Turkey: Between Islamic neoliberalism and Kemalist nationalism

Issue: 139

Ron Margulies

As Taksim Square, the centre of Istanbul, came under occupation by thousands upon thousands of mostly young Turks, the rest of the country, the government, the world and, indeed, the protesters themselves watched in amazement.

As I write, it is the eleventh day that Gezi Park, adjacent to the square, much smaller than Hyde or Central Park, but still sizeable, looks like the scene of an open-air youth festival, with tents, stalls, a small stage for speeches, an infirmary, make-shift kitchens and even a library. The area is festooned with banners, hand-made placards, flags, multi-coloured political and humorous slogans scribbled on every available surface.

There is a tangible atmosphere of solidarity and comradeship, with everyone pitching in to clean the park and prepare and distribute the food that citizens bring in every day. No money changes hands, everything is free. There has not been a single unpleasant incident of any kind.

For nearly six months prior to the explosion of mass anger which led to the occupation, the square and the park have, in parts, looked like a construction site as the government’s plans to restructure the whole area have gone apace. The plans, pushed through with no popular consultation and strong support from prime minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan, involve rebuilding an old Ottoman barracks demolished in the 1940s, and a shopping mall and/or hotel/residences in and around the park. Attempts to build resistance to these plans had never quite taken off.

Then, all of a sudden, the police launched a barbarous attack on a few dozen people who organised a sit-down in the park to protect trees that were to be cut down. As news of the attack spread, the protests turned from defence of the trees to a mass movement against police violence. Hundreds and then thousands rushed to the park to join in the resistance to the police. The protests spread throughout Istanbul and grew. The police attacked demonstrations large and small, and crowds simply refused to be beaten back by a constant barrage of pepper gas.

Spontaneous demonstrations broke out everywhere as people just gathered in their own streets, banging pots and pans, blowing whistles and shouting for the prime minister to resign. Local residents and shopkeepers came out to help those attacked by the police, giving them refuge and food and lemon juice against the pepper gas. The demonstrations also spread to other cities, where thousands came out onto the streets in solidarity with those fighting in Taksim Square and fought pitched battles with the police. It is thought that there were demonstrations in 77 cities, with up to a million people involved, and that four people have died, including a policeman who fell into a ditch.

The scale and scope of the protests, night after night, and the crowds’ refusal to back off in the face of armoured vehicles, pepper gas and water cannons took the government completely by surprise. After three days the police were withdrawn from the square and the park. The area was taken over by the demonstrators and remained police-free, with no state presence for nearly two weeks. This was what can only be called “people’s power”, with two or three thousand staying every night and tens of thousands visiting every day after working hours.

Some sort of coordinating committee emerged in the park and put forward four demands: the government must announce that the shopping mall will not be built (an opinion poll indicates that 75 percent of Istanbul residents and 64 percent of the population oppose the restructuring plans for the park); the governor of Istanbul and the chief of police must be sacked; everyone under custody or arrest must be released; and the square must be open to all demonstrations and the use of pepper gas must be banned.

While the prime minister spoke like a true warrior, blaming everyone from the usual nebulous “foreign forces and agents” and “marginal political groups” to the mysterious “interest rate lobby”, the government also dithered. The police were sent in to clear the square early one morning, causing further fighting, while Erdogan met delegations from the square and declared that a referendum would be held on the issue of what to do with the park. It remains to be seen whether this will satisfy the protesters, but it seems unlikely to do so.

The force, extent and persistence of the revolt, in a country run by a government which has won three consecutive elections and is shown by opinion polls still to enjoy the support of around 50 percent of the population, needs some explanation.

The fissures of an “indivisible nation”

Clearly, a million people did not battle with police and breathe pepper gas, which burns the eyes and lungs and hurts like hell, for a few trees or even against a monstrous shopping mall. After all, the Taksim Platform, set up to oppose the plans for the square, had been campaigning and giving out leaflets outside the underground station on the square itself for many months with no one paying any attention. The trees, the mall and, most of all, the police violence simply provided the spark which ignited a pre-existing tinderbox.

There was widespread, quiet and simmering resentment and people were clearly fed up not only with the government’s plans for Taksim Square, imposed in a top-down, heavy-handed manner with not even a nod to local residents and businesses, but also with numerous other “urban transformation” projects which have depopulated and demolished neighbourhoods to make way for new upmarket developments; the whole spate of policies dictated by a neoliberal government programme; the unchecked proliferation of shopping centres; the frequent use of the police against perfectly democratic protests; the banning of the use of Taksim for this year’s May Day demonstration.

To this list should be added a series of irritating government moves including, for example, legislation in May to ban the sale of alcohol after 10pm (irritating rather than terrible, given that it only brings Turkey into line with many European countries), last summer’s announcement by Erdogan that the country’s liberal abortion law should be amended to make it more restrictive (again only irritating, given that nothing came of the announcement), or his frequent exhortations about the virtues of large families.

The grievances above may be considered broadly to fall into two categories. The first of these, the ravages of neoliberalism accompanied by police action, is readily recognisable by anyone living anywhere in Europe, particularly in the continent’s southern fringe. The second, to do with alcohol, abortion and the family, appears, at first glance, to have an Islamic colouring to it. These two categories provide a clue to understanding the fissures in the park and the movement around it and, more broadly, in Turkish society at large.

While it looks like the scene of a rather political open-air festival, there is one element in the park which a Western observer would find odd: there is a large number of national flags, pictures of a national leader dead for 80 years, and people wearing bandannas which say “We are Kemal Atatürk’s soldiers”. (Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was the founder of the modern Turkish state in the 1920s.) Others, however, have painted the slogan “We will not die, we will not kill, we will not be anybody’s soldiers” outside their tents.

Some have scribbled Atatürk’s words, “How happy is he who says I am a Turk”, on placards, while others have named one of the pathways in the park “Hrant Dink Street”, after the Armenian journalist killed a few years ago. There have been incidents, which could have flared up but for the overwhelming atmosphere of goodwill, when individuals wrapped in the Turkish flag complained about pictures of Abdullah Öcalan, imprisoned leader of the Kurdish nationalist PKK, displayed by the Kurdish contingent in the park.

Away from the park, on the demonstrations in the more middle-class neighbourhoods of Istanbul, and in Ankara and Izmir, the Turkish flag and Atatürk’s image have been even more visible. What they represent, obviously enough, is Turkish nationalism, but they have come to mean more in the past 15 years or so. They symbolise the resistance of an urban, Westernised, educated, secular middle class to what they perceive as an Islamic threat, personified since 2002 by Erdogan and his government.

Long accustomed to believing that they are the masters of the country, this section of the population feel that their European lifestyle is under threat, that they will be dragged back from their “enlightened modernity” into Islam’s “obscurantism and medieval darkness” and forced to live in an alcohol-free country, wearing headscarves, with their children herded into religious schools. They pore over images of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan under Taliban rule, and claim that Turkey has been inching its way in that direction, while government protestations that it has no intention of imposing any such measures are explained away as an example of taqiyya, an Islamic practice whereby dissimulation may be used for a greater good.

It is not simply a matter of lifestyle. The “alarmed modernists”, as one commentator has called them, are also consumed by a class hatred of the more recently urbanised, shantytown-dwelling, less well-off, Allah-fearing Erdogan voters. Occasionally this is expressed explicitly, as it was by a fashion model who publicly asked: “How can a shepherd’s vote mean the same as mine?” or by a journalist who complained that on her way to Istanbul airport the grassy verge by the sea was full of “half-naked hairy men with their wives wearing black chadoors or headscarves, fanning their primitive barbecues, scratching their bellies and belching”, referring to the Istanbul poor enjoying picnics by the sea.

Headscarves give rise to no complaints when worn by servants and house-cleaners or women in the poorer districts of the big cities or the countryside. That is expected, given that between 60 and 70 percent of Turkish women cover their heads in one way or another. The hatred is only aroused when headscarves appear in public spaces that the wealthy consider to be their own. The flag and Atatürk have become symbols of this hatred. They have come to represent a class-based Islamophobia, somewhat different from the essentially racist Western version but sharing with it the view that Islam is inherently backward and anti-democratic.

Waving the flag, then, means the waver is opposed to the government, not because of anything it may or may not have done, but because it comes from an Islamic tradition. It makes no difference to the flag waver that Erdogan’s AKP has been in power, with a comfortable parliamentary majority, for nearly 11 years and has not passed a single piece of legislation which may be interpreted as “Islamic”.

The flag and Atatürk also signal nationalism, as would be expected. In the Turkish context, nationalism means, in particular, an intransigent approach to the Kurdish issue. For more than 80 years the Turkish state denied the very existence of the Kurds as a distinct people, outlawed the Kurdish language, violently suppressed a number of rebellions and, since the emergence of the PKK as an increasingly successful national liberation movement, fought a bloody war against its Kurdish citizens at the cost of nearly 50,000, mostly Kurdish, lives. For a number of years now the Erdogan government has gingerly inched its way towards a resolution of the conflict. It has done so primarily because the success of the Kurdish movement, in moving beyond the guerrilla struggle and transforming itself into a mass political movement made it clear that there could no longer be a military solution.

The peace process has had its ups and downs, the fighting has continued, at times more fiercely than ever, and Erdogan has certainly not abandoned the traditional language of Turkish nationalism vis-à-vis the Kurds. None the less, particularly since the beginning of this year, the process has gathered steam. The government is publicly negotiating with PKK leader Öcalan, agreement has clearly been reached on a greater number of issues than has been declared, and no guerrilla or soldier has died since March. The PKK guerrillas have withdrawn from Turkey to their bases in Northern Iraq. In return, it seems likely that the Kurds’ main demands—recognition of their national identity, equal citizenship, education in their mother tongue, stronger local government, removal of the emphasis on “Turkishness” from the constitution—will be met.

None of these demands pose any threat to the integrity or well-being of the Turkish state, except in the sense that they blow a hole in its official Kemalist ideology. The mere possibility of their satisfaction, however, enrages the military and bureaucratic guardians of the Kemalist state and all nationalists. They are right to worry. Recognition of the Kurds finally demolishes the Kemalist myths of a single, indivisible nation, of a country that “belongs to the Turks”. The current constitution, brought in after the military takeover of 1980, states: “Everyone who is a citizen of the Turkish Republic is a Turk.” About one fifth of the population, being Kurdish, would beg to differ, not to mention Armenians, Jews, Greeks and numerous other ethnic and/or religious minorities.

Since the AKP was elected and, even more so, since it began to take steps on the Kurdish issue, Turkish society has been deeply polarised. It is not a pro- and anti-AKP division, but a split between defenders of the state, unchanged, and those who wish to see it reformed. It is this polarisation that explains the strains and stresses in Gezi Park and the broader movement. The flag bearers wanted to see the government overthrown and hoped that if the fighting in the streets continued long enough the military might step in to do so. The others wanted the park to be preserved and, as the police got out of hand, the governor and security chief to be removed and tried. They did not carry flags and would have no truck with the military. The Kurds, for their part, were clearly not in favour of the government falling, not because of any great love for it, but because they know that if the government falls, so does the peace process.

The government vs the generals

The AKP is not the first government with an Islamic tint to be elected in Turkey. Necmettin Erbakan’s Welfare Party (WP) topped the poll in 1996 and he became prime minister, heading a coalition government. It was not to last long. After a year of clandestine attempts at destabilisation, the military issued a memorandum on 28 February 1997 and the government was forced to resign. This was followed by a military-designed campaign to eliminate WP members and overtly religious people from all positions of authority.

Erdogan’s AKP is a breakaway from the WP. He, most of his party members, and a very large proportion of his voters still carry the scars of “28 February”. Upon the AKP’s election in 2002 the military immediately began to pick at these scars, this time intending to do more than a simple memorandum.

They went on a propaganda offensive against the government, using fair means and foul, to spread the belief that the AKP would turn Turkey into a repressive Islamic republic.

They used a variety of civilian organisations, chief among which was and remains the Association of Atatürkist Thought, to mobilise the middle class’s Islamophobia. They organised “briefings” at the Chiefs of Staffs Headquarters for university chancellors, the judiciary and journalists. Mass “demonstrations for the Republic” were organised which were clearly designed to mobilise and consolidate the popular basis for a military coup.

The generals orchestrated a wide-ranging and clandestine network of military personnel and sympathetic civilians that carried out murders and bombings. The murders of Hrant Dink and Protestant missionaries could be blamed on “Islamists”, and the generally chaotic atmosphere caused by them could be used to legitimise a military takeover.

The military finally also used its influence among the judiciary to start a legal case for closing down the AKP and, later, in 2007, to prevent Abdullah Gül, an AKP member, from becoming president.

We know from the leaked diaries of the former naval chief of staff and a series of other documents which have since come to light that the military command discussed and prepared several plans for a coup d’état, starting in 2002. What stopped them was the failure to agree among themselves and the fear that a coup would not enjoy popular support and legitimacy. They then proceeded to do all they could, legally and illegally, to build such legitimacy. Among their plans were such things as the assassination of non-Muslim public figures that could be blamed on “Islamists”, and the detonation of bombs in mosques in order to cause unrest among Muslims. A scenario would then be repeated which was successfully played out in the coups of 1960, 1971 and 1980, and the military could legitimately step in to restore order.

The government survived all this, and as it began to feel more confident it hit back in 2007. It gave the go-ahead for a series of court cases that put a large number of generals and other officers, as well as their civilian backers, into prison for plotting to overthrow the government and countless other “black operations”. In 2010 it held a referendum on amending 29 articles of the constitution, and a 58 percent “yes” vote meant that military personnel, including the two surviving generals of the 1980 coup d’état, could be tried in civilian courts.

The scars of “28 February” and the military’s efforts to repeat the performance after 2002 explain the strange and contradictory nature of the AKP government. Were it not traumatised by the Kemalist state machine’s successful overthrow of its parent party in 1997 and attempts to overthrow the AKP itself, it would have been no different from any other conservative, neoliberal party in Europe. The need to defend itself against anti-democratic intervention, however, forced it into a fight with parts of the state machine, which, in turn, required the implementation of policies designed to consolidate and expand its social base.

If Erdogan and his party ever had any intention of Islamicising the country, the need to win as many allies as possible in the struggle with the state and not to alienate any constituency meant that such intentions were quickly jettisoned. Instead many of the AKP’s policies have been more social democratic than conservative. Apart from pushing the military out of politics and bringing peace with the Kurds onto the agenda, both matters of immense consequence and both violating the two most sacred cows of Kemalism, they have been more receptive to the rights of the non-Muslim minorities than any previous government.

They have also been lucky. Turkey suffered a major banking crisis in the mid-1990s, which resulted in the restructuring and severe regulation of the system. When the world crisis broke in 2007, Turkey was largely cushioned against it. Fuelled by an influx of short-term capital, the economy had been growing fast, and continued to do so until this year. The government was thus able to avoid an assault on working class living standards. There remains very little that has not been privatised, but the government has also initiated huge programmes to build low-cost housing, which have stimulated the economy, provided profits for its supporters and gained it votes. It has overseen a boom in private hospitals, but also made access to health services easier.

The relative health of the economy, as well as the crossing of swords with the military, popular with large sections of the population, explains the government’s success in increasing its share of the vote in each of three general elections and its continuing popularity today.

All this makes opposition to the AKP a complex matter. It faces no serious parliamentary opposition, given that the so-called social democratic People’s Republican Party (CHP) is widely and correctly perceived to be a defender of the Kemalist state. It opposes the moves against the military, the peace process, the removal of “Turkishness” from the new constitution, and anything else that goes against Turkish nationalism. Its vote is therefore stuck at 20 to 25 percent, probably permanently.

Opposition on that basis is certain to fail, quite apart from being wrong. Sadly, large sections of the traditional left, unable to break from Kemalism, share the CHP’s approach to a larger or smaller extent. What is required is a non-Kemalist, non-nationalist, non-Islamophobic opposition that challenges the AKP for its neoliberalism and conservatism, for not going far enough in eliminating the military from politics and fast enough in the peace process. It is only such an opposition that would attract both the majority of those in Gezi Park and many of the working people who currently vote for the AKP.


The occupation of Gezi Park has, for the moment, come to an end. On the night of 15 June thousands of police stormed Taksim Square and the park, once again using hundreds of cannisters of pepper gas and water cannons. In a well-prepared operation, they secured all roads leading to the square, and crowds rushing to help those in the park were stopped from getting anywhere near it. Demonstrations and barbarous police behaviour continued around the square and across the city all night and the following day.

The attack was not only vicious, but also unwarranted. A delegation from the park had gone to Ankara and met with the prime minister the day before to discuss the park’s demands. Erdogan had conceded and said that even if a pending court case rules in the government’s favour, a referendum would be held on the issue. This was still being discussed at a forum in the park when the police attacked.

The movement seems to have retreated for the moment. There is, however, no victory for Erdogan. A new movement has emerged and tasted its own power. He will have to face it again.