On June 28th, buoyed with fresh excitement over the United States’ Supreme Court’s historic decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, I decided to attend the annual Pride Parade in downtown Istanbul. As I climbed out of the cab and into Taksim Square, where the parade was scheduled to begin, I joined a flow of people pouring in from side streets on all sides toward the 1928 Monument to the Republic, their rainbow flags lit with the gleam of the afternoon sun. They chatted, chanted, laughed, and waited for the march to begin. Above them, the 5 PM call to prayer echoed among the peaks of buildings.
The sight of water cannons firing from atop armored cars and riot police marching brusquely through the heart of the crowd assailed my senses so suddenly that only afterward did I register the clench of dread that preceded it. Those rushing out of the square wore looks that were not so much of shock and fear, but of knowing, frustrated resignation, as if it were merely an unanticipated drizzle that was sending them home. Surprised, but believing the worst to be over, I proceeded toward the monument to join the still-sizable crowd, but when more armored cars rode by and the water began blasting again, I ran to safety. As a line of policemen directed me down an adjacent street, I turned over my shoulder to see the unmistakable cloud of tear gas billowing over the square. For the first time in 12 years, Istanbul’s Pride Parade had been forcibly brought to an end.
Turkey is no stranger to clashes between crowds and law enforcement. During the infamous 2013 Gezi Park protests, which began in response to government plans to urbanize the area but quickly grew to encompass many anti-establishment causes and sentiments, Turkish police came down so heavily on demonstrators that many in central Istanbul had to shutter their windows for weeks to keep out tear gas residue. Over the course of the protests, police reportedly targeted journalists kept food and water from detainees for up to twelve hours at a time, and even unleashed their water cannons on the Taksim German Hospital. According to an Amnesty International analysis, the police response was motivated not by a legitimate concern for public safety, but rather by “a desire to prevent and discourage protest of any kind.”
Gezi Park was a watershed moment in recent Turkish history, but hostility toward public demonstration was not new even then; it is rooted deeply in the history of the Turkish Republic. After my experience in Taksim Square, I interviewed Dr. Halil Berktay, a Professor of History at Sabanci University specializing in 20th century Turkish nationalism and historiography, who explained that the problem transcends elected governments: “From the days of Turkey as a one-party state, there has been this political tradition of a very strong and harsh kind of police force that can be brutal and without discretion in its modes of intervention against any public demonstration.”
When the modern Republic of Turkey emerged from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, the magnetism of its iconic patriarch, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and the fierce allegiances he had cultivated during Turkey’s struggle for nationhood left the nascent country as a glorified dictatorship. In those days, politics began and ended with the nationalist project, and that project began and ended with Kemalism—Atatürk’s ambitious modernization program. To oppose government policies was to oppose Turkey’s very existence, precluding the possibility of public protest. Moreover, the police force’s lack of accountability to civilians, dating back to the time of the Ottoman Empire, when security forces were a personal tool of the Sultan, was crystallized in the early republic, when most police officers were drawn from and owed primary loyalty to the military. Even after the emergence of a multi-party Republic in the late 1940s and 1950s and beyond, the imprint of this totalitarian mindset remained in the Turkish police force.
But the blame does not lie solely with the police. During the turbulent decades of the 1960s through the 1980s, protestors on both the right and the left acquired a violent tradition of their own. Tensions between left-wing and right-wing groups provoked protracted turf wars, fostering an atmosphere of chaos that led to three military coups—in 1960, 1971, and 1980—each followed by a period of martial law. Militant leftists committed purposeful violence on police, seeing them as representatives of the capitalism and imperialism that they abhorred in their US-aligned government, and if right-wing gangs didn’t arrive first, police forces were more than willing respond in kind, emboldened by the impunity granted by the military regimes. Though demonstrations in recent decades have been more likely to be peaceful, the unfortunate heritage of violent protests weighs heavily on police response to any public gathering, even today.
Until recently, however, there were signs of progress. After the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rose to power in 2002, police violence became both less frequent and less brutal. However, the Gezi Park catastrophe, the dispersion of the Pride parade on June 28th, and the violent break-up of demonstrations following the July 20th Islamic State attacks that claimed 32 lives in eastern Turkey, prove that the country is still far from expunging this national pathology. “The benefit of the doubt has always been against public protestors and in favor of police interventions,” Berktay told me. After a pause, he stated, with an unmistakable tinge of exasperation, “of course.” His expression looked a lot like the ones on the faces pouring out of Taksim Square.
Yet many in Turkey remain baffled by the events of June 28th. After all, the Pride parade took place in Istanbul without incident for eleven years prior. Its participants were certainly not violent, and though reports say they were gathered despite being denied advance permission to march by city authorities and were chanting anti-government slogans, the environment I observed was largely civil and celebratory, not confrontational. And it is not as if the message of the parade alone, affirmation of the rights and dignity of LGBTQ individuals, should have warranted this kind of blowback. Though Turkish society still displays strong conservative tendencies with respect to LGBTQ populations (in the 2011 World Values Survey, 84% of Turks said they wouldn’t want to live next to a homosexual), it is far less hostile than most of its counterparts in the Muslim world. When persecuted LGBTQ individuals in Iran seek escape, it is often in their northwestern neighbor that they find refuge. Turkey has no explicit ban on homosexuality, and though political rights still lag behind those in the West, they are moving, according to Berktay, “in the same direction.”
Much of this progress has come in the past two decades. In 1993, the first ever demonstration in Turkey for the rights of LGBTQ individuals occurred in Istanbul, and was forcibly dispersed for being, according to government officials, “in violation of our traditions and customs.” The memory of this incident was still relatively fresh in 2002 when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then the young, ambitious leader of the upstart AKP, was asked about the place of LGBTQ rights in Turkey at a press conference. The question was rarely asked at the time, and the journalist likely meant to catch Erdoğan off guard. However, the candidate responded calmly and with apparent conviction: “It is absolutely essential for the rights of homosexuals to receive legal guarantees in Turkey.”
After his party’s victory and his ascension to prime minister later that year, Erdoğan’s regime could be said to live up, if not to the specific promise of political reform, at least to the basic sentiments behind it. While there is plenty to criticize in the AKP’s record on LGBTQ rights—it opposed a 2012 initiative to enshrine marriage equality in the constitution and members have made tone-deaf statements on the “abnormality” of homosexuality—it also ushered in a period of real, albeit uneven, progress. Turkey’s bid for membership in the European Union, and its desire to project itself as a modern, advanced democracy, have incentivized greater attention to LGBTQ issues. Pride marches began to flourish not only in Istanbul, but also in Izmir and more-conservative Ankara, the AKP became the first political party in Turkey's history to send a deputy to a conference on LGBTQ rights in 2008, and slurs against homosexuality are now occasionally punished as acts of hate speech. Until several weeks ago, the heavy-handed response to the 1993 Pride parade might have seemed an embarrassing relic of history.
And yet, here we are again. Indeed, part of what makes the breakup of this year’s parade so ominous is that it fits into a recent reactionary wave that flies in the face of earlier trends toward a more enlightened civil society, both with regard to public demonstration and treatment of the LGBTQ population. The backlash to the Gezi Park protests, after over a decade of moderation in the police force, was a splash of cold water for Turkish politics, a bitter reversion to the old mode of operation. And in the lead-up to this year’s elections, various AKP members, including Erdoğan himself, made homophobic statements regarding Barış Sulu, a member of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and Turkey’s first ever openly gay candidate for Parliament. This, on top of 2013 statements from Erdoğan calling homosexuality “contrary” to Islam, the traditionalist tint of the justification given by the Istanbul Governor's Office, presided over by an AKP appointee, for refusing to permit the June 28 parade—that it fell during the holy month of Ramadan (which never stopped the event from occurring in the past), and the government's silence amidst reports of increased violence toward LGBTQ communities in the weeks since the parade all suggest a regression to less tolerant times.
Regardless of the particular feelings of AKP members on LGBTQ rights, however, one would think that the optics of having riot police shut down a peaceful march the day after one of the movement’s greatest victories might have given them pause. This invites then a crucial question: to what degree did the crackdown of June 28, along with the country’s other more reactionary episodes in recent years, reflect the real policies of the AKP? Do the attitudes and judgments of its members map directly onto the actions taken in the name of the government it sits atop, or are there other, countervailing forces at work?
Over the past several years, AKP leaders have decried the outsized influence of Fethullah Gülen, a prominent conservative Sunni cleric, and his followers, a shadowy network known as the Gülenists, in their government. Gülen was a crucial ally for the AKP during its early years in power, as his followers, who had already established a comfortable foothold in the state bureaucracy, promised the new party executive leverage. However, after the AKP consolidated its hold on power in the latter part of the 2000s, the burgeoning Gülenist presence became a threat rather than asset, and the two factions fell out dramatically. By then, however, the Gülenists had already established an overwhelming presence in the country’s law enforcement organs. According to who Berktay deemed to be “knowledgeable insiders,” the network makes up as much as 65% of the Turkish police force and 70% of the judiciary. While these numbers cannot be confirmed through any government sources, if they are accurate, it would indicate that Turkish law enforcement is dominated by far-right hardliners whose primary loyalty is not to the ruling party or the people, but their own ideals. Berktay went so far as to draw the following analogy: “Suppose that twenty years before the civil rights movement began in the United States, the Ku Klux Klan decided to go underground and infiltrate the FBI, state police forces, the justice department, and so on. Try to imagine a contemporary United States in which sizable portions of the police and of the judiciary are controlled by racist klansmen.”
When it comes to the question of responsibility, the first temptation, of course, is to blame the AKP. The party’s illiberal turn certainly goes beyond the pull of one cleric: Gülenists did not move Erdoğan’s jaw when he slurred Barış Sulu, for example. And at the very least, if not guilty of bigotry and willful suppression of civic demonstration, the AKP can be charged with negligence. It is the party in power, and it was its Faustian bargain with Fethullah Gülen that permitted the takeover of Turkish law enforcement in the first place. Furthermore, some believe that the AKP may use the amorphous Gülenist network as a convenient scapegoat for its more unpalatable actions. But if reports of the Gülenist vice-grip on the country’s security forces are true, they must also be allotted their share of the blame – perhaps the lion’s share, given their proximity to the situation on the ground. “To ignore this Gülenist presence altogether would constitute a kind of willful, deliberate blindness,” Berktay says. “There is no smoke where there is no fire.”
Turkey will need to cultivate a political atmosphere in which the exercise of free assembly, free speech, and freedom of dissent are not viewed as immediate cause for cynical suspicion, but rather essential and beneficial elements of civil society.
Satisfying explanations for the Pride crackdown, then, remain elusive. Were Gülenist or mainstream AKP influences behind the decision to terminate the parade? Did the decision have more to do with principle or with strategy? Might the Gülenists have set out to embarrass the AKP? Or could this have been an attempt by the AKP to reenergize its conservative base after its disappointing performance in the general election this June, in which its share of the vote fell for the first time since its founding? With time, we may be able to answer these questions. Until then, we can only reflect, with more worry than before, on the contradiction and dysfunction of the current leadership.
What’s next for Turkey? It is an open and difficult question. Turkey is a terrifically complicated country, sandwiched uniquely and at times uncomfortably between West and East, between Islamism and secularism, between police authoritarianism and parliamentary democracy, between its turbulent past and its heady dreams for the future. These forces grind against each other like tectonic plates, and produce similarly awe-inspiring instances of both creation and destruction. And even when the ground has shifted toward progress, there are always aftershocks to be wary of. What can be said definitively is that much needs to change before events like that of June 28th are relegated to the dustbin of history. The movement towards greater LGBTQ rights must regain the tepid momentum it had a few years ago, and continue to build on that foundation. Rigorous reform of both the security forces and the judiciary, as well as a cultural reorientation toward healthier models of mass politics, are critical. Most importantly, Turkey will need to cultivate a political atmosphere in which the exercise of free assembly, free speech, and freedom of dissent are not viewed as immediate cause for cynical suspicion, but rather essential and beneficial elements of civil society.
It remains to be seen how all of these immense problems will be solved, but the AKP government has shown in recent years that it does not have the answers, and isn’t especially concerned with finding them. Perhaps the elections of this June will catalyze some change by reshuffling the balance of power and forcing new voices into the governing coalition (if one is indeed able to be formed), but the rightward swing of the AKP, the long tradition of hostility toward public demonstration, and the continued domination of law enforcement by the Gülenists, belies these possibilities, at least in the short term.
But perhaps Turkey’s best hopes rest on the commitment and courage of the people themselves. Unaccustomed to riot police and tear gas, I did not return to Taksim Square after the initial exodus, but as I would hear later, many braver than me did. Proud Turks were undeterred by the show of violence. When the police cars drove away, they celebrated in the vacant streets, and danced in the puddles left by water cannons, still glistening on the pavement. And next year, they will march again.