Gezi Park: An Attempt to Break Free from Grand Narratives

Gezi Park: An Attempt to Break Free from Grand Narratives

Introduction: Istanbul’s Liberal Awakening

It took me a while to realize that the whistling was coming from outside my window. Through the curtains I could only make out that something was happening outside. In a futile attempt to keep the summer heat out, I had locked myself indoors, forcing myself to write rather than sunbathe. I rushed out to the terrace, and was met there by my other flatmates. All were leaning over the railing, peering down onto the street. Down below a squadron of about 20 policemen flanked by riot police were making their way up the steep road to Taksim square. Heads hung, they endured the incessant booing and yelling, which rained down from every balcony, terrace and windowsill in the area. The youngest amongst the policemen glanced warily up at the rooftops, no doubt feeling exposed and vulnerable. No one could tell at what moment someone in the crowd might decide to substitute rocks for insults. As the police turned the corner onto Taksim Square, it was hard to imagine that these men, looking hounded in their uniforms, were part of the same forces who had so incessantly attacked protestors, beaten doctors, assaulted hospitals and gassed children, animals, and onlookers alike.

Foreign Conspiracies or Domestic Issues?

The Turkish government has repeatedly and fantastically stated that the police brutality was a justified response against foreign conspirators seeking to destabilize the country. Both pro-European and pro-Turkey parties, such as the German Green Party, have been quick to condemn the violence as a breach of Human Rights, and as yet another example of why Turkey should never be granted access to the EU’s hallowed ranks until it undertakes some major governmental reform. But the protests have become all too quickly embroiled in such a normative Eurocentric debate, rather than a discussion of Turkish civil society and social protest.   

Turkey’s history with the EU is a complex one, and the pressure to ensure Human Rights is merely a contemporary feature of what has been a longer struggle. Turkey had already signed the Ankara Agreement in 1963, according to which the European Economic Union would treat Turkey as an associate member until the accession was later to be formalized. Greece, which had signed the same agreement a year before Turkey, was admitted into the EU in 1981. Turkey, on the other hand, only became a candidate as late as 1999. This was seen in Turkey as the latest development in what had started to fuel a cultural paranoia going back to historic fears of a Greek-Byzantine territorial expansion (Göçek, 2008). Such fears of disintegration still fuel Turkish nationalistic rhetoric to the extent that it has become a cultural phenomenon in its own right, a paranoia of all things interpreted as an attempt to suppress the “viability of Turkish democracy itself” (Watts, 1999). Of course this renders the Turkish Government’s credibility increasingly arbitrary.

But let us briefly reconsider what has been dubbed the “Sèvres Syndrome”, a term harking back to the Post-WW1 treaty, which divided and reallocated the Ottoman Empire. Such historical insecurities still lace Turkish geopolitics and domestic protectionism until this day. Although the issue of human rights has become a crucial normative component of the EU’s self-legitimization as a moral actor, the ordering principle of the necessity of a member state to ensure human rights constitutes both a “constraining and disposing force” (Waltz, 1979). Or in other words, the expectation that Turkey would skip to the beat of the West. Indeed, the Turkish government used to treat the European representatives like royals, at least until the onset of the economic crisis in 2008. Erdoğan has been responsible for a slow reversal of this power relation, yet he still blames any threat to his authority on “Western conspirators”, and accuses them (not entirely without cause) for the ongoing fixation with the unrest in Turkey.

Of course the reverse also occurs in Europe, where the Europeans, now referring to Turkey as “the sick man of Europe” (the modern version of “the terror of Europe”) maintain a deeply rooted suspicion of Islam. These newfound fears of multiculturalism and the distant memories of clashes such as the 1683 battle with the Ottoman Empire at the gates of Vienna, resonate in obstructive and xenophobic ways (Elver, 2005). Yet such narratives continue to be spun to paint the GeziPark struggle as a fight for secular modernity, not civil society.

gezi 3

Gezi in the International Press

As the protests continued into their third week, I realized that GeziPark sympathizers were becoming increasingly critical of the tone of the International Press. It became clear that the only way for the protestors to remain relevant to the news agencies’ interests was to dramatize their struggle as a larger fight between secularism and Islamist repressive state measures. This had the sad effect that for many international onlookers, the protests became a late encore to the show of the Arab Spring, rather than an Occupy-style movement. While it can be argued that Occupy is as much a misnomer for the Gezi park protest as is the Arab Spring, the former is clearly a more Western, more hip, and ultimately more desirable label under which to protest.

In the same vein, I spoke to many Turks who feared that their country was being misrepresented as a backward and totalitarian state, rather than a functioning democracy experiencing violent hiccups as the result of the misguided policies of a majoritarian leader. It discouraged young professional, liberal minded, well educated Turks to realize that the only way for their message to be heard was to miscast themselves as the victims of what neo-con pundits began to refer to as “Islamofascism”. Yet ironically it is the same fear of being misrepresented in the West that also drives Erdoğan’s paranoia and his subsequent rejection of the GeziPark movement.[1]

Conclusion: Contesting Future Narratives

In this way, the issue of human rights mutatis mutandis goes from constituting the responsibility of the state to protect its citizens and guarantee the responsible implementation of Rousseau’s “Social Contract” to a novel way of delegitimizing any State non-adherent to “Western” normative humanist principles (Rousseau, 1762). This then forces the Turkish Government to seek its identity not in Ottoman or Kemalist values, but rather by defining itself as a proud nation defiant of EU demands. In this way the GeziPark protests become embroiled in a larger narrative of historic and political clichés regarding the troubled EU-Turkey relationship.

As such, Turkey’s recognition as a “mature” state, to be “rewarded” the appreciation of the EU correlates subversively with the inherent humiliation of accepting its “unenlightened” nature in the eyes of the European Community. And this is what ultimately will make the GeziPark movement harder to sustain. How can young people claim their rightful position in a secular society, if their only way to voice critique is to paint their country as a backward and evil place? Ultimately, the tug of war between Europe and Turkey cannot be separated from such culturally internalized negative images and multicultural paranoia, unless the GeziPark movement manages to rise above this self-condemning narrative.

Julian de Medeiros, PhD Candidate, Boğaziçi University, İstanbul

Please cite this publication as follows:

de Medeiros, Julian (December, 2013), “Gezi Park: An Attempt to Break Free from Grand Narratives ”, Vol. II, Issue 10, pp.21-24, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (


-Elver, Hilal. (2005) ‘Reluctant Partners: Turkey and the European Union’ in: Middle East Report, Vol. 235, pp. 24-29.

-Göçek, Fatma Müge. (2008) ‘Through a Glass Darkly: Consequences of a Politicized Past in Contemporary Turkey’ in: Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 617, pp. 88-106.

-Patton, Marcie J. (2006) ‘Turkey’s Tug of War’ in: Middle East Report, Vol. 239, pp. 42-47.

-Rousseau, Jean Jacques. (1762) The Social Contract: or Principles of Political Right.

-Waltz, Kenneth. 1979. Theory of International Politics. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

-Watts, Nicole F. (1999) ‘Allies and Enemies: Pro-Kurdish Parties in Turkish Politics, 1990-94’ in: International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 31, pp. 631-656.

[1] In 2005, General Özkök gave a speech at the Istanbul War Academy in which such fears were effectively demonstrated. In his talk, he claimed that to promote cultural diversification would only serve to inherently fuel terrorist activity. He criticized especially the EU’s tendency to, in his own words, ‘under the guise of democratization and human rights’ promote terrorist activity in Turkey, in an effort to ‘plainly target the unitary structure of the Republic of Turkey.’ (Patton, 2006)


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