Istanbul Conflicts From Afar: Issues and Aspersions, Headscarves and Rambo

Gezi Park, early-June, 2013.  A prime minister's unsubstantiated allegations of desecration of mosques, attacks on pious women, and public drinking and sex (both, alas, missed by this observer) recall an ugly, divisive canard of the Vietnam War era. (Fuji X100). (Click on image to enlarge).

Gezi Park, early-June, 2013. A prime minister’s unsubstantiated allegations of desecration of mosques, attacks on pious women, and public drinking and sex (both, alas, missed by this observer) recall a cheap, divisive canard of the Vietnam War era. (Fuji X100). (Click on image to enlarge).

From Sofia, Bulgaria, a final post on last month’s occupation of Gezi Park and the trajectory of protests in Istanbul and throughout Turkey …

As of this past Wednesday, the Turkish government’s plan to for the “development” of Gezi Park and Taksim Square was put on hold.  A Turkish court, responding to a petition by Istanbul’s Chamber of Architects, held the project in violation of architectural preservation laws, this due to the historical character and functions of Gezi/Taksim.

From afar and in retrospect, an underlying difference between the protestors and the prime minister and his supporters springs to the fore.  On the side of the former there has been a focus on concrete issues and coalition-building;  on the side of the latter, however, there has been a ducking of issues and, instead, a retreat into intimidation, aspersions, and ad hominem attack.   A “scorecard” of sorts — and a cautionary tale of headscarves and Rambo — follow …

Scorecard: Issues vs. Aspersion

On the side of the protestors:

  • Demonstration against the uprooting of trees during widening of roadways preparatory to the razing of  Gezi Park.
  • Subsequent occupation of Gezi Park and broadening of the protest into opposition against government plans to build a shopping mall/mosque/replica of an Ottoman military barracks on the footprint of Gezi and Taksim.
  • Protests against the eviction of occupiers and against escalating use of police violence (and, more recently, against police sexual violence towards arrested female protesters).
  • Coalescence around protests of broader societal discontent with the authoritarian, sectarian, and partisan thrust of the ruling party and government.
  • Reversion to the courts.

On the side of the Prime Minister and ruling party:

  • Condemnation of protesters as terrorists, freebooters, and debauchees.
  • Characterization of the emerging new opposition and of those calling for a referendum on the Gazi/Taksim development plans, as enemies of democracy, elected government, and majority rule.
  • Accusations against protesters of acts of impiety, sacrilege, and harassment and violence towards headscarf-wearing Muslim women.
  • Threats to call out mobs of ruling party supporters to confront and deal with those occupying Gezi Park
  • Accusations of the presence of foreign agents provocateur amongst protestors.
  • “Revelations” that the protests were the work of the “Jewish Diaspora” owing to their “jealousy of Turkey’s economic success” under Erdogan and his party.

Headscarves and Rambo

Early on in the protests, a group of demonstrators retreating from police attack fled into the mosque of the Dolmabahçe palace compound, at the Bosporus waterfront near Kabatas.  The group later was accused by the government of desecrating the mosque by not removing their shoes before entering and by consuming alcohol on the premises.  In the weeks that followed, the muezzin of the mosque, the very person who had allowed the protesters to enter and who remained with them while they were there, repeatedly stated that the demonstrators had behaved correctly and that the accusations were off-base.  Regardless, the accusations took on a life of their own and became part of a litany used against the protesters and their supporters.

Similarly, protestors have been accused over and again by the Prime Minister of harassing pious Muslim women and tearing off their headscarves.  Other rumors abound. One confidant close to the government told me an unbelievable tale of a headscarf-wearing woman — the daughter of a high government official, no less — having been urinated on by protestors.  Interestingly, not a single woman nor witness has come forward to confirm any such attack, urinary or otherwise, nor has any evidence nor the name of any alleged victims been made public — this quite contrary to cases of secular women who have courageously stepped forward to report specific occurrences of out-and-out sexual violence by police against female protestors.

Erdogan’s tales of headscarf attacks, which by now have become stock elements of his television addresses and public rallies, gave me a discomforting sense of deja vu.  And then, I remembered:

The “spat-upon returning Vietnam War veterans”!!!

Beginning in the 1970s, US antiwar activists were stigmatized — and crocodile tears poured forth — over reports that US soldiers returning from tours duty in Vietnam were being spit upon by opponents of the war.  Not a single person, however — neither spitter, spat upon, nor witness thereto — ever came forth to confirm any such indignities.   Regardless, the image of the spat-upon veteran has remained part of ad hominem political discourse in the US over the half century since.  The tale of hippies spitting on veterans has been used, with invariable success, in attempts to squelch opposition to more recent US military misadventures abroad and to neutralize accumulating revelations of the extent of US atrocities in Vietnam and the widespread participation of US soldiers therein.

A few years ago, the US public radio program “On The Media” devoted a segment of one of its programs to the tale of the spat-upon veteran.  It turned out that, like so much in the American consciousness, the tale emerged not from reality but from the entertainment industry.  It was first voiced by Sylvester Stallone in one of the early Rambo films.  In the end, thus, this cudgel of opprobrium was crafted by a script writer and not by spittle-drenched veterans.

In public persona and confrontations with opponents at home and abroad, the prime minister of Turkey attempts to be as tough as Rambo.  In his unsubstantiated tales of headscarves ripped from the heads of pious women, he seems to achieve parity with Stallone’s signature character.

5 comments
  1. reidhardaway said:

    Gezi Park, besides being a beautiful green space, has a long history as a ‘home’ for popular solidarity movements. The attempt to convert it into corporate shopping centers is affront against the people. Nice post!

  2. It is so interesting to see the modernization of the world affecting Istanbul, and Gezi park in this way. A place for action and protesting, a hub for moral and self awareness among society is being shaped into a place of material gain and wealth. We can see here the changes and developments of the western world influencing this, in ways that I can see no positivity coming out of.

  3. Very interesting discussion. Thanks for sharing. I find the “spitting on veterans” myth to be strangely enduring and reminiscent of “stab in the back” myths common in Germany after WW1. Countries just can’t accept defeat in war.

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