Ne Mutlu Türküm Diyene (?)
“What happiness is in he who says ‘I am a Turk’”
I was actually going to bring up the topic later, but I saw something last night that compels me to write about it now while the memory is still fresh.
Istiklal (Independence) Avenue has long been the closest thing Istanbul has to a Main Street. Nearly a mile long, it connects the historic and cultural center of Beyoğlu (Galata) with Taksim Square, and has for over a century simultaneously embraced and rejected modernity. Buildings constructed in the Ottoman era glimmer in the afternoon sun while on the ground pop music from trendy shops blasts from speakers in direct competition with street performers consciously blending avant-garde and traditional Turkish culture in their craft. At night the side alleys flash seedy neon lights and veiled women silently brush past flashy and occasionally scantily clad men and women exploring a panoply of bars, nightclubs and nargile (hookah) spots, the fantasies of Orientalist and Cyberpunk artists coming together in a unique and chaotic amalgamation. Every inch of the avenue is teeming with life and every weekend can compare with most cities’ Mardi Gras. The avenue is closed to vehicles traffic save for a line of perpetually-crowded streetcars with tourists and lazy pedestrians who seep in until they literally breathe down each others’ necks and reckless young Turks hitching a ride on the steel bumpers (that the word?) on the cars’ front and back. Oh, and police APC’s. There is little crime in Istiklal. The presence of entire squads of armored police officers with machine guns will ensure that.
The police uphold the peace at all costs, it seems. Today I saw a large group of them, perhaps 20 or 30, holding riot shields and silently observing a crowd only slightly larger. This small group surrounded a woman with a bullhorn, who rattled off her very own 99 Theses against her government. Demonstrations such as these are routine in Taksim and Istiklal. They are usually small affairs centered around a couple soapbox activists. Back home I saw similar demonstrations in Westlake Center every Saturday. But even these insignificant manifestations of discontent are met with an overwhelming police presence, clearly meant to extinguish any smoldering dissent before they can burst into flame.
Perhaps the police have every right to be concerned. There are, of course, plenty of extremist elements within Turkey. In my month here I’ve seen Communist graffiti plastered over billboards prophesying the eventual victory of the People, and lingerie ads blacked out with spray paint to conceal its apparent obscenity. I’ve heard of entire neighborhoods within Istanbul transformed into Islamist enclaves and seen fascist banners hanging over Beşiktas and the commercial district of Şişli (You should’ve seen that American girl’s face when I told her what that “cute” triple crescent flag she was fawning over really represented). Of course, few in Turkey, particularly within the government, really want the radicals and reactionaries to grab the ear of the masses. Of course, even within the government one man’s radical is another’s breath of fresh air.
But as for this extremist, she was a supporter of possibly the most dangerous of all radical movements within the country. She was an activist for the cause of human rights. Perhaps the police were right to be wary. After all, it was these extremists who turned the country upside down with last year’s protests, and it was they who stained the teflon reputation of the ruling AK (Justice and Development) Party, if only for a little while.
Turkey is regarded by Freedom House and most other organizations evaluating human rights as a “partly free” country. In my experience here, this tends to mean that freedom of speech and assembly are tolerated-until you become a threat. The country is a multi-party democracy, and publications such as Hurriyet and Radikal routinely publish editorials critical of AKP. Everywhere (and I mean everywhere) I go I see graffiti fiercely condemning the government’s actions and exhorting all readers to never forget Gezi, or the deaths of the miners in the Soma disaster, or the death of Berkin Elvan, a fifteen year old boy shot in the face by police while out to get bread (Notably, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s very own “First Citizen” called the kid a terrorist). This is a country where politics is a constant and passionate topic of discussion, and I’ve met many Turks young and old who freely speak their mind and just as freely disparage their leaders. Boğaziçi, of course, is a hotbed of discontent, and political graffiti and demonstrations mostly unmonitored by police are a constant sight on campus. Much of the graffiti is quite old and in the open, leading me to believe that the administration either tacitly supports the views of their more outspoken students or that they are afraid of what would happen if they tried to stop them.
But these manifestations of opposition is mostly ineffective. The main opposition party is called CHP (Republican People’s Party-founded by Atatürk himself) a relatively benign force of liberals and social democrats, but this party has spent the last few years in AKP’s shadow and only have a secure foothold along the urbanized western Anatolian coast. Other parties represent more extreme or more selective demographics and can never seriously oppose AKP. Opposition among the press remains a constant thorn in AKP’s side, but one must also remember that this is the nation with the highest number of imprisoned journalists in the world.
If there is hope, it lies with the proles. Many, especially students, are angry and apprehensive about the future of the country. But they are also pessimistic. I’ve heard next to no one voice an opinion that things are going to get better, likely because there seem to be so few leaders who seem to speak for them. Many Turks still cling to the ideals of Atatürk, the great hero and founder of the Turkish Republic who is even today revered as a virtual deity, but even his decades-old personality cult is beginning to fade. His portraits and statues continue to be displayed in every government building and school and even in most shops and homes and his ideals are still viewed by many as the key tenets of “Turkishness” but I’ve heard a surprising amount of disillusionment with both the cult and with the darker side of Kemalist society. Many Americans are advised never to refer to Atatürk with the dreaded “D” word, and indeed there still are no shortage of Turks who will turn on you if you point out that Atatürk’s administration was somewhat less than democratic, but I’ve heard several Turkish students refer to him as a dictator and a fascist, and claim that their schools fed them Kemalist propaganda and that the truth, whatever that may be, is only now coming out. Of course, students’ opinions are often at odds with those of the general public no matter what country you’re in, but I don’t think this is merely edgy nonconformism emanating from Boğaziçi’s ivory tower. One must keep in mind that Erdoğan once referred to Atatürk and his successor Ismet Inonu as “a couple of drunks” – a statement that should have been political suicide-and got away with it relatively unscathed.
Having come to Turkey, I’ve begun to understand the roots of this growing revulsion. America is often criticized for its excessive nationalism and militarism, and many Americans would agree. But the nationalism in this country can be suffocating. I would bet a Buffalo Lira that if many of these critics came here and saw the absolute deluge of Turkish flags, Atatürk images, political slogans, Gendarme camps are spread throughout the city, and other reminders of Turkish national identity and military strength (it’s a little known fact that Turkey has one of the world’s ten most powerful militaries) they would all admit that we are relatively modest in comparison.
I think these omnipresent displays of nationalism have led me to understand a little more about why AKP appeals to so many. In the West, we too easily label AKP an Islamist and therefore reactionary party, but for many Turks AKP is a force of stability, progress and liberty. AKP weakened the stranglehold of the Army on the government, which made and unmade regimes like the Roman Praetorian Guard or the Turks’ own Janissaries (There are of course many who’d like to see the Army rise up one more time against AKP). As for progress, no one, even AKP’s fiercest opponents can deny that their liberalization of the economy has caused a meteoric rise in Turkey’s GDP. In fact, the tremendous economic boom the country has seen in the last few years was only stalled by the bad press generated from the Gezi protests, an unfortunate result from an action led by people (including several that I’ve come to know in my time here) who for the most part wanted no less than a progressive liberal democracy.
As for liberty, it seems strange to equate Islamism with liberty, but does not the Christian Right in our own country insist that the policies they support also uphold the tenets of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness? AKP offers a relief from the overbearing Kemalist state religion and allows more traditional citizens the right to live as they wish, surrounded by those who think alike. In short, if an American wishes to understand the appeal of AKP, he should first attempt to understand the appeal of his own Republican Party.
The growth of AKP appears to fill many young Turks with a anger and despair that reminds me of how my classmates and I felt when we first reached our political awakening during the Republican Party’s domination of the federal government in the early to mid 2000’s. I met one girl who participated in the Gezi protests, which left her quite jaded about her country’s political climate. “Gezi didn’t work”, she said. “We tried, but it didn’t work.” But I don’t agree. We must remember that the Gezi protests began when AKP wished to destroy the park – the only green space available for many of the poorer Turks living in the city center – and give it over to developers to build yet another shopping center or high-rise. Gezi is a remarkably tiny park – one could run across it in less than a minute, and contains few remarkable aspects apart from a particular smell one usually finds in the elevators of the seedier apartment towers in Seattle. But thousands stood at Taksim and faced down the police, and thousands took injuries and faced arrest for defending this dinky little park – a park that just happened to belong to the People, and the only park many of them have. And they kept it. Gezi still stands today. I hope that Gezi, as tiny and bland as it is, can stand as a symbol of hope for anyone concerned about AKP’s grip on the government – even all their dominance and power, they still can’t take what the People won’t give them.
I want to conclude by pointing out that Turkey is not a country under the jackboot – there is no reign of terror. People for the most part live their lives freely and contently, and there is often a vibe of optimism and progress in Istanbul, when one looks around and sees the unabated construction and growing affluence in and around the city. When I first arrived, I saw plastered on billboards all over Istanbul a bright and sunny AKP advertisement proclaiming Hep birlikte yeni Türkiye (“All together (for) a New Turkey”). However, there is a dark side to all this sunshine, and a lot of whitewash to cover it up.
Anyway, I’ve seen lots of nice palaces and stuff. I’ll think I’ll write about those next.