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