How Taksim-Gezi protests in Turkey hijacked by Nationalist, Kemalist groups

The protests in Taksim started small: its initial aim was to stop developers from building a shopping-centre that was to be housed in a replica of a military barracks building demolished sixty years ago, resulting in the destruction of much of the Gezi Park, one of the last green spots in central Istanbul (Europe’s biggest city and the business capital of Turkey).  However, the character of the protests changed when the Turkish police attacked protesters with considerable violence, and what started as an environmental protest in Istanbul quickly turned into a nation-wide political demonstration against Tayyip Erdogan and his government.  Some of those hasty proclamations of a “Turkish Spring” concentrate on Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly anti-democratic and authoritarian ruling style, and compare Erdogan’s rule with Mubarak’s.

Soon after, however, large numbers from the Nationalist groups like CHP,IP, TGP joined the protests with their more nationalistic agendas.  They eventually turned the protests into a kind of nationalist show. That’s why suddenly we started seeing everywhere Turkish flags, pictures of Ataturk, and even some calls for the army intervention!   Even some left-wing and progressive groups and alternative media have now joined this line of criticizing the AKP government from a Kemalist-Nationalist perspective.  The following paragraph is from an article published today in the Global Research:

“Turkey was founded in 1923 as a strictly secular republic by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who wanted to create a westernized country. The republic came out of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the bulk of which was divided between European nations after World War I. Ataturk felt that Turkey had to be secularized if it was to avoid the fate of the Ottoman Empire and catch up with the West militarily and economically. Many of the demonstrators in Istanbul are young and secular and, as one of them said, “The AKP are trying to delete everything from our republic. They are trying to destroy everything that Ataturk built up.” (By Asad Ismi,  Global Research, July 29, 2013)

Lets look briefly what the legacy of Ataturk means for Turkey, what exactly Ataturk built up.  It was a truly commendable achievement for Mustafa Kemal and the other leading founders of the Turkish Republic to establish an independent state in 1923.  Just 5 years ago, at the end of the First World War it had seemed to many that a regional system controlled by the British Empire would be successfully established over the lands of the Ottoman Empire.  This regional system would comprise an enlarged Greek state extending to western Anatolia, and an independent state of Armenia, and an autonomous region of Kurdistan in the east, and a very tiny Turkish state controlled by the Western powers in central Anatolia.  Within this hopeless situation the leaders of the Turkish national resistance movement utilized every possible opportunity presented by the post-war circumstances.  They used their religious and ethnic prestige among the Muslims of the Caucasus and Central Asia to increase their credibility in the eyes of the Soviet leaders, and by doing this they broke the isolation imposed upon them by the British and its allies, and acquired a vital material basis on which to organize military resistance in Asia Minor.  On the diplomatic front the Turkish nationalists exploited the divergence of policy with the Allied camp and antagonism between the Soviet Union and Britain.  In the end, the independence of Turkey was safeguarded as securely as possible between Soviet Russia on the north and British controlled lands on the south. 

Following the departure of the last Greek soldiers from Anatolian soil on 15 September, the ceasefire of 11 October and the evacuation of eastern Thrace by the Greek army, the Lausanne peace conference opened.  While the conference maintained suspense over the conclusion of peace, the year 1923 was the time for the establishment of the basic institutions, as well as the policies, of the new Turkey.  During this time, Mustafa Kemal developed his critique of the economic backwardness of his country and its Islamic culture, and introduced his main goal as to achieve Western standards of political and economic management, in other words ‘to make Turkey European’.  

Ataturk had already expressed his goal very clearly to Halide Edib: ‘they [the Western powers] shall know that we are as good as they are’.  He tried to prove this in many different ways for the rest of his life.  The Turkish delegation at Lausanne sought to convince the British, French and Italian delegates that the Ankara government had nothing in common with the ‘old Eastern Turk’ represented by the Ottoman Empire.  The new Turkey, from the start, identified itself directly and immediately with the history, culture and perceptions of the Western world, claiming a total break with the Ottoman and Islamic past. By 1925 an independent Turkish republic was firmly established with its new Western institutions and militantly secular modernising ideology.  A completely new social order was created under the rule of a small secular elite.  The events of these early years mark an important watershed in the development of Turkish state ideology, which is still dominating most aspects of the Turkish state and society.  During those years, Kemal Ataturk and his close associates by their actions resolved a fundamental question – whether the new Turkish regime would reach an accommodation with the people or rule over them.  Any genuine accommodation with people would have required a serious modification of the militantly secular state ideology.  The leadership chose to decide what the country needed and enforced its decisions, regardless of what the majority of the people thought about the matter. 

The Turkish Republic emerged as a reliable ally of the West, as a bulwark against Soviet Russia, which was the life’s achievement of Mustafa Kemal in his biographer, Lord Kinross’ words, but over its own people it had established a rigidly secular system tightly enforced by the army.  The denial of the Ottoman / Islamic heritage by the founders of the modern Turkey constituted a major problem particularly in terms of understanding and connecting the majority Muslim people of Turkey.  The power and legitimacy of the republic were based on a conflictual relationship between the secular center and Muslim and traditional vicinity. 

Reconstructing modern Turkish identity — racism, the discourse of Orientalism, and the re- invention of the world

In 1932, a Turkish Historical Congress was convened in Ankara with the task of proving the theory that the Turks were indeed a white Aryan race originating in Central Asia where Western civilization was assumed to have originated.  In the second Turkish Historical Congress, which met in Istanbul in 1937, Eugene Pittard*, the Swiss anthropologist whose work was perceived and practiced as a racist account of humanity, participated as honorary president.

When Mustafa Kemal spoke of the future of his country in terms of a Western perception he was indeed registering the identity of the Turkish elite, of which he was a distinguished member.  The Western-oriented elite would, and indeed did, use this position to feel superior to their own people because they were able to articulate the “Eastern”, the “Oriental”, the “Muslim Turk”, to the “West”.  Yet, in their relationships with the Western world, they could only play the role of the “enlightened native“.  In other words, “modern” Turkey has always been in a position of outsider and of an incorporated weak partner for the West.

The new Turkey, under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, identified itself directly and immediately with the history and culture of the Western world, claiming a total break with the Ottoman past and the Islamic culture.  Historical reality and ideological self-perception are, however, not necessarily the same thing.  It is now 90 years since the establishment of the Republic, and in an ever more complex and impersonal society, the limitations and contradictions of Turkish identity are coming to the fore more and more.  As Turkey is moving deep into the 21st century, a sense of confusion about ethnicity, nationhood, religion, secularity and the country’s role in the world is very pronounced.

What is particularly worrying today is that there is almost no critical approach to the current domination of Kemalist/ nationalist language and symbols of the protest movement, even among the socialist left in Turkey.

Rise of AKP and Erdogan

Some of those social groups that once made up the vicinity started to gain more and more socio-economic mobility and moved to the cities in large numbers, from 1970s onwards.  These, later made up an important section of the young and dynamic middle class.  This new and important group of people brought along their provincial identity and more traditional values and demands with them into the center.  The tension between the new urban middle classes, whose members originally sprang up from the provincial towns and the old established secular elite is one of the key factors to understand the rise and increased support for the Islamist political parties.  Since its establishment the AK Party developed its political position on the basis of two distinct approaches: they expressed widely shared demand of religious freedom through a European model, the relationship between state and religion.  In this way, they have brought the issue of religious freedom to the center of the political debate not as a major issue, but alongside with wider aspects of freedom and human rights, and in doing so, justified their pro-EU stance.  The second approach is the AK Party’s fundamental criticism of the country’s economic and social problems.  The party, from the start, focused on the significant responsibility of the center parties, right as well as left, in bringing the country economically to ruin and deepening social and cultural imbalances.  In relation to Europe, since before they came the power, AK Party is consistent on the position that they represent traditional moral/ religious values, but they don’t want Turkey to shut itself out the Western world.  

Tayyip Erdogan’s success and popularity is interlinked with the fact that Turkish economy achieved significant growth during the last ten years when Erdogan’s party has been in power.  With an impressive growth spurt, Turkey has been placed among the top ten emerging economies in the world alongside with the BRICS countries.  Turkey’s per capita income was tripled within this decade under Erdogan leadership.

These successes have fueled Erdogan’s sense of his own importance in Turkey’s economic rise.  However, it should be obvious to anyone who understands how the global economy works that any such economic progress should be based on a long period of preparation, years if not decades long. So, in a way, Erdogan’s government found itself in the right time and right place, rather than creating the conditions which led to the country’s economic growth.  After 11 years in power, the result is the emergence of an increasingly authoritarian, more explicitly religiously inspired, and obsessively neoliberal system.  This has been quite evident since 2011, with the start of violent repression of public protests, jailing of journalists on suspicion of conspiring wit terrorists, and pressure being put upon newspaper owners to sack critical journalists.  All the above mentioned reactions and policies are characteristics of an administration that has spent too long in power with a very inefficient and weak opposition.  Ironically all these authoritarian policies and heavy handed dealings with the opposition bring Tayyip Erdogan’s government closer to the previous Kemalist/ secular experiences. Erdogan’s excessive use of the state apparatus, including indiscriminate use of tear gas and rubber bullets during the recent demonstrations, has rightly led to accusations that he is indeed governing the country in the same autocratic style for which he had bitterly criticized the Kemalist/ secular generals.

Tayyip Erdogan, Turkish Prime Minister, who once declared that “In this country, there is a segregation of Black Turks and White Turks,... [and] “Your brother Tayyip belongs to the Black Turks,” has now proved that he is now running Turkey in the same fashion with the secular leaders of the White Turks.


* Pittard wrote his Race and History in 1926, where he sets out a definite relationship between race and social behavior based on a study of human skulls and brains and classified various racial group according to their intellectual capabilities.

 Bulent Gokay,

Keele, 29 July 2013

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