Reflecting on Turkey’s anti-authoritarian Gezi Park movement, five years after it began

Istanbul’s unique position, on the literal border between Europe and Asia, makes it difficult to avoid using obvious metaphors when discussing the city. The city, people love to tell you, is a bridge between East and West. To many Westerners, the story of Istanbul, Turkey, and, really, the whole Middle East is the story of civilization crossing that bridge, a tale of undemocratic Muslims slowly learning to follow the Western example.

Having been beaten over the head with this theory during the Arab Spring, I thought I knew what I was seeing when Istanbul erupted in protest on May 28, 2013.

I had been there on a Princeton Global Seminar in 2012, and to my 19-year-old eyes everything had seemed fine. Aside from the complaints of a few Turkish friends about how the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) wanted to ban alcohol, the Westernization of Turkey appeared to be on course. A proud NATO member, praised by Europeans and by successive U.S. presidents as an example of “Muslim democracy,” Turkey had ambitions of joining the European Union and was seen by the West as a model for the region. I saw women with headscarves sitting in restaurants next to women without headscarves and reasoned that this was indeed a pluralistic, “Western-style” democracy.

The next year, on May 28, a small group of environmental activists occupied a park in central Istanbul. Gezi Park was to be bulldozed to make way for an Ottoman-themed shopping mall (itself an obvious metaphor for the direction in which the conservative government wanted to take the country). The protest was small and peaceful, but the police appeared in droves. They quickly resorted to using tear gas and water cannons. Inevitably, this overreaction brought further attention to the protest. An image of a woman in a red dress being sprayed at point-blank range went viral. It was soon accompanied by #DirenGeziParki, or #OccupyGeziPark. The Gezi Park movement had begun.

Given what’s happened since, it’s easy to see why so many people turned out in protest, but veterans of Gezi Park talked about much more specific, complicated conflicts than the simple divide between democracy and despotism. 

As I would later learn from conducting interviews for my thesis, images of the violent crackdown were what turned the protest from a single-issue action into a social movement. Feminists, LGBTQA activists, members of the persecuted Kurdish minority, radical leftists, and just about anyone else with a grievance against the state suddenly had an opportunity to voice it. The area around Gezi Park took on a festival atmosphere, with live music and pop-up libraries appearing between rounds of tear gassings. The authorities repeatedly tried to clear the area, or at least to contain the unrest, but Facebook and Twitter helped spread the movement across Turkey and even to cities like London, where Turkish expatriates gathered in solidarity.

It was all very confusing for those of us who thought we had Turkey figured out. As I followed the protests during my internship at the State Department’s social media office, I saw Turks adopting the language of America’s Occupy movement while Western observers adopted the language of the Arab Spring. They were talking about a great many things, including income inequality and a lack of opportunities for young people, but we were mostly paying attention to their calls for then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to resign. After all, this wasn’t the first time in recent memory that Twitter had flooded with hashtags calling for the removal of a Muslim autocrat.

For a few days in June, many of us thought Erdoğan would be forced out, just like Ben Ali and Mubarak before him. The police violence, which ultimately resulted in 11 deaths and thousands of injuries, had changed Western opinion. He was no longer a shining example of “Muslim democracy.” He was the villain of the Turkish Spring.

But that narrative, too, failed to unfold as we had foreseen. The Turkish Spring never happened. When I arrived in Istanbul later that summer, I found a lot full of burnt-out buses and saw anti- Erdoğan graffiti on every corner, but the civil unrest was long gone. Erdoğan was still in power, and he remains in power — now as president — to this day.

A year later, I was back at State, this time working on the confirmation process for the newly-nominated ambassador to Turkey, John Bass. The hearing was going smoothly until Sen. John McCain brought it to a screeching halt, threatening to block the confirmation unless Bass acknowledged a “drift towards authoritarianism” in Erdoğan’s actions. After trying to dance around the term for a few agonizing minutes, Bass eventually conceded the point. It made a few headlines in Turkey, but nobody was particularly surprised that the official position of the U.S. representative to Turkey was that its leader was an autocrat.

Most of the people I interviewed for my thesis were students and academics, and by the time I wrote it in 2014 and 2015 most of them were downright scared of the government. The Gezi Park movement had not coalesced into a political force, but an interviewee who had met the prime minister told me Gezi had left him visibly shaken. Erdoğan had begun to imprison academics, journalists, generals, and alleged “deep state” plotters. Today, Turkey is becoming a world leader in arresting journalists.

Given what’s happened since, it’s easy to see why so many people turned out in protest, but veterans of Gezi Park talked about much more specific, complicated conflicts than the simple divide between democracy and despotism. The silencing of the Turkish Left, aided by right-wing thugs and by left-wing infighting. The plight of environmentalists in a country where all major parties were obsessed with industrialization. The complicated nature of feminism in Turkey, where wearing a headscarf in public can be a sign of personal religious devotion or as a political statement against the secular state. As much as they may have chanted for Erdoğan’s removal, the Gezi Park protesters primarily sought an arena in which to discuss and connect these issues, to talk about changing Turkish society as well as its government.

At the second annual Women’s March in New York this year, I saw signs referencing not just feminism but also homophobia, systemic racism, immigrants’ rights, and a slew of other issues. It struck me that it would be easy to look at the protests as a simple case of Left vs. Right, opposition vs. rulers, but the truth is much more complicated. In honor of the fifth anniversary of the Gezi Park protests, I’m reminding myself that democracy is not as simple as we’d like it to be, and that idealizing Western democracy can prevent us from seeing the real issues that thwart progress.

Courtesy Stephen Wood
Stephen Wood ’15 is a freelance writer and a podcast producer for Howler Magazine. His work has appeared in The Outline, Jacobin, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. He traveled to Turkey three times during his four years at Princeton and wrote his senior thesis, “A Few Looters,” about Gezi Park.

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