Discovering the commons in Turkey – new media, social movements and social cohesion

The Resistance has been a turning point in enabling society to develop a new understanding of itself: as a society that is open to all. It was not the representatives of various classes or ideologies on the streets; it was the people – even those without an established ideology – who marched down the streets with their “citizen” identity.

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Conflict Background


By Derya Yuksek

In her article on, researcher Britta Ohm describes ‘Gezi’ uprising, the civil resistance that continues to shake Turkey with its far-reaching impacts, not as a solidarity movement or as something within the confines of an anti-government protest that international media have insisted on seeing, but as the tentative discovery of commonness through the very defense of commons.

Given the central role of post-materialist values, collective identity construction and the commons in today’s social movements; these seemed to have converged in the case of Gezi, bringing about a new societal awareness, by uniting many different and opposing groups in the society and transforming former misperceptions and prejudices. Starting with a global common, ‘the environment’, with a protest against an imposed life style centered around consumerism as symbolized by trees versus shopping malls, the movement evolved into a crossroads, where people coming from different backgrounds and struggles came together, lived together and acted together that nurtured a novel understanding of societal ethics and co-existence.

In fact, Turkish politics and underlying power struggles have long been shaped on ideological, ethnical and religious fragmentations based on pragmatic aims and symbols. This resulted in a conversion of innate differences or cultural and ethnic identities, which actually form the cultural richness of the country, into political instruments that caused counter-positioning and labeling of societal segments and actors, which were structurally or sometimes artificially constructed: the socialist, the nationalist, the liberal, the conservative, the religious, the anarchist, the marginal; the elite, the intellectual, the worker, the peasant; the Turkish, the Kurdish, the Christian, the Jewish, the Muslim, the Secularist, followed by the sub-divisions: communitarians, ultra-nationalists, Kemalists, Kurdish Democrats, Kurdish nationalists, Sunnis, Alevis and so on. These fragmentations and counter-positionings also caused an emergence of a more restricted political arena in terms of rights and freedoms, as the attitudes and behavior of social actors were shaped rather reactively, according to the symbolic-material position of ‘counter’ parties and with an attempt to confine this position at the cost of fundamental rights and equality.

Here, it would be worthwhile to note that Turkey is not an exception in this regard: the situation has been quite similar in the entire world, though the nature and intensity of conflicts based on these fragmentations and the associated politics may vary in line with the specific contexts of individual countries and their levels of democratic development.

Since the World War II, nationality-based fragmentations started to give their way to ideological divides (capitalism vs. communism / right vs. left) turning the ‘hot’ conflicts to ‘cold’ wars; with increased globalization these grew into increasing ethnical divides; and finally after 9/11, into religious divides and rising conservatism, which became the central focus of world politics. In fact, this is very much related with the modern and postmodern constructions of identity and the priority given to the instrumental reason in conceiving and defining the ‘other’.

In the context of Turkey, it should also be acknowledged that the accession talks with the European Union, which officially started in 2004 after a long process of economic and strategic partnership dating back to 1960s, and the seemingly selective approach undertaken in this process –i.e. granting of accession to many Eastern European states despite evident shortcomings in their democratic and economic development- also resulted in a more conservative approach in Turkish politics, turning its face to the East. Though the conservative approach of the government and its reliance on cult-based Gulen community was no secret from the start of the 10-year ruling of Justice and Development Party, the repression formed by the government’s policies on the non-conservative and secularist segments of the society and the reflections of these on rights and freedoms became more evident with the start of organized crime litigations targeting officials of armed forces and all other opponent persons and groups. As government policies and measures became more and more restrictive, the more devastating consequences these created on the freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of media, with many authors, thinkers and more than 100 journalists detained and jailed since 2007, not to mention the self censorships and growing number of pro-government media institutions.  This repressing approach has also been reflected in new law proposals, policies and statements which could be viewed as interventions in private and public space and personal life, such as restrictions in alcohol advertising and sales, the proposed ban on abortion, closing of city centers to demonstrations, and continuing harsh attacks towards any kind of protests or opposing views. These could be interpreted as continuing the traditional repressive state legacy in Turkey, this time, under the masks of democracy. Any case, the result has been higher oppression of those societal segments being already oppressed, rising oppression towards non-conservative and secularist segments of the society, and serious damages to the rule of law.

In recent years, the discomfort has grown further with the government’s contested policies in many other fields, from urban development to environment, culture and health, from energy to neighborhood relations. On the other front, labour unions and student organizations were having their share from the government’s restrictive policies on the freedom of expression and assembly. In fact, the smaller scale protests by labour unions and opposition groups having started on May 1, with the closure of Taksim area to Labour Day celebrations, as well as the anti-war demonstrations following the bombing in Reyhanli, Hatay at the Syrian border on May 11, all targeted by heavy police attacks, have been the final straws.

Nevertheless, the process started with Gezi park resistance, has significantly shaken up the traditional patterns in Turkish politics. As political scientist Zafer Yilmaz note in his above-cited article, citizen movements build political struggle not on stable subjectivities such as culture, ethnicity or religion, therefore avoid the two basic mistakes of modern politics: essentialism based on sublimating the subjects and reactivity. By producing axioms that enable conception of politics based on rights and equality, they rule out the battle of (counter) positions based on power struggle. With their civilian character, their call for recognition does not target the state (as it may be sometimes misperceived as the state and government represent the status quo), but the society where a right-based consensus is sought. Therefore citizen movements exhibit a progressive and democratic character as much as they can construct a rich-pluralist chain of demands, that is distant from hierarchical dichotomies and that can equally relate to other right demands.

Gezi protests, having positioned itself as a common struggle of various diverse groups representing different ideological, political, religious, social and cultural backgrounds, were quite successful in orienting public towards this end. Bringing together the socialists with businessmen, (anti-capitalist) Muslims with Atheists, nationalists with Kurds, and other previously divided segments of society in a platform of joint action and a shared living space, Gezi Park became a symbolic place providing the entire public an example of peaceful co-existence, sharing and solidarity based on commons. People from all backgrounds, who hardly knew each other, stood up together for their freedom and rights and acted jointly against police violence on the streets. For around two weeks, the entire city center was closed to traffic and protected from police attacks with barricades, and the Park witnessed a communal life where there was no need for accommodation or money as people slept in the park inside tents and citizens showed their solidarity with ever increasing donations of food and other basic needs, which were shared with the residents and tens of thousands of people visiting the Park. In this self-sufficient environment without the presence of police, there were no security issues at all, which was quite surprising for a metropol famous with smash and grab. In fact, the ongoing announcements made to the public for leaving their doors open during heavy police attacks as an injured protestor may need a shelter to hide, transformed the understanding of security itself. This environment inevitably created a common spirit based on dialogue, understanding and respect, and directed the public to get to know each other, rather than categorizing the ‘other’.

The inclusiveness of this co-existence and the shared grieves was also reflected in the slogan, ‘Everywhere is Taksim, Everywhere is Resistance’, which triggered a wide scale support from almost each city across the country. With this common slogan, the title and aim of the nationwide movement was also mentioned the first time: ‘Resistance’. In addition to the involvement of political groups, worker unions and various left-wing organizations, the groups that were at the forefront of protests included Carsi, the supporter group of well-known Turkish football team Besiktas, which managed to bring together the supporters of its two big rivals (Fenerbahce and Galatasaray football teams) in the protests; The Redhack, which is a Turkish computer hacker group known with its oppositional attitude; and civil society actors such as Lgbt (the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transexual solidarity movement), and Anti-Capitalist Muslims, which define themselves as an organization of Muslims aiming to struggle against capitalism.

Accordingly, the Resistance has been a turning point in enabling the society to develop a new understanding of itself: as a society that is open to all. It was not the representatives of various classes or ideologies on the streets; it was the people – even those without an established ideology- who marched down the streets with their “citizen” identity.

Derya Yuksek is a researcher and peace activist from Turkey. This is an excerpt from her study titled ‘Media as a Forum for Dialogue in Conflicts and Peacebuilding: New Media, Social Movements and EU Policies: with a focus on Gezi Movement in Turkey’. 

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  1. Pingback : Discovering the commons in Turkey - conflict as a means of transcending societal divides | TransConflict

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