The Gezi Park Protests and the Future of Turkish Politics: An Interview with Seyla Benhabib

Gezi park protests, June 15, 2013 (Fleshstorm via Wikimedia Commons)

Section 1: The Gezi Protests

A recent urban renewal project to redevelop Istanbul’s Gezi Park sparked arguably the largest wave of protests in Turkey’s history. What made the Gezi protests unique was the diverse profile of the demonstrators, including environmentalists, soccer fans, Kurds, secular nationalists, and even some leftist Islamists. What do you think caused such a wide-scale mobilization from such a wide range of backgrounds? And what do you think about the government’s handling of the crisis?

The Gezi Park demonstrations and those that followed them are, on the one hand, part of a general trend toward a new kind of citizen politics that mobilizes outside traditional representative institutions. Such politics have been referred to as “single-issue politics” and “politics in the first person.” On the other hand, they are an almost visceral reaction to eleven years of AKP (Justice and Progress Party) rule.

The AKP is one of the more successful parties in Turkish history. It has presided over a period of economic growth (thought economists disagree about its scope) at a time of worldwide recession. This coincided with a remarkable historical juncture at the end of the Cold War: the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the rise of post-Soviet Turkic republics such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan have provided Turkey with new markets as well as demands for Turkish services and expertise.

The continuing unrest in the Middle East and North Africa has likewise meant a boost for the Turkish economy. After the political upheavals in Lebanon, investment and capital from Gulf states—Kuwait, UAE, and Saudi Arabia—began to flow into Turkish banks instead of going to Beirut. At the same time, Turkish household appliance manufacturers and the Turkish construction industry have found lucrative new markets in this region, as well as in Iraq and its partially autonomous Kurdish provinces. The AKP has taken advantage of this historical juncture by emphasizing its pro-Islamist ideology, which has helped it do business in these countries, and by establishing an “open door” policy toward its neighbors.

Such policies have led to the AKP’s next greatest success: the integration of the rural bourgeoisie and middle-wage farmers of Anatolia into a worldwide market and, alongside this, the emergence of a welfare state based on the hizmet (service) model. This has brought health insurance, old-age pensions, and some job security to millions of people. The socioeconomic position of the “urban poor,” which remains Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan’s most vital base, is more precarious: they might fall through the welfare net anytime the urban economy slows down, menial service jobs are no longer required, and people’s buying capacity diminishes.

Add to this economic and social progress the momentous political neutralization of the military (using admittedly questionable means); the critique of Kemalist nationalism and of laiklik, or laïcité(secularism); openness toward Turkey’s ethnic and religious minorities, particularly public acknowledgment of the massacres of Armenians in 1915 (not “genocide,” which the government still denies) and tolerance toward the Alevis; and, last but not least, a willingness to acknowledge Kurdish cultural rights and an apparent readiness to negotiate some kind of a political settlement. The AKP has presided over a remarkable “refolution”—that is, a combination of reform and revolution—in Turkish society, identity, and politics.

In the last two decades, we have also seen the rise of a vibrant, independent, contentious civil society that has freed itself of the authoritarian legacies of worshipping Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his nationalist-bureaucratic intimidation.

However, now that Turkish civil society has emancipated itself from Kemalist authoritarianism, it’s not about to accept Islamist authoritarianism. This was Erdoğan’s biggest miscalculation. His reaction to the protests has also shown the degree to which a political culture based on a personality cult and charismatic “democratic” authoritarianism remains deeply ingrained in the AKP.

The Gezi protests have brought together a diverse profile of demonstrators that would not have come together before. After the police cleared Gezi Park of protesters and sealed it off from the public, the protesters began to hold public forums in other parks in Istanbul and other cities. In these forums, the future of the Gezi movement as well as Turkey’s pressing social and political problems are discussed with the participation of groups that have diverging, if not contradictory, political views. What do you make of this shift in the locus of dissent from the street to forums? Do you think these forums and discussions have the capacity to transform the way in which politics are understood in Turkey?

The impressive diversity of the demonstrators is testimony to the emergence of a new kind of civil society and a new form of “contentious” politics in Turkey. Until the last two decades, Turkish politics were dominated by very strongly polarized parties, and trade unions and professional associations that followed clear political lines. For example, the still very influential Teachers’ Associations (Ögretmenler Birligi), whose tea houses and hostels dot the landscape of Turkey, have always been affiliated with the CHP (People’s Republican Party) and to a lesser extent with the MHP (Nationalist Movement Party). Some members of the Turkish Industry and Business Association (TUSIAD) used to be affiliated with the CHP, but more and more big businesses now find their home in the AKP.

In recent decades, the CHP has almost collapsed. The older generation of civil servants, army officials, and teachers still vote for it, but the party’s support of the war against the Kurds has led many young people and intellectuals to despise it. Some of them now vote the BDP (Barisve Demokrasi Partisi), the Kurdish party, whose constituency is transforming itself increasingly from a nationalist Kurdish agenda into a protest vote against existing parties.

The MHP courts the same religiously observant provincial bourgeoisie and the urban masses as does the AKP. But the MHP has fewer inroads among the professional classes. At one time, they dominated among the police, the gendarmerie, and the military, and they probably still have sympathizers among these groups.

But the reason for the strange coalition that the Gezi Park demonstrations produced is that a new urban, young middle class, inside and outside Istanbul, including religious and nonreligious, both students and workers, no longer feels itself represented by any party on this political spectrum. Ironically, it is the relative—and relatively recent—affluence of many groups of protesters that has enabled their emergence. They are media savvy, internationally networked, and, even if they consider themselves devout Muslims, more tolerant of one another’s practices and of personal freedoms from the pressure of family and the larger community.

The rise of social media is also significantly responsible for shaping cultural attitudes. It has been not only an instrument of mobilization but also a cultural crucible for showing young people what is “cool,” “sexy,” and “acceptable.” Whether in Cairo or Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro or Athens, a new political sensibility is emerging. Its politics are usually issue-oriented—the environment, women’s and gay rights, AIDS activism—but in the last decade broader questions of global social justice have also come to the fore.

This new politics is discovering public spaces, among them the already highly symbolic Gezi Park. The new urban classes feel “represented” in and by these spaces of freedom, plurality, anonymity, adventure, entertainment, romance, and commerce. More of Istanbul’s population than at any time since the founding of the republic has found a certain joie de vivre in public social life.

My generation used to chant, “The whole world is watching.” Today, the whole world is not only watching but Skyping, tweeting, and sending pictures and videos in real time. During the first few days of the protests in Turkey, the official media focused on news about penguins, while Facebook and other social media outlets showed millions of viewers around the world what was actually going on, and not only in Istanbul.

Governments cannot control this circulation of news and information and it infuriates them. Erdoğan revealed quite a bit about his reactionary views when he blamed the new social media and an “international conspiracy” for causing the protests.

In an interview in 2007, you defended the AKP against Somalian feminist activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who claimed that the party was pursuing a secret agenda aimed at an Islamic revolution in Turkey. You said that the AKP was “carrying out an incredible experiment” that represented “a kind of pluralism in civil society which is absolutely essential for Turkey.” Looking back at eleven years of AKP rule, how would you assess this experiment?

I would still stand by those statements. Some think that Gezi Park has revealed a secret AKP agenda that was there all along. “I told you so,” say many old-school liberal democrats who were always suspicious of the AKP. But that’s not accurate. Turkish society and politics have been transformed in no small measure due to the policies of the AKP.

It is well known in the social sciences that powerful social actors very often unleash “unintended consequences” that outrun their best-laid plans. The Gezi protests are surely unintended consequences of the AKP’s policies of neoliberalism and Islamist pluralism.

In another example from the region, sociologist Jeffrey Alexander has pointed out that the presence of so many computers and a sophisticated networking ability in Egypt was due to the fact that ex-President Hosni Mubarak’s hosted one of the world’s largest computer technology conferences in the late 1990s. That technology became a weapon in the hands of those who overthrew him.

The Gezi Park protests follow a pattern of cosmopolitan, contentious politics emerging alongside neoliberal global capitalism, such as the German Green Party’s mobilization of an entire region against the destruction of an old railway station. But there is also a historically symbolic dimension to Erdoğan’s plans to replace Gezi Park that reveals how deep his own Islamist commitments lie. Taksim Square, along with Istiklal Caddesi (the Avenue of Independence) and Cumhuriyet Caddesi (The Avenue of the Republic), were the heart of the republican and cosmopolitan Istanbul. This area was dominated by many non-Muslim “minorities” until the events of September 6–7, 1955, during which angry mobs trashed Greek, Armenian, and Jewish business and stores. In recent months the Erdoğan government destroyed not only the Emek Sinemasi in Beyoglu (an old shopping district) but also Inci Pastanesi, one of Istanbul’s last remaining European-style pastry shops.

There are further additional symbolic dimensions to this ill-fated project, which has been rightly called a “neo-Islamist, neo-Ottoman theme park,” including the construction of military barracks. As Professor Ersin Kalaycioglu has pointed out in a piece by Susanne Cullinane at CNN, on April 1909 the 1st Army Corps stationed in Harbiye (near Taksim Square) revolted against constitutional rule and killed a number of Christian army officers. “In the minds of the people, [the uprising] was the conspiracy of the sultan who tried to get rid of the officers in 1908 by using religious provocation,” Kalaycioglu said. “That left an indelible mark…that religion could be deployed as a major factor against modernization.” The revolt was put down by the Hareket Army, in which Atatürk was a commanding officer.

Why revive these memories? Does Erdoğan think that Turkish people are so naive that they do not understand that he is trying to fabricate a new collective identity, made up of bits and pieces of anti-secularist, Islamist, and neo-Ottomanist ideology? So the Gezi Park protests were not only about trees; they were about the memory and identity of a city which, if Erdoğan has his way, will be transformed into an Islamic architectural banality like the ones that dot the Gulf.

Section 2: Democracy and Constitutionalism in Turkey

The Gezi protests initiated a debate about democracy in Turkey in which Erdoğan defined it as the realization of the national will through the ballot box. In response, President Abdullah Gül insisted that democracy should not be reduced only to elections and that peaceful demonstrations are only one of many democratic means to express objections and grievances. Do the protests highlight a systematic deficiency in Turkey’s democracy and politics?

Erdoğan and AKP leaders often interpret democracy as simple majority rule. But a democracy embedded in a constitutional republic such as Turkey is based on a system of checks and balances among different powers such as the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary, as well as certain formal and substantive constraints. Democratic elections express the will of the people in terms of whom they wish to be governed by, but no democracy is possible without certain “pre-commitments” that cannot be simply altered by majority rule. These include, for example, formal rules such as one-person, one-vote and the secret ballot. Take these rules away and you no longer have democracy, even if you have majority voting. Most democracies also include substantive “pre-commitments,” such as the respect for human rights, which are entrenched in the constitution. In Turkey’s case one such additional and much-contested substantive pre-commitment is to the principle of laiklik. This is a peculiarity of the kind of democratic republic Turkey has pledged itself to be.

Without these sorts of pre-commitments, democracy would be “mobocracy,” or rule by the masses. To balance respect for these formal and substantive pre-commitments with the will of democratic majorities, many democracies have instituted “judicial review” by constitutional courts. It is a hard-won lesson of many centuries of political struggle that democracy, constitutionalism, and the rule of law must supplement and constrain one another.

After its third electoral victory, the AKP, by contrast, has intimidated other organs of government such as the judiciary. It is questionable whether the party respects the separation of powers any more. Given the weakness of the opposition, Turkey is sliding into a model of plebiscitary, charismatic leadership, with a “supreme leader” who is elected with majority support, and concomitant violations of the rights of individuals to freedom of expression, association, and conscience. We have many examples of this in the twentieth century. For this reason, we have to watch very closely the kinds of constitutional reform proposals that are supposed to lead Turkey to a presidential system. H. Ertuğ Tombuş recently wrote an excellent analysis of the AKP’s “government by tutelage” in Constellations.

One of the major items in AKP’s agenda over the last few years has been replacing Turkey’s 1982 constitution, which was written under the military junta, with a new civilian one. Ideally, what should be the fundamental principles and norms of the new constitution?

This is a difficult question. The essential problem of the 1982 Constitution, which was amended in 1999, 2001 and 2004 largely to enable Turkey’s accession to the EU, has been summarized very well by Turkuler Isiksel: “Whereas the 1961 constitution allowed for the resumption of civilian life once power was restored to democratic institutions, the terms of the 1982 constitution were such that they did not require the military to ease its iron grip on politics even once it allowed the resumption of parliamentary rule.”

Yet a constitution in a liberal-democratic republic ought to aim not only at inspiring “constitutional patriotism,” in Jürgen Habermas’s words; it also ought to respect international conventions and treaties, such as the European Convention of Human Rights, to which Turkey is a signatory. Today, Turkey, along with Russia, is one of the greatest offenders of human rights as specified by the number of petitions made to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

While consciousness about the significance of human rights has grown exponentially in Turkish society, as has people’s willingness to seek justice at a supranational organ such as the ECtHR, the Turkish constitutional tradition emphasizes a quasi-communalist understanding of people’s sovereignty and an undifferentiated view of the “nation.” Human rights and citizens’ rights have been continuously subordinated to the priority of either “public order” or national sovereignty.

There is also a tension between popular sovereignty (halkegemenligi) and national sovereignty (milliegemenlik). The two are not identical, because the “people” are always more heterogeneous than the “nation.” Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks, and Jews are part of the Turkish people but they are not part of the Sunni-Turkish nation. Turkish constitutions, not only the 1982 one, confuse an “ethnic” and “democratic” understanding of the people.

A repressive and homogenizing understanding of the nation, which marginalizes the presence and rights of non-Muslim Turkish citizens, has in turn led to the formulation of constitutional measures such as Article 42, which prohibits teaching any other language besides Turkish as a “mother tongue,” and Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which limits the freedom of expression guaranteed in Article 26 of the Constitution by prohibiting any “denigrating the Turkish Nation, the Republic or the Grand National Assembly.” This has enabled prosecutors to bring charges against artists, journalists, and writers.

The new constitution should develop first and foremost an allegiance to human rights and to a democratic, pluralist understanding of the people. But this seems far removed from where current trends toward presidentialism are moving.

The AKP’s response to the Gezi protests escalated the already existing polarization within Turkish society. Under these circumstances, to what extent can a new constitution written without consensus-building address Turkey’s political and democratic problems?

There is currently a Constitution Reconciliation Committee of the Turkish National Assembly in which parties’ representatives are debating various proposals. Whatever constitutional amendments attain the votes between three-fifths and two-thirds of the members of the National Assembly in a secret ballot may be submitted to a referendum if they are not vetoed by the president. Amendments adopted that are not vetoed by the president will be published in the official gazette and become law. At present the AKP only has 327 votes (less than the 330 votes needed to reach three-fifths of the 550-seat assembly) and would thus need the votes of the MHP or the BDP to reach the desired majority.

I think that this process is inadequate and will most likely produce a document that could trap Turkey for many years to come in unnecessary institutional dilemmas. There are technical questions associated with the constitutional reforms that are difficult even for a professor of political philosophy like myself. A quick referendum can thus only produce a sham ratification: the proverbial man or woman on the street will vote for whatever his or her party or leader says he or she should.

There are better procedures for constitutional reform, such as establishing consultative people’s assemblies or civil society roundtables that would be more pluralistic, representative, and inclusive. They need not replace negotiations in the National Assembly, but there has to be a back-and-forth between party delegates in the National Assembly and a broader section of the public and civil society.

Egypt under Morsi failed to do this; the result was a constitution that no one felt was representative Turkey is not going to erupt in civil war, but under the current polarized conditions, to rush to a presidential system strikes me as stealing away the essence of the republic. I hope that there are enough moderate individuals within the AKP who will recognize the need for a more representative process of constitutional reform.

Erdoğan has been openly advocating the replacement of Turkey’s parliamentary system with a presidential one. To what extent are Turkey’s problems a result of the parliamentary system? What are the pros and cons of these two political systems?

There is in principle no incompatibility between a presidential system and a democratic model. France and the United States are good examples here. The American model contains the power of the executive through divided government, opposing parties, and the powerful U.S. Supreme Court. In France, by contrast, the president and the National Assembly come from the same party, and the high courts are more administrative and less engaged in “higher lawmaking,” like the U.S. Supreme Court.

Which will be the Turkish model? So far a lot of the discussion appears to be centered on what exactly the qualifications of the presidential candidates need to be. This is important, but, in my opinion, more important are the powers given to the president.

In this respect, the Turkish model is unusual: at present, it is proposed that the president have the prerogative to dissolve parliament and call for Turkish National Assembly elections; appoint ministers and dismiss them; appoint and dismiss public officials; declare martial law or a state of emergency and issue decrees under those conditions; select half of the members of the Council of Higher Education; appoint all university rectors; and appoint half of all members of the Constitutional Court, the President of the Turkish Council of State, and Chief Public Prosecutor of the High Court of Appeals. These strike me as extremely empowering and potentially dangerous privileges in a country that does not have a tradition of divided government and strong checks and balances among the various branches of government. This model will yield a presidential system closer to Putinism than to France or the United States.

Section 3: Minority and Women’s Rights, Human Rights and Liberalism

In your June 3 New York Times piece, you suggest that Erdoğan is using Kurds as a pawn in a broader chess game to fulfill his ambition to become Turkey’s first executive president. What do you think is needed to establish a lasting peace?

I have received a lot of criticism about this claim, and the behavior and declarations of many Kurdish politicians and MP’s during the Gezi Park events made me rethink my assertions. I based my claim that there may have been some “under-the-table” negotiations between the AKP and the BDP primarily on the latter’s forgiving attitude toward the proposed presidentialist reform of the constitution. I could not understand why the BDP was not more rigorous in its critique of many of the AKP’s constitutional proposals.

However, it is now clear that the BDP understands that oppositional movements like the one in Gezi Park are the ones that will stand by it. The party cannot trust the AKP alone to establish a “just peace.”—that is, not just peace but dignity, equality and prosperity for the Kurdish regions.

Some form of self-government, revenue-sharing and security cooperation in these areas is essential. Whether this takes the form of strong regional parliaments as in Spain, a form of “asymmetrical federalism” such as Québec enjoys in Canada, or full-scale federalization is an open question. These are matters of “institutional design,” and people of good will and intelligence will opt for one or another in view of Turkey’s needs, its history and future. It seems to me that Turkish Kurds do not want a separate nation-state any more than the Iraqi autonomous Kurdish region is aspiring to one. But given what is going on in Syria, there is continuing volatility in this area.

Recently, we have witnessed a global wave of protests. Do you think that a liberal human rights framework that stresses people’s struggle for political rights suffices to explain the discontent, or is there an underlying dynamic that goes beyond the scope and limits of liberal democracy? How would you compare the 1968 student movement and its motivations to its contemporary counterpart?

There are attempts to explain this new wave of worldwide protests under headings such as “the right to the city” (David Harvey) or “the global street” (Saskia Sassen). Of course, there is not a single set of issues that is mobilizing all these groups, but commonalities exist. All these movements are led primarily by young people between the ages of twenty and thirty-five; other groups join in later. The social media is playing a big role in organizing these efforts: it is very rare that these groups were organized prior to the big demonstrations, except in Egypt, in which a core group of young people had already educated themselves in methods of nonviolent resistance and were in touch with the nonviolence theorist and activist Gene Sharp.

Another common aspect of these movements is their “spectacle-like” quality. They take very seriously that “the whole world is watching.” Not only the numbers mobilized in public squares but symbolic gestures matter a lot as well. The Turkish Gezi Park protesters celebrated Ramadan at communal tables at iftar (breakfast); Egyptian protesters cleaned up after themselves and swept Tahrir Square; Occupy Wall Street protesters established communal kitchens and libraries. Through such small gestures, the protesters are “de-demonizing” what the established media will portray them as—namely, violent, dirty, disheveled anarchists who want to destroy everything. No, they say, we are anticipating an alternate reality of tolerance, civility, friendship, and conviviality. We have a right to the city and to the streets, which we share with you.

These new protests are also the cries of anguish of a new generation who is facing a bleak economic future—at least in Europe and the United States. There is a deep generational anxiety that is galvanizing these protests, with twenty-somethings realizing their prospects may be worse than those of their parents for the first time since the Second World War.

The student movement of 1968 was also global and had spectacular qualities. But principally this movement was guided by varieties of left-wing ideology. There were certain categories through which the world was interpreted, such as imperialism. Today, neoliberal globalization has scrambled our old categories: who are the imperialists? The United States, or China, or Saudi Arabia, all of which are exercising hegemony and regional influence in different ways?

Today’s movements are more diffuse ideologically and programmatically; they cherish politics in the first person more than conceptual abstractions; they are pragmatic and, at their best, they want a deliberative voice and the power to shape the whirling and buzzing vortex of globalization around them. For me, the question for the coming decades will be whether this contentious political energy, which I find so beautiful and hopeful, can translate into some vision of a better future society. There is, at the present, a huge “democratic disconnect” between the street and the parliaments, the public square and the courthouse.

By contrast, the student movement of 1968 took the “long march through the institutions” and produced the political leaders of the next generation, such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Joschka Fischer, and Otto Schilly in Germany; Bernard Kouchner in France; and in the United States, Jesse Jackson, Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and even Barack Obama, who in no small measure owes his political orientation to his mother, a child of the sixties. Will this also be the case with your generation? I don’t know.

Turkey most definitely needs a new group of young, energetic, enlightened, worldly leaders who think and act beyond the dichotomies of Kemalism vs. the AKP, secularism vs. clericalism, national vs. international, and so on. This generation has shown itself and to some extent empowered itself through the Gezi Park protests; the question is whether it can transform itself into some form of organized presence in representative democratic institutions. Democracy thrives on the interplay of formal representative institutions and the energies of civil society and the voices and noise of the streets.

Thanks to Ertuğ Tombuş of the New School for Social Research for his help in clarifying certain historical and institutional questions.


Seyla Benhabib is the Eugene Mayer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University.

Begum Adalet is a PhD student in political science at the University of Pennsylvania. Defne Overis a PhD student in sociology at Cornell. Onur Ozgodeis a PhD student in sociology at Columbia. Semih Salihogluis a PhD student in computer science at Stanford.



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