What began as a protest to save a park from being demolished in Istanbul’s historic city center, Taksim, has become a movement that can reshape the concept of citizenship in Turkey.
The crowd today comprises individuals, each distinctive and in pursuit of resolving a particular grievance. All their grievances, however, are rooted in the authoritarian and dismissive attitude of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s Prime Minister. Some of these individuals have attempted previously to voice their various complaints. In another peaceful protest that turned violent, some in April tried to save a historic movie theater slated for demolition in order to build a shopping mall. Many were angered on May 1 because they were restricted from gathering in Taksim Square, a symbolic gathering point for those seeking to honor workers. They also were met with police resistance and brutality. Others continue to gather every Sunday at the Haydarpaşa train station to protest redevelopment plans targeting this spectacular, historic building.
These are only a few examples of citizens in recent months who have tried to make a statement, as one activist states, “by physically showing up since no other mechanisms have worked.” Repeatedly dismissed via the use of force, or simply ignored, these individuals have found a consolidated platform in the citizen movement that has coalesced around the Occupy Taksim movement.
I call this a citizens’ movement, aware of the fact that it does not represent the sentiments of all citizens of Turkey. However, unlike Erdoğan’s claim that democracy is a result of the ballot box, I highlight here that democracies are defined by their citizens. Pleasing each individual is impossible, but establishing the necessary mechanisms to listen to each individual is possible. As we witness this movement, and many such recent movements around the globe, we need to realize that the concept of citizenship has moved beyond simply a status of rights and obligations in a particular nation-state. It now encompasses citizenship at post-national and local levels, and multinational and cosmopolitan citizenships. And further, citizenship has gone from being a status to being an act. Yet in order to be such a citizen, the necessary mechanisms and regard for citizenship must exist.
This movement comes at a critical time and is representative of dualities that Turkey has lived and relived since its founding. Citizenship in Turkey is going through a period of major change. On the one hand, debates continue over the legal definition of citizenship in Turkey’s constitutional reform process and have been highly controversial. The duality of a nationalist/ethnicity-based versus a universalist reading and practice of Turkish citizenship persists. The second duality regarding citizenship is between the passive, compliant citizen and the active citizen.
Turkey’s history reflects a passive citizenry, regardless of the party or parties in rule. Citizenship in Turkey has emphasized obligations over rights. The attitude of the prime minister is indicative of this perception that the leader knows what is best for his/her citizens. On the other hand, we have the active citizenship practices we are witnessing today and that have been accumulating particularly over the past two decades, partly through the strengthening of civil society organizations that have organized and provided a venue for the practice of citizenship in Turkey. This critical moment will reveal whether Turkey can achieve an inclusive, universalist, and active citizenship.
Since Erdoğan’s election in 2002, the governing AKP has been able to operate in a way largely unchecked by strong, capable opposition parties. At present, many people feel there is no political channel to voice and represent their grievances. This is one factor that has triggered individuals and groups to organize around the Taksim movement.
The prime minister has insisted on “deciding for” the people on a range of issues from education to health, and from women’s rights to city planning. But what this movement shows is the citizenry does not want to be told what’s going to happen, it wants to participate. The individuals on the streets embody a diverse set of concerns, each in pursuit of something they value, and each angered by the prime minister’s dismissive approach to their grievances. Whether a common strategy can emerge from such a platform remains to be seen. What is more certain is that a process giving rise to active citizenship has commenced, and, hopefully, it will proceed developing under conditions that are not violent.
Didem Çakmaklı is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Koç University and holds an MA from The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and her BA from Whittier College. She has worked for various NGOs in Istanbul and Washington, DC. on issues ranging from education to Turkish-US relations.