Protests in Turkey: Utile or futile?

The oft quoted expression, ‘if you want to know where you are going look to your past,’ applies and points direction to what is happening in Turkey. Following the death of Ahmet Atakan, the Taksim solidarity group called for a gathering of remembrance, carnations in hand for the evening of Tuesday September 10th. Police closed Gezi Park, in anticipation of the large crowds, and presumably the stand off to come.

If we take a look at social movements, those which succeed are defined by a few things: a clear goal, leadership and organisation. Those that fail have diverse, even conflicting goals, lack of clear leadership and organisation. For those inclined to read up on this, see Comparative perspectives on social movements : political opportunities, mobilizing structures, and cultural framings.

When the protests began on May 31 earlier this year, they continued for a month with three clear demands: stop the removal of trees in Gezi park, ban the use of tear gas and hold to account the excessive use of police force. These demands have been iterated, but not really met. Trees are being cleared through Middle East Technical University in Ankara, which has drawn Gezi-like sit ins and police confrontations. Tear gas is still used while some police have been held to account via demotion and court proceedings. All this erupted again tonight in what a few commentators are calling a ‘return to resistance,’ in other words the continuation of the original Gezi protests which had simmered during July and August… Turkey’s holiday months.

I decided to do a little test on Twitter. I asked, “What is the objective of tonight’s protests in #Turkey? Sympathy for another death? Protest for the sake of protest? New demands?

The reaction this drew is indicative of the sentiment in Turkey. There were emotional responses, questions asking whether I was ignorant of the situation, and the other side of the coin, namely that for changes to occur, they don’t overnight particularly in the judicial system where proceedings are months long. That is of course, unless kangaroo courts count.

From various feedback, here is what seems to be todays protests sentiment:

1. Against the deforestation taking place at METU

2. Against police violence

3. Against actions in Syria (military intervention)

Although a simple question, responses showed there were no simple answers. That points to a failing by protests organisers and by extension those taking part – if the thousands who are taking part are not able to clearly answer what the point of the march is beyond resistance, by failing to state what the tangible outcome is, we return to the main question – what is the point of the protests? Yes, you can show solidarity en masse but these protests ended the same way others did. Dispersal of crowds via tear gas, building of barricades and property destruction. So what changes? What stays the same?

The positive thing is that from the responses gathered, demands can be measured and there are ways to achieve them. Yet without a clear strategy and effective leadership, will protests risk futility? One person replied that protests were for the death of Atakan, although reports on the autopsy in various Turkish media have cited his falling from high ground and sustaining internal injuries as the caused this and not a tear gas canister shot to the head. Another said protests would continue unless justice was served, with another person replying that was not a rational pretext as legal proceedings stretch into months.

By pitting one side against the other, dialogue, debate and clear steps forward fall through. The protestors become a labelled a group of troublemakers while anyone in authority is lumped as authoritarian. The cycles repeats. Police use force, protestors react, police use more force protestors react until fatigue wears down or heavier handed tactics disperse crowds. Issues remain unresolved and simmer, until the next spark, such as the death of a protestor, the clearing of trees or what is happening in Syria providing the next impetus to demonstrate.


Look for the grey area

Its difficult not to take sides on what’s going on in Turkey. For me, it’s not about picking the sides of protestors or politics. It’s about solutions, and for that to happen you don’t have to be aligned with one side or another. But you do have to listen to and understand both. I have plenty of friends who have taken part in the demonstrations in Ankara and Istanbul (including two media friends who were assaulted by police) and equally know those within the government as well as their supporters. Yet, I won’t take sides because for me, the most important area is the grey one. The grey area is the space between right and wrong, between yes and no which is going to lead to a solution. Picking sides merely prolongs the status quo, it also unnecessarily personalises the issue. Are you democrat or authoritarian? Are you Islamist or secularist?.. and so on. These are moot points which simply divides. This is why on Saturday (22 June), when protestors went with their carnations to Taksim, only again to be dispersed by water cannons and tear gas, I asked what is the objective of the protestors now, and why, if police want to end the confrontations, do they not just cordon off the square in the name of limiting disruption to public order? Rather than letting emotion prevail, lets look for some reason and rationality to move beyond sentiment and towards some tangible solutions.

Protests: Not Turkey-wide. Click to see larger version. Source:

In the meantime I collect information from people on the ground, monitor foreign press particularly and the narratives they give and offer my two cents especially because there is much misunderstanding and misinformation. One would be forgiven for thinking that protests encompassed all over Turkey, that it was too dangerous to travel there and that 70% of cancelled reservations and empty hotel rooms verified the seriousness of the situation. What was missing from much reporting was context. The protests in Istanbul and Ankara – the two largest cities with ongoing demonstrations, and the ones I am very familiar with were limited to just a number of streets. What was also absent on social media feeds during were counts: how many people were in the streets, versus, for instance the protests in Brazil where numbers have more reliably accompanied reporting. See Gabriel Elizondo for more. By broadcasting images showing crowds and clashes, without quantifying the situation it is very easy to think this was the general Turkish landscape. Turkey’s population is 76 million and Istanbul’s roads number 25,000km worth. The protests took place in under a 10km Istanbul radius. The BBC had a nice little map showing just limited the space was in the context of a city of 17 million people and yet I still receive regular messages and concerns of whether what is happening is throughout Turkey in its entirety. My primary news source since the second week of protests, has been Twitter – either media folks who are reliable, and my own contacts. Facebook is Turkey’s primary social media platform. Much organisation, action, and testimony has been collated there. When I see or read something, I can verify it quickly by getting in touch with whoever posted it, asking them where it came from and then for the original image. Reputation and reliability is not difficult to build (which is also why personal contacts and connections with communities is the at the heart of any citizen journalism efforts).

Image via @FatmaKilicaslan

Barricades in one of Istanbul’s well to do areas. Image via @FatmaKilicaslan

Still, it does get personal. When I see the streets I walked every day to and from work with barricades put up, when I see the windows and shutters of my neighbourhood grocer, bank, the cart of the simit (bread ring) seller smashed and graffitied, when the store owners I know are not able to open their doors or suffer while working because of the tear gas, when I see clouds of tear gas on the street I lived on, of course it gets personal. But blaming one side or the other without proposing a solution or understanding all sides won’t get you anywhere.

Where to start? The first thing for those outside of Turkey or not familiar with the context is to pay attention to how things are being reported: take away the emotive language, look for verified numbers, and also look at what both sides are saying. Then make your assessment.

1. What does emotive language look like?

Its anything that can’t be measured, for instance: massive, oppressive, accused, could do this or that. These should all be red flags.

2. Look for verified numbers

Go for reliable sources and even better see if a second source says the same thing. For instance “economic fallout” doesn’t tell you much but “a drop of 17% according to the tourism and hotels union” (with a date attached is even better). Anything else is just sloppy journalism and remember reporting is a process, there are editors, producers and entire chains of command until an article or report reaches the viewer. One Turkish newspaper didn’t stop to double-check whether a major political figure had actually died before sending a Twitter update out and if major media continue to make basic spelling and grammar mistakes, you should already be on the back foot when consuming news.

3. Look at both sides

Image via @BusraAkin

Image via @BusraAkin

It’s very easy to take sides on whats happening and dismiss the other.  Both sides have considerable numbers, both sides can paint the other as irrational, irrelevant and the one to be overcome. Now there are some  government representatives who have been explaining what has been happening in layman’s terms. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and advisor to the Prime Minister Ibrahim Kalin are two. They contextualise events and compare to similar circumstances elsewhere. This gives perspective. Other government rhetoric, rather than grandstanding and accusing needs to acknowledge and keep things simple. Most of the world does not know about Turkey’s political, social or economic history. They only see the here and now. Making an issue accessible doesn’t just inform, it also brings understanding.

Image via @emresano

Image via @emresano

Blaming and restatement of grievances will win you support within your own circles, but won’t bring solutions nor will move democracy forward. Remember, democracy is not a static concept, it’s a continual work in progress and for it to work, it needs participation – by voting, or protesting, or being informed and being discerning. Its only by exploring that grey area with clear objectives and rational dialogue that progress stands any chance.

All quiet on the Rumelian and Anatolian fronts?

Starting during the day and continuing into the wee hours of Wednesday (June 12) morning, police disbursed the thousands of protestors who had gathered at Taksim square and Gezi park in the fortnight long series of gatherings which began as an effort to stop the removal of trees and has morphed into a public show of  opposition. Today (12 June 2013), Prime Minister Erdogan is due to meet with representatives of those who have been protesting. Dialogue is a good thing, but dialogue with an outcome is even better. So what options are on the table? Demonstrators have a few, stated last week: that plans to reconstruct the park be stopped, that police use of force be held to account and that tear gas be banned.

The 11 or so representatives (at writing) had not  yet been identified by the media. Who do they represent and have these demands changed? What are the demands of the government? With the lack of clear, enunciated objectives, what will be that middle ground, what will be the fruits of these demonstrations?

In chants, graffiti and memes in Istanbul, Ankara and elsewhere, calls for the Prime Minister to resign, and even the government to step down are unrealistic. Prime Minister Erdogan has come to power on a majority, popular vote. He has also done this by increasing the share of the vote in each subsequent election. That means there is a majority in the country who support him. However there are his supporters who are also critical of the way these protests have been handled. Crowds have come onto the street as an affront to police use of force, but remember the saying “violence begets violence”? All it takes is a few bad apples, a few provocateurs to start throwing stones, Molotov’s and the like for police to not respond in kind, but overwhelmingly. When that happens, more defiant crowds emerge, until one side wears down, coalesces or a middle ground is reached. That doesn’t seem to be happening on either side. Protestors may have the numbers but police have the dispersants. Its not an even match whichever way you look at it. The resistant crowd is labelled as violent, troublesome and must be stopped at any cost. The police are just doing their job, it can be argued, in a country where many in those ranks have little options available, where even standing down creates serious moral and livelihood ambiguity. I have previously written that Turkey is a country of polar opposites. There is hardly a middle ground – whether in sport, politics or even media.

In Istanbul last night, a massive disbursement of tear gas and water cannons cleared protesters, and the public space. This was all, apparently without any repeated, audible or clear goals for the crowds to do so. The only announcement it seemed was from Istanbul’s Governor, sending messages over Twitter. The result of this was to effectively remove the possibility for people to congregate. Barriers were removed and ‘order’ restored. The Taksim underground stop is functioning again and after almost two weeks, municipality buses are returning to the square. Cars are trickling into what is one of the busiest spots in Istanbul and indeed, Turkey.

Where do the protests go from here? The second obvious destination of protest is the Prime Ministers offices in Istanbul – these are down the hill from Taksim. In the early nights of the clashes this was a scene of tense police-protestor standoff. After a construction vehicle was used as a shield to approach the building, police would have taken the necessary steps to limit gatherings and disruption and secure the safety of this space. This is what the clearing Taksim tactic is also about: removing a focus and mobilisation point, forcing a return to ordinary life by clean ups and traffic returns. At writing, there were attempts to also nudge out the peaceful protestors who had been living (or occupying) Gezi park, again to diffuse mobilisation. Ankara is facing the same. Campers in Kugulu park, which has been the assembly point before marching down to Kizilay, were standing off between occupying the space and police removal.

Kizilay, Ankara

The past few days in Gezi park have been a communal peaceful gathering. Provocateurs have been identified, outed and confrontations subdued. Commentary about the park was hopeful: there was yoga in the park, a bookshop set up, triage tents, facilities and the like. Although tear gas from the perimeters and police moving in caused disruption, protesters were there again today, repairing, resisting. It is important to remember that there is not one group claiming responsibility for the protests or for their organisation. This has been a largely organic movement with people from all walks of life beginning with students, lawyers, celebrities and even government workers (who inducted a 2 day strike last week), who have all come out against the heavy handedness of the police (which has been acknowledged and apologised for by President Gul and Deputy Prime Minister Arinc), and lack of reconciliation between protestors objectives and outcomes.

A new Ottomanism? No.

Hopefully, most mainstream media should have picked up that the protests in Turkey are not a “Turkish Spring” – in other words, they are not similar to the movements leading to the topple of various Arab regimes by mass popular protest in 2011. There are too many social and political differences to draw parallels. One nagging reference that is used incorrectly is correlating Erdogan and his government in some exercise in rekindling “Ottomanism”. The Ottoman Empire spanned some 600 years. It prefaced today’s conception of nation states and like every global power had high and low points. The apex of the empire was in the 16th century under the reign of Sultan Suleyman, whose rule was marked not just by expansion, military prowess and state patronage of arts, but also by justice. What ebbed at the empire and contributed in its decline were economic dependency on the West, growing corruption, weakened military and the growth of nationalism which fractured the concept of allegiance to the Sultan, and to the Empire. Comparing Erdogan to various Sultans are as accurate as comparing oneself to tracing ones family genealogy and identifying character traits. Turkey’s foreign policy of engaging with the immediate neighbourhood: Arab states, the Balkans and the like are not out of international relations order. They are pragmatic.

No one stop democracy shop

Turkey is a democracy in the region, one that has been referred to time and again as the example to be looked up to in the blending of the accommodation of religion within a secular political context. But we should also remember that democracy is an ongoing process and there are variations within it. It is incorrect to assume that Turkey is a democracy to the same degree as developed Western societies. Turkey is still classified as a middle income developing country, which means that as it grows, it will continue to have growing pains. Does this justify media censorship or use of force however? Does media coverage equate to inciting violence? Do citizens updating social media in a media void of covering events relate to incendiary speech? Does civil disobedience represent  legitimate democratic displays or are they nuisances to be dealt with by the law? In the days, weeks and months that follow, it is that very dialogue between diverse actors that will find the answers to these questions. A democracy develops when opposing voices are able to come to together to develop negotiated outcomes. Democracy falters when everyone simply starts nodding, not questioning or discussing. There are preconditions for this also. Elections, when fair, with high voter turnout are the most efficient democratic display. But to address all the underlying questions, critical education, broad dialogue and development are also key. Not all these preconditions could be said to be met yet in Turkey. That’s why Turkey is still a candidate EU country – it is on track to fulfilling criteria, its not quite there yet.

What happens now

IMG_2948Although all looks calm at writing, there is one key date that the government will likely want demonstrations to settle by, and that is July 8. That date marks the start of Ramadan, the holiest month in the Muslim calendar, which moves up by one month every year, as is based on the lunar calendar. This month is not simply a time from abstaining from food and drink between sunrise and sunset, but it is a time of deep spiritual reflection, a time to mend interpersonal wounds, and definitely not a time to use force against protestors. Doing so would create a serious moral predicament for the government. Why does this matter? While some Western media still display traces of naming and analysing the demonstrations as Islamism versus secularism or authoritarianism against democracy, remember that a majority of the population voted in the government and approves of the Prime Ministers rule. However this base does risk alienation if innocents are targeted or affected by ongoing violence. It is erroneous to classify all protestors as societal miscreants or deviants. The group is too big and diverse for that. Those who were apathetic or apolitical to protests have also been drawn in. Think of these cases: store owners and workers who have had their premises damaged, had to close due to safety risks and have serious threats to income considering Turkey is just entering peak annual tourist season. Think of the neighbourhoods. Major Turkish cities are population dense – that means within tens of metres of key protests points lie apartment buildings. People not able to enter or leave their homes easily and are subject to tear gas and if not that, the noise which lingers into the wee hours of every morning for the past 2 weeks. These people are unwitting bystanders, and fairly, would be expected to be drawn into or at least have an opinion of what’s going on.

Hopes of solidarity, a coming of age moment especially in a country where half the population is under the age of 30 are being quickly dashed. But we can also see why. One role of the government is to maintain social order. Sure, the converse is citizens have a right to freedom of assembly and protest, though not a right to cause public destruction. It becomes a chicken and egg scenario. Is public damage a consequence of police use of force? Or is it the ammunition for it? The sound of chirping birds have replaced the mass chants in Taksim on live streams. As storm clouds gather on Istanbul, only time will tell whether this peace, albeit imposed will hold.

Where do you come from?

At 8 years of age in year 3 with Mrs Finlayson, we were taking a lesson on ancestors. She had a copy of the passenger list of the convicts from the First Fleet. This was 11 ships full of largely petty criminals arriving in Botany Bay in 1788 to colonize Australia. All the eager youngsters put up their hand for their teacher to trace their ‘ancestor’ based on last name. I didn’t get picked. Actually I didn’t really fit in. Everyone was blonde haired, blue eyed with easy to pronounce names. James, Amy, Sarah, Grant, Mark. I had dark hair, dark eyes and definitely not white skin. Back in those days kids used to throw dirt at us, call us names during weekly ‘little athletics.’ I don’t remember that but my mum does.

Fast forward to mid teenage years and the only thing I wanted to do was play my sports. I was good at it, no one interfered with me and it was my escape in so many ways. It was a time of discovering self and identity. My mum would remind us “you don’t know what kind of family you’re from” but I didn’t really care. All I wanted to do was listen to the top 40 hits on the radio and be ready to push down ‘record’ on the tape deck, play hockey and be cool.

And then I went on holiday to Turkey by myself in 2004 after everyone around me seemed to be singing praises of this country, and everything changed. My previous memories of Turkey were going to relatives houses, eating a lot of food, wandering at will and having a freedom your parents would never give you at home. But this Turkey I saw was like waking up to the Mediterranean sea on a summers day. Captivating, beautiful, shiny and deep. Shortly after, I bought a one way ticket to Ankara, (I was living in New York at the time) determined to stay just 2 years. That became 6 years and began what some of my friends call an obsession with all things Ottoman. That may not be accurate but that time did lead to finding out who I am and where I come from.

Sultan Murad IV

Sultan Murad IV
Portrait on display at the Military Museum, Istanbul

It turns out our first ancestor, the first “Dogramaci” was treasurer to Sultan Murad IV during the Baghdad campaign in 1638. Dogramaci Kara Mehmet ended up staying in what is now Iraq, or then Ottoman territory. This is why its difficult to answer the question ‘where are you from?’ What do I say? Iraq? I’m not Iraqi. Turkey? But I’m not from the borders of contemporary Turkey. Australia? I was born there but I’m not from there. I still get puzzled looks if I volunteer that answer. If I tell people I’m Ottoman, most won’t understand, some will think you are a snob and very few others give you a reassuring smile and nod.

What is certain is that my family is almost 400 years old. Down the line, the family is known mainly for my great uncle (Ihsan) and aunt (Emel), and their father, Ali who was a Pasha(Governor) during Ottoman rule, then after the end of the empire, a Senator in the Iraqi parliament. History became real and that depth and captivation of famliy started to take meaning. When you discover that you are connected to something far greater than just one or two generations, for me at least it inspired a sense of ownership and preservation. There are enough connections to places, relics as well as conduct transmitted down the line. Everyone speaks multiple languages, puts a premium on education and diplomatic connections are effervescent. So next time I’m chasing dreams and a past in Jerusalem, Bursa, Rhodes or Istanbul, or when I start telling Ottoman stories about palaces, mosques, people and places, you’ll understand why.

Brand Turkey. Part 2

I’m a Monocle fan. My first reaction upon holding this beautifully feeling, presented magazine was – there isn’t anything here, its all just branding! But lo = open the cover and the pages feel nice, look nice, its a treat to hold, read and the little cartoons are the little details that so many other magazines just overlook. This is important to me, being someone who has been known to quote “life is made up of details…”  Every month, that magazine takes me away from the cubicle of Ankara life and transports me somewhere luxurious, sophisticated…generally a happier place from the unnecessary frustrations of daily existence here. Even better is being on the road, and Monocle connects back into the curious, informed, fun,  hob-nobbing, happy,  jetting crowd.

Editor Tyler Brule likes to talk about country ‘brands’ quite a bit, and naturally I think about ‘brand Turkey.’ While brand Istanbul has plenty of chances to shine because of its location, history and ‘hub’ nature, the rest of Turkey holds onto the hem of Istanbul’s skirts, like the younger sibling tugging for attention.

A small leap away are the Gulf countries, heavily investing into airports versus oil money, a major new brand strategy, so what is Turkey doing? Well I can tell you what Turkey is NOT doing. Case Study: Turkish Airlines.

In 2005 when I moved to Turkey and Turkish Airlines was the most convenient carrier to fly, I was impressed with the fresh Turkuaz cabin interior, a contrast to the glorified bus-set variety which existed when the airline was still under state control. The staff was good looking, friendly and could all speak English. The food was fresh, decent and there was none of the greasy hair stains on the windows.

Does this look like an interior you'd like to fly in? from as737700 on flickr.

In 5 years, some of the Captains have such poor English that I cringe (I teach English from time to time and have a hard time understanding what is being said, save for having basically memorized all the flight announcements). While the cabin crew have largely remained nice looking, there is definitley a gap. Some are gracious, warm, friendly while others pride themselves their position, behaving as if its a priveilge for you to be served by their duty free shopping selves.

Next comes the lounge in Istanbul. Is it really necessary for ALL the TV’s to show the same channel, all with volumes turned up? Air conditioning is haphazard and with the two major walls glass (ie most of the daylight hours= greenhouse), please turn on the AC instead cutting costs. Where is the subtlety and the ‘loungeing’ aspect of being in the lounge? It wasn’t like this 5 years ago… Even the SAS operated lounge at crazy Heathrow is able to give that “pause” feeling.

Aran Cafe tempts you away from the lounge in Munich airport

The best innovation in the lounge (and I’m being sarcastic here) has got to be the recent decision to get rid of the free wireless. Perfect! So what are the benefits of the lounge? There is a free (!) massage chair and shuttle to the aircraft, but thats about it. Unless you are taking an early morning flight, you can wish away your flight leaving or arriving on time. Now with Lufthansa flying from Ankara to pretty much everywhere via Munich, the jump to German counterparts seems more tempting. Munich airport also, is like a playground. How is it with so many best case examples, Turkish Airlines or airport operators aren’t able to get it together?