UA Prof: Turkey Protests Reflect Deeper Tensions

June 24, 2013

I have been studying Turkey as a cultural anthropologist since 1996, the first year I visited the country.

More recently I have been in the country conducting research on Turkey's European Union integration, the future of which is ever-more uncertain but has nonetheless already profoundly changed the country.

So when protests erupted in Istanbul in the last days of May, I was in Turkey.

Taksim Square is a major public space and park located in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo credit: Bryce Edwards)

Cultural anthropologists are quite accustomed to studying culture and power, and with my analytical apparatus already deployed I offer the following comments on the situation:

The protests Turkey has witnessed in recent weeks will without a doubt have lasting effects on the country.

They started as a relatively small and non-violent gathering of academics, students, urban planners and environmentalists. Such groups gathered in an iconic, leafy park in the central Taksim Square, opposed to its redevelopment into a shopping center, as heavy machinery moved into the park.

The police reaction to that small protest, with pepper spray and beatings, led to an outpouring of protest by people coming to the park and – significantly – on various social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter.

In the face of such police violence the protests quickly grew to include a wider range of people than they originally had drawn, addressed a wider range of grievances than the park, and, yes, also attracted a very small percentage of protesters who met escalating police violence with what can be described as violence.

Where one might have expected the Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan (who wields most of the power in this parliamentary system) to try to calm the situation, he struck an imperious and defiant tone from the very beginning, and never changed it. This, of course, only made the situation deteriorate.

Several things are striking about these events.

There is no doubt that, since 2002, the AK Party has presided over a dramatic increase in Turkey’s prosperity (though its distribution is wildly imbalanced) in areas such as improvements to its infrastructure, major investments in its healthcare and education systems, and a rise in its international stature and power in its own region and beyond. Interestingly, many of the protesters are a product of the prosperity and expansion of the education system the AK Party government has brought, and they are criticizing failures in the country’s political culture.

Obviously, the protests have been about more than a park, though the fact that they started over a park is itself significant.

"Urban transformation" schemes in Turkey are controversially handing over large (and increasingly lucrative) urban areas to private developers to "gentrify," with the usual effects of displacement of urban poor and privatization of hitherto public spaces, while enriching those close to the ruling party to the tune of millions and billions of U.S. dollars.

Also significant is the fact that the protesters are not well represented by any of the existing major political parties.

The protests are still under way, and it has proved difficult to study the profile of protesters in any systematic, let alone quantitative way, but some attempts have been made. They show a protester profile that is: better educated than average; savvy with online and social media technologies; outraged at police brutality against peaceful demonstrators, and apparent immunity; concerned about the AK Party government's encroachment through such things as telling people how many children they should have (three is apparently ideal), limiting access to abortion and birth control and restricting alcohol sale and consumption; frustrated at the AK Party's total control over the legislative process for some 11 years now.

This, in part, has to do with the electoral system in Turkey, in which the AK Party, which received 50 percent of votes cast – twice as much as the next party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), the old party of the country's founder Atatürk – nonetheless received 59 percent of the seats in the National Assembly, easily positioning them to pass legislation at will (only 50 percent of a quorum plus one vote is required).

Add to that the fact that the president (whose signature is required for laws to go into effect) has been from the same party since 2007, and the sense of anger and frustration at ostensibly living in a democracy while one half rules over the other can perhaps be better understood. When such frustrations were peacefully expressed, the police unleashed waves of brutality and promptly blamed it on the protesters.

But a hopeful tone was struck by the president, when he said (implicitly to Prime Minister Erdoğan) that democracy is not just the ballot box, meaning it is really a whole political culture, an attempt to seek consensus and reach agreements with opponents, even if it means compromise. Erdoğan quickly retorted that no, democracy is the ballot box.

But the fact that the two men come from the same political movement suggests that even among AK Party cadres there are some who acknowledge that the rule of the half over the other half can only go so far, and now it’s time for more inclusive, pluralist approaches to democracy in Turkey.

Brian Silverstein, an associate professor in the UA School of Anthropology, is currently conducting research in Turkey and plans to return to Tucson, Ariz. in August 2013. He may be reached via e-mail at bsilver@email.arizona.edu. A cultural anthropologist, Silverstein's research and writing has been on religion and modernity in Turkey as well as the liberalization, government and the politics of culture in Turkey. Silverstein authored "Islam and Modernity in Turkey" and numerous articles on the social and political conditions in Turkey. To learn more, read Silverstein’s recent article, "A Tyranny of the Half? Protests, Democracy and the Ethos of Pluralism in Turkey."