Don't miss the forest when it comes to Turkey’s trees

by Leonidas Oikonomakis
11 June 2013
Florence - It all started with a few trees.

The recent protests in Turkey seem to have started when the neoliberal, urban regeneration project of the conservative Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) wanted to destroy one of the last remaining green spaces in Istanbul to create a mall within a reconstructed Ottoman barracks. Other similar contentious issues that outraged Istanbulites included the naming of the third bridge over the Bosphorus after an Ottoman Sultan that the Alevi (a religious group in Turkey combining Shi’ism with Sufi elements) consider a slaughterer, and the destruction of one of Istanbul’s most historic cinemas to create yet another mall.

But be careful not to miss the forest.

The above are local issues related to Erdoğan’s drive to privatize public spaces. And they can surely explain why the uprising began in Istanbul. But how about the capital Ankara, which has witnessed some of the fiercest clashes in its recent history? And how about Izmir, Hatay, Adana, Konya and the more than 70 Turkish cities where protests are taking place? Is theirs a fight for the right to the city as well? For the trees of Istanbul? For their own trees?

Erdoğan’s AKP came to state power in 2002 as the nemesis of the Kemalist establishment that had been governing the country ever since its birth, backed by the army, through an official state policy of secularism. Though secular, Kemalism was based on a Sunni-religious and Turkish-ethnic identity that excluded Armenians, Greeks, Kurds, and Alevis, and left no place for Islam in politics. Largely capitalizing on these exclusions, Erdoğan’s AKP brought the country’s Islamic political movement to the government seat and has kept it there ever since. Leaning on consistently high electoral support, the AKP embarked on a campaign to overturn the country’s Kemalist cultural hegemony. It tacitly encouraged the conservative transformation of Turkish society, taking the media, the police, and the judiciary from Kemalist hands, while managing to keep the army under control and inside the barracks.

At the same time, through some highly publicized accusations against individuals and groups for plotting to overthrow the government, the AKP has silenced many opposition voices. Turkey had 49 journalists behind bars as of 1 December 2012, 98 per cent jailed on “anti-state” charges, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, while as of last summer 771 students have been imprisoned on “terrorism” charges, as reported by the Initiative for Solidarity with Arrested Students.

The protestors in Turkey also refer to the government’s efforts to limit alcohol consumption and overturn the right to abortion. All these are battles over cultural hegemony that a party with an almost 50 per cent majority vote is imposing on the rest of the population, which of course feels excluded and sees its lifestyle being threatened.

But we are still staring at the trees; we must be careful not to miss the forest.

This latest uprising in Turkey cannot be disconnected from the cycle of protest we’ve been witnessing on a global scale since 2011. Egypt, Spain, Greece, Chile, the United States, Mexico and Turkey all share something in common. They are part of what my colleague Jérôme Roos and I have called the Real Democracy Movement (RDM): a global wave of local movements which bring to the foreground the democratic deficit in the heart of the global capitalist state. With this label we are trying to bring attention to the crisis of representative democracy and its submission to powerful neoliberal economic interests that privatize welfare services and state-owned enterprises in Greece, Spain and the United States, or replace parks with malls in Turkey.

Moreover, the movement puts forward the question of what real democracy should be like, experimenting with it on the squares of the world through horizontal and direct democratic decision making processes. This is done not in a normative way, with ready-made recipes, but through a process that the Zapatistas in Mexico have previously described as preguntando caminamos – asking, we walk – not claiming to have a model of what real democracy is, but certainly knowing what it is not. Part of this movement is what we are witnessing in Turkey today.

Yes, now you see the forest. But the forest consists of trees, many trees.

Let’s not let them chop them down.


*Leonidas Oikonomakis is a PhD researcher at the Department of Political and Social Sciences of the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 11 June 2013,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
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