Taksim Square protests: A metaphor for failed modernity?

The Taksim square protesters apparently belong to this section and class of Turkish society. Are the protesters right in their allegations and inferences? Not really.

Wajahat Qazi June 17, 2013 10:09:05 IST
Taksim Square protests: A metaphor for failed modernity?

The ongoing battle(s) between protesters and authorities at Taksim Square in Turkey is being increasingly viewed as a reaction to the Justice party led by Erdogan. It is alleged that the protests essentially are in the nature of a metaphor for a deep schism in Turkish society and the attendant reaction against 'islamisation' and 'Ottomonisation' of the country.

These observations are as trite and corny as the allegations itself. The reasons are prosaic: Turkish society is too complex and variegated to be subsumed under a dualism and dichotomy of a split between Islamists and modernists and wide ranging angst and alienation against the current regime. What then explains the Taksim Square protests?

The protests' ostensible reason is the authorities' attempts at urban planning and development. However, as is the wont, ostensible reasons are usually the catalysts for deeper and wider issues. What do then the Taksim square protests represent and articulate? The answer to this question necessarily takes us into a brief tour of Turkey's history and post Ottoman trajectory.

Modern day Turkey is the offspring of the Turkish sultanate or empire. The Turkish empire spread across wide swathes of territory and people, sometimes referred to as the Islamicate. It was a sizeable and dynamic empire  and expansion was inherent to it. Over time, on account of the forces of political decay and stagnation, the empire lost its dynamism and verve and succumbed to these forces. A rearguard action to save the empire was launched. This action coincided with the development of nationalism across the colonized world as well as Turkey. Out of the embers of the Turkish imperium arose Turkish nationalism and after various convolutions and tribulations, the modern nation state of Turkey was born.

Taksim Square protests A metaphor for failed modernity

Thousands gather at a rally called by Turkey PM Erdogan. Reuters

Mustafa Kemal Attaturk became the face and founder of modern Turkish nationalism. Attaturk's nationalism was radical and revolutionary.

However, it suffered from a fatal flaw. It viewed religion as regressive and retrograde, and embarked on a project of top down modernity wherein religion was viewed as a scar to be excised from the body politic. Turkey-ostensibly democratic- regressed into authoritarianism and coercive measures were undertaken to obliterate even the memory of religion from public and at times even private life.

Top down modernity, as was clearly demonstrated by the revolution in Iran, invariably fails. The same was the case in Turkey-almost. A sizeable underclass of Turkish people murmured against this type and form of modernity and over a period of time, this class organized itself politically. A party known as the Justice Party(AKP) arose to challenge the Attaturkian formulation and vision. Its theme and vision resonated with many Turks and the AKP was able to form a government.

This development was heralded by many as the real synthesis of modernity and Islam and it was held that neither was incompatible with the other.

The hard core secularists were left out. So was a section of people who felt that the AKP was the antithesis of modernity and the real agenda of the party was the comprehensive Islamisation of Turkey.

The Taksim square protesters apparently belong to this section and class of Turkish society. Are the protesters right in their allegations and inferences? Not really.

Turkey is not morphing into another Iran. It is too complex a state and society to become a theocracy. And other factors- the dominance of Sunni Islam and Sufi legacy- militates against this. What is happening to Turkey is a realignment of state society relations where the state is brought into sync with the wishes and aspirations of its people.

This is not Islamisation but recovery from the Attaturkian coercive, top down modernity. The Turkish psyche on account of this warped modernisation has become somewhat disjointed. The Taksim square protests are the manifestation of this disjointedness.

It is not even implied here that comprehensive Islamisation would render the Turkish psyche 'normal', but rather that a moderate mean between modernity and religion be developed in the country. This synthesis can potentially serve as a model in and for the Islamic world which is in the throes of change and turmoil.

Turkey will neither become an Islamist state nor will it become a state which disavows religion totally and morph into a western clone.

It has its own essence and identity which can be synthesized with modernity. Having nightclubs or a permissive society in terms of morality (which is relative), or pubs or hashish joints does not mean modernity. Modernity is more profounder; it is about a certain attitude and temper. It is when Turks imbibe this attitude and temper that Turkey can be said to be modern. At the same time, Islam cannot and will not be obliterated from Turkish memory or collective unconscious.

It needs to be integrated with modernity. This is the lesson from Iran and the post Attaturk unravelling in Turkey.

And this is what the protesters at Taksim square should bear in mind.

In the meantime, let the protesters and the authorities come to terms with each other and let them arrive at an amicable modus vivendi.

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