On feeling bad for Mr. Erdogan


David Gramling

By May 30, 2013, friends in Istanbul and Ankara had made it clear to me that something momentous was afoot in the Turkish public sphere, and that it was assiduously not being covered in the Turkish media—except perhaps for Ms. Melek Baykal’s stunning and brave intervention on her eponymous “women’s talkshow” on Star TV. At that moment, now two weeks ago and counting, it seemed also that there were next to no competent Anglophone correspondents at large who were in a position to offer analyses that made any real sense among the nuances of the Turkish historical context. Personally, I had never experienced such an acute moment of translational silence, waiting for someone to offer something beyond notional gestures about whether Takism was Tahrir—as if this kind of gleeful historiographic agglutination were a promissory note for a detailed critique. Everyone on that weekend seemed to be working off of the same implicit sheet of Foreign Service 101 talking points: Is this actually a popular uprising? Isn’t this just the Kemalists feeling bad for themselves, as usual? And even this old chestnut: How Muslim is Turkey, really?

On that day, June 1, I made a mistake that I regret: reposting a smug and overreaching position-paper from a Turkish contributor writing in English at muftah.com, which claimed: “As long as […] girls in headscarves, mechanics, poor vendors, construction workers, and jobless Anatolian youth are not protesting in Taksim Square, a comparison with Egypt’s Tahrir Square is misplaced.”

Things have of course changed since then. I admit that when I reposted this piece I had barely read it, let alone attempted to verify its claims. But I shared it because it was indeed the first Anglophone piece of news I had seen that took the May 28th-31st gatherings in Taksim Sqaure somewhat seriously. I thought that this piece at very least could be an opening sacrifice-bid for a discussion among non-Turkish-speakers about the nature and meaning of the Diren / Resist Gezi movement. Within the hour, friends in Ankara angrily rebuffed the piece I had reposted, and things got personal very quickly. One friend wrote: “You may be content to post articles in the spirit of Taraf or The New York Times, for whom the demonstrators are either “marginal” (whatever that means) or an entitled “elite” defending their privileges against “liberals” and Islamists seeking “greater freedom.” But I’ve been there and I’ve seen who is on the street, breathing tear gas and running from rubber bullets and facing arrest, and I can tell you that that crowd includes a lot of ordinary Turks—as well as a lot of people whom you used to call your friends.” Whether that friendship will survive this Turkish Summer is, like many other things, not yet clear.

Ten years prior, I had been living in Beyoğlu, Istanbul, when Mr. Erdoğan’s government was first elected to national office. Back then, it was indeed primarily Kemalist elites who resisted the new AKP (Justice and Development) government with its Islamist-capitalist political agenda—an agenda that, importantly, had no clear social policy stances yet. We all knew it augured something unprecedented for Islam as a public practice, and we knew that the CHP (the secularist Republican party) had once again failed because, in large part, it had no articulate opposition platform left to offer other than its own historical hubris. Colleagues and friends who were ardent secularist partisans openly predicted the downfall of Istanbul’s intellectual and bohemian public spheres, and began preparing for an inner immigration of sorts. The mood among Republican Kemalists in the city was one of disgruntlement, Istanbul-centric separatism, and smug despair.

Beyond this interest group, however, the mood was actually one of curiosity and tentative admiration toward Mr. Erdoğan. Pious and religious young men and women who wished to live their lives without fear of state secularist repression; Kurds, leftists, and anti-militarists who had felt battered and tricked by successive governments that profited from Kemalist puppetry; nationalists who felt that 80 years of Europeanization, Westernization, NATO-ization, and the like had been pursued at the expense of God’s grace and the Anatolian heartland—all of these interest groups took a rather “wait and see” attitude toward Erdoğan and the AKP, hoping that his lot would among other things permanently retire a bundle of Kemalist state conceits (rhetorical, military, and statutory) that had long since begun to look like the workings of high farce. Four years later, during the elections of 2007, most voting blocks still found aspirational reasons to prefer AKP, even amid growing concerns about the party’s voter-bribing schemes. Indeed, I watched leftist Turkish friends vote AKP in 2007 because the party’s charismatic big-tent platform seemed to offer a more just public future for Kurds, women, Muslims, and even LGBT citizens, a future that the Republicans had been perennially unable or unwilling to manifest. Meanwhile, the opposition parties that actually articulated the kind of just future these voters envisioned were too small, volatile, and besieged to swim the murky channels of parliamentary electability.

By 2009, the AKP had seen how effortlessly it could maintain electoral sway in the country, despite growing, horizontal critique in the news media. Erdoğan seemed further poised to take a page from the George W. Bush screenplay, à la: “I earned political capital, and now I intend to spend it.” Accordingly, the government continued to dismantle its historic ties to Brussels, NATO, Israel, and the West’s clandestine services—a process that made leftist and nationalist activists of various stripes very, very happy. Erdoğan began to jail generals who were assumed to be Kemalist revanchists, cozily enshrined in the “deep state” apparatus of yore. The government tried to finesse the witch-hunt sanguinity of these so-called “Ergenekon” trials, in part by announcing what it called a “Kurdish Expansion” and a “Democratic Expansion,” designed to usher formerly suppressed sectors of the population into the Turkish public sphere under the AKP banner. This, too, many of my non- or ex-Republican friends watched with somewhat cynical curiosity. Certain that some quotient of dissimulation and manipulation was afoot, would-be critics at that point in 2007 were still disinclined to muster the animus necessary to interpret Erdoğan as anything worse than a thuggishly effective broker on the global stage of neoliberalism and privatization—like Obama, Merkel, or Cameron were proving to be elsewhere. Disgruntlement, separatism, and smug despair persisted—though less and less Istanbul-centrically so.

Meanwhile, smaller Anatolian cities and suburbs were flooded with spec-money, megamosques, and postmodern shopping emporia. AKP mayors competed with one another to see who could build the biggest mall, the highest air-gondola, the most ostentatious waterfall installation in their city centers. Some such local efforts came with a neo-Ottoman flair, some adopted the super-commercialist (an)aesthetics of Wahhabi Mecca. Whatever the case, the public sphere in Turkey was undergoing an extreme make-over, funded with the Green Capital of an emerging regional power. Young people born in 1993, who had been in third grade when Erdoğan came to power, found themselves coming into adulthood either in the new Holodeck suburbs of futurist “leisurely Islam” (Deeb 2013), as in the case of Ankara’s neighboring Keçiören, or in the expanding slums sandwiched among them. The heady growthism that characterized the public sphere of their teenage years effectively melded religious piety with diversion, shopping, and compulsory happiness—though, to a great extent, the new Internet helped take the edge off. Muslims, secularists, and secular Muslims alike found “their” new public sphere increasingly alienating, duplicitous, and amoral—on spiritual, financial, and political grounds. The graffiti tag in the photo accompanying this text “Pepper spray beautifies the skin J” (from June 1) indicates the Gezi movement’s overall consciousness toward the combined indignities of Stepford stupefaction and state-sponsored privatization. Caveat lector: The moral irony that informs this sort of graffiti is in no way a secularist or areligious one alone.

Last week Thursday (June 13), I wandered into a public meeting here in Tübingen, in the southwest of Germany, where Turks, German Turks, Erdoğan supporters, Occupy internationalists, Arabs, and Anglo-expats sat in a circle and took turns offering their two-minute assessments about “the situation in Turkey.” One gentleman who reads The Economist and likes to equate “objective” with finance and “subjective” with culture was particularly outspoken in his defense of Erdoğan. He leaned back on his chair and suggested that anyone who has tripled a nation’s median income (or so he quotes from The Economist) has earned the right to make a bit of social policy on the side. The privatization of Gezi Park, restrictions on alcohol sale, and the expansion of public morality codes are perhaps merely the eggs that must be broken for a rapidly developing economy to thrive and coalesce. For this particular German onlooker Erdoğan was just the sudden victim of public indolence and ingratitude, and of the kind of precarian “shuffling / çapulling” that has no place in 21st-century geopolitical progress. In this man’s eyes, Erdoğan had been wantonly broad-sided by his own beloved citizenry—and all this after putting his ailing shoulder to the wheel for ten years, only to improve their financial and geopolitical lot.

Another German rebuked this tableau, pointing out that—if anyone—Germans should be aware of the dangers of state meddling in the private sphere. When the state “goes into the Turkish bedroom,” she said, “it’s clear that things have gone too far.” Here, however, the ‘Turkish bedroom’ this German woman was concerned about was actually a public, rather than private, space. New municipal statutes in Istanbul, she reported to the group, had been passed in order to smoke out “hand-holding” among young heterosexual couples on the city streets. (She left out that gay, lesbian, and trans public self-expression had already been subjected to intensified criminalization back in 2005.)

It was this one exchange—between a mercantilist Erdoğan apologist and a right-to-privacy-in-public, constitutional patriot Liberal—that pointed out to me what I think is at stake in the Occupy movement in Turkey. And this is, in the end, hardly a major discovery. It’s indisputable that successive Kemalist regimes have been known for violent totalitarianism, militarism, compulsory Westernization, and distaste for public displays of Muslim piety; indeed, together these unpopular stances have made the CHP the utter failure it is today. But Kemalist Republicanism as a philosophy, let’s face it, has come to comprise a promise that is much more than what individual CHP-sponsored governments, from Mustafa Kemal onward, have been willing or able to pursue.

The “milliyetçilik / nationalism” and “halkçılik / populism” principles that have long constituted two of the six arrows of the CHP emblem each commit the state and party to the virtue of civic pluralism (ethnic, religious, civic), though in a Rooseveltian, assimilationist sense. They suggest that secularist, nonreligious, pious, and moderate citizens can and will live together, side by side, and that the state will not sanction recrimination or manifest animosity among them. Moreover, the “laiklik / laicism” arrow in the emblem establishes that the public sphere shall be secular—though the individuals who populate this public sphere will be pious, atheist, hedonist, Marxist, or a combination of these. A lot of people, Republicans and non-Republicans too, still think these ideas of public pluralism and laicism are worth fighting for and about, and they are anxious to see whether these principles will ever become public reality, even if they have to be carefully redefined along the way. Though no CHP government has been able to live up to them, those commitments remain omnipresent in the popular political imagination, and I predict they will meaningfully outlive the electoral viability of the Republican and AKP Parties alike.

Kemalists and anti-Kemalists will both have good reason to groan at this musty recitation of Republicanism’s didactic and self-celebrating virtues, or at least at the violence that has been committed in their name since the 1920s, if not before. But I do think the profound buyers’ remorse that Turkish voters are experiencing ten years into the AKP regime is related to these principles, which—all signals suggest—have permeated the Turkish public sphere far beyond the flailing reaches of partisan Kemalism. In short, young Turks and old Turks in 2013 take national pride in the idea that their public sphere is a laicist, pluralist one in which people should be able to be Muslim, Marxist, feminist, nationalist, Kurdish, transgender, Armenian, Alevi as they see fit. They have seen the effects of state-engineered violence against each of these individual groups; they see this accumulated violence as a moral, historic flaw of the Kemalist state; and they long for something better and more humane. Furthermore, they think the public sphere should remain public—and not be replaced by a neoliberal temple, whether that be a mosque, a Gloria Jean’s Coffee, or an Ottoman funpark. AKP has, since 2007, made it aggressively clear that it is disinclined toward being the future steward of the Turkish public sphere in this sense, because it is too busy privatizing and desecularizing that sphere before anyone notices it’s gone. Correspondingly, Taksim Square epitomizes the unique public Turkish conception of laicism and populism, one that has been honed through epochs of great violence and fear, but one that still anchors a kind of pluralistic patriotism, which the AKP’s new paternalist social policies have quickly begun to irritate.

As one twitter post, shared 17,000 times so far, declared (in Turkish) on June 6: “We are not going to work to be your youth. You are going to work to be our prime minister. You are going to please us, not the other way around.” This is not a particularly Kemalist or “secularist” ultimatum, but rather a superpartisan one that senses how eager Mr. Erdoğan is to re-functionalize the “Turkish people” or the “Turkish nation” for partisan purposes that, importantly, are more and more felt to be somehow un-Turkish, which means undignified. The Occupy movement in Turkey will continue to be a complex one composed of many overlapping and conflicting interest groups, including old ladies in headscarves on fixed incomes, groups like “Devrimci Müslümanlar / Revolutionary Muslims” who wouldn’t vote CHP if you gave them Turkish Cyprus in exchange for it, transgender / queer activists and Marxist sex-workers, and multiethnic rural communities who have seen decades of back-breaking state violence and are nonetheless protective of the Republican values that the state has repeatedly promised them, since their grandparents’ day. Any analysis that chalks this moment up retrospectively to a conflict between secularism and religiosity writ large, between the elites and the public, or between grateful patriots and wayward schoolboys, is either committing blind reductionism or partisan opportunism. Much more than such grand oppositions is in store for us in the next few months and years, and our humility toward the complex present—one that we as academics should strive to embody —will continue to be put to the test.


David Gramling is an assistant professor of German studies at the University of Arizona; his research areas include multilingual film and literature, Turkish German migration and literary history, theoretical approaches to monolingualism, gender and LGBT studies, and the medical humanities. He serves as Director of Graduate Studies in the German Studies Department and is currently completing a book manuscript entitled “The Invention of Monolingualism.” The views expressed in this article are those of the analyst and may not reflect the opinion of SISMEC as an institution; the author would like to thank Ebru Uras for comments prior to publication.

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