Before Gezi, protests in Istanbul were frequent, varied and passionate, whether it was a Pride march that jammed the street or half a dozen anarchists making noise for its own sake. It was a paradox that citizens in so called functioning democracies could learn from. There is always something worth making a noise about yet those who have the freedom to seldom will with the passion it deserves.
It was never boring. Every weekend and most evenings there were protests on Istiklal in Istanbul. They could be big and noisy like the Pride marches or a handful of Islamists had a point to make. In functioning democracies, we are told, the people have a right to be heard, but they seldom use it. In other countries it isn’t about rights but the willingness to make a stand, no matter how ineffective.
When the Gezi protests started in Istanbul in May 2013, foreign journalists turned up and a predictable story soon emerged. At their root, the protestors and the vicious response from the police represented the dominant polarity in Turkish politics: young, socially aware activists (the future) against a populist, conservative Government (the present) who were in their own ways equally at war with the past. Had I not lived in Istanbul for so long I could have bought that line. It was neat and it made sense.
But I knew something else. Turkish politics have always been fractured and dissonant. It took me a while to appreciate just how high the stakes are. We still don’t know how many people were killed in the 1980 military coup but years later the number keeps rising. Mass graves full of the remains of teenage boys and girls are still being uncovered in the east. When the Ergenekon case came to trial in July 2013 I doubt there was a single adult Turkish person who believed that what was happening out in the Silivri courthouse was an example of diligent and impartial justice, but when the sentences were handed down anyone expecting protests on the scale of Gezi were disappointed; or not. Privately, I think, people old enough to remember were happy to see the military crushed and if it took a dubious trial to apply the coup de grace, well that was payback.
Fractured and dissonant as Turkish politics may be, there is a centre. Its name is Kemal Ataturk. Beneath the Gezi protests and the police brutality there was a feeling that one point being fought over was his legacy. It was a fight between people for whom the name has diminishing potency, who equally reject the cult of personality built up around him but where one side wants to unlock the chains, the other wants to smash them. There was something creepy about the massive banner showing Prime Minister Erdoĝan and EU Minister Bagis covering an entire side of an apartment building. The AKP may hate Stalin but they admire his marketing techniques.
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