Students in Turkey ‘shoulder to shoulder against fascism’

The Turkish president is rattled. You can tell that by the ferocity of the crackdown: tear gas and plastic bullets – with especial targeting of journalists; beatings that have left one protester unconscious; 159 people detained in Istanbul on Monday, 228 on Tuesday and at least a further 70 in Ankara; more arrests in Izmir on Wednesday.

The focus of the protests, the imposition of a government-appointed rector to head the prestigious Boğaziçi University, is by no means the most egregious act committed by the Turkish government. This is a regime that regularly imprisons journalists, opposition politicians, civil society activists, and trade unionists; that has purged thousands from their jobs; that has reversed advances in women’s rights and endangered women’s lives; that dominates the judiciary and has friendly links with mafia bosses; that uses religion to stir up bigotry and division; and that has turned once peaceful lands into places of terror and brought about widespread ‘ethnic cleansing’. But, when President Erdoğan used newly legislated powers to deny the university the right to choose its own leader and to impose as rector Melih Bulu, one of his political cronies, the brave and determined resistance by the students and their supporters (including academics) resonated across the country and became a bellwether of national discontent.

From the first protests a month ago, the students have always situated their resistance as part of the bigger fight against authoritarianism and made links beyond the university. Indeed, they named Bulu a ‘trustee rector’ in reference to the government-imposed trustees that have replaced almost all the democratically elected Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) mayors. And the government has treated the student protestors as an existential threat from the start, bringing in their full crowd control armoury, carrying out detentions and home raids, and strip-searching detained female students.

On 29 January, an art exhibition at the student protest camp was used by the authorities as an excuse to further entrench social divisions when it was found to contain an image of the Kaaba in Mecca that included the mythical snake-woman, Şahmaran, and was decorated with rainbow LGBTI+ flags at its corners. Two students have been detained on account of the painting. Turkey’s interior minister, Süleyman Soylu, has not hesitated to dismiss them as ‘deviants’, and Erdoğan claims there is no such thing as LGBT.

Erdoğan has compared the student protestors to terrorists, while Soylu has made the more specific claim that the protests are being led by outsiders from left-wing ‘terrorist’ organisations. And the interior minister has commented, with Orwellian logic, that describing Bulu as a ‘trustee rector’ shows a ‘fascistic approach’. The leader of the far-right MHP, whose support keeps Erdogan’s government in power, has been predictably hyperbolic, describing the protesters as ‘poisonous snakes, vandals and barbarians’ that need to be dealt with by ‘whatever means necessary’.

While the leftist HDP, Turkey’s third largest party, is a centre of consistent opposition to government oppression, the student protestors have also received support from the CHP, the main opposition party, reflecting the widespread popularity of their cause. In response to the latest crackdown, the CHP chair has called for the students’ release – and used the phrase ‘trustee rector’ in his statement – and the Mayor of Ankara has called on Bulu to resign for the good of the country.

Comparisons are being made with the 2013 protests that were spurred by action against the development of Istanbul’s Gezi Park, and by the violent government reaction towards the first Gezi protesters. Like in 2013, a protest begun around a specific issue by an urban elite has become a rod around which the broad range of related protests against Turkeys’ increasing authoritarianism can crystalize. Unlike the cruel war of attrition faced by politicians and activists, the appointment of the ‘trustee rector’ has provided a clear and immediate focus for protest (and it also can’t be pigeon-holed as a Kurdish problem, like some other government oppression). The brutal government response to the students has served to confirm links that were already being made with the government’s attacks on freedom in all parts of Turkish society. Although Erdoğan himself warned on Wednesday, ‘This country won’t relive incidents such as the Gezi events’, his government’s harsh response is serving to escalate popular anger, just as it did over Gezi.

Hundreds of thousands of people right across Turkey took part in some way in the Gezi Park protests, and although these were ultimately crushed, with thousands injured and at least eleven dead, the arguments unleashed have not gone away. In fact, Turkey’s ever worsening authoritarianism has only made them stronger.

The events of 2013 were watched across the world, and the continued imprisonment of the prominent philanthropist, Osman Kavala, on the absurd charge of masterminding the Gezi protests has been the subject of a recent critical ruling in the European Court of Human Rights, and of subsequent debate in European institutions. These current protests are also beginning to get international attention. The UN has issued a call for the release of arrested protesters and an end to the use of ‘excessive force’; but pressure needs to be increased and maintained.

You don’t need to be an expert on Turkey to appreciate the bravery of those who make a stand against the atrocities committed by its government. The students need every bit of support that they can get, and they have appealed for international solidarity. They need solidarity actions that are based on an understanding of current events within the context of the wider struggle against fascism in Turkey, and that can build on what happened before.

The Turkish government cares about its public image and has recently been trying to mend fences with Europe by speaking the language of reform. We can help expose the hollowness of their words and let people see what is actually happening. We can sign and share the statement of support written by Peace in Kurdistan, available here (and include a personal message to the students). And we can ask our MPs to demand a statement from the British Government, which is currently strengthening British ties with Turkey.

Bulu, who is adamant that he won’t resign, has claimed that ‘the tension will subside, this crisis can end in six months’. We can help prove him wrong, and, as the students chant at their protests, we can stand ‘shoulder to shoulder against fascism’.


Image credit: Firat News Agency


Comments (7)

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  1. John Learmonth says:


    Surely Erdogan is an Islamsist not a fascist.
    Fascism (in the main) tends to be anti-clerical which obviously Erdogan is not.
    Your many articles on the middle east tend to avoid the question of whether Islam (as its currently formed) is compatible with secular democracy and as Islamists would argue ‘imposing’ secular democracy on Islamic countries is a form of colonialism.
    Difficult waters to navigate!

    1. Sarah Glynn says:

      Fascism has often coexisted with clercism, whether that be the Christian kind or others, such as Islam or Hinduism – which doesn’t mean, of course, that Erdoğan follows a logically consistent and developed political philosophy.
      There are many interpretations of Islam and of Islamism, with different approaches to democracy. There are also different interpretations of democracy. One of the most radical and genuinely engaging developments in democratic form and practice has come out of the region we are discussing in the ideas of Abdullah Ocalan.
      Incidentally, the call for freedom and democracy (the students’ current slogan is ‘not imposed but elected’) and the description of the government as fascist comes from the protesters themselves.

      1. John Learmonth says:


        All depends what you mean by fascist’ as virtually everbody who some on the left disagree with is routinely derided as a ‘fascist’
        completely ignoring the fact that ‘fascism’ was an interwar movement largely (but not entirely) created by former ‘socialists’ who decided to replace ‘class’ war with ‘race’ war.
        However you have skillfully avoided my main point, is Islam compatible with secularism?
        I know what the marxist Abdullah Ocalans answer would be.
        Religion is the opium of the people… you agree and if not why not as I’m 100% sure you are not religious, or is denying the existence of a supreme being ‘Islamaphobic’?
        Put simply would you prefer Turkey to be a secular state or a religous state as I’m afraid never the twain shall meet

        1. Sarah Glynn says:

          Far from fighting shy of these issues, I have looked at Islam, Islamism, and secularism at quite some length in various academic papers and also in a book on the Bengalis in London’s East End – all on my website if you are interested:

          1. John Learmonth says:

            Thanks Sarah, will give it a look.
            Expecting my first grandchild in the next few minutes so excuse me if i put it off for a few days.
            Keep well

  2. Bob says:

    If you accept that Theresa May as a temporary Tory leader was there to do a job, it should not be ignored that her first overseas visit very soon after winning the 2019 election was to Erdoğan’s Turkey.

    1. Sarah Glynn says:

      Yup. One of her first acts in 2017 was to sign an arms deal with Turkey, and when Erdogan visited the UK in 2018 she played into his hands with references to ‘Kurdish terrorism’

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