By Lisel Hintz, Cornell University
*This memo was prepared for the workshop, “From Mobilization to Counter-Revolution: The Arab Spring in Comparative Perspective,” held on May 3-4, 2016.
The timing, extent and nature of the anti-government uprisings collectively known as Turkey’s 2013 Gezi Protests came as a shock to even the most diligent Turkey observer. Electorally speaking, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) had faced little in terms of serious political competition throughout its first three terms in power, increasing its share of the vote and its seats in parliament in each general election since achieving its first parliamentary majority in 2002 as a newly formed party. Although founded by members of the Islamist Welfare Party (Refah Partisi), closed by the Constitutional Court in 1998 for anti-secular activities, the AKP seemed initially to represent a progressive, big-tent, secular-friendly party. AKP leaders proclaimed their party’s orientation to be conservative democratic, stating that they had “taken off the shirt” of the National Outlook (Milli Görüş) movement, and thus were shedding their affiliation with Turkey’s broadest, and explicitly anti-Western, strain of political Islam.  In its first years in power, the AKP appealed broadly to domestic and international audiences alike as a party that focused on tangible results for its constituents and was pointed to as a “Turkish model” for its Middle Eastern neighbors.
While the AKP had been electorally successful up to May 2013, the events comprising the Gezi Protests made it abundantly clear that many of Turkey’s citizens did not support the party’s increasing consolidation of power and tendency towards rhetoric rooted in appeals to Islam. Previously politically apathetic individuals, including huge swathes of Turkey’s youth, turned out in the millions to voice their criticism of the government, its illiberal actions, and the policies AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hoped would contribute to raising a “pious” (dindar) generation. The swell of opposition that was catalyzed and spread within hours of camera-phone images showing Turkish police forces beating peaceful demonstrators in Gezi Park and setting tents on fire while people slept in them unleashed a torrent of criticism against the AKP. The Gezi Protests, which began in May 2013 as a small environmental sit-in to protect a park adjacent to Istanbul’s Taksim Square from “urban renewal” (into a shopping mall), evolved rapidly into massive grassroots mobilization.  Demonstrations showing solidarity with the Gezi movement were recorded in all but one of Turkey’s 81 provinces and lasted over three months.
As widespread, broad-based, internationally supported, and emotionally charged as the Gezi Protests were, however, they fizzled out relatively quickly, and ultimately produced no lasting political change. Even following the revelation of a massive corruption scandal directly involving AKP leaders and their families, including Erdoğan’s own son, the AKP achieved major electoral victories in the March 2014 local elections and re-secured a parliamentary majority in the November 2015 general election. While questions arose about the legitimacy of the March election in particular, exit polls indicate that the AKP still enjoys loyal support from around 45-50 pecent of Turkey’s population. How is this possible?
This paper explores the counter-mobilization strategy of vilification the AKP government used to marginalize and delegitimize Gezi protesters and their grievances. To account for the government’s success in quashing the seemingly indefatigable spirit and massive numbers of protesters in the face of brutal violence, I demonstrate how the AKP literally added insult to injury to demobilize and discredit its opposition. To do so, and to contribute to wider discussions of effectiveness in counter-mobilization, I identify three mechanisms of rhetorical vilification: naming, blaming, and framing. By naming, I mean the use of derogatory and belittling terms used repeatedly by AKP members and spread through government-influenced media outlets to identify Gezi protesters as a hostile “other” to be feared and condemned. This mechanism serves to criminalize the actions of protesters and thus justify harsh measures used against them, while fueling a societal polarization of “us” (good government supporters) versus “them” (bad opposition agitators) that would have lasting consequences. Blaming consists of focusing on rare occurrences of violence and, much more often, fabricating antisocial and even immoral behavior for which Gezi protesters must be held accountable. Finally, the mechanism of framing enabled the AKP rhetorically to situate the behavior of the protesters into pre-existing frames with negative connotations. This further solidified beliefs in its supporters’ minds that Gezi protesters were miscreants with ulterior, and often externally supported, anti-government motives.
The AKP’s use of naming as a mechanism to delegitimize and “other”-ize those supporting the Gezi protests was quite explicit in its marginalization of the extent of anti-government opposition. AKP Istanbul Governor Hüseyin Avni Mutlu initially reacted to the uprisings on his watch as the works of a few “marginal people” (marjinaller), a theme Erdoğan repeated many times. By declaring the protesters to be marginal, the AKP was able to both reduce public perceptions of the number of people protesting and relegate their grievances to the category of minor or even illegitimate. The AKP’s practice of naming protesters with derogatory language took many other forms, some of which directly engage Turkey’s tumultuous history with terrorism. By calling anyone who went to the streets to express their discontent with the government a terrorist (terörist), a term most vocally applied by then-EU Minister Egemen Bağış, the AKP identified Gezi protesters as inherently dangerous to Turkey.
The word terrorism in Turkey immediately evokes images of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan, PKK), which has waged a violent struggled against the Turkish state for over 30 years and against which many Turkish families fear their sons will be conscripted to fight. “Terrorist” also has leftist connotations dating from Turkey’s deadly political struggles in the 1960s and 70s, and often associated with Turkey’s (non-Sunni Muslim) Alevis, who were targeted with violence by ultra-nationalists. Berkin Elvan, a 14-year-old Alevi child who was shot in the head with a tear gas canister while out to buy bread in his neighborhood, was called a terrorist by Erdoğan in several public speeches. In another vilifying act of naming, EU Minister Bağış tweeted that those who attended Berkin’s funeral were “necrophiliacs” (nekrofiller); perhaps sensing he had gone too far even for his party’s supporters, he later softened his epithet to “provocateurs.”
In perhaps the most widely reported form of naming as a mechanism of vilification, Erdoğan frequently termed Gezi participants “çapulcu,” a word meaning “looter” or “hooligan.” Far from the largely peaceful, environmentally friendly political culture that demonstrators created (and even self-policed when necessary, as I observed in rare instances of deviation from the predominant norms of behavior), the use of çapulcu portrayed the protesters as destructive and unruly. In a creative and spirited effort to counteract such disparaging acts of naming, protesters began defiantly calling themselves çapulcu, using the term in witty riffs on AKP policies to which they objected. In a critique of Erdoğan’s call for all women to have at least three children, one woman held a sign reading “I’ll have three kids, I promise,” which included stick-figure drawings of children named ÇapulCan, ÇapulNaz, and ÇapulNur – adding common Turkish names to the çapulcu insult.  A photo reprinted in a volume titled A Çapulcu’s Guide to Gezi shows the phrase “you banned alcohol, we sobered up” spray-painted on a wall in response to newly imposed restrictions on alcohol sales. While the humorous co-optation of the insult temporarily bolstered morale and helped to foster bonds of solidarity among disparate groups of protesters all facing the same insults and injuries, the AKP’s rhetorical vilification – particularly when distributed through media sources with complex government links while other outlets were being censored – instilled fear of and animosity toward protesters among AKP supporters.
A related government strategy of highlighting those relatively very rare occasions in which Gezi protesters deviated from the peaceful norms of protest the great majority attempted to enforce, as well as falsely blaming protesters for incidents of violence and destruction, also served effectively to paint all those engaging in anti-government opposition demonstrations with the vilification brush. Blaming Gezi protesters not only for damage done to storefront windows but also for the decline in these stores’ business, Erdoğan declared that shopkeepers were legally justified in using violence against demonstrators. In one instance of false blaming much publicized by the AKP, protesters were accused of drinking alcohol in a mosque – behavior considered inexcusable and immoral for pious AKP supporters. Yeni Şafak correspondent Süleyman Gündüz, who was present at the mosque when the supposedly alcohol-consuming protesters sought shelter from the tear gas being used by police, countered this claim by stressing that not only was alcohol not consumed but that those entering “took off their shoes” as a sign of respect. Although the mosque’s imam corroborated the journalist’s story, the rhetorical damage was done for many who repeated the story long after the supposed incident.
Seemingly denouncing another disgraceful act, Erdoğan claimed that a group of Gezi protesters, menacingly stripped to the waist, attacked and urinated on a head-scarved woman pushing a baby stroller at the Istanbul port of Kabataş. Emphasizing the woman’s role as a pious Muslim and a mother, pro-government journalists filled columns with their moral outrage at such thuggish behavior. When presented with this image of barbarism, AKP supporters’ beliefs about the debased character of demonstrators and thus the need for harsh countermeasures against them became even more firmly entrenched. Despite the release of video footage from Kabataş surveillance cameras that show the women in question calmly waiting for and then boarding a ferryboat without incident, AKP leaders’ narrative of blame reinforced mental images of violent, perverted behavior as ubiquitous among Gezi protesters.
Finally, the government’s strategic use of framing placed those who supported the Gezi movement in subversive company with foreign agents recognizable in Turkey as plotting the country’s downfall. A common narrative stressed by AKP leaders was that foreign “lobbies” – from an interest rate lobby (faiz lobisi) to an Israel/Jewish lobby (İsrail/Yahudi lobisi) – were conspiring to prevent Turkey from becoming the powerful regional leader it deserved to be. In a country in which conspiracy theories are immensely popular (and often at least half-true), the idea that Gezi protesters – already named as hooligans and blamed for immoral behavior – could be organized and/or funded by scheming external forces proved too tantalizing to resist. Interviewees cited foreigners’ presence during the protests – some of whom were deported – as evidence that Western agents were infiltrating Turkey in the hopes of creating enough instability to provoke a coup and thus unseat the AKP. Given the U.S. involvement in previous cases of regime change in Turkey, the frame of Western-sponsored military coups proved an effective one in bringing the true motives of the protesters into question. Devastating economic crises exacerbated by currency speculators and the AKP’s stoking of anti-Semitic flames during its rule in Turkey created plausible and logically coherent frames into which the opposition manifested during the Gezi protests could be placed.
Despite all the enthusiastic solidarity that Gezi demonstrators displayed, despite their consistent efforts to prove that they were well-intentioned, well-behaved citizens acting on their accord, the AKP’s counter-mobilization trifecta of naming, blaming, and framing proved too powerful to generate political change. Sensing that no matter what they did they would be ineffective against an increasingly entrenched AKP whose supporters remained staunchly hostile to their cause, Gezi protesters eventually stopped taking to the streets. Their momentum waned, their spirits flagged; disillusionment and frustration became the norm.
Adopting a broader perspective, we see the social polarization that has ossified in the wake of the Gezi Protests. The AKP’s vilifying rhetoric has gained tremendous momentum, targeting many different forms of opposition and cementing antagonistic “us versus them” relations along multiple identity lines. A terrifying sentiment following the Ankara terrorist bombings in October 2015 in which more than 100 Kurds, leftists, and others who had gathered for a peace march were killed was that they had in coming; if they were Kurds or leftists, so the thinking goes, they were probably terrorists anyway. Despite such worrisome outcomes, naming, blaming, and framing – related but distinct mechanisms in how they function – seem to have gained currency among supporters as legitimate practices. When the power struggle between the AKP and its former close allies in the Gülen movement erupted into an all-out war, for example, Erdoğan coined the nickname of the movement’s leader Fethullah Gülen as “Pensilvanya.” This evocation of his Gülen’s exile in the United States, which rapidly spread among AKP supporters, casts him and his “parallel structure” (paralel yapı) as foreign and thus inherently suspect.
What cohered as a counter-mobilization strategy against Gezi protesters has evolved into everyday politics in Turkey. Although rhetorical vilification should not be seen as a sole causal factor in the dissipation of demonstrations, its uses in justifying harsh measures against protesters carry over into methods of delegitimizing anyone who voices criticism. Today, those using xenophobic insults against AKP opponents are lauded; those using injury are rewarded. When examining the authoritarian’s toolkit, the long-term, society-wide consequences of rhetorical vilification pose significant concerns for scholars and citizens of Turkey alike.
 See Erdal Şafak, “Erdoğan Gömleği,” Sabah Gazetesi, 4 January 2006: http://www.sabah.com.tr/yazarlar/safak/2006/01/04/erdogan_in_gomlegi.
 Engaging AKP supporters in conversation about why they vote as they do often produces project-based responses similar to the following given by a taxi driver in conversation with the author in Ankara, March 2014: “Look at what Tayyip [Erdoğan] did: the third bridge, the airport… What did the other guys do? Nothing.”
 Hürriyet Gazetesi, “Dindar Gençlik Yetiştireceğiz,” 2 February 2012: http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/dindar-genclik-yetistirecegiz-19825231.
 See Efe Can Gürcan and Efe Peker, Challenging Neoliberalism at Turkey’s Gezi Park: From Private Discontent to Collective Class Action (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
 See Tolga Şardan, “Gezi’ye Katılmayan Tek İl,” Milliyet Gazetesi, 25 November 2013: http://www.milliyet.com.tr/geziye-katilmayan-tek-il/gundem/detay/1797621/default.htm.
 Sulome Anderson, “Gazi to Gezi: Turkish Protests Unite Minorities Who Distrust Each Other,” The Atlantic, 13 June 2013; http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/06/gazi-to-gezi-turkish-protests-unite-minorities-who-distrust-each-other/276845/.
 See Allison Kilkenny, “Occupy Gezi: International Solidarity for Turkey’s Uprisings,” The Nation, 3 June 2013: http://www.thenation.com/article/occupy-gezi-international-solidarity-turkeys-uprising/.
 Onur Bakiner, “Can the ‘Spirit’ of Gezi Transform Turkish Politics?” Jadaliyya, 3 July 2013: http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/12616/can-the-spirit-of-gezi-transform-progressive-polit.
 See Lisel Hintz, “No Opposition, No Democracy in Turkey’s Elections,” The Washington Post, 3 April 2014: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/04/03/no-opposition-no-democracy-in-turkeys-elections/.
 1 Kasım 2015 Genel Seçim Analizi, Report issued by Strateji ve Düşünce Merkezi, November 2015. Available for download at: ilkha.com/files/uploads/Dosya_145.pdf.
 İsmail Saymaz, “Gezi Park’ında Devlet ve Marjinaller: Erdoğan da Bir ‘Marjinal’ Değil Miydi?” Radikal Gazetesi. 12 June 2013: http://blog.radikal.com.tr/gezi-parki-direnisi/gezi-parkinda-devlet-ve-marjinaller-erdogan-da-bir-marjinal-degil-miydi-25014.
 “Erdoğan Berkin Elvan’ı Terörist İlan Etti,” Cumhuriyet Gazetesi, 14 March 2014: http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/video/video_haber/50741/Erdogan_Berkin_Elvan_i_terorist_ilan_etti.html#.
 “‘Nekrofil’i Sildi ‘Provakatör’ Dedi,” Hürriyet Gazetesi, 13 March 2014.
 “Başbakan Erdoğan: Biz Birkaç Çapulcunun Yaptıklarını Yapmayız,” Radikal Gazetesi, 9 June 2013: http://www.radikal.com.tr/politika/basbakan_erdogan_biz_birkac_capulcunun_yaptiklarini_yapmayiz-1136875.
 Photo used in Çapulcu’nun Gezi Rehberi (Istanbul: Hemen Kitap, 2013), p. 169.
 Ibid., p.13.
 Lisel Hintz, “The Might of the Pen(guin), Foreign Policy, 10 June 2013: http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/06/10/the-might-of-the-penguin-in-turkeys-protests/.
 “The Turkish Media Muzzle,” Al Jazeera, 2 April 2013: http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/listeningpost/2013/04/201342104340948788.html
 “Erdoğan: Esnafın Palalı Eylemi Hukuk Çerçevesinde,” Yurt Gazetesi, 8 July 2013: http://www.yurtgazetesi.com.tr/politika/akp-esnafin-palali-eylemi-hukuk-cercevesinde-h38095.html.
 “Erdoğan ‘Camiye İçkiyle Girdiler’ İddiasını Tekrarladı,” Hürriyet Gazetesi, 10 June 2013: http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/gundem/23468860.asp.
 Ali Aslangül, “Kabataş’ta Yalan Kesin, Rivayet Muhtelif: İşte Emniyetten Elif Çakır’a ‘Zehra Gelin’ Metinleri,” T24.com, 12 March 2015: http://t24.com.tr/haber/kabatasta-yalan-kesin-rivayet-muhtelif-iste-emniyetten-elif-cakira-zehra-gelin-metinleri,290216.
 “Sabah, ‘Kabataş Yalanı’nı 52 Saniyeye Sığdırdı,” Cumhuriyet Gazetesi, 11 March 2015: http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/haber/turkiye/230267/Sabah___Kabatas_yalani_ni_52_saniyeye_sigdirdi.html#. As one person commenting on the online version of this article notes, “perpetuating their lies by continuing to insist on [the Kabataş attack] even though they know it’s a lie is a greater crime than the original lie.”
 Barış Balcı, “‘Gezi’ mi Faiz Lobisinden, Faiz mi Gezi’den?” Hürriyet Gazetesi, 11 June 2013: http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/gezi-mi-faiz-lobisinden-faiz-mi-gezi-den-23476867.
 “GEZİ Senaryosunu Yahudi Lobisi Yazdı, Yahudi Sermayesi Finans Etti,” Yeni Akit, 13 June 2013: http://www.yeniakit.com.tr/yazarlar/mehtap-yilmaz/gezi-senaryosunu-yahudi-lobisi-yazdi-yahudi-sermayesi-finanse-etti-bes-1803.html.
 Author’s interview with AKP official, Eskişehir, August 2013.
 Author’s interview Turkish social movement expert Güneş Ertan Ankara, March 2014.
 Lisel Hintz, “The Heinous Consequences of Turkey’s Polarization,” The Washington Post, 15 October 2015: https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/10/15/the-heinous-consequences-of-turkeys-polarization/.
 “Erdoğan’dan Paralel Yapı Açıklaması,” Takvim.com, 11 October 2014: http://www.takvim.com.tr/guncel/2014/10/11/erdogandan-paralel-yapi-aciklamasi.
 “Erdoğan Attends ‘Ak Troll’ Wedding, Chats with Suspect,” Hürriyet Daily News, 15 June 2015: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/erdogan-attends-ak-troll-wedding-chats-with-well-known-suspect.aspx?pageID=238&nID=84013&NewsCatID=338.
 “Controversial Former AKP MP in Anti-Hürriyet Protests Promoted to Deputy Minister,” Hürriyet Daily News, 18 December 2015: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/controversial-former-akp-mp-in-anti-hurriyet-protests-promoted-to-deputy-minister.aspx?pageID=238&nID=92693&NewsCatID=338.