As developments in Turkey continue to take shape in the aftermath of Gezi and Erdoğan’s Presidential election, Gülden Ozcan interviews Simten Coşar (co-editor with Gamze Yücesan-Özdemir of Silent Violence: Neoliberalism, Islamic Politics and the AKP Years in Turkey. Red Quill Books, 2012) about these turbulent times. Interest in the AKP and its integration of neoliberal and Islamic politics into continued electoral success has garnered increasing scrutiny both domestically and internationally.
RQ: Can we say that the Gezi Resistance was a test case for AKP’s claim to democracy? If so, do you think that the AKP government passed this test?
SC: I think that the Gezi Resistance was more a test case for those analysts, academics, intellectuals, opinion leaders in Turkey and abroad who have long persisted in arguing for the democratic credentials of the AKP’s discursive practices. As for the AKP, it can be argued that the party has tactfully played in the liberal democratic rhetoric while outspokenly emphasizing its conservative tendencies. It has consistently underlined its conception of democracy in terms of keeping the military not “outside” the political sphere, but under the control of civilian governments, representing the national will.
It was the liberal and liberal democratic supporters of the party who were given the democracy test by the Resistance. For the time being it is possible to note that most of the liberals failed the test.
RQ: Do you think Turkey under the AKP rule still constitutes a role model for the Islamic countries in the region? For example, do you think radical organizations such as ISIS are providing a basis for Erdogan’s AKP to re-gain some its international prestige lost after the Gezi Resistance?
SC: “If role model” means a role model for democratization I doubt whether Turkey under the AKP rule has ever been in that status. Actually, the AKP’s terms in government coincided with the reshaping of the Middle East, and the AKP government’s foreign policy preferences have generally been framed in terms of getting the best out of the prospective pie with an overemphasis on Ottoman past and Islamic past. This was manifested in the persistent emphasis on assuming a leading role not only in the Middle East, but the whole Islamic world. Certainly, this emphasis was reflected mainly in foreign trade policies. Among the many examples, elaborated in Birgül Demirtaş’s contribution to Silent Violence, the use of Turkish Airlines as a foreign policy-cum-commerce instrument (though in the case of relation with countries in the African continent) is the most vivid manifestation of this prioritization.
I am not a foreign policy specialist; thus, just with a political science perspective I would argue that reference to Ottoman and Islamic past is nearly a futile attempt. First, the Middle East as we used to know it emerged out of the Ottoman lands, but it is doubtful that the Ottoman Empire occupies a desirable space in the memories of the peoples in the region. Second, Turkey’s traditionalized alliance with the USA and Israel in the region also puts barriers for the country in assuming a leading role. Third and related to the radical Islamist organizations in the region and especially to the ISIS, the AKP governments’ rather inactive response points at a bleak picture. In the first and second terms of the AKP in government this question might have invited positive answers among the supporters of the AKP, who opted for a civilian government with no radical Islamic tendencies; yet when the third term of the party in government is concerned, the increasing tune of Sunni-Islam in the party’s preferences—especially in education and urban policies, with direct connotations in everyday life—that fit well into the increase in the visibility of authoritarian style of politics among the governmental circles belie such an assessment. It might sound ironic that a party, which had tried hard to convince those among the populace who were anxious about the party’s “hidden intentions”—i.e., establishing a (pro-)Sharia regime in the country—and most importantly the laicist elite and the military that it has no Islamist aspirations in politics, that it is a “conservative democratic” party—a label that the party quickly discarded after its first electoral victory in 2002—that it is for democratization in order to ensure peaceful coexistence of differences in the society, today overtly promotes Sunni-Islamization in the country. However, it is not the AKP that should be taken as the first and foremost actor in this process. For, it was with the military interim regime (1980-1983) following the 1980 coup d’état, which first initiated the process. So the AKP manipulated the already Islamizing societal structure to consolidate its power through appeals to civilian politics, national will, and Sunni Islam, the latter two, merging into majoritarian democracy. As a last world I should note that the radical Islamist organizations in the Middle East have been evolving out of a history of armed conflict. The AKP on the other hand emerged out of a long tradition of non-violent, legal party politics, and acquired police power through the state mechanism. Thus, the comparison which might lead one to opt for the AKP’s—now Islamic—rule in the face of the risk of such radical organizations as ISIS is likely to fall out of place. The Gezi Resistance, which as I mentioned earlier displayed how far the government can go in using the police force evinces this fact.
RQ: How did Islam get integrated in global capital in Turkey in the first place?
SC: This question is challenging to answer in interview format. Still, and briefly: It is no secret that neoliberalism was introduced to Turkey in the late 1970s. The socio-political structure and the state structure then were not fit for the easy adoption of neoliberal policy preferences. A major restructuration was needed and the 1980 coup d’état offered the grounds for this re-structuration process. The coup leaders claimed that they stepped in to mend the dysfunctional political structure, to devise a political frame that would cleanse the threats to the Republican order. It was a fact that the late 1970s were marked by social and political turmoil; the parliament and governments could not function at all. But the decade and the 1960s were also marked by the development of leftist opposition, student movements, and fertile political grounds for structural change. 1980 coup d’état should be understood in this frame, not merely in terms of the failure of parliamentary politics, but also and more importantly in terms of the rise of the leftist opposition, and with special reference of the crisis of capitalism in the late 1970s. Thus the coup and the following military regime, both of which proved to be the most violent of the military’s active presence in governing the country, silenced down opposition and pre-empted the possibilities for structural opposition. This was achieved both by means of direct suppression and incessant use of military force and through a series of legal regulations. The latter also prepared the country for the neoliberalization process that took more than three decades to consolidate—under the AKP rule.
The governments did not take their hands off the free market. Rather they have been eager to regulate the running of the free market—which is the case in many neoliberalization process.
With the three-decade-long neoliberalization processes in the country, carried by the political parties of the centre and experiencing periodic “mini-” crisis due to the country’s socio-political and cultural dynamics, as well as to the fluctuations in the neoliberal world order in general, the governments did not take their hands off the free market. Rather they have been eager to regulate the running of the free market—which is the case in many neoliberalization process. It was through these governments that the civil societal Islam increased its already acquired share in the new accumulation regime. But a total transfer of capital from the established capital circles to the newly emerging Muslim-conservative or Islamic capital circles would be systematically pursued under the AKP rule.
RQ: In Silent Violence you refer to a process of neoliberal authoritarianism that is dominating the social and political sphere in Turkey in the form of Erdoganization? Last month, Erdogan won presidential election with about 52 percent of the vote. How do you explain Erdogan’s continued appeal?
SC: First of all, I should underline that Erdoğan’s authoritarianism should not be considered as a hindrance for his popularity among the majority of the voters in Turkey. Second, I should also underline that in 1982 when the populace was offered the plebiscitarian option to vote for the coup Constitution simultaneously electing the coup leader (Kenan Evren) as the President of the Republic, and enjoying civilian regime on the one hand, or saying no to the constitution and the presidency of General Evren, and thus saying no to the transition to civilian regime, the Constitution was approved with 91.4 votes. Third, Erdoğan’s victory in the presidential elections should be read with a view to multiple factors, starting with the personalistic style of politics that fits well to the dominant political culture in Turkey and to the neoliberal regimes, continuing with the deep rooted Turkish nationalistic sensitivities at the party and median voter level, and finally emphasizing the rather inefficient working of the main opposition party and leftist opposition at large. As explored in Galip Yalman’s contribution to Silent Violence, although personalistic politics has not been foreign to Turkey’s neoliberal times since the 1980s, it reached its climax with the AKP. This is due to the restructuration of the ruling mechanism, making it to fall almost under total authority of the executive: the executive under the AKP rule has overtly been identified with Erdoğan’s personal rule. The last presidential election in Turkey was the second in Turkey’s history. Except for the 1982 plebiscite under military regime, in Turkey the election of the presidents were subjected to different regulations; they were elected by the parliament. But as in other cases, in this case too, by rapidly realized legal amendments—again by making the populace approve the related amendments through plebiscite in 2010 and similar to the coup tactic by forcing two options, either approve the change, and thus approve the preparation of a new (civilian) constitution that would replace the 1982 Constitution or stop asking for a new constitution—the presidential election method was changed. It was no surprise that with ample resources at hand for presidential campaign, built on strong religious-nationalistic motifs, on unity, and on the personal attributes of Erdoğan, the incumbent prime minister marked a victory in the presidential elections. The result was not surprising also for the reason that the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (RPP) continued to play in the hegemonic discourse from the very start of the presidential campaign—with overemphasis on Sunni Islam, starting with the identity of its presidential candidate, continuing with an increasing moralistic tone in its campaign rhetoric. This has certainly alienated the party’s core electorate leading to no shows at the polls, while blocking the possibility for non-RPP voters to ally with the party. The last candidate, Selahattin Demirtaş, co-president of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), on the other hand offered a democratic portrait gaining the hearts and minds of the majority of the non-Kurdish democrats in Turkey; the votes that he got all over the country were promising, but always vulnerable in the face of the nationalistic sensitivities among the general populace.
…this mild nature of nationalism, conservatism, and religiosity might evolve into either a silence-cum-approval or total allegiance to ever increasing authoritarianism.
RQ: Finally, has Gezi Resistance opened paths for alternative political activisms? What are the new or emerging fields of resistance after the Gezi?
SC: It is certain that Gezi Resistance was an inspiring case in the face of the TINA argument that has long been adopted and forced by different neoliberal governments, and increasing conservatism and authoritarianism that could be pursued depending on this argument. It was promising for it signified the spontaneously formed solidarity among diverse social and political forces with a claim to the public. It is worth exploring and sustaining for it represented one of the rare cases in the political history of Turkey where different voices of opposition against various facets of exploitation—class, ethnic, religious, and gender—could come and act together. It was all the more worth participating and reinforcing since it was perhaps the first instance that revealed the patchwork style of neoliberal politics, dividing structural problems into separate and almost isolated issue areas, thus dividing and neutralizing structural opposition. And it is worth sustaining the activism that emerged in the Gezi Park for it could extend throughout the country with perhaps the only shared attribute: nonviolence in a violence-torn political culture.
Another instance of hope can be observed in the changing discourse among some of the parties of the left…
In a nutshell, the Gezi offered a venue and displayed the possibilities for citizens’ activism to claim the public and to generate alternative publics. I think the ever-increasing dose of police violence through the Resistance was mostly due to the fear among the ruling elite for not knowing how to respond to this non-violent and never-violent claim. Likewise, both the Resistance and its aftermath once more confirmed the insufficiency of the established political parties to meet the new style of politics, promised in the unfolding of the Resistance.