The recent uprisings in Turkey indicated a transformation of youth cynicism into a widespread protest against the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) government’s conservative and autocratic policies. This transformation demands a new way of thinking about youth and politics in the country. If nothing else, young people can no longer be easily characterized as politically apathetic.
In June 2013, Turkey witnessed young people going out onto the streets to defend trees, solidarity, and freedom against the AKP’s profit-driven, socially conservative, autocratic rule. The number of protestors (whose average age is twenty-eight, according to a Konda poll) grew exponentially as they were met with police brutality and the government’s marginalizing, polarizing, and terrorizing discourse.
It all began as a peaceful sit-in against the government plan to build a shopping mall in Gezi Park in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square. The police attack on protestors turned a small-scale local protest into a city- and country-wide uprising. Plenty of analysis has appeared in domestic and foreign media about the causes, methods, and effects of the events. While government supporters insist on portraying protests as a product of a foreign and domestic conspiracy to weaken Turkey’s successful economy and its increasing role in world politics, many analysts have emphasized the democratic nature of protests. Some have analyzed the role of the autocratic policies of the ruling AKP in pressuring the society to rebel; others examined the novelty, diversity, and humor that protestors displayed.
To most analysts, young people’s role in the uprising—their determination, solidarity, and politics—came as a surprise. This role was unexpected because young people, who had been identified as apolitical and individualistic for decades, proved that they cared about how current politics are affecting the nation and themselves, and that they are willing to protest resiliently.
De-politicization and Apathy: What Happened?
The uprising posed a fundamental challenge to the discourse of apathy that has dominated thinking about youth in Turkey over the last four decades. Historically, this discourse had its roots in the 1980 coup d’état. The coup can be seen as resulting from widespread politicization in society, involving violent clashes between left and right groups throughout the 1970s; it put in place a systematic de-politicization effort in order to prevent young people from engaging in politics outside the state’s defined ideological scope. The military regime that ruled the country between 1980 and 1983, and the civilian government that followed, defined this ideological scope in terms of a Turkish-Islamic synthesis. Young people were inculcated into this ideology in schools, through mass media, and by a security regime that repressed alternative political expression and action.
This de-politicization was not only carried out by state institutions; the family also played a central role in bringing up the next generations with disinterest, fear, and a disgust of politics. Parents across social classes guided their youngsters to stay away from politics and focus on their careers as students, workers, and professionals. Even parents who had actively taken part in left or right student movements in the 1970s did not present politics to their children as something worth pursuing.
One needs to insert a parenthesis here in regard to Kurdish youth, who, unlike the majority, could not avoid politics in the post-1980 era. The war between the Turkish military and the Kurdistan’s Worker’s Party (PKK) in the eastern provinces, and the state security regime that accompanied it across Turkey, served to repress the most basic rights of Kurds. Many Kurdish youth experienced violence, including the loss of their loved ones, which led to a very different political socialization.
Nonetheless, the majority of Turkish youth grew up in a context in which they no longer figured in the political discourse as saviors and protectors of the state and the nation. This was a discourse that had dominated previous periods: from the Young Ottomans to the Young Turks, from Atatürk entrusting the new Turkish Republic to the youth of Turkey, to the youth movements of the 1960s and 1970s that sought to guard the nation against communism or American capitalism. Rather, the young came to be seen as a cause of disappointment and frustration for the more politically involved in the older generations. Intellectuals, politicians, and laypersons from both the left and the right saw young people as lacking ideals, knowledge, and the will to get involved in the political life of the country.
The new situation in Turkey—young people protesting day in and day out in major cities, putting up barricades to guard against police attacks, coming up with humorous critiques of government policies, forming discussion forums in parks, and practicing participatory democracy at a neighborhood level—compels us to ask what happened. How did the youth, whose apathy was their most established characteristic, become the agents of what may come to be seen as one of the most significant uprisings in Turkey’s history? What did we miss in understanding young people? How is it that their present revolt does not connect easily with what we knew, or thought we knew, about them?
Power, Politics, and Cynicism
I want to respond to these questions by reflecting on qualitative research I conducted in the 2000s on youth and politics in Turkey. The research involved in-depth interviews with fifty young people between twenty and thirty years of age. A large majority of my interviewees were “ordinary” in the sense that they were not part of any political party, politicized group (such as veiled female students), or civil society organization. I talked to service and manual workers, university-educated professionals, unemployed youth, and young women at home. I defined politics at two levels: first, at the level of government, political parties, and politicians; and second, at the broader level of power and inequality as they affect young people’s opportunities and participation in society. Therefore, while I was interested in young people’s understanding of and feelings about politics in the first level defined above, I also wanted to map their narratives about social and political inequality in order to get at their perceptions of power and powerlessness in politics more broadly conceived.
When I asked youth about politics, in compliance with the apathy discourse, my interviewees repeatedly responded that they were not interested in politics. However, when I went beyond this self-proclaimed disinterest and asked them the often-neglected question of “Why weren’t they interested?” I observed that young people have a range of feelings (distaste, exclusion, hatred, fear) and criticism of political practice, politicians, and procedural democracy. They also had criticisms of the historical circumstances that render politics inaccessible, unworthy, and even dangerous in Turkey.
These feelings and criticisms often related to young people’s understanding of their place in power hierarchies in society. But more importantly, they showed that in contrast to the dominant discourse, young people were not apathetic but cynical. The word “apathy,” from Greek apatheia, meaning without pathos, feeling, or suffering, hardly captured the strong expressions of contempt for politicians, the distrust in politics, and the sense of powerlessness against their rulers that I witnessed among the young people I interviewed. Similarly, young people in my study were strikingly explicit about connecting social problems to politics, the absence of which can be viewed as a barometer of apathy (see Nina Eliasoph, 1998). Bad and corrupt politicians, ineffective institutions, and the authoritarian constitution were some of the common links that my interviewees made between social problems and politics.
My research showed that despite their self-proclaimed disinterest in politics, young people do in fact talk about politics, have ideas about politics and politicians, and adjust their expectations according to the performance of governments. Therefore, I argued, young people were not apolitical, or apathetic, but rather cynical. I also showed that their cynical reasoning often varied in accordance with their social class positions. For instance, while lower classes mentioned that politics was for those who have money, power, and time, middle and upper classes complained that politics was a waste of their skills and time. However, they all agreed on the absence of channels to express their problems and to influence politicians and politics in the country.
Widespread cynicism is one of the most salient challenges for democracy. As Jeffrey Goldfarb (1991) has diagnosed, it generates “legitimation through disbelief”; that is to say, it legitimizes the political order by allowing people to put an emotional distance between their expectations and politics. Slavoj Zizek (1989) has also observed that people are aware of the incongruence between social reality and the ruling ideology but act as if they are deceived; state power (or procedural democracy for that matter) depends on the existence of cynical subjects and their “cynical distance” to legitimate and maintain itself in contemporary societies.
Today, we see in Turkey that protests have served to close the cynical distance. The youth who have been criticized for being apolitical for decades are out to exhibit to the rest of the country the failure and hypocrisy of the AKP’s so-called democratization. They no longer accept legitimacy through disbelief, but call instead for legitimation through accountability and respect for rights. They rise against the government’s authoritarian and conservative vision, captured in the motto of ”a religious youth,” which Prime Minister Erdoğan and his government set out to cultivate. In response to the AKP’s continuous assault on rights and freedoms, and disdain for lifestyles and demands of those who disagree with its neoliberal and conservative vision of society, widespread cynicism turned into open protest.
It is hard to answer the “why now?” question. This is true for all revolutionary situations. For instance, while there were others who immolated themselves before Mohamed Bouazizi, we do not know why his action, but not that of others before him, created a mass reaction and finally led to the demise of Ben Ali in Tunisia. One response to “why now?” in Turkey is certainly the accumulation of resentment and anger in society in the more than ten years since the AKP government came to power. Although, according to the Konda poll, forty-five percent of the people gathered at the Gezi Park were first-time protestors, I believe that the June protests built on Turkey’s recent vivid history of public protest, including the Tekel strikes, May Day protests, Republican Rallies, and actions by the Saturday Mothers. Another response can be that only an “innocent” goal such as protecting a public park could garner such support and participation from diverse sections of the society, including various and opposing political affiliations and ideologies. But more important, perhaps, is what the resistance at Gezi against the police intervention showed to the rest of the cynical society—that they are not powerless or alone.
Who Are the Protestors and What Do They Demand?
But aside from being predominantly young, who are these protestors? And what are their demands? I am not sure how many of my interviewees actually came out to the streets to support Gezi and to protest against the government. From their complaints and desires, I believe many of them were at least happy to see previously disorganized sections of society find their voice. However, I suspect that many, while critical of the AKP’s policies, would not easily identify themselves with the protestors in terms of socio-economic background and education.
The polls conducted by Konda and researchers at Bilgi University give us an estimate of the level of education of the protestors at the Gezi Park. According to these polls, over fifty percent of protestors have undergraduate or graduate degrees. This is a highly educated group in a country in which about seven years of education is the average. The polls also indicate that the majority are working people (fifty-two percent) and that they are not affiliated with, nor do they feel close to, any political party or civil society organization (above seventy percent). In addition, they use social media and the Internet as their primary sources of information about current events (above seventy percent).
In terms of demands, the majority of the protesters call for the protection of rights and liberties (about sixty percent), whereas only a minority asks for the resignation of the government (nine percent). As one member of the Çarşı football fan club, which was at the forefront in the protests, stated: “We’re not a political movement. We just want to live and to be respected as human beings.”
The days of intense street protests seems to be giving way to more dispersed protests about injustices around the country and to a relatively calmer discussion about what can be done to defend cities and citizens against ongoing environmental destruction, urban transformation, economic injustices, and political repression. Under the AKP government, over seven hundred young people have been jailed for political reasons under the anti-terror law. In nightly forums organized in public parks in Istanbul, Ankara, and other cities, people discuss ways to influence the central and local governments, the possibility of transforming the movement into a political party, ways of strengthening opposition and fighting against government censorship of the media, and methods of bettering their lives through mutual respect, understanding, and solidarity.
What may come out of these discussions is unclear at the moment. What is clear, however, is that the encounters, dialogues, and affinities formed through the act of protesting shoulder to shoulder with thousands of others that were previously identified as the other—be it Kurds, LGBTQ individuals, socialists, feminists, or Islamists—have increased awareness and empathy. The police brutality that left some dead and many injured, the silence of television channels, and the government discourse that identified protestors with terrorism led many young, urban, middle-class, and educated Turks to question what has been told to them by governments for decades—for example, about the Kurdish reality. The solidarity displayed in Istanbul and Ankara with Kurdish protestors who were fired upon by soldiers in Lice on 29 June demonstrated this increasing awareness. In addition, the pride march that took place on 30 June in Istanbul, which was the largest in its decade of existence, heralds the increasing recognition of LGBTQ individuals.
In the days of uprising, protestors got to know each other, saw their commonalities, learned the value of respecting differences, witnessed forms of support and solidarity that they longed for in their everyday lives, and finally realized their collective power to resist the government’s violation of rights and freedoms. What Turkey went through in June 2013 was not a revolution in the classical sense of knocking down the government, but it was definitely a revolution of consciousness. People saw that an alternative was possible. Young people, who had been dismissed for decades as ignorant and apolitical, were in the forefront. One can only hope that young people’s move away from cynicism and the awakening to a collective sense of power and action will lead to a fundamental transformation of Turkish politics and an opportunity for a more democratically and justly governed society.
18 July 2013