Turkish protests: the story behind the sound bites

Turkey unrest

By Nureddin Sabir,
Editor, Redress Information & Analysis

The unrest in Turkey seems to have taken Western politicians and mainstream media by surprise, even though it has been gradually escalating for at least a month. Inevitably, simplifications, generalizations and crude comparisons with the Arab Spring will be made.

To help understand what is happening in Turkey we recommend two short but informative articles that have appeared online in the past few days.

“Talking Turkey”

The first, “Talking Turkey“, by British human rights activist and former ambassador Craig Murray, looks at the genuine grievances of ordinary Turks against the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and also at how the protests appear to be exploited by others – the privileged and the far right – for ulterior motives.

Although the catalyst for the protests was an environmental one – the Erdogan government’s plan to demolish Gezi Park, one of the last significant green areas in Istanbul, and replace it by a shopping mall – the most important underlying reason, according to Murray, is rampant corruption. He says Erdogan

has sickened many of his own natural allies by the rampant corruption in Turkey at present. Almost everyone I met [on a recent visit to Turkey] spoke to me about corruption, and Turkey being Turkey, everyone seemed to know a very great deal of detail about how corruption was organized in various building and development projects and who was getting what. It therefore is hardly surprising that the spark which caused this conflict to flare to a new level was ignited by a corrupt deal to build a shopping centre on a park. The desecration of something lovely for money could be a metaphor for late Erdogan government.

Another reason for the disaffection is a proposal to ban the sale of alcohol within 100 metres of any mosque or holy site, i.e. anywhere within central Istanbul. That, Murray says, “would throw thousands of people out of work, damage the crucial tourist trade and is rightly seen as a symptom of reprehensible mounting religious intolerance that endangers Turkish society”.

However, while “there are plenty of legitimate reasons to protest, and the appalling crushing of protest is the best of them”, not all the protestors are what they seem. According to Murray,

A very high proportion… of those protesting in the streets are off-the-scale far right nationalists of a kind that make the BNP [British National Party] look cuddly and Nigel Farage [leader of the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party] look like [veteran British Labour Party leftist] Tony Benn. Kemalism – the worship of Ataturk and a very unpleasant form of military dominated nationalism – remains very strong indeed in Istanbul…

For every secular liberal in Istanbul there are two secular ultra-nationalist militarists. To Westerners they stress the secular bit and try to hide the rest, and this works on the uncurious (being uncurious is a required attribute to get employed by the mainstream media). Of course there are decent, liberal, environmentalist protestors and the media will have no difficulty, now they have finally noticed something is happening, in filling our screens with beautiful young women who fit that description, to interview. But that is not all of what is going on here.

Four-point guide

The second article we recommend is by Scott Lucas, Professor of American Studies at Britain’s Birmingham University and a specialist on North Africa, the Middle East and Iran. “Turkeyl: a 4-point guide to the protests”, is a broad but succinct analysis of the protests. In it, Professor Lucas considers the following:

1. Why the protests started: “the Erdogan government’s plan to demolish Gezi Park, one of the last significant green areas in the city”;

2. The wider issues: environmental concerns, opposition to the policy on Syria, repression such as the detention of journalists and dissidents, the ongoing Kurdish issues, opposition to the government’s neo-liberal economic policies, resistance to social measures such as restrictions on alcohol and resistance to Erdogan’s attempt to centralize power;

3. Who the protestors are – Prof Lucas cites different viewpoints: either “upper class, secular ‘white Turk’ social strata” representing “one of the last convulsions of the old ‘secular’ elites, who have been waging, and losing, a bitter battle against the rising Anatolian nouveau riche that make up Erdogan’s AKP” party, and/or a mix “from various age groups, cities, religious and political convictions, and income group”, as well as “pro-Kurdish groups standing in solidarity with Kemalist youth associations”; and

4. Whether the protests can succeed: on this, Professor Scott concludes by saying

this weekend’s events should be seen not just as an immediate rising which will succeed or fail, but as the start of a series of events that will change the Turkish political landscape.

In other words, the contest – which will take in not only social issues like Gezi Park and the Bosphorus Bridge, but the government’s economic approach and perceived favouritism and the broad political issues like the constitution and Erdogan’s power – is one for the longer term.

Craig Murray’s and Scott Lucas’s carefully nuanced analyses should serve as a warning against crude and simplistic assessments of the unfolding unrest in Turkey. Whether the West’s dumbed-down media – which have rid themselves of most of their real experts and succumbed to political lobbyists’ blackmailing by silencing the remainder – will take any notice is highly doubtful.

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