by S. Ayse Kadayifci-Orellana
Washington, DC – What started as a small environmental protest at Gezi Park in Istanbul quickly escalated into nationwide anti-government demonstrations that pulled together artists, feminists, soccer clubs, Kemalist-secularists and Kurds after riot police cracked down on the protestors.
Undeterred by the harsh response of the government, demonstrators resorted to non-violent civil disobedience using humour, music and art to protest the government.
Turkey, a secular and democratic state currently led by an Islamist party, has been applauded as a model for Muslim-majority countries especially since the Arab Spring uprisings. If the Turkish government passes this critical test, Turkey will emerge a stronger democracy and continue to be an inspiration in the region. The Turkish government therefore has an opportunity to set a critical example.
As events in Turkey affirm, repression tactics such as threats, arrests, the deployment of riot police, use of gas bombs, rubber bullets and water cannons are combative tactics that escalate conflict rather than subdue protesters. This escalation is marked by an increase in the number of groups and individuals pulled into the conflict and the formation of new alliances among them.
These alliances include groups and individuals with different interests, goals and motivations that might even appear contradictory. Nationalists, for example, are critical of government’s engagement with Kurdish groups while they are united with Kurds against police brutality.
For their part, many young people fear growing government intervention in their lives, while Kemalist-secularists worry about religion’s role in state affairs. In response, supporters of Prime Minister Erdogan organised demonstrations to show solidarity with the government, criticising the protestors for undermining economic stability and security in the process.
Fears, grievances and perceptions of injustice are linked to motivations and ultimately become integral to a group’s identity. Compromise is perceived as a threat to identity and becomes unacceptable. For example, Kemalist-secular groups see alcohol regulations as an indicator that the government wants to impose religious conduct on the country and thus as a threat to its secular identity. Parties become increasingly polarised into camps such as pro-government and anti-government ones, sharply delineating differences. Such dynamics increase the risk of further conflict.
Decreasing tensions and moving toward reconciliation after such events involve a process that takes time, patience and careful planning. In this process, a state’s response to protesters plays a particularly important role because of the asymmetric power dynamics. An important aspect of this process is rebuilding trust between the parties and transforming hostile relations into cooperative ones.
The first step in this process involves avoiding the disproportionate use of force. A close second requires separating nonviolent protesters from violent groups and providing immunity to the former.
Equally important for rebuilding trust and stabilising the situation is the transformation of negative perceptions and attitudes, such as ones that regard the government as despotic or protesters as vandals. It is necessary to control rumours and false information, like when protestors who took shelter in a mosque were said to have consumed alcoholic beverages while there, or that the deputy minister had resigned. This can be achieved by creating rumour control mechanisms like setting up independent sources to verify or debunk rumours.
Avoiding hostile or provocative statements and adopting language that reflects respect and understanding, while emphasising common identities like the national identity, or shared goals and concerns such as economic stability, regional security and respect for personal freedoms, can help transform negative attitudes.
Establishing direct communication and dialogue mechanisms, such as forming a dialogue committee, is another important strategy to defuse the tension. However this can be challenging, especially in mass protests where various groups with different interests, motivations and goals comingle. Some groups may disagree or refuse to participate in the dialogue process. Thus it is important for the state to reach out to different groups separately and listen to their needs and concerns respectfully and empathetically. During these discussions, recognising the legitimacy of grievances, understanding the underlying interests and needs as well as developing mutually acceptable solutions are important.
Recognising mistakes, demonstrating a willingness to work with the protestors to correct such mistakes and jointly developing a road map for implementation within a given timetable can also defuse tensions and help restore trust.
The Gezi Park events will continue to test Turkish democracy in the coming weeks. Restoring peace and trust will take time and patience. Critical in the process will be the Turkish government’s willingness to listen to the protesters’ concerns and needs, its readiness to work with them to find mutually acceptable solutions to their concerns and its commitment to uphold democratic values and human rights such as the right to peaceful protest, freedom of expression and assembly.
Dr Seniha Ayse Kadayifci-Orellana is a visiting assistant professor at Georgetown University’s MA Program in Conflict Resolution and the author of Standing On an Isthmus: Islamic Narratives of War and Peace in the Palestinian Territories.