Turkey: the Political Balance of Forces in Three Interviews

The full version was published in Serbian on Masina.

The attempted coup of July 15th caught me in Istanbul. What that night of adrenaline, shocking and confusing news, the sounds of machine-gun fire and low-flying military aircraft left me with was a desire to better understand what happened. Being so close to the Bosphorus bridges—a site of much of the action on that night–and witnessing first hand the masses responding to Erdogan’s call did not by itself help. What shed more light on the moment were three conversations I had with Turkish participants in our summer school: with Saygun Gökarıksel, who teaches sociology at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University, with members of the members of Artıkişler video collective, and with Foti Benlisoy from the leftist group Başlangıç. These conversations took place against a background of AKP’s post-coup cleansing of the state apparatus and civil society.

The atmosphere in the education sector has been tense since the beginning of the year when the government undertook different measures against hundreds of academics who signed a petition for peace, and currently there is a rising suspicion regarding the unclear boundaries of ongoing investigations of education workers’ alleged links with the Gulen movement – explains Saygun Gökarıksel.

Andras Juhasz (AJ): Why is the number of sacked employees so disproportionately high in the educational sector?

saygunSaygun Gökarıksel (SG): Like the judiciary, military, and media, education has recently become subjected to loyalty screenings by the AKP government. This is in a sense nothing surprising. Education has always been part of the battlefield of power and ideological struggle since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923. It has gone through drastic reforms (change of alphabet into Latin, curricula revisions etc.) to consolidate the authority of the secular nation-state. Since the 1960s, education institutions, especially the universities, have been the hotbeds of student movements and political organizing and thus, also of state repression and intervention. Like in other modern societies, education institutions and practices in Turkey have been key to the production and reproduction of class relations of power, hegemony, and conflict, as well as to the cultivation of ‘loyal’ citizen-subjects of the Republic. In the Kurdish regions, this process can be acutely observed.

The AKP government is certainly aware of the importance of education sector. Indeed, it has been striving to transform the education institutions and form alternative ones in the image of its conservative-nationalist ideology in order to build what it calls a “new Turkey” and effect a change in the class structure of society.

AJ: How significant is the Gulen movement in this sector?

SGUntil recently AKP heavily relied on the grassroots work of Fethullah Gulen movement and their cadres, which the AKP launched in state institutions to replace the old Kemalist personnel. The government now calls this Gulen movement dangerous, secretive transnational “terrorist” organization, concentrated on the Turkish state.

Aside from the thousands of purged education workers, 15 universities were recently shut down. In this cleansing operation, the AKP uses the High Education Council (YOK), an institution established with the military coup of 1980 to politically oversee and control the higher education institutions. The rectors/heads of universities are required to name the faculty who were suspected of having links with the Gulen movement.

AJ: What is the general disposition among the academics? What is there to be done?

SG: Currently, the general disposition among academics – as far as my personal experience is concerned – can be characterized as one of anxious waiting and myopic and obsessive scrutiny of every single development related to the course of purges in academia and beyond. While the great majority of society is currently hailed as the passive spectators of an unknown script being produced “at the top” of political power (during the heat of the struggle between ideological and repressive state apparatuses), we hope that social and political organizations, from education workers and public employees, to students and other sectors of society, will soon be able to form a common vocabulary and platform for collective action to struggle against all forms of coup (military or civic) and repression. Otherwise, the future of this “state of emergency,” which gives exceptional powers to the executive, it seems, is virtually boundless. It can extend into any sphere that it deems potentially subversive or critical.

 

Forming a common vocabulary of struggles and organizing against the government faces additional difficulties in the media sphere. A number of media outlets were banned by the government after the coup attempt, but this hardly represents a discontinuity in its media policy. We spoke with members of Artıkişler collective about the situation in the media sphere and alternative media.

This video collective tries to create collective production and distribution spaces in the fields of contemporary visual culture and arts. Following the principles of collective working, it has developed exhibition and screening strategies in collaboration with other groups with similar orientations on the breaking point issues of Turkey’s near social history such as urban transformation, gentrification, forced migration, refugees, labor in urban space, archiving and collective social memory.

AJ: How would you describe the media sphere in Turkey?

artikislerArtıkişler collective (AC): We can describe the media sphere with a few terms: censorship, power relations and manipulation. There are big, corporate media chains and companies in relation with power, the ruling party and mainstream groups, which have complex and integrated relations with the ruling party.

In addition, Kurdish and libertarian groups have created their own, smaller media channels, which have been censored or manipulated regularly by the state. Because of this, those media groups try to survive with guerilla tactics or use their databases and equipment abroad.

The impact of social media has increased and became popular through the Gezi Resistance. This also causes a widespread censorship mechanism of the state against any political visibility of social movements. The state encourages and even awards conservatives and fascists to complaint any post in social media against state policies. All the journalists and media activists who are now in prison are labeled as “terrorist” by the state media channels. Currently over 40 journalists are in prison and most of them are accused of making news about curfews and military sieges in Kurdish towns. There is a Platform for Solidarity with the Arrested Journalists fighting for their releases and keep the public awareness on the issue.


AJ: What was the reason for you to start your video-activist work?

AC: There are several reasons. First, it is an attempt to break mainstream media’s manipulations, which acts in parallel with state control and police violence. There is an urgency to create our own media. Secondly, we have been recording and documenting the daily life as Dziga Vertov and Kinoks did in the beginning of 20th century with film cameras. Now we have smaller ones, and it’s easier. We have been witnessing political and social transformation in Turkey, and our videos become testimonies that help to create a collective social memory. History of political movements in Turkey has been written by state-led archives mostly, and this causes a misrepresentation of political movements, especially libertarian movements. Video-activists, mostly record or use the images of daily life and the streets, so this means, any video-activist can create his/her own autonomous archive of political movements, which becomes a source of counternarratives to those produced by the archives.

 

AJ: What are the potentials of alternative media? Was your project attacked by the government?

AC: Alternative media has been growing. We should also consider the effects of Gezi uprising. Many new alternative media collectives and initiatives emerged then and spread throughout the country. An autonomous media network has initiated for a few years with the spread of digital media and activism.

Artıkişler Video Collective has been working on creating a digital platform of collective social memory, a digital media archive of Turkey’s political movements which was initiated during Gezi uprising in 2013. Bak.ma is also a living archive and an open-source public space for free speech, creation and participation. We collected recordings and testimonies of activists on the streets and created this platform The content of bak.ma has been enlarging by involving video data, texts and graphics of political movements such as LGBT and feminist protests, Kurdish struggle, 1st of May, 19 January rallies, etc.

Some of our works have been censored and attacked by either state-led or fascist groups for 15 years. But this also proves that the video is a powerful tool for activism in order to spread the voice.

 

Başlangıç (The Beginning) is a political collective that was built immediately after the Gezi revolt. It brings together militants and activists from different political traditions and who are active in many spaces of struggle – from labour struggles to city right movements, solidarity with migrants and ecological movements. We talked with Foti Benlisoy (FB) from Başlangıç about the post-coup politics of AKP and the position of the left in the current situation.

AJ: What are your views on Erdogan’s political actions, which he is undertaking after the coup attempt?

fotiFoti Benlisoy (FB) : Erdogan seeks to turn the failed coup into a political opportunity for himself, and use it as a pretext to initiate yet another wave of authoritarianism. The process can be described as a self-coup. A self-coup is a form of a putsch in which a leader or a political party despite having come to power through legal means, dissolves or renders powerless the national legislature and unlawfully assumes extraordinary powers, not granted to him under normal circumstances. Thus it is very logical to estimate that the state of emergency will not be a temporary measure against the failed coup but it will be used to give a legal pretext to the process of creating a majoritarian, autocratic ‘dominant party’ system.


AJ: How will Erdogan use this period?

FB: The first target is to complete the purge that is taking place within the army and the bureaucracy. Erdogan and the ruling AKP is targeting all the elements that are thought to be untrustworthy within the state apparatuses. The state of emergency gives Erdogan the power and legal means to ‘cleanse’ the state. They are targeting at the moment those who are suspected to be linked to the Gulen movement which is thought to be the main perpetrator of the attempted coup. AKP in fact had coalesced with that movement in its first ten years in rule. It was a mutually beneficiary relationship. Erdogan gave them popular legitimacy and government backing while the Gulenist in the judiciary, bureaucracy, police and army gave crucial support to AKP’s confrontations with the Kemalists during the early 2000s. The last three years we saw the crumbling of that tacit coalition. Now it is time for Erdogan to liquidate this movement, which he thinks (rather correctly) betrayed and stabbed him back.

However, that is not an easy task. This purge means a big upheaval and confusion within the state apparatuses and that is why Erdogan needs the backing of the major opposition parties. Thus during the weeks after the failed coup he is trying to get the consent of the main opposition by creating an atmosphere of national unity. Another reason for that rather conciliatory attitude is Erdogan’s belief that western powers and especially the US are behind the coup attempt. This assumption might have some basis. So he feels isolated and in a sense threatened by the West. Thus this is a contradictory situation in the sense that while Erdogan’s popular charisma is at its peak, he is insecure and politically weak due to the fragmentation in the state apparatuses and his isolation in the international arena.

 

AJ: How will this affect the left? Will the left be targeted in this period? In your opinion what should be the course of action of the left?

FB: As I said before, for the time being the main target is the Gulenist movement. However, the state of emergency gives the ruling party and Erdogan himself the means to restructure the state and create all the mechanisms needed for the elimination of political dissent. It is easy to assume that once the purge of Gulenists is over and once Erdogan feels more secure, the target will be the ‘usual suspects’ i.e. the left, the labour and social opposition and the Kurdish movement again. I think that we should not wait to see this coming. We need broad alliances for the defense of democratic rights that will transcend the cultural barriers (secular vs. Islamic, western vs. national/traditional etc.) that Erdogan’s conservative and right wing populism so successfully maintains. This divide-and-rule policy of ‘cultural wars’ was very effective during AKP’s rule since it made class politics almost impossible. For that we need to link democratic demands with social and class demands. We also should be aware that political coalitions with liberal-secular mainstream parties against AKP will play into Erdogan’s hand since it will broaden his populist appeal. Of course, we need broad coalitions with the liberal mainstream for the defense of political and social rights. But these should have a temporary character and should target only concrete demands. In other words, these coalitions or campaigns should not have a permanent character; otherwise, it will impossible to retain the political and organizational autonomy of the radical left.

The political balance of power that has led us to increasing authoritarianism can only be altered by changing the existing social-class balance of power in favor of the workers. For that reason, we need to combine democratic rights with social and economic demands and to insist on maintaining radical left’s political independence while pushing for broad and open campaigns for the defense of democracy.

 

Andras-JuhaszAndrás Juhász is a political activist from Zrenjanin, Serbia. He is member of the editorial board of portalmasina.rs 

 

One Response to Turkey: the Political Balance of Forces in Three Interviews

  1. Susan McEwen says:

    It is nice to hear opposition voices. Thank you.

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