turkey has to change and none of the political actors in Turkey seem to have the vocabulary to engage in a political discourse that is not about reproducing binaries.

I have been using #occupyGezi to characterise the events from the beginning. I frame its beginning (based on the issue (environment, neoliberal policies) and the socio-economic background of the initial protesters (educated, middle-class university students) as part of the Occupy movement that is seen in democratic governments implementing neoliberal policies but it is open to debate whether or not these characterisations can still apply to the tens of thousands protesting today. I also frame it as part of the democratisation of the Middle East region especially with respect to the government’s response and the role of the media. Can it be both at the same time? Does it have to be one or the other? Can it be neither? If it does also demonstrate similarities with the Arab revolts why do I keep calling it #occupyGezi? Maybe that also reveals something about where I stand in the narratives of Turkish politics and it is something I should question. In order to overcome reductionist analyses and reproduction of binaries we have to ask questions that do not have readily packaged answers even to ourselves and maybe then we can start (re)defining what it means to be secular, islamist, modern, traditional without being dependent on binary constructions.

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[1] http://t24.com.tr/haber/gezi-parki-direniscileriyle-yapilan-anketten-cikan-ilginc-sonuclar/231335

[2] http://muftah.org/why-the-gezi-park-protests-do-not-herald-a-turkish-spring-yet/, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/06/turkish-spring-protests-istanbul.html

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