Citizens of the world and citizens of Turkey: the Occupy Gezi protests

Istanbul view - Elena Cirkovic
By Elena Cirkovic · 17 July 2013
Istanbul view - Elena Cirkovic

Following several days of police raids on the protesters participating in a sit-in in Istanbul’s Gezi Park near Taksim Square, the clashes escalated violently on May 31 2013. The violent police intervention resulted in countrywide protests, which spread to dozens of other cities as demonstrators denounced the increasing authoritarianism of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP).

In reference to the events, on 1 June 2013 online leaflets were circulated in the social media declaring: ‘Dear citizens of the world, Right now Police is violently attacking citizens that are protesting the government in Istanbul’. [1] The New York Times seemed more concerned about Turkey’s image, presumably in the eyes of the world: ‘The widening chaos here and the images it produced threaten to tarnish Turkey’s image, which Mr. Erdoğan has carefully cultivated, as a regional power broker with the ability to shape the outcome of the Arab Spring revolutions by presenting itself as a model for the melding of Islam and democracy.’ [2]

Yet, it is disputable whether there was such an ‘untarnished’ image of the current government in Turkey. The violent crackdown on the most recent protests should not be the first indicator of inequalities, human rights, abuses and discrimination in Turkey. The European Commission’s yearly reports on Turkey have consistently criticized human rights abuses and lack of civil, political and cultural rights.[3] At the same time, such criticism enters into a paradoxical relationship with another understanding of local political culture. The reference to an ‘Islamic democracy’ implies a qualification and limitation of democratic participation by a religious framework. The external perception of Turkey as Islamic albeit secular and democratic seems to imply that in a country of particular social, cultural, and religious background, citizenship can appear only in forms qualified by that background. [4] The international community suggests reform, whereas locality cannot move forward due to its traditions. So when and how does the, in this case, Turkish citizen become a universal citizen? While the occidental citizen successfully transcends pre-political kinship and belonging, belongingness, the rest of the globe would have to enter the cosmopolitan community ‘despite’ its locality, religion, folklore, or tradition.

The ambiguity of Turkish modernity and republican citizenship is rooted in the tension between ethno-centric and civic-political understanding of citizenship. [5] Arguably, the qualification of the Turkish citizen as exceptional in his or her practice of democracy because of its Islamic tradition follows in the history of differentiation between the ‘cosmopolitan’ international community and the ‘global citizen’ on the one hand, and the ‘Other’, who is bound to local particularism because of specific societal, cultural, or religious characteristics. In this framework, the question of the political in general, and citizenship in particular remains caught in the perceived ontological difference between the orient and occident. [6] The leaflet distributed by the protesters addresses citizens of the world, and asks them to also recognize Turkish citizens as presumably free and equal universal citizens, who find themselves in conflict with an increasingly authoritarian government. It implies a self-perception of a free and equal civic citizen, not only at the domestic level but also globally. The discord in self-perception of identity and citizenship both locally and globally is, in part, at play in the understanding of recent events. Thus, the actual self-image of Turkish protestors and their demands requires a separation of qualifiers of identity from the individual capacity to democratic participation.

As Fuat Keyman has argued, one of the main issues, which has threaded the history of modern Turkey, is the lack of democratic agency. [7] It is this type of agency, which Turkish protestors have demanded as they refer to and constitute themselves as political ‘citizens’. The identity of those opposing the current government is quite diverse. For instance, another project sponsored by the AKP is the construction of a third bridge across the Bosphorus, to be named after a sultan Yavuz Sultan Selim, the ninth Ottoman Sultan. The naming of the bridge even refers to the conflicting history between the Sunnis and the Shi’ia Alevis. Some Turkish Alevis refer to Selim as an ‘Alevi-slayer’. The government has overridden any objections to the construction of the bridge.

The variety of societal visions in Turkey creates the tension among claims to individual civil and political rights, group, cultural, and/or ethnic and religious, rights. However, a focus on the religious identity of Turkey avoids the issues stemming from the broader political and economic context of the country. Due to failed coalition governments during the 1990s, and neoliberal policies of the 1980s, the AKP majority government was welcomed with hopes for political and economic reforms. Significantly, AKP came into power following the 2001 economic collapse in Turkey, which required a radical restructuring of state-economy relations. The solution, at the time, was the so-called ‘strong economy program’, involving a move towards democracy and restructuring of the state on the basis of macroeconomic stability. [8] 

While the question of whether Turkey represents the ‘model of successful melding of democracy and Islam’, or an identity of a radically secular regime, may be a significant part of public discourse, the emphasis needs to shift on how society and individual relations are regulated. The pull between the state-centric legacy of the Turkish Republic on the one hand, and the political power of Islamic elites on the other, requires a differentiated understanding of constitutional citizenship, which could accommodate a variety of identity claims as well as the practice of democracy. It is the lack of such understanding on the part Erdoğan’s government that the political citizens of Taksim have exposed. If this view bears any weight, the Taksim protests may subside but the underlying tension will remain. One hopes so will the determination of protestors to expose it.



[2] Arango, T. Police Retreat as Protests Expand Through Turkey, The New York Times, June 1st, 2013 available at:


[4] Anghie, A. 1996. Francisco de Vitoria and the Colonial Origins of International Law. Social and Legal Studies 5 p. 231; Isin, E. F. 2012. Citizens without nations. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 30 (1), pp. 450-467; 2011. Ottoman Waqfs as Acts of Citizenship. In Pascale Gazaleh ed. Held in Trust: Waqf in the Muslim World. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press. pp. 209-229.

[5] Keyman E. F. and Kanci T. 2011.A tale of ambiguity: citizenship, nationalism and democracy in Turkey. Nations and Nationalism 17 (2), pp. 318–336

[6] Isin, E. F. 2012. Citizenship after orientalism: an unfinished project. Citizenship Studies 16 (5-6), pp. 563-572.

[7] Supra note 5.

[8] Balkan, N. (ed). 2002. The Ravages of Neo-Liberalism: Economy, Society and Gender in Turkey. New York: Nova Science Club.

Image by Elene Cirkovic

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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