Review of ‘Reflections on Taksim-Gezi Park Protests in Turkey,’

‘Reflections on Taksim-Gezi Park Protests in Turkey,’ by Bülent Gökay and Ilia Xypolia

This short book, published immediately after the Gezi Park protests of summer 2013, attempts to make sense of the demonstrations and their dynamics, as well as to deconstruct the linkages between neoliberalism, democracy and urbanization. Thanks to diverse and sometimes divergent perspectives, this timely collection of short essays provides a good start for a stimulating discussion on the Gezi Park protests. Some of the articles are promising and provocative, but overall the book falls short in terms of analytic and theoretical depth.
Images are often more powerful than words. The photo essay from Mustafa Yasacan (Keele University) documents Gezi protestors’ demands, police brutality, radical groups’ violence, resistance and life at Gezi Park. These evocative images urge one to consider the origins of the protests and why the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) resorted to violence rather than negotiation. These images also demonstrate the dramatic changes in Taksim Square over the last two years as major urban construction projects transformed the area. This essay would have been more powerful if pictures showing moments of confrontation between the protestors and the police had been included.

Prof. Immanuel Wallerstein (Binghamton University) analyzes the Kurds’ dilemma that emerged with the eruption of Gezi Park protests; should they explicitly support Gezi Park or maintain their relationship with the ruling AK Party as peace negotiations continue? Wallerstein maintains that the unknown outcome of Gezi protests bothered the Kurds most, but he does not go beyond making this observation and remains silent on what Kurds should do. The Kurds’ ambiguous position since then has evolved as they maintained the peace negotiations with the government — despite their dissatisfaction — while attempting to ally with democratic-minded actors of the Gezi Park protests. Such an alliance might well empower the Kurds, but concrete outcomes are uncertain.

In the third chapter, Ilia Xypolia (Keele University) examines the relationship between “economic miracles” and turmoil, comparing Turkey in 2013 and Mexico in 1968. She rightly points to flawed attempts to link the Gezi protests and the Arab uprisings, arguing that Gezi protests can be described as a democratic surge (the article incorrectly states “purge”) in a developing country. The gist of this analysis is its emphasis on rising middle classes as the driving forces of democratic development in Mexico and Turkey in 1968 and 2013, respectively. In both countries, however, protests were crushed by governments and structural problems continued. This comparison would have been sounder if the author had taken into account the ideological contrast between the neo-liberal AK Party in 2013 and the proto-capitalist Mexican state in the 1960s. We should also question to what extent rising middle classes urge governments to execute projects for inclusive democratization and governance, and resolution of structural problems.

In the fourth chapter Ömer Şener (Leeds Metropolitan University) analyzes the nature of Gezi protests through three concepts, namely “Bakhtinian carnival,” “polyphony” and “Rabelaisian laughter.” Bakhtinian carnival describes the qualities of carnivals in which people have first-hand experiences through participation. In such historic moments, social rules and restrictions may not apply. The author argues that Gezi might be described as “carnivalesque chaos,” as the protests were diverse and also allowed people to voice their resentment at “perceived” AK Party restrictions on their lifestyles. Rabelaisian laughter refers to laughter as a means of protest against authority, while polyphony denotes diverse voices and a lack of central and hierarchical authority. Şener argues that the protestors’ Rabelaisian laughter was powerful, although diversity became a disadvantage, as there were no clear demands, misinformation and fabricated news prevailed, and some dissident groups attempted to push their own agendas. Despite its attempt to look at Gezi Park protests from a different angle, this essay remains quite weak thanks to its descriptive nature and lack of depth. Şener also implies that recent restrictions were “perceived” as restrictions by majority of seculars. Perception is central to politics, but whether such restrictions were just and appropriate should be subject to a thorough analysis. Finally, the article ends abruptly, though this may have been editorial oversight.

The fifth chapter by Turkish Review staff writer Taptuk Erkoç (Keele University) investigates Gezi Park as a political sphere and exogenous factors like police violence, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rhetoric, traditional elites’ positions, and violent extremist groups. The author argues that the Gezi Park protests did not produce their anticipated outcomes. Although the author identifies important and useful factors that had varying impacts on Gezi protests, his treatment of these factors would benefit from greater rigor. He maintains that Erdoğan’s rhetoric successfully decreased the Gezi protests’ legitimacy in the eyes of many people, but neglects to note that even AK Party supporters explicitly voiced resentment toward Erdoğan’s rhetoric and the use of police violence.

Nikos Christofis (Leiden University), in the sixth chapter, counters Erkoç’s arguments with his brief analysis of authoritarian tendencies of the AK Party government and the symbolic meaning of the Gezi protests. He argues that no matter what, the Gezi protestors “won” because a wave of awakening prevailed. The Gezi protests gave hope to many people, but this reviewer considers it premature to argue that much will change in Turkish politics — time and objectivity are needed to understand their long-term impact.

Emre Tarim (Gothenburg Research Institute) successfully explains Prime Minister Erdoğan’s infamous “interest rate lobby” rhetoric as a defensive mechanism. This rhetoric uses both victimization and heroization to gain leverage in politics and (mis)represent events. The fall in the Turkish stock market during the Gezi Park protests can be explained through investors’ fear of instability in Turkey, fear that was to an extent shaped by the government’s harsh response to protests, in addition to external economic factors.

Kyril Drezov (Keele University) discusses the similarities between the Gezi Park protests and the Bulgarian protests that engulfed the country in January 2013. Despite these similarities, Drezov shows that there was a political mismatch between the Gezi Park protests and those in Bulgaria. Bulgaria is still plagued by post-communist politics, and civil society demands radical changes in the country’s political system. Class divisions and ideological differences, the author argues, failed the protests. Although this nuanced and accessible essay provides insight into Bulgarian politics, it would be more robust if the author was more explicit in explaining Bulgaria’s post-communist structural problems.

Finally, Prof. Bülent Gökay and Prof. Farzana Shain (both of Keele University) examine the links between neoliberal urban transformation projects and popular protests using David Harvey’s notions of “rebel cities” and the “right to the city” in the context of the Gezi Park and Brazilian protests. The authors make two important observations that future research might want to build upon; a decade of strong economic development transforms public’s expectations from politicians, and the youth, at the forefront of social movements, wants to participate in democratic process and be consulted about the future of their countries. This well-written, accessible and thoughtful article nonetheless fails to explain why the Turkish and Brazilian youth protested against their governments when they did, rather than earlier.

Overall, this collection of short essays is a good start for a stimulating discussion on the Gezi Park protests. The editors do a good job in bringing together diverse and sometimes contradictory perspectives on the Gezi Park protests, urging the readers to look at the same phenomenon from different angles. Some of the articles are provoking and promising, but overall this book falls short in terms of analytic and theoretical depth. Perhaps time was the most important constraint in this regard, and perhaps the editors might want to further reflect on the Gezi Park protests in the near future. Although almost every article mentions police violence as a triggering factor in the spread of protests, future reflections might want to rigorously examine the links between state repression, neoliberal urban transformation and social movements.

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