Jadaliyya: Brand Turkey and the Gezi Protests: Authoritarianism, Law, and Neoliberalism (Part Two), Asli Igsiz

Brand Turkey: Modeling Democracy and Neoliberalism

[Image via occupygezipics.tumblr.com]

[Image via occupygezipics.tumblr.com]

When commentators for CNN International, the new bête noir of AKP supporters for its Gezi coverage, criticized the government reaction against the protesters, they claimed that Turkey had previously been held up as a model of democracy in the Middle East, but that the present situation showed that Turkey was a model for nobody. Others in the media debated whether the Gezi Park protests could be compared to the so-called “Arab Spring,” or other protests against neoliberalism, such as the 15M movements in Spain, the anti-government protests in Greece, the “occupy” protests in Europe and the Americas, or the most recent protests in Brazil. Others were quick to label Erdoğan a “dictator.” Such statements treat the Turkish case as either “cultural” or “exceptional” in a manner that is orientalist at best. Why does the Middle East need a “model” in the first place? Isn’t this asking Turkey to assume a neo-Ottoman big brother role in the region? Further, the AKP is not Turkey’s first authoritarian party, nor is it operating as a dictatorship. Calling Erdoğan a dictator obscures more than it explains. Indeed, such approaches undermine attempts to recognize the pattern of shared characteristics of high-security neoliberal nation states, and their implicit connections to the cold war.

In order to foster capitalist economic interests against the communist threat during the years of cold war, military and/or authoritarian leaderships were supported across the Middle East and Latin America. Indeed, in a most distressing editorial in the Wall Street Journal, Egyptian generals who authored the recent coup are invited to follow the lead of Chilean General Augusto Pinochet and transition to a free-market economy. Obviously, it is not important to the author of the editorial that the result of such approaches was a disastrous series of military interventions and coups, a butchering of basic civil rights, attacks on minorities, and attempts at authoritarian social engineering.

In this context, evocative of the cold war, “dictatorship” has been a word often used for those authoritarian leaders who are not allies of global capitalist powers, or whose authoritarianism has become unjustifiable in the eyes of the international public, as was the case with Muammar Qaddafi. Engaging current uprisings in the Middle East divorced from this history therefore generates convenient regional exceptionalisms (considering Middle Eastern uprisings without looking at the rest of the Mediterranean and beyond); personalizes systemic problems (such as explaining authoritarianism solely by applying the label of “dictator”); culturizes protests (the “Arab Spring”); and disregards the implicit connections between the legacy of the cold war and the protests against neoliberal measures in places like Spain or Greece.

Neoliberal Rationality and its Impact on the Autonomy of Professions

As Wendy Brown reminds us, “neoliberal rationality, while foregrounding the market, is not only or even primarily focused on the economy; it involves extending and disseminating market values to all institutions and social action, even as the market itself remains a distinctive player.”[1] One of the ways this process operates is by targeting professional fields, such as education, and rendering profitability their dominant logic. But this is not the only way that neoliberal rationality targets professions.

In Turkey, those professionals who undermine or resist such tendencies in exercising their profession increasingly face legal and/or bureaucratic measures from the neoliberal state. Disciplinary investigations are increasingly mobilized as extensions of legal investigations against dissenting voices. This can be further construed as a measure to push professionals to adopt a neoliberal subjectivity, as the criminalization of those who exercise their professions generates a risk-averse professional environment. Such a process is exemplified in different ways for journalists, academics, doctors, lawyers, and even politicians.

The media, traditionally emblematic of supposed plurality, is the most obvious example of this process. The major media outlets in Turkey are owned by family holding companies, which use them to maximize their profits in other business enterprises. Such channels thus appear to exercise self-censorship in the name of other economic interests that require partnerships with the government. CNN Türk, the news channel that broadcast a documentary on penguins instead of reporting the Gezi protests and police brutality, has become an iconic example of this, but it is not the only one. A number of journalists have resigned from NTV, for instance, following the media corporate’s problematic coverage of Gezi protests, especially given the owner’s multiple business partnerships with the government. For independent organizations and individual journalists, the regular bureaucratic and legal investigations they face may also lead them to exercise self-censorship. Reportedly, independent television networks were issued a fine for their live coverage of the Gezi protests, as the broadcast content was deemed inappropriate and manipulative. Most worryingly, such tendencies are also being extended to social media, as in the case of a student taken into custody for her tweets, including those asking the police to be more respectful.

Academics are also targets for such investigations, in what appears to be an attempt to silence the production of knowledge. For example, in the course of his academic research, Professor Onur Hamzaoğlu, the chair of the Department of Public Health at Kocaeli University School of Medicine, found heavy metals in breast milk and infant feces in research on the residents of a chemical industrial area. Following his release of these distressing findings and public statements cautioning against the dangers of industrial pollution, the AKP mayors of Kocaeli Province and the affected town of Dilovası brought a lawsuit against him. Hamzaoğlu was accused of  “threatening to incite fear and panic among the population.” Then, following the lead of the AKP Minister of Health, the state-appointed Council of Higher Education [YÖK]—an institution that is a legacy of the 1980 military coup—reportedly urged the president of Kocaeli University to take “necessary action” against Hamzaoğlu. The University administration subsequently launched a disciplinary investigation against Hamzaoğlu. Such investigations give the impression of targeting positions deemed “undesirable” by state officials. Indeed, in the case of the Gezi protests, the state-appointed Council for Higher Education and the Ministry of Education have reportedly launched another series of investigations against students, teachers, and faculty who attended or supported the protests.

Perhaps most worrying is the increasing targeting of lawyers. In January 2013, a crackdown targeted lawyers working on some of most controversial human rights cases in Turkey, on the claim that these lawyers had ties to terrorist cells. The cases included the murder of Festus Okey, a Nigerian asylum-seeker in Istanbul killed in police custody. According to reports, the detained lawyers were interrogated about the reasons they had accepted such cases and the nature of their conversations with their clients. If true, such questions violate the right to counsel and imply that law enforcement might dangerously be considering attorneys as extensions of defendants—suggesting guilt by association. Similarly, lawyers who protested the recent police violence in Taksim in court were  detained and brutalized. This raises serious questions about whether those who pursue their professional vocation to its logical and democratic conclusion are being targeted by the system.

Even doctors are not immune from such intrusions. In an apparent attempt to intimidate doctors into being selective when providing assistance to the sick or wounded, the Turkish Ministry of Health recently announced it has launched an investigation against the doctors providing voluntary health service to victims of police brutality during the Gezi Park protests. In all these cases, investigative powers seem to be deployed to target those who address a problem, rather than the problem itself, whether it be industrial pollution, abuse of power, the effects of police brutality, or the loss of public green space. But can this be easily and unambiguously explained as dictatorship?

Brand Turkey: Protecting the Market Value

AKP officials actually appear to approach Turkey as a product, or more accurately, as a “brand name” to be protected. To give an example, the AKP’s Political Academy manual invites the attending AKP politicians to take a brand approach to Turkey. The AKP has established a political academy that trains both AKP politicians and citizens in AKP-sponsored politics. One of the goals of the academy is to establish an institutional identity and a unified political discourse among AKP politicians. The manual is a textbook used in the Academy. The section dedicated to the importance of stability and its relation to economic growth gives lengthy explanations on how Brand Finance, a transnational “brand valuation consultancy” firm headquartered in London, evaluates countries and hierarchizes them as brands.

The AKP’s manual also highlights how the brand name of Turkey has improved to become one of the most valuable in the world. This concern with image translates more broadly into attempts to use state power to preserve the profitability of foreign investments in Turkey. Could this be one of the reasons why some officials are more concerned with silencing those who raise questions, rather than addressing the problem itself? Indeed, some AKP officials involved in prosecuting Professor Hamzaoğlu appear to have attended the AKP Political Academy. During the Gezi protests, the Minister of Culture and Tourism accused the international press of trying to diminish the value of Turkey’s brand name with their coverage. Even President Abdullah Gül, a former AKP member, stated that the efforts put into building Turkey’s positive image over the last ten years were in danger of being reversed in a week by the brutality against protesters.

Granted, the criminalization of professional activity is nothing new in Turkey; academics and journalists have often been targeted before. What is new is, first, the expansion of the fields of criminalization (for example, to environmental activism) and terrorism allegations; second, that this is being done by a civilian government advertised as a model of democracy for the Middle East; and third, the rising role of neoliberal interests in this process. Nevertheless, just as the pacification of the military, and the methods it used in that process, did not make the AKP democratic, the authoritarianism deployed by the AKP does not make Erdoğan a dictator. Considering the authoritarian climate addressed in both parts of this essay, it is obvious some citizens of Turkey may feel compelled to resort to the metaphor of dictatorship to describe their experiences in the current environment.

Such statements, however, risk disregarding the fact that there is a complex transnational system behind neoliberal policies that feeds authoritarianism. Indeed, in the vast majority of countries, it is the militarized law enforcement (and no longer the cold-war-empowered military) that has undertaken the task of domestic guardianship of capitalist interests. In this changing world order, considering the military as the sole obstruction to democracy conveniently obscures the widespread growth of the militarized “riot police” and the deployment of “nonlethal technologies” against those who protest neoliberal policies around the world.

Democracy, National Security and Labor Rights

Consider the riot police attire, styled after the armor of medieval warriors with their shields. Also consider the lexicon of riot-police technology: water cannon, pepper gas grenades, gas bombs, the silent guardian, and so on. The war terminology and brutality witnessed in different protests around the world suggest that the riot police have undertaken a symbolic war against the unhappy crowds on behalf of the status quo. Meanwhile, nonlethal technologies are an ever-growing industry. None of this was invented by the AKP, and the militarization of the police has been in motion since the 1980 coup.[2] What is new is the eagerness of the international public to accept the pacification of the military (and the controversies raised in that process) as a good enough sign to declare Turkey a model of democracy for the Middle East. In such an environment, turning around and calling Erdoğan a dictator undercuts the opportunity to address these larger dynamics.

Such an approach also attributes the problem to Erdoğan only, even though the AKP is part of a wider system. For example, President Gül, to whom some have appealed as a moderating influence, has yet to turn down a bill sent to him by his former party. There is much to criticize in Erdoğan’s tone and methods of dealing with the latest protests, but holding him as the only one responsible for the present climate obscures all the other problems with the system and the responsibility of political actors. President Gül has also made undemocratic decisions, such as appointing his own candidates as university presidents—often overriding faculty votes. He isn’t the first President to adopt such practices, but he is the first to do so and still be embraced as a true democrat. It is not only the Prime Minister, but also the local and transnational systems that need to be considered in addressing the dynamics crystallized by Gezi protests. Indeed, any authoritarianism should be addressed with these dynamics in mind.

Overall, in neoliberal high-security nation state systems, “democracy” appears to be an overused word; all measures taken against it are justified on grounds of national security, as some American primary school children are now being taught. When President Bush wanted to justify the invasion of Iraq to the US public, he claimed it would bring “democracy” and freedom to Iraq. Later, the media outlets would defend themselves by claiming that they suppressed news in the name of national security. Such manipulation of the media offers powerful examples. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, EU Minister Egemen Bağış defended the auto-censorship in the Turkish media on the grounds that the protests were an issue of national security. As an example, he cited the post-9/11 era media coverage in the United States.

As for police brutality, one last thing to keep in mind is what lies behind it. During the protests, riot police officers appear to have resorted to extreme brutality. On the ground, however, some officers claimed to have been kept awake for sixty-six hours. The officers had to sleep in the streets and were not provided proper food. Moreover, one police chief allegedly likened Gezi to the 1915 battle of Gallipoli, and praised his riot police officers as actors in this “epic” war. Take the officers’ working conditions (which amount to abuse of labor), add in the militarization of law enforcement (which implies operating on the logic of friends or foes), and you have a perfect equation for someone who just wants the riots to end as soon as possible, and for whom respecting human rights is not a primary concern. In fact, a few police officers have testified to feeling shocked upon seeing how brutally they had attacked peaceful protesters. This is not to excuse police brutality, but to call attention to the fact that the Turkish police force too is part of the system, and that labor abuse might have played a role in some of the brutal scenes we have witnessed over the last weeks. Needless to say, in Turkey, unionizing is deemed illegal for police officers.

It is very important, therefore, to be aware of all these dynamics and not apply double standards, while still remaining critical of AKP policies. In fact, it is very telling that the controversy over the banning of red lipstick for Turkish Airlines flight attendants received more press coverage, especially in Europe—pumping an anti-Islamic fear—than the attempts to eliminate their legal labor rights by the AKP, in the name of protecting the brand name of the company. While the Spanish soccer team Barcelona wore shirts with Turkish Airlines as its sponsor, over three hundred Turkish Airlines workers were fired because they went on strike, as was their legal right. But none of this made the international news.

Overall, while Turkish neoliberalism, operating under the AKP, has its own idiosyncrasies, the shape its authoritarianism has taken is informed as much by transnational as by local dynamics of capitalist and political interests and divisions. While different countries deal with both the historical residues and current policies of global capitalist powers, the protests offer new opportunities to address the new elitism that has emerged in the name of populism (for example, both Bush and Erdoğan have claimed to be ordinary representatives of their populace, despite their current upper-economic-class status and measures to protect capitalist interests). Meanwhile, the autonomy of professions and labor rights are under attack across the board, while receiving less press coverage than other issues, contributing to the problems of the neoliberal world order. Whereas protesters take it to the streets for various reasons, their protests have opened valuable possibilities to address these dynamics and to question what exactly democracy and personal and communal rights mean in such a neoliberal order.


[1] Wendy Brown, Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 39-40.

[2] Biriz Berksoy, “The Police Organization in Turkey in the Post-1980 Period and the Re-Construction of the Social Formation.” Policing and Prisons in the Middle East: Formations of Coercion, Laleh Khalili and Jillian Schwedler eds. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).

Asli Igsiz
13 July 2013
Source: jadaliyya.com