Tuesday, June 4, 2013

How protests in Turkey are perceived abroad

Okay time to write about an issue that I have been thinking about for a while: How these protests are perceived abroad. The protesters have been relying heavily on foreign media coverage until yesterday. This was even more important when Turkish media were almost entirely self-censoring. However, are the foreign sources doing justice to what is going on in Turkey? On earlier posts,  I wrote about how I find the seculars vs Muslims perspective simplistic. I also have a problem with the Orientalist perspective.
Are these protests yet another example of an Oriental dictator oppressing his subjects? This is definetely the message you get from some of the truly helpful international supporters of the protests like Anonymous. I, myself, happily shared their video which declared war (with their usual mechanic voice) on the Turkish government websites. However, is Erdoğan another dictator similar to his counterparts in China and Iran as Anonymous claims?
The answer is no. I will actually try to reverse the tables and risk doing some injustice to fellow comrades who have been very helpful in publicizing the protests. What we see in Turkey is not the usual pains of democratization that all democratic countries once supposedly passed through. Democratization is not a single path that each country should follow in turn. On the contrary, democratization is a process - a process in which political struggles take place in a country, based on its unique historical background and circumstances. Consequently, rather than talking about democracy in dichotomous terms (democratic or authoritarian), we should think of democracy as a scale with quite subjectively defined thresholds. Then, I think a better question about Turkey would be: Based on our observations of these protests (the demands, the pressures, the participants, and the government's responses), is the level of democracy in Turkey satisfactory?

As I see it, we are not witnessing a revolutionary movement to topple down a brutal dictator in Turkey. People hit the streets when they were upset with police brutality as they observed in the social media. They rushed into Taksim Square to criticize a popularly elected government which received 50% of the votes in the last elections (which were inarguably fair, except for a very high 10% national election barrier). We may be talking about an arrogant, over-confident and majoritarian leader but Erdoğan is not a completely unaccountable, hereditary tyrant. What is at stake in these protests is not revolution but the right to a say in city planning, a slap on the government's hand in intervening in different life styles, and an insistent call for increased public participation and public debate in policy making. This is democracy at work.

"The political" in these protests here pertains to people's immediate lives and concerns. Politics in Turkey is no longer conducted under proxies within limited arenas because the judiciary and the military wanted it so. People in Turkey hit the streets in protest even against a strong popularly elected government, and they pushed it back. This is what democracy looks like when political issues in debate are real, not fake.

We are obviously at a crossroads. The protesters made their point. Yesterday, President Abdullah Gül said that they got the message: Democracy does not just consist of elections. However, we are all pretty sure that the Prime Minister did not get that message yet. Where do we go from here? The answer to that question will definetely affect the quality of life and the quality of democracy in Turkey. But I also believe that there are many lessons to learn about democracy from these protests in Turkey - even for North American and European "democracies".

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