Taksim, Convergence, and Secular Space // Turkey, the end of Islamism with a human face

"The destruction of Gezi Park is thus a landmark in the convergence between the neoliberal and “moderate Islamist” agendas: rebuild the center city for the rich and tourists; exile the poor to the outskirts; and console them with religion.  This agenda also entails cutting back public spending in favor of "faith-based" charity.   It is an agenda many in Washington can get behind."

Taksim, Convergence and Secular Space
 On June 11, following threats by Turkey’s PM Erdogan that demonstrators who held out would “pay a price,” an overwhelming force of 20,000 riot police, complete with agents provocateurs  throwing Molotov cocktails, cleared Gezi Park in scenes reminiscent of Occupy Wall Street.  Like OWS, the struggle over the fate of Gezi Park in Taksim Square has been many things.  It has been a real struggle over real space.  It has been a symbolic struggle over the meaning of democracy.  It has been an illustration of the connection between secular space and human rights, including the right to freedom of expression and assembly.  And it has been a key moment in the convergence between neoliberal and “moderate Islamist” agendas. 
A public park is a secular space with trees.  That's why Erdogan wants to get rid of Gezi Park, prime footage in an area marked for gentrification.  Privatize public space, turn the city over to the developers, tear down popular coffeehouses and restaurants, close the bars, and leave nowhere for people to go but the mosque. 
Erdogan’s agenda is a combination of neoliberal development for the 1% and what his party calls “moral and social conservativsm” for everyone else.  He wants to outlaw abortion and the morning after pill, says every Turkish woman should have three children, and has reverted to the old regime’s persecution of artists and writers, indicting a a classical pianist for an atheist tweet and putting hundreds of journalists in jail.
For all these reasons, the planned destruction of the park became a flashpoint for the whole country.  Like New York’s Union Square, Gezi is the historic site of Mayday celebrations and demonstrations in favor of unpopular causes.  The planned redesign will eliminate most pedestrian entrances in favor of car tunnels and replace trees with a shopping mall.  Talk about symbolism—you couldn’t make this stuff up.
Gezi Park is one of the few green lungs in Istanbul.  Another Erdogan project, a third airport scheduled to be the largest in Europe, will replace most of the forest on the northern side of the city.  No environmental assessement or public commentary has been invited on this or other major projects.  Erdogan’s democratic theory, like that of Putin and Khamenei, combines elections with authoritarianism: first you win an election and then you get to do whatever you want.  The police have defended this theory of democracy with great enthusiasm, killing two people and injuring an estimated five thousand.
A public park embodies a different theory of democracy.  A hundred forty years ago the first planned park in the US was completed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead, a crusading anti-slavery journalist, conservationist, and co-founder of The Nation.  To Olmstead, Central Park was “a democratic development of the highest significance,” a free, green environment in which city dwellers stifled by vistas of endless concrete could reconnect with nature and regenerate mentally and physically.      
In this conception of democracy, secularism—the separation of government and religion—is a given.  A secular space like Central Park is free to any and all; it is a place where the pious and the apostate can rub noses; where people can play football, read, picnic, or just lie on the grass.  In a secular space, there are no dress codes or morality police; itinerant ranters must compete with rap music, and the young are free to kiss one another if they like.
The subway is another secular space and this too is being contested in Erdogan’s Turkey.  The week before the Taksim protest began, two kids were kicked off the Ankara subway for “displaying public affection.”  Asking who made the subway system a guardian of public morality, a hundred people staged a "kiss-in" to protest.
Fundamentalists and businessmen prefer spaces that are empty and blank, in which the only messages available come from them.  But urban public spaces are messy, noisy, and full of people with conflicting needs.  On the NY subway, for instance, citizens are often exposed to displays of public affection more heated than they may find appropriate, not to mention high decibel rap, acrobatic performances, and preachers haranguing them to come to Jesus.  These annoyances are the price we pay for freedom of expression; a society in which there was no space for crazed preachers to rant—or where only one variety of crazed preacher could do so—would limit everyone else’s freedom of expression too.
For the last ten years, the US has been using Erdogan as the poster boy among Muslim leaders, a “modern” Islamist, tolerant of all views and friendly to capital.  Lately Erdogan’s tolerance has not been much in evidence, but his friendliness to capital remains.  The destruction of Gezi Park is thus a landmark in the convergence between the neoliberal and “moderate Islamist” agendas: rebuild the center city for the rich and tourists; exile the poor to the outskirts; and console them with religion.  This agenda also entails cutting back public spending in favor of "faith-based" charity.   It is an agenda many in Washington can get behind.
But the Taksim protestors, like Occupy Wall Street, are claiming the right to public spaces that are both green and free—the right to the city.  Their demonstrations brought together Kemalists, anarchists, communists, Kurdish nationalists, LGBT activists, and feminists, all uniting against police brutality and religious encroachment to imagine a kind of democracy that goes deeper than periodic elections, a kind of democracy that is continuous and that responds to the needs of the people, not the developers—a vision just as relevant to Russia, Iran, and the US as to Turkey.


Turkey, the end of Islamism with a human face
For eight decades after the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the dominant ideology and political model was one of authoritarian secularism. In November 2002, the election victory of the Justice & Development Party (AKP) brought with it a double promise: to accommodate growing demands for inclusion (from both Turkey's majority Muslim population and the country's subordinated ethno-religious minorities), and to marry Turkey’s mainstream Islamist tradition and conservative political right with a programme of modernisation geared towards accession to the European Union.
The prospect of historic change struck a chord far beyond Turkey, especially among liberals in Europe and the United States but also across the middle east. The culture wars unleashed by Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida and George W Bush's administration had both polarised world opinion and created longing for a new reconciliation between "Islam" and "democracy" (or more accurately, between Islamism and popular sovereignty). Many read in the Turkish result a sign of hope... 

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