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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.




Discourses of polarization and the construction of difference (in Turkey)

 written by Zeynep Gulsah Capan

I discussed yesterday in my post , however briefly, the discourses of polarization in Turkey and how it has actually limited, silenced and marginalized voices. Prime Minister Erdogan in his speech yesterday continued his attempts to frame the #occupygezi movement within the discourses of polarization and (re)construct an us/them binary.

He not only reaffirmed his willingness to continue with the project but also that ‘parliamentary democracy was functioning in Turkey’ but also with reference to the protests stated that ‘the aim here is idealogical.’ Furthermore, he states that ‘the first aim is to take the Istanbul Municipality’ referencing the upcoming municipal elections in 2014. He attempts clearly to frame the issue as being against RPP (Republican People’s Party) and reconstitute the binaries of us and them, seculars vs islamists.[1]

He takes this discourse further and states that ‘If this is about holding meetings, if this is a social movement, where they gather 20, I will get up and gather 200,000 people. Where they gather 100,000, I will bring together one million from my party’[2] It is becoming increasingly clear that Erdogan knows that he benefits from continuing discourses of polarization. As long as an issue is framed as being ‘seculars vs islamists’ and ‘us/them’ he can recast it as the Kemalist elite trying to regain their position of power.

The polarization of the discourse and analyzing the events unfolding in Turkey right now by buying into that discourse not only distorts the image of the events and the issues being discussed but also silences the voices of people who want to go beyond the binary oppositions. An example of such an analysis was evident in an analysis posted by BBC yesterday entitled ‘Turkish press slams handling of Istanbul protests’. The article classifies the op-ed columnists as ‘pro-secular’ and ‘Islamist’ pointing out that even the ‘Islamists’ are warning Erdogan about his actions. Imposing a binary on the events, issues and people involved in the #occupygezi movement is a way to reproduce the dominant discourses of polarization. It is a way of reproducing the idea of a Turkey divided into two between ‘seculars’ vs ‘islamists’. Even if the argument is that in this instance ‘islamists’ have agreed with the ‘seculars’, the dividing up itself is a way to reinforce and reproduce the idea of irreconcilable differences.

Contrary to representations based on discourses of polarization, the events that unfolded in the last couple of days has demonstrated that these binary oppositions do not hold and continuing to use them in analyses of Turkey contribute to silencing the opinions of Turkish citizens. If the discourses of polarization and impositions of binary oppisitions to the events in Turkey succeed that the #occupygezi movement will loose its voice again. So any analysis has to clear away from reproducing these discourses  and continuing to underline ‘irreconcilable differences’. Although there are articles that expressly criticise analysis concentrating on these binary oppositions,[3] there are also op-ed columnists on social media[4] that continue to stress these binary oppositions contributing to the silencing of voices.

The below are some photos that have been posted via various social media sites demonstrating that the discontentment being voiced in Turkey is not one that can be reduced to ‘seculars’ vs ‘islamism’.

Revolutionary Muslims joining the protests

The signs read : 'side by side against fascism', 'We can't stand you sober JDP'






[4] The rumor that veiled protesters were being attacked has been included in T24’s 17 lies spread by the social media article :

It’s the Democracy, Stupid!!! (from Turkey)

Written by Zeynep Gulsah Capan (PhD student in Politics)

The #occupygezi movement has sparked a wave of protests that started in Istanbul but now has spread all over Turkey. It might seem puzzling at first why an essentially environmental issue was the spark when Turkey has been experiencing a series of crisis such as Reyhanli and the alcohol ban. Uncovering why #occupygezi was the spark will also reveal some of the important dynamics at play in the protests.

There has been a process of (dis)locating Turkey, Turkish foreign policy and its place in the international system. As these redefinitions of society, the state and its foreign policy has been undergoing, the attitude of the government has not been to include the citizens in a dialogue about the future of Turkey. The JDP party has proceeded with its scripting of Turkish identity through a monologue. Although this has been a visible attitude with the JDP government for some time, it has become more acute in the last couple of months. Then why was #occupygezi the moment that finally brought the citizens forward.

The reason I think can be found in the polarization of Turkish society. The polarization is not the reason the protests are happening today but rather the construction of polarization discourse was the reason the protests did not happen until today. As opposed to Reyhanli and the alcohol ban, the gentrification of Gezi Park was not and could not be so easily framed within the polarization discourse of ‘supporters of Esad’ vs ‘supporters of Islamic fundamentalism’ and ‘secular lifestyle vs religious imposition’. The #occupygezi movement was about the city of Istanbul, it was about how the people of Istanbul were left out of the deliberation process of deciding the future of its green areas, it was and could be about democracy. This is not to claim that in the cases of Reyhanli and the alcohol ban the democratic process functioned (it did not) but both issues from the start were constructed in such a way that situated them within the binary oppositions of ‘secular’ vs ‘islamist’. Even though there have been op-ed columnists and JDP and RPP officials trying to frame #occupygezi in such a similar manner, it had not been such an issue from its start and thus the attempts to frame it as such failed and is failing. The non-framing issue is related to #occupygezi movement being an environmental issue and not having been contextualized as part of an ongoing ‘identity’ issue like Reyhanli was with respect to Turkish foreign policy and the alcohol ban was with respect to Turkish identity and lifestyle discussions.

#Occupygezi became the spark because it was not part of the 52% vs 48% discourse that has been constantly reproduced by the JDP, RPP and popular media. The binary oppositions of ‘secular’ vs ‘islamists’ and the discourse of polarisation has been instrumental in silencing and marginalizing democracy concerns. The public sphere in the last couple of years had been replete with ‘naming and shaming’. Either you have a side within these binaries or are assigned into one. It had become impossible to criticize the state of democracy in Turkey without being ‘accused’ of supporting the RPP and military interventionism. Likewise it became impossible to criticize the RPP or the legacy of the military without being ‘accused’ of being a JDP sympathizer. The two ‘sides’ were reproduced in every issue and debate whether it be Reyhanli or the alcohol ban effectively silencing discussions on democratisation and limiting the discursive sphere to verbal battles between Kilicdaroglu and Erdogan.

The #occupygezi movement was the spark of the protests because it was not framed within these binary oppositions. The protests undergoing in Istanbul are a way to finally express discontent about the state of Turkish democracy that had been obscured within the constantly constructed discourse of polarization and binary oppositions in the public sphere. It is a way to reclaim a space within this sphere where discussion is possible without it being reduced to 52% vs 48%. It is finally about democracy!!!!

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