Turkey protests: Why the state portrays Turkish protesters as 'others'

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — More than two weeks into the Gezi Park protests in Turkey, nearly 5,000 civilians have been injured, five killed, and thousands, including civilians, lawyers, and journalists, have been imprisoned.

The protests started as a peaceful demonstration of 50 civilians opposed to the removal of trees in the park for the rumored construction of a shopping mall. Following the violent response of the police to the non-violent demonstrators, the protest became transformed into nationwide anti-government protests, specifically targeting the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan.

Erdogan defined the demonstrations and the demonstrators as undemocratic. He accused the opposition party CHP of fueling conflict, and referred to the protesters as marauders, “capulcular.” In Turkish, the word carries a special gravity, suggesting that the protesters threaten the foundation of a dignified human society. The prime minister also accused the thousands of demonstrators and their supporters of terrorizing the country under the pretense of environmentalism.

Erdogan is actually correct in saying there is unexpectedly a little more civilian politics than meets the eye. The key to understanding what is behind the protest is understanding why the protesters feel maligned and silenced, and how the state is able to portray them as usurping “others.”

A recent study by Political Science Professor at Bogazici University, Hakan Yilmaz, found that “the basis of ‘othering’ in the Turkish society appears to be a tendency to perceive identity differences as a threat to one’s own life style and values rather than as a source of enrichment.” This political culture creates a powerful deterrent that pressures those perceived as “the others” to stay in hiding “rather than to come out and articulate their grievances.”

Erdogan in many instances exerted this “othering” to create bipolar divisions between the pro-government “us” and anti-government “them.” For instance, Erdogan stated:

“If they bring twenty thousand to Taksim, if I want, I will bring five hundred thousand people to Kazlicesme. I can do that. I have a party, I have grassroots. We have this capacity and the power. We chose not to react. My party’s grassroots got in contact with us asking, ‘how can we not react to them?’ but we advised composure.”

Emphasizing the importance of not responding to protesters’ provocations, Erdogan was quoted as saying that “Right now, we are holding back at least 50 percent of this country’s population at their homes, reminding them not to take the bait.” This statement casts the protesters as an anti-government minority whose voices are heard as a courtesy from majority of Turkish society.

This is not the first example of the “we: the majority vs. they: the minority” discourse. During the Republic Protests in 2007 to promote secularism in Turkey, the prime minister distanced the protesters from the rest of the society by again pinning them as “coerced multitudes from 81 cities.”

Furthermore, before the Gezi Park incident, some sections of the society have already started becoming uneasy about certain changes in the Turkish legislation and the government’s take on this legislation.

For instance, in a recent interview on alcohol restrictions, the Prime Minister referred to alcohol consumers as “alcoholics” by stating, “if one drinks alcohol, s(he) is an alcoholic by definition.”

Additionally, media have become indifferent to the imprisonment of journalists, human rights activists, and even students that criticize the government under antiterrorism laws.

In the most heated hours of the Gezi Park Protest in Istanbul on June 1, only one Turkish TV Channel interrupted its regular programming for the protests, while the others continued their regular broadcasting. As a reaction to this indifference, a van of one of those news channels was spray painted with the word “Fake News.”

Alexander Hinton, the president of International Association of Genocide Scholars, refers to “othering” as a process “in which the boundaries of an imagined community are reshaped in such a manner that a previously “included” group is ideologically recast as being outside the community, as a threatening and dangerous other that must be annihilated.”

Othering does not have to result in physical annihilation; it can result in social alienation and political silencing. Still, as Alexander Hinton suggests, “it gives structure, meaning, and rationale to everyday practices of violence.” In that particular regard, the “othering” process in Turkey requires more scrutiny.

Yasemin Irvin-Erickson is a doctoral candidate at Rutgers School of Criminal Justice, and the research director for Global Mapping at Rutgers Center on Public Security. She holds an M.A. from Istanbul University Institute of Forensic Sciences.