At 6:00 p.m., on Monday June 17, 2013, the Standing Man came to a standstill in the middle of Istanbul’s Taksim Square. After undoing his backpack, and placing it on the pavement next to him, he quietly fixed his eyes on the giant picture of the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938). Though Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist Prime Minister of Turkey, has removed Atatürk’s likeness from all school textbooks, he carelessly left this image of his secularist antecedent atop the Atatürk Culture Centre, immediately adjacent to Taksim Square. Hundreds of Standing Men – and, crucially, Standing Women – soon joined the silent protestor.
Thus was the face-off between freedom-loving Turks and Prime Minister Erdogan reignited. No mean feat given the ferocity of Erdogan’s crackdown on peaceful demonstrators in and around Taksim Square, Gezi Park and elsewhere over the previous weeks. Eyewitness accounts speak of four killed and 5,000 civilians seriously injured, many with brain damage thanks to the brutality of a police force assiduously cultivated by Erdogan. Atatürk, we should acknowledge, was no George Washington. Nevertheless, the Republic he helped fashion out of the wreckage of the vanquished Ottoman Empire has often been touted as proof that Israel is not the only liberal democracy in the Middle East. The accepted wisdom, according Bernard Lewis in The Emergence of Modern Turkey (1961), was that the 1950 elections made Turkey’s embrace of modernity “irreversible”. The rise and rise of Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) since 2002 shows that accepted wisdom can sometimes be wrong.
Some would argue that the AKP has not undermined Turkey’s democratic credentials. After all, the Islamists not only won the elections in 2002 and 2007 and 2011, the latter amounting to a respectable 50% of the vote if official figures can be believed. The problem is that Erdogan’s allies, both inside and outside of the parliament, behave as if they have a mandate to go to war against the other 50 percent of the population. The Islamization of Turkey might have developed at a slower pace than Egypt’s current makeover under the auspices President Mohamed Mursi, but Erdogan can always console himself with the notion that he was the harbinger.
Erdogan has, over the years, repeatedly purged the secularist army and undermined judicial independence. More recently Erdogan began ordering the arrest of independent-minded journalists, and now there are plans to reconfigure the Republic’s parliamentary-based government so he can assume bumped-up presidential powers in 2014. Lately there have been restrictions placed on the sale of alcohol, imprisonment for people who insult the name of the Prophet Muhammad, and admonishments from on high concerning citizens who dress and behave in “an inappropriate manner”. Barack Obama – apparently – has failed to grasp where all this might be leading. Maybe no-one in America’s vast intelligence network ever informed The One of that notorious Erdogan axiom from the late 1990s: “Democracy is but a train to our ultimate destination; we shall disembark once we’re there.”
There is much else President Obama seems not to have figured out about his designated Point Man in the Middle East. Not only has Erdogan spitefully upended Turkey’s traditionally close relations with the State of Israel, his mind is poisoned with full-blown anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. At the time of the original demonstrations in Istanbul, sparked in part by a desire to preserve the city’s Gezi Park from demolition by Erdogan’s business cronies, the Turkish Prime Minister spoke menacingly of “external connections” to the protestors.
The Great Man was soon announcing the existence of secret “intelligence reports” linking the social turmoil sweeping Turkey to an Israeli conspiracy against his blameless self. Just this weekend, in the Black Sea coastal city of Samsun, Erdogan explained to a crowd of rural, unsophisticated followers – bussed in for the occasion – that the very same malignant force at work in Turkey was now stirring up trouble in protest-hit Brazil: “It’s the same game, the same trap, the same aim.” Erdogan, the poor-Anatolian-boy-made-good, knows his dog-eared copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion makes perfect sense.
Most of those in the anti-Zionist Left retain fond memories of Erdogan’s May 2010 “Gaza Freedom Flotilla”. The families of the nine Turks killed in that debacle might want to sue Erdogan for putting their relatives in harm’s way, but that is neither here nor there for the Western Left or the Islamist Erdogan. The real winner on the day was the Jew-hating Hamas, not to mention Erdogan’s standing throughout the region with the Muslim Brotherhood. Obama, during his March 2013 sojourn in Israel, cajoled Prime Minister Netanyahu into making a personal – and very public – apology to Erdogan for a calamity what was, according to most investigations, entirely the fault of Erdogan. The Prime Minister of Turkey returned the favour by having billboards depicting a midget-sized Netanyahu being humiliated by a giant-like Erdogan plastered around the country.
Our modern-day Left, with some notable exceptions such as John Stewart, has mostly failed to understand the dynamics of the Arab Spring, and is faring no better in its analysis of the Turkish Spring (or Summer, as the case may be). Fiachra Gibbons, writing in the June 19 edition of The Guardian, asks us to “spare a thought for the man whose personal tragedy” was “turning an insignificant protest in a scrubby little park into a national emergency”. The one flaw in this “Shakespearian” hero, a colossus on his way to becoming another Kemal Atatürk or Suleiman the Magnificent, is not that he wants to destroy Kemalist (or secular) Turkey, but the “authoritarian streak he inherited from Atatürk.” This one flaw aside – I am holding back the tears – Erdogan’s dream to create a “peaceful, prosperous and democratic future” for Turkey was almost in sight.
The Standing Man, who turns out to be a performance artist by the name of Erdem Gunduz, a man blessed in equal measure with courage and humility, might offer a very different narrative. The “insignificant protest in a scrubby little park” that kicked off the Turkish Summer was always about something more than simply preserving the trees of Gezi Park. The demonstrators – like Gunduz himself – are self-described “Kemalists” making a stand against the encroachment of Erdogan’s Islamofascism as much as against Erdogan’s bulldozers. They are not asking for Islam to be banned in Turkey but for it to return from whence it came – the mosque.
The Turkish protestors do not desire to see a new caliphate resurrected on the territory of the Turkish Republic, because they wish to retain the secular state Kemal Atatürk bequeathed them. The Standing Man, and all those other Standing Men and Standing Women, along with their 15 million counterparts in Egypt who have signed up for Rebel, should be an inspiration to genuine freedom-loving people everywhere. Their struggle is so obviously our struggle.
Daryl McCann has a blog at darylmccann.blogspot.com.au