Secular Resistance in Turkey: Challenge of Building a Movement

In a previous ZNet article summarizing the events between 31st of May (the date of street anarchy) and 17th of June (the date of police conquest of Taksim Square), I expressed that the defeat was the start of a third phase in mass mobilization, launched in several public parks in Istanbul. Also, quoting a commentator in dissident internet media in Turkish, I referred to the movement as “secular resistance”, because it had a mixed class character dominated by young middle classes, fundamentally arising from their discontent towards ruling AKP’s shift from its conservative Islamism towards arrogant Turk-Islamism. (See: http://www.zcomm.org/a-short-retrospective-look-on-the-31st-may-uprising-in-turkey-by-ali-saysel).

Right now, an internet blog irregularly publishing minutes from park forums reveal that there are around 80 forums in Turkey, almost half of them in Istanbul, and a few more forums abroad in major western cities where sizeable Turkey originated students and professionals live. Public participation in forums has been declining throughout the month (except in major protests that I will be outlining below) and we cannot hold an accurate account on the current level of activity all around these forums.

In this article, I will be focusing on the developments in two relatively large public parks in Istanbul, Abbasaga on the European side, and Yogurtcu on the Asian side of the city, which I think both play a central role in secular resistance. Abbasaga is located in Besiktas, a secular large district on the Bosphorus close to Marmara Sea, also famous with its fan group Carsi (meaning “the bazaar”, indeed a group reflecting now disappearing neighborhood solidarity, something more than a mere fan group), who had been actively involved in the previous phases of the resistance. Then one can cross the Bosphorus by a 25 minutes boat ride and reach in Kadikoy on the other side, another large secular district which hosts Yogurtcu park.

On 17th of June, while the parade of the two leftist labor unions DISK and KESK aiming to retake Taksim was conveniently ceased by the police, simultaneously a dancer, Erdem Gunduz was launching a new protest, the “standing man” at the heart of Taksim Square. Soon his performance was joined by hundreds of people standing still to protest the unlawful conquest in Taksim. Although this performance had drawn attraction in “social media” and was imitated in several other towns, it ceased very soon and did not create a mass response. Perhaps, neither the old style union activism, nor the standing man’s pacifism was the appropriate reflection of the deep resentment. Secular resistance was flowing towards several park forums, to further express its discontent, perhaps so as to build up a movement from the bottom.

In the evening on the 18th of June, thousands of people met in Abbasaga where there is a forum area, an amphitheatre originally built for stage performances. The first few days, a single forum was held open to thousands of people, registering their names to the facilitator and taking their turn in order, reflecting on their peculiar discontent without any specific reference to a particular theme or a problem. Participants consisted of young unattached middle class individuals (Gezi Park activists), members of left political groups, local residents and of course Carsi, the local solidarity group which also organized the park’s logistics.

Soon, observing the difficulty in arriving at decisions without a predefined debate and with a crowd with no one representing a working unit or a consultation group, several commissions were established and moreover, the forum was split into two. The commissions were based on several proposed themes such as media, women, law, business world, science, education, culture-arts and others. Due to demand from the public, while the general forum continued to be an open platform for individual reflection, meeting every evening, a second “small forum” was built to meet around specified debates. Later, the commissions chose their spokespersons to build a park-level group responsible for facilitating communication among the commissions.

A Forum in Yogurtcu had started a few days after Abbasaga. People proposed several workshops, now about four of them are active: city rights, architecture and urban planning, women, and lawyers (working for human right abuses and unlawful custodies). Also several committees were created: for monitoring the workshops, park activity organization, exterior affairs (particularly for relationships with other parks), environmental sanitation and security, neighborhood activities, education, healthcare and etc. Park coordination was established consisting of representatives from the committees, which recently transformed itself to an executive organ, however not taking decisions but proposing motions to the general forum. Moreover, the committee for neighborhood activities had established four neighborhood assemblies. The attendance in the recent assembly meetings was around 100 for a neighborhood with population of 5,000.

An activist in the park says that, “after one month’s work, several operational principles are identified and mechanism for a bottom-up democracy is created. This work also allowed people to know each other better and built trust in the community. On the other hand this goes together with increasing fatigue in this middle-class district, as people joining after the workday find it increasingly demanding to participate in the activities and as time for summer vacations in this warmest season of the year, August arrives.”

Observations in relatively small park forums show that they are able to organize around small park committees (generally called as coordination) which organize the forums, and work to keep the public interest high with the help of several invited culture-arts-science workshops and activities. Many of them are prioritizing local problems, typically on environmental sanitation and protection of public parks and spaces. Few of them established park portals to share information.

Yet, park activists are either ignorant or hesitant in building bottom-up higher-level assemblies with a capacity to create the demands and strategy of the movement. The hesitation partially stems from the fear that the forums can be coopted by some hidden agendas of political groups. An inter-forum commission meant to build the highest-level assembly of the park forums is still working as a mere communication medium rather than an assembly for decisions. Because, the park level assemblies are not yet formed.

Taksim Solidarity, which had a role through the second phase of mobilization, did not transform itself to a local initiative in Taksim, though originally it was. Neither did it have the capacity to lead the movement. Its role during this third phase had only been to make regular calls on Saturdays to join the groups aiming to retake Taksim from the police. This was a call hardly refuted by the park activists, maybe to keep the 31st May sentiment alive in the parks, which were from time to time demoralized with unending talks and decreasing participation. However, Taksim Solidarity’s calls had consistently proven to be a miscalculation, because the defeats against the police thought nothing different than the government’s familiar unlawfulness, something already very well known by many who have been either involved in or watching the resistance. Moreover, regular Saturday evening Taksim fights, which repeated four times and recently ceased with a consistently decreasing number of young male activists, did not help build empathy with the conservatives who were already adversely influenced by the government’s criminalizing propaganda and were highly skeptical towards those participating in the resistance.

Here, it may be critical to note that, rather than trying to moderate the tension, government continued its harsh propaganda against the protesters. “Foreign powers”, “bank interest lobby”, “pro-coup” activists were the standard thesis voiced by Erdogan and other government officials, as they were identifying the forces behind the resistance, reinforced by derogatory adjectives towards the activists such as “looters” or “rodents nibbling the ship that they are on board”. The chief conspiracy theorist in mainstream media was appointed as the chief advisory to the prime minister. Particularly after the coup in Egypt, simply identifying itself with Ihvan, and falsely identifying the resisters with the pro-coup activists in Egypt, the government escalated its propaganda criminalizing the resistance for being in quest of a military takeover.

While the resistance looked like not it did not have a strategy for building empathy with the conservative Muslims as the holy Ramadan approached, it was the sole non-secular group calling themselves “anti-capitalist Muslims” aligning with the secular resistance from the very start, which eased the situation by proposing “Earth iftarees”. In “Earth iftarees”, as an alternative to now conventional street iftarees mostly offered by AKP’s elected municipalities as charity blended with political pragmatism, people come together with their own food that they can bring, communally build their long feasts on newsprints and table clothes on pavements, share their food and afterwards clean up what remains and go. This was performed on the 9th of July, the first day of Ramadan with the help of anti-capitalist Muslims but was then embraced by others and is still being repeated in various districts of Istanbul.

It is worth clarifying possible background political problems that intensify the challenge of building a movement from the secular resistance. A significant problem, I believe, is the position towards the peace process between the Turkish state and PKK. When on the 28th of June, Medeni Yildirim in the Kurdish town of Lice was killed by machine guns targeting the unarmed protest of a group against building of Kalekols (citadel-posts) in Kurdistan, thousands of people in the parks were deeply moved by this atrocity and had marched from Abbasaga and Yogurtcu. Obviously this was a new moment, unveiling the conscience of middle-class seculars towards decades long atrocities in the Kurdish country. In the following days, there were forums on the Kurdish question, peace process and peoples’ fraternity. During those forums, people were faced with the tension of the Kurdish question when Kurds who had guerillas in their families, veterans who had fought in Kurdistan and members of nationalist left groups took their turn. The encounters were informative however could only be a first step towards building the movements’ attitude towards peace.

It is quite clear that the Turkish nationalist left, somewhat involved in the resistance, has a militaristic attitude blended with racist sentiments. Their appearances in the parks are quite arrogant, threatening and provocative. Such activists are not many, but it is not very clear whether many others in the resistance are distancing themselves well from militarism. The Gasman festival on 7th of July has been revealing in that respect. Coincidentally, this happened a few days after the military takeover in Egypt (the 3rd of July). Around ten thousand people met in Kadikoy Square with red Turkish flags and the speakers on stage were not shy to hail Genereal el-Sisi of Egypt, falsely reflecting the situation in Egypt to the one in Turkey.

After all, majority in the resistance condemns militarism, but it is not difficult to observe that there are several reservations against the peace process that has been launched on 21st March between Turkey and PKK. Apart from the “secession syndrome” of right and left wing nationalists, many seculars are skeptic against the role of “American imperialism”, “Turkish-Kurdish Islamism” and some have resentments towards Kurds for they did not become an active component of the resistance. Very few people observe that, a true struggle for earning democracy is only possible with peace, which is fragile if not truly embraced by the public at large. Similarly, few people are ready to observe that even the events after 31st of May became possible with the truce that avoided familiar chauvinist funerals which has been poisoning the country’s social atmosphere for decades.

Indeed, right-wing civil fascism is a potential threat against park democracy, in a country like Turkey where civil paramilitary groups had been conventionally mobilized against democratic forces for over decades, so as to strengthen the state control and legitimacy over diverse groups who might potentially fall in conflict. In a relatively small district in Istanbul, in Yenikoy for example, the park forum was intimidated by civil groups carrying sticks, choppers and machetes. Next week, the same happened in a small forum in Kocamustafapasa and was responded the next day at the same park area with an “earth iftaree” of the forum activists joining from other districts of Istanbul. If the fighting in Kurdistan resumes, it is also likely that fascistic harassments can be intensified and can create a profound dispersive impact on the resistance’s course of action.

Another observation is on the Alawites, a very large religious minority in Turkey, who had been largely involved in the resistance. On 2nd of June, there was the annual memorial parade and public meeting for the 33 Alawite intellectuals who have been killed in Sivas in 1993, when a hotel was set to fire by Islamists mobilized by unidentified groups. This event is used to be the largest Alawite meeting, traditionally voicing genuine Alawite demands on their civil rights. There was a parade to the meeting platform from Yogurtcu, as well. This years meeting had relatively low participation, most of the demands uttered on the stage and chanted by the people repeated those in Taksim rather than touching on genuine Alawite issues. Alawite involvement in the resistance and the movement’s demands towards Alawites’ rights is not articulate either.

Secular resistance is faced with the challenge of building a movement. Park activists work to create activities that will help educate participants and create mechanisms to keep resistance on. On the other hand, ignorance or hesitance in building bottom-up assemblies with a capacity to formulate the demands and strategy of the movement is crucially delaying this process. The position of the resistance towards peace, political democracy, civil rights and the neo-liberal economic policies assaulting the commons nation-wide needs to be clarified from the bottom. A park activist says “we do not really know how we can discuss regional-national demands other than local problems in the neighborhood assemblies, because people are yet trying to evaluate each others’ position and are quite guarded against each others.”

[Note: As I finish this article, I hear the massacre in Egypt in news channels, which I condemn by heart and invite international solidarity to help Egyptian people determine their own course and build democracy.]

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