In Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks, Jenny White (2014:198) argues, “In the Gezi clashes, a new generation of citizens, whose expectations have been shaped by twenty-first-century global concerns, social justice issues, and neo-liberal expectations, confronted twentieth-century structures of power…” While in Istanbul last summer, I had the honor of meeting a young woman who had participated in the 2013 Gezi Park protests, peaking my interest in its former participants. I wondered what they thought of the protests two years later. Did they have any lasting impact on their sense of self, social relationships, community involvements, or political activities? Did they see Gezi as having posed any challenges to the autocratic structures of their society?
I had the opportunity to follow up on these questions on a return visit to Istanbul in late October/early November. I had continued to correspond with the friend I made, and on my arrival, she introduced me to a number of her friends and acquaintances, mostly Gezi demonstrators, so I could engage these questions. While not a representative sample of Turks, they were a somewhat representative sample of Gezi protesters, Alevis, environmentalists, feminists, Kurds, Kemalists, leftists, and LGBT individuals among them. It was a particularly timely occasion in which to pursue these discussions because the second round of elections took place on November 1st, following the AKP’s (Justice and Development Party) failure to gain a parliamentary majority in the first round of elections in early June.
While a few of my friend’s network spoke of leaving the country permanently, worried about their diminishing rights and the future for their children (especially their daughters), these same people also volunteered for Vote and Beyond, an organization that emerged out of Gezi, to be watchdogs on election day to reduce any opportunity for election fraud. These particular individuals also took solace in the neighborhood in Istanbul where they lived, finding comfort in daily encounters with Gezi participants in cafes and on the streets.
Many felt that they had personally gained from the “Gezi experience,” acquiring a greater awareness of political deception, confronting sexist language and gender role expectations, and/or facing their own prejudices against Kurds or LGBT individuals. In some cases, these insights had shifted their alliances, priorities, and/or identities. Some stated that HDP (People’s Democratic Party) would never have passed the 10 percent voter threshold in either of the past elections without Gezi. Several doctors stated that, post-Gezi, they had come to realize that their own problems would never be remedied without first advocating for greater equity and fairness in the broader society. Many stated that (for them) being Turkish is only a matter of language, geography, or birth (even those who were not Circassian or Kurdish or Alevi), recognizing the physical, structural, and symbolic violence imposed by imagining a singular, uniform, and mythic Turkish past.
Two women had actually gone to Cizre, a Kurdish town in southeast Turkey, in early September to bear witness to the impact of a Turkish military assault on the community due to the military’s claim that it was a PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) stronghold. According to these women, civilians, cut off from access to food and hungry, had been lured out of their homes and killed with a promise of eggplant or other vegetables. The desire to participate in this type of witnessing might never have taken place before Gezi.
In the aftermath of the November 1st elections, my friend shared with me some of the remarks that appeared on her Facebook page. One of my favorites was a Turkish proverb, “If shit were made of gold, the poor would be born without asses!” Her network may not have felt that they came out ahead in this election but the realization that multiple civilizations have pre-dated the Turkish state seemed to give hope to some. My friend commented on a Byzantine mosaic of an eagle in battle with a snake, asserting that the struggle must go on. As anthropologists, we need not only document these sentiments, but lend support to these social actors, letting them know that we are paying attention and that we care. After all, although Gezi drew upon and shaped meanings from its unique context, circumstances, and subjectivities, it is not so different from Occupy or Black Lives Matter. While perhaps more subdued now, Gezi activists continue to make it clear that their re-envisioning of society cannot be erased so easily.
This post was submitted by Dr. Sumi Colligan, Professor of Anthropology and Faculty Service-Learning Co-Coordinator at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.