Less than a week after protestors first took to the streets of Istanbul, mainstream media still struggles to understand the phenomenon.
Originally inspired by an urban gentrification campaign supported by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the demonstrations have now spread to other major cities, revealing a complex political climate.
The uprooted trees of Istanbul’s Gezi Park in Taksim Square, the protests’ supposed catalyst, have come to represent broader complaints, including the suppression of the press, corruption, and the Islamist policies of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development party. These and other factors have helped feed a simmering resentment, which has manifested itself in on-going demonstrations across the country.
This is no Turkish Spring. But in the interest of accuracy, there has been no Arab Spring either, just a succession of popular movements, brandished as evidence of an Arab enlightenment by a global media uninterested in the actual distinctions that characterize the movements in question.
The same tendency responsible for this superficial approach to the Arab revolutions is already evident in the international coverage on unfolding events in Turkey.
The conflation of Taksim with Tahrir, Bahrain’s Pearl roundabout, or any of the revolutionary landmarks associated with the Arab revolutions is a gross over-simplification of the situation.
To be sure, it is legitimate to analyze the cultural impact the Arab revolutions may be having on the protests in Turkey. The tactics and demands successfully deployed by Arab activists achieved viral fame and it would be unreasonable to assert they have no possible impact on Turkish activists.
Nevertheless, however significant the cultural reverberations of the Arab revolutions, the tendency to lump popular movements in predominately Muslim states together reveals the degree to which orientalism, and by extension Islamophobia, remains entrenched within the global media.
Out of this cacophony, certain binary interpretations have emerged. Among the most popular views are that the protests represent a popular struggle against another dictator, and that the Islamist Erdogan has alienated secular Turkish society.
Both interpretations reduce Turkey’s political situation to a simple battle between ideological extremes. This is hardly a new phenomenon: coverage of the Arab revolutions reflected the same dependence on a binary, occupied by cultural monoliths.
The interpretation was inaccurate when applied to Egypt and Syria, and it is inaccurate now when applied to Turkey. Yet it still remains popular, ostensibly to promote global ‘solidarity’ with Turkish protestors.
If their virtual sentiments accurately reflect their personal beliefs, then Western activists tend to the same simplistic reductionism in the name of such solidary. Famed hacking collective, Anonymous, has, for instance, already announced the launch of its latest hacktivist project: OpTurkey.
In discussing the Gezi Park demonstrations commentators who explicitly invoke the Arab revolutions may understand the profound influence of cultural memories on social movements. Still, this does not necessarily amount to an effective collective expression of political solidarity.
In fact, in this instance, it is quite the opposite: it is a superficial and simplistic comparison with deep roots in cultural attitudes that hinder, rather than help, the cause of social justice.
As Erdogan reveals the extent of his undemocratic tendencies in official statements about the protests, propagating a narrative that pitches us vs. them is actually dangerous. It is, at its heart, merely a reversal of the same narrative employed by an increasingly repressive government, rather than a radical departure from it.
Liberation is impossible when potential allies simplify and reduce people to a collection of cultural similarities, rather than acknowledging and adjusting for the complexities of actual grievances that reflect distinct experiences with oppression.
To Erdogan, the protestors are malicious extremists. To Western journalists, they are noble advocates of secular democracy. Reality is lost between these extremes, and so is an effective resolution to the conflict.
The Influence of Islamophobia
The orientalist logic is clear. If Turkish protestors are monolithically composed of beer-drinking secularists, their fight is not simply directed at Erdogan, or even his party. The enemy is Islam itself.
Certainly, cultural tensions fuelled by recent, religiously motivated government policies targeting women’s reproductive rights and other social freedoms bear some credit for the current unrest. But it is not the only cause, and it may not even be the most important cause, either.
As Turkish commentator Zihni Ozdil recently pointed out, Erdogan and his conservative party retain a strong base of support among members of Turkey’s urban working class and rural poor.
Turkey, still a predominately Muslim state, is unlikely to unite under a 21st Century iteration of Kemalism, and there is no evidence that protestors themselves have organized on behalf of this particular ideological agenda.
By focusing primarily on Erdogan’s Islamism and the presence of secularists within the demonstrations, Western journalists and activists are perpetuating an Islamophobic perspective that locates Islamic beliefs as the source of Erdogan’s more repressive policy initiatives.
The real degree to which Islam influences Erdogan’s policies is nearly impossible to gauge; his response to unrest in the streets of Turkey’s major cities is characteristic of an autocratic leader determined to retain power, and does not necessarily indicate a desire to transform Turkey into a theocracy.
Nor does the existence of secularist demonstrators herald the emergence of a secular uprising. For one thing, Turkey’s protestors are not uniformly secular. Reports of alcohol consumption and the presence of non-hijabi women among their numbers reveal, on the surface, nothing substantive about the political and religious motivations of the protestors as a group. To assert otherwise, it is necessary to ignore the actual diversity of Islamic belief, and of the protestors themselves. By extension, this attitude demonizes conservative Muslims and locates them as collaborators with a repressive government.
Conclusion: If Taksim Is Not Tahrir, What Is It?
Aside from the superficial similarity—unrest in a predominately Muslim state, associated with a public space—the Turkish protests bear no substantial resemblance to the Arab revolutions. While more nuanced perspectives exist, they have yet to infiltrate mainstream Western media coverage.
Comparing Turkey’s unrest to previous upheaval in the Arab world requires reducing Erdogan and the protestors to cultural monoliths. Turkey’s democratic process is erased in the process, driven by outside observers who characterize the government as fundamentally indistinct from the dictatorships of North Africa and the Middle East. Under this orientalist gaze, Erdogan is simply another brown autocrat.
Yet Turkey’s democracy endures, if in a substantially weakened state. Its existence is significant: because of this democratic framework, Turkish activists do not have to create from scratch a political infrastructure capable of addressing Erdogan’s recent abuses of power.
If Western journalists and activists truly seek to demonstrate their solidarity with Turkish protestors, they ought not to ignore the reality of Turkey’s democracy and the political history behind its construction.
Taksim is not Tahrir; it’s Turkey. Real solidarity does not rely on cultural caricatures.