This is already the tenth addition to the Thesis Pieces series made up of contributions from my past and present PhD research students at the University of Nottingham. This blog post from Görkem Altınörs spotlights some of the key misunderstandings about the Gezi Movement in Istanbul and focuses on the social processes linked to how shopping malls in Turkey have become what he calls the “spatial incarnations of neoliberal order” in Turkey. 

Kapitalizm gölgesini satamadığı ağacı keser

(Capitalism will cut down the tree if it can’t sell its shadow)

— Graffiti around Taksim Square

The greatest civil uprising in recent Turkish history erupted in Istanbul on 31 May 2013. It started with a peaceful sit-in protest in order to protect a few (probably the last) trees in the city centre. The excessive usage of force by police against activists assisted protests in spreading first across Istanbul and then to almost all cities throughout Turkey as well as major cities around the world. Demonstrations took an inspiring, widely participated, and multi-located form which created its own humour via graffiti and social media. According to government resources 2.5 million people joined rallies across the Turkey. The Turkish Medical Association has declared 4 deaths and over 8,000 injuries (60 with serious conditions). More than 70 people have been detained (out of 4,900 arrests) within 20 days.

The mainstream media in Turkey remained silent throughout the protests, leading the demonstrators to use social media to inform the rest of the world. Videos from the streets of Istanbul revealing the images of police brutality quickly garnered the focus of the international press. For instance, CNN televised the entire night of demonstrations on 2 June for nine hours. In the meanwhile, the protests have been portrayed as middle class, petty-bourgeois, and a ‘white Turks’ uprising based on an assumed conflict between secularist people and an Islamist government. This understanding of the unrest brings us to a position where the underlying economic aspects of the issue are overlooked, for a ‘secularist versus Islamist’ dichotomy would prevent us from comprehending the heterogeneous composition of demonstrators.

ParkFirst, this type of labeling of the phenomenon as a middle class revolution would be a superficial one. According to a survey carried out by Istanbul Bilgi University Press, 67.1% of protestors are aged 30 and below. Turkey’s youth unemployment rate increased to 20.1% in 2013 and employed youngsters are compelled to accept the conditions of precarious work. Those who were murdered on the streets during the uprising illustrate the profile of demonstrators. Ethem Sarısülük (aged 26 – Ankara) was a metalworker at OSTİM (Ankara industrial region), Abdullah Cömert (aged 22 – Antakya) was a worker at a citrus fruit factory as well as Mehmet Ayvalıtaş (aged 20 – Istanbul) who was a factory worker too. Also, the two largest trade unions declared a general strike and joined the rally during the demonstrations. Therefore it is quite unfair to ignore the working class aspect of the uprising in light of these facts. Additionally, as the main opposition party, the pro-secular CHP’s strike-breaking activities, after the declaration of general strike, shows us how secular politicians are deeply involved in the uprising, notwithstanding the fact that the mayor of Izmir, Aziz Kocaoğlu from the CHP, declared that whoever joined the general strike from the municipality would be extremely punished.

Second, regardless of the class composition of the protests, the very central aim of the uprising is to prevent one of the last parks in the city centre of Istanbul from demolition and to be replaced by a shopping mall. Shopping malls in Turkey have become spatial incarnations of neoliberal order. The construction sector has become a pivotal one since the 1980s when Turkey left the import substituting industrialisation model and became integrated into the neoliberal system. Discourses of urban renewal have assisted the sector to diffuse more and more the economic system while the size of cities has boomed. Shopping malls have become the symbol of this urban transformation and gentrification. Today Istanbul and Ankara are the first and second cities in Europe and the Middle East with the highest number of shopping malls. Therefore, it would not be too unrealistic to claim that those who do not want a shopping mall in Taksim Square, represent a growing opposition to the neoliberal restructuring of the city. Opposition to the neoliberal assault on living space is at the very heart of the movement.

ProtestsLabeling the entire body of demonstrators as ‘seculars’ is also an over-generalisation. The movement was initially organised by Taksim Solidarity which consists of 118 constituents from different backgrounds. Apart from Taksim Solidarity, the profile of individual protestors is quite heterogeneous and includes Kurds, Alevis, LGBT communities, feminists, nationalists, liberals, socialists, anarchists, communists, social democrats, ultras of football clubs, students, Kemalists and Muslims. Muslim involvement in the movement cannot be ignored. Especially, Anticapitalist Muslims, Revolutionary Muslims and Mazlumder have appeared as leading Muslim communities. For instance, the spokesman of Anticapitalist Muslims, İhsan Eliaçık, led the Friday salah two times on 7 and 14 July in front of the tent mosque in Gezi Park and participation was high. Those who were not praying at that moment formed a human chain to protect praying protestors. One of the Anticapitalist Muslims’ slogans was self-explanatory in understanding their presence there: “Property is Allah’s, capital get out of Taksim”. A Revolutionary Muslims’ banner was more detailed: “Trees worship Allah, the AKP worships capital”. Also, some prominent Muslim authors and scholars penned a declaration under the name of the Labour and Justice Coalition. They point out how capitalism is not in accord with Islam and how neoliberalism has damaged Islamic society. As noted in the following statement, this group has also highlighted that the current government’s rise to power was marked by a struggle against a heavy-handed Kemalism, but eventually they ended up replacing their former foes’ practice.

In every location undergoing gentrification, attempts are being made to clear the path for a new and elite style of life − partly modern and partly conservative… People who fought for trees harbouring the poor and homeless were faced with the harshest form of the State’s hubris for protesting the top-down decision to transfer this park into capital… Our neighbourhood is dying out. We almost turned into a society whose poor and rich are praying in different mosques. Don’t you want our kids to neighbour the poor, and befriend them? A consumption culture that finds its expression in malls is leading us all into a future from which we cannot return.

To sum up, rather than an exclusively secular and middle class activism, the Gezi movement should be understood as a counter-hegemonic uprising based on different class fractions and ideological groups against the AKP’s authoritarian neoliberal hegemony which, in the words of Antonio Gramsci, is fast losing the unstable equilibrium between coercion and consent.

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