"Authoritarianism No More!" Professor Kumru Toktamis on the events in Turkey

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Authoritarianism No More!
kumru toktamis

It has never been hard for those in power to find jargon to belittle and discredit their opposition. But the subversive creativity of the opposition in co-opting such expressions has often bolstered the legitimacy of their claims.

When Turkish Prime Minister R. T. Erdogan called the demonstrators at Taksim Square in Istanbul capulcus (bandits, looters) in early June, he awarded them with what has become a historical and global badge of honor, complete with a new Wikipedia “chapulling.” The appropriation of a formerly pejorative term exemplifies the anti-authoritarian core of the ongoing uprising and turmoil in Turkey.
Subtle or overt forms of authoritarianism have always been a defining characteristic of the post-Ottoman polity in the territories of the Eastern Mediterranean – particularly in the Republic of Turkey, founded by a bureaucratic -military elite amidst opportunities created by the intra-allied conflicts and fatigue of the Great War. This modernizing elite and their populist anti-colonial narrative provided the legitimizing framework for the Turkish state for throughout the 20th century. The country survived the Cold War era under a formal parliamentarism with military tutelage, where authoritarian ideals of heavy handed etatisme, model citizenship, suppression of ethnic and religious minorities and homogenization of the population in pursuit of a 19th century notion of modernity tainted the all political parties and foreseeable oppositions alike.

The conflict over rising Islamism in the political landscape of Turkey has always been a negotiation about the urban texture of the country. The nationalist, laicist, modernist founding elites have continually expressed their discomfort with the visibility of traditionally clad Muslim individuals and families, especially women in headscarves in urban public spaces such as schools, hospitals and courtrooms. The bastion of Turkish laicism -- unlike secularism -- demanded that such expressions be backward, folksy and untypical of the modernizing ideals of the Republic. As the visibility of islamists increased in the cities -- not only as shantytown dwellers or students, but in professional positions and eventually as urban nouveau riche -- the Islamists and their political party the AKP were associated with provincial fundamentalism. However, AKP leader R.T. Erdogan was neither: born and raised in Istanbul, he came from among those in the city’s neighborhoods who were not welcome in public spaces and professional life. He shared the street smarts, cunning and ambition of denizens of Istanbul, yet belonged to the social segment that was not recognized and acknowledged. But that was last century.

R. T. Erdogan and his AKP came to the fore on a wave of freedoms and rights against the authoritarian culture, policies and politics. Challenging the etatiste laicism (which unlike secularism involved the active use of governmental power to suppress and homogenize religious leadership) that curbed freedoms of expression of the political right and left, but most importantly the crucial role of the military as the guardian of the Republic, the AKP managed to gain the support of the rural and urban poor, as well as the approval of liberals and liberal socialists. Moreover, the AKP’s economic agenda connected with emerging globalization through privatization and commercialization of government control, thus enabling the AKP to be recognized as a reliable partner of global and regional financial interests.

As a party with clear religious roots that survived several attempts to outlaw it – unlike its predecessors of similar ilk – the AKP pragmatically emerged as the leading party with unprecedented popular support, gaining nearly 50% of the vote in three consecutive elections (34% in 2002, 47% in 2007 and 50% in 2011), emerging as a model party of moderate Islam and pro-capitalism. While it owed most of its electoral success to social policies such as healthcare and housing, the almost irrational insistence of the small yet influential laicist elites who insistently cried that their country was being taken over by radical, Islamic fundamentalism and called the military to take charge did not help the opposition to develop a viable agenda to overcome the cultural, political and economic problems that accompanied the AKP’s emergence to power.

While the AKP may have reached its liberal pinnacle as the trailblazer of expanding political freedoms with the election of Abdullah Gul as the head of the Republic in 2007, its love affair with capitalist enterprise continued relentlessly, mostly along the paths of cronyism.

As liberal trailblazers, the AKP has been more successful in modernizing and revising Turkish legal codes to harmonize public administration and human rights with European Union Codes than any of the earlier modernizing elites. As a historical irony, while advancing the westernization/modernization agenda of the founders of the Republic, the AKP dismantled the power bases of the same elites by removing military representatives from civilian institutions such as the Council of Higher Education and the High Council of Radio and Television.

As “Islamic Calvinists,”1 the AKP pursued the Republic’s third wave of “constructing the domestic bourgeoisie” – the first being a state-engineered market economy during the Great Depression and the second the elimination and replacement of wealth accumulation by the non-Muslim minorities in the 1950s. This third wave of capitalist expansion mostly followed the blueprints of the post-1980 military coup by drawing provincial resources toward the center via financial programs and policies. This made clear that a cultural-Islamist agenda was not a priority for the AKP. The party and its supporters were more interested in maximizing profit by expanding the scope of domestic consumerism and regional financial markets.

The consolidation of the AKP’s power inadvertently created its own cultural, political and economic inconsistencies and contradictions. The expansion of the free-market economy and increase in the per-capita income from $2,800 to $10,000 within a decade brought with it unparalleled economic inequalities. The rise of conservative capitalists with ostentatious wealth and display of consumerism in urban areas proved to be highly irritating for both economic and cultural reasons. While traditional urban elites already feared displacement from their positions of prestige and power, the urban working poor felt betrayed, having followed the AKP’s political agenda with common-sense piety and faith based on a sense of justice.

Politically, the hopes of expanded freedoms and liberties were dashed as the trials of wanna-be- leaders of military coups, such as Ergenekon, soon turned into political circuses aimed at intimidating all forms of opposition. By 2011, Turkey became the leading country in the world for jailing journalists, alongside Iran and China. AKP-style pragmatism was also revealed to be crucial in instrumentalizing Kurdish aspirations, as the peace process with the Kurdish rebels became a political trump card to hijack Kurdish support for R.T. Erdogan’s ambition to propel himself into the Presidency and expand the powers of what has heretofore been a largely symbolic office as Head of the Republic.

Culturally, neither the AKP nor its leader were the kind of Islamists the irrational laicists portrayed them to be. Rather than pursuing an agenda of islamization, they have mainly been interested in replacing the traditional urban elite and displacing their prestige and power into the hands of a newly emerging “conservative bourgeoisie.” They represented an emerging capitalist class that wanted to be able to be as visible and as consumerist as the older elites. However, this did not prevent the party from making gestures toward their more pious electoral base, such as legislating limitations on abortion (not required by any religious strictures whatsoever) and on alcohol (in a country where alcoholism is not a social problem). Such attempts are championed by only small religious constituencies and have angered many.
The AKP had already become an extension and promoter of the previously prevailing authoritarianism in Turkey (sans military support) by the time its leader decided to micromanage the commercialization of a public park in the old city of Istanbul.
The AKP’s brand of culture wars, as represented in superficial and virtual branding of Islam; rapidly illiberalizing democracy, evident in the ways it treats its opposition; and crony capitalism that aims to enrich its supporters while promising a trickle-down expansion of welfare to the popular segments of the society all seem to have reached an impasse: the AKP is now the voice of authoritarianism in Turkey.

Authoritarianism is a legacy of the old-world, pre-19th century empires that persists in the modern politics of their successors. The AKP’s dilemma is that as it was expanding boundaries of freedoms and liberties for its own followers it inadvertently called forth its future opposition. As with any other pragmatic political agenda, while it was benefiting from the ineptitude of the traditional power centers, it still lacked “technocratic depth”2 and had to rely mostly on the charisma of its leadership and its immediate interest-based policies.

The opposition at Taksim Square/Gezi Parki started as a reaction to a highly controversial and technically under-baked project for the privatization of a historic public space on a commercially vibrant square. The initial participants in the movement revealed it to be a typical urban social movement for individual rights and freedoms defending public space, with no particular political affiliation. Thanks to the police brutality and the PM’s blatant brazenness, the mobilization soon snowballed into massive opposition to the regime and whatever it is representing to citizens from different walks of Turkish society and culture. Environmentalists asking for more green, LGBT groups for more recognition and rights are now side by side with Muslim activists who has long supported a non-authoritarian, non-military political and legal system. Representatives of traditional nationalist elites who want to defend the pillars of secularism in the country are accompanied by maybe the largest and most staunch supporters of the uprising, the unruly soccer fans whose eventual mobilization seemed to be crucial for the early withdrawal of the police forces from the square. There are posters reminding the public that the square was once an Armenian cemetery, alluding to all projects of re-imaging a legendary past. Socialists, Marxists, members of trade unions, women, children, upper-middle class families all have managed to find a place and a voice in the growing opposition which defies all previously existing political alliances and agendas. Thanks to PM R.T. Erdogan’s idea of progress via micro-managing, Taksim is now the site of a historic stand-off between his regime and a loose coalition of social, political and cultural opposition. 

Tahrir Square in Cairo had a very clear agenda of over throwing a dictator. Zuccotti Park in NYC was a poignant warning to financial capitalism. The multi-vocality of these mobilizations was their strength and pitfall, all at the same time; they all resonated with larger segments of their respective societies and manage to draw them into action. They proved that ambiguity of goals can be a productive tool for collective activism; larger segments of the society can attribute their own understanding of protest and join in. Just as in Tahrir and Zuccotti, at Taksim the protest itself has become the message, and those in power respond to that message, most of the time creating more room for further action. Such a dialogical relationship between the protests and the governments and security forces helps them to expand, as they further identify their raison d’etre and clarify their priorities.

At the same time, the very multi-vocality of this process – wherein each new social segment, organized group or interested participant walks in with their own framing of interests and goals – at times challenges other activists’ positions and claims. At this point, the brazenness of the Turkish PM gives the activist a unifying rallying point, but there is no clarity as to what extent his government should be targeted. There seem to be several conflicting responses coming the from diverse groups that make up the movement; while some are resorting to humor and parody, others seem to be calling up the spirit of the founder of the country, Ataturk, another figure of yester-centuries authoritarianism. Some participants are persistent in focusing on longstanding issues of capitalist exploitation and the perils of globalization, while others are focusing on the dangers of police brutality and human rights violations.

Thirty-five years ago, during the nascent days of the feminist movement in Turkey, when a beloved friend and a Muslim activist woman had asked me “in a country that is 99% Muslim, how do you expect feminism to take hold?” My response was, “In a country where most of the Muslims who end their day of religious fasting with a shot of raki [a traditional alcoholic beverage with anisette], how do you expect an islamist regime?”In Turkey, as elsewhere, traditions have always been reproduced and reinvented in a dialogical manner. The Islamist AKP rebranded the spirit of capitalism and globalization; by micro-managing morality it has opened new venues for atheist and agnostics to speak their minds; and with increased visibility of the noveau riche in urban areas it has distressed its own pious electoral base. Istanbul is a historically resilient geography where the city has witnessed how those once considered to be looters by the residents of its palaces, eventually became its new masters.

Occupy Gezi, is not just a great idea or an experience. Whatever its outcome might be, it signals the end of authoritarianism as the glue binding the culture and society. There may even be a short reversal of fortunes for the activists, and the AKP may resort to more repressive, top-down policies. But, after Taksim, authoritarianism shall no longer be the defining characteristic of Turkish politics and culture. Chapulcu, as the anti-authority figure, will remain as the promoter of democracy.
1 Omer Taspinar, http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2012/04/24-turkey-new-model-taspinar

2 As observed in Der Spiegel by US ambassador Eric Edelman in 2004. www.spiegel.de/international/world/the-tribune-of-anatolia-america-s-dark-view-of-turkish-premier-erdogan-a-732084.html

Professor Kumru Toktamis is Adjunct Professor of Social Science and Cultural Studies at Pratt Institute.

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