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University of Basel

01 July 2013

Erdogan and His “Fifty Percent”: Researcher Alp Yenen on Turkey

Alp Yenen, a native of Ankara, is a doctoral student and assistant lecturer in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Basel. He explains his views on the origins of Turkey’s protests, the reaction of the police, and the intransigence of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The media has been using the term “Young Turks” quite frequently to describe the protesters in Turkey. You are actually writing your dissertation on the original Young Turks. Do you think that this terminology is appropriate?

I would be careful comparing the Constitutional Revolution of 1908, the real Young Turks (which involved a similar idealist and diverse generation, but also a coup d’etat by military officers) with what is going on now in Turkey.

Is it surprising that the military has not become involved in this conflict, given that it has often done so at other points in Turkey’s history?

During the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) reign, the military has been discursively and legally marginalized from the civil political scene. Many generals are also in jail for allegedly conspiring coup d’états.

What bonds join the protesters?

They are very heterogeneous. The upper class youth is there, but the conservative upper class Muslim bourgeoisie is, of course, not there. Parts of the middle class youth are there. Left-wing intellectuals are also there. There are even lower classes, but they are generally associated with trade unions. One of the most interesting to me is the Anti-Capitalist Muslim Movement, which built a little mosque in Gezi Park. But the most committed are the young people associated with the secular, middle, and upper classes.

These young people –- are their grievances of a secular nature? Do they feel economically displaced?

These categories are historically conditioned, and the Kemalist-Islamist, secular-religious dichotomy is not as strong as it was in the past. The actual concerns have to do with the intervention of the state into the private spheres of people, with a moral-religious justification to change lifestyles. People don’t like this.

Why Gezi Park?

It’s just by chance. Gezi Park is not a popular park like the Tiergarten in Berlin or Central Park in the United States, but it is similarly central to the heart of the city. It began with an environmentalist movement of about 500 people or less. The trigger for the protests of larger size, however, was the reaction of the police. The police reacted very fiercely and provocatively. They burned down the tents, they tore down the trees, and the official report was missing. Suddenly thousands of people were marching and social media was booming with pictures.

Why did the police take such actions? Are they professionally independent?

The orders come from above, but beyond the order there is commitment and initiative by the police. There is a difference between being ordered to shoot a gas grenade, and carrying out that order, and shooting this grenade into the face of a protester and making a “hurrah” motion afterward. I think that the police are becoming more like the guardian of the regime. There is an Islamic networking within the police and they are ideologically more homogenous than the protesting masses.

What do you think will happen next?

I think that Erdogan is playing a game of chicken right now. He is becoming more aggressive and arrogant in his rhetoric. When he does a public speech, he talks to his own people, what he calls “MY fifty percent.” He is not talking to protesters or attempting to calm them or negotiate. There has been an order issued to arrest doctors who have been helping the protesters. He is using a lot of religious motifs and symbols, like accusing protesters of drinking alcohol in the Dolmabahçe mosque, and suspending the imam of the mosque who refuted the allegations. He has registered that he has lost his image in Europe and with the Western media, and he doesn’t care about it anymore. I think it is a really slippery slope.

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