Turkey’s Twitter Generation Is Its European Future

The huge change that has taken place in Turkish society over the past two decades is suddenly evident to European voters.

The protests that started in Istanbul’s Gezi Park two weeks ago have spread across Turkey and show little sign of dying down. They signify a clash between a modernizing Turkish society and a still rigid and old-fashioned political system.

The protests have resulted in the tragic loss of several lives and are endangering Turkey’s hard-won economic stability as investors take fright. But they also have a silver lining. They might force the government to reconsider its rejection of pluralism. And they might even help to revive Turkey’s moribund accession process to the European Union.

Turkey’s government has spent millions of euros over the last decade on European advertising campaigns to update its image and lessen public opposition to its EU membership bid. The Gezi Park protestors have had a more profound impact on Turkey’s international image in just a few weeks. European news bulletins and social media have been showing a new generation of Turks who, in articulate English, explain how much they value democracy, personal freedoms, and tolerance between people with different lifestyles. The colorful banners of Taksim Square have replaced the stock images of mosques, Anatolian peasants, and monumental Bosphorus bridges.

The huge change that has taken place in Turkish society over the past two decades is suddenly evident to European voters, many of whom previously equated Turkey with Islamism, Kurdish terrorists, and mass migration. The images from Gezi Park resonate particularly with younger Europeans who see the protests as Turkey’s version of the American Occupy movement, the Spanish “Indignados” movement, and the German Wutbürger protests. These younger Europeans will vote on Turkish EU accession when the accession negotiations are finished.

The Twitter effect is a new element in the Turkey-EU relationship. The laughable failure of Turkey’s mainstream press to cover the protests accurately has driven people to rely on Twitter and Facebook as their main source of news. Twitter could not have asked for a better marketing campaign than Erdogan’s ranting against “lies on social media.” Turkey is also trending in social media conversations within the EU—here, comments are at the same time becoming more in favor of Turkish accession to the EU (because of its people) and more skeptical it will happen (because of its government).

The EU’s dilemma is how to encourage Turkish society without rewarding the government. The conditionality of the accession talks is a blunt weapon. Germany or another member-state might be tempted to block the opening of the next chapter in the negotiations on regional policy to express disdain about the Erdogan government’s brutal reaction to the protests. But such sanctions would only feed the paranoia that Erdogan’s party is spreading about alleged international plots against Turkey. They would reduce the EU’s leverage still further.

Instead, the EU should hug Turkey closer at this great moment in the country’s democratic journey. The EU is right to criticize police violence and repression of the media, but it should also engage in an intense dialogue with the Turkish government about increasing pluralism and personal freedoms. There are chapters in the negotiations that could help to guide Turkey through this major transition—such as Chapters 23 and 24 on fundamental rights, justice and home affairs—which Cyprus and other EU countries should unblock.

In a way, the Gezi Park protests are a victory of the accession process so far. Erdogan rose to power by reassuring Turkey’s more liberal, secular classes that he was serious about EU accession and the democratic and economic opening this entailed. Especially during his early years in power, Erdogan significantly strengthened the freedoms of assembly, association, and expression. Today’s protests are the result of this enormous opening of the Turkish political space.

Walking around Taksim Square before it was cleared by the police, I saw the vast variety of political opinions and causes represented there: pictures of imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan were held up next to a banner for the Muslim Anti-Capitalist League; environmentalists sat in their tents alongside self-declared Communists; youngsters played music while headscarved mothers pushed prams around the park. The atmosphere was festive and friendly, a remarkable display of tolerance and mutual respect.

Most of the protesters eschewed violence even in the face of police brutality. The dozens of causes gathered there have conflicting ideologies and visions for Turkey. What unites them is a desire for more pluralism and space for dissent. The fact that these small, diverse organizations immediately sprouted when a breath of oxygen came into the public space is testament to the vibrancy of Turkish civil society.

The problem is that Erdogan’s old-fashioned leadership is more and more at odds with this more pluralist and modern society. The battles between police and protestors are part of a much bigger battle between “leader knows best” politics and modern social participation. Many, if not most, Turks still favor strong leadership and the education system promotes a reverence for Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as the father of the nation.

But Erdogan’s reaction to the protests has made the paternalistic style look like Victorian parenting in a modern family. Erdogan initially refused to enter a dialogue with his rebellious “children.” Turkey’s citizens, however, are no longer content to be infantilized. They do not want the prime minister to tell them to drink yogurt, bear three children, and stop drinking alcohol after 10 p.m. Erdogan’s ministers, who blamed banks, speculators, a global conspiracy—anyone but themselves—for the protests showed how out of touch they are with their own society. Erdogan would have done better to copy Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in his dialogue with the Indignados than Vladimir Putin lambasting Pussy Riot.

Erdogan’s conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) is not alone in having missed or misinterpreted Turkey’s social opening. The other big parties that have dominated Turkish politics for decades fared no better. The secularist center-left Republican People’s Party, (CHP)—which Erdogan has accused of organizing the protests—was nowhere to be seen in Gezi Park. The protests are an outcry of the many social groups who feel disenfranchised by the AKP’s (or more precisely Erdogan’s) 15-year dominance of Turkish politics.

The underlying problem is that the AKP fears pluralism. It equates criticism of the government with treachery to the Turkish state that needs to be punished. There is a chance that these protests will help Turkey start to accept its diversity. If the protests keep spreading, Erdogan and his party will be forced to accept that the expression of opinions and beliefs they dislike is part of any modern democracy. Europeans should help this process along, not reject Turkey at this critical moment.

14 Comments

Hide

During my college years most of my roommates were Turkish and I developed a great deal of respect for those many friends I made and also a certain degree of despair.

Turkey as Denmark are both states in contraction and therefore have developed a highly nationalistic lens of which they indoctrinate their children to view the world through.

The challenges the planet faces with scarcer resources, our increased connectivity with one another globally, means that nationalism often gets in the way of bringing people together for common causes politically and socially.

Even with Turkish nationalism there was generally a high level of hospitality shown towards outsiders along with questions (why does Kurdistan appear on this map?, Turkey is secular, part of NATO, we have been very loyal to the west, why are we not treated as equals? The former question was generally explained via noting that one mans line in the sand is another mans line to be erased, however the latter questions could not be so easily answered.

Here in Scandinavia, there is much worry about letting Turkey in to the EU, that they are somehow different, that Muslims are ruining Europe. It really gets very ugly here sometimes regarding the views of what are supposedly highly educated people.Here to we see rising waves of nationalists in light of economic downturns and this is where Scandinavia has gotten it all wrong and Turkey has gotten it completely right. Where is both areas of the world its a small elite minority at the top who pit the lower classes against one another...in Scandinavia they are are still blind to that point where as in Turkey you have hit the mark. If anyone has anything to learn its the Europeans from the Turks as no political movement in Western Europe has come so far or so fast as Turkey. Well done.

Thank you for this interesting note. Was it really published first on the 25th June (it seems to me that protests were already slowing down rather than expanding at this point)?

I welcome the fact these events helped change Turkey's image in Western Europe and dissociate government from people, it's certainly an important effect of these protests.
I also share the view the EU would better "hug Turkey closer" lest it should lose its leverage.

However I think we tend to be a bit too optimistic when commenting on the democratic awakening of Turkey. It is a tremendous step and reveals the vibrancy of the younger population but it can't hide the fact most of Turkey is behind Erdogan and will remain so, maybe as long as the economy keeps blooming.
Despite their common wish for a space to oppose, protestors either have no political party to represent their democratic values or belong to political and social circles intolerant to each other.
The road is long to democracy, but I suppose it's a half-full half-empty glass story...

La popolazione turca è divisa fra gli islamisti conservatori
guidati da Erdogan che sognano un nuovo califfato religioso e le giovani classi medie e studentesche in prevalenza laiche e filo, europee. Le nuove forme di comunicazione hanno permesso a queste ultime di manifestare il dissenso

Translated on Google Translate

The Turkish population is divided between conservative Islamists
led by Erdogan who dream of a new caliphate and religious young middle classes and student predominantly secular and thread, Europe. The new forms of communication have allowed them to express dissent

Europe needs Turkey more than it admits. Ineed, successfully integrating a democratic, muslim society into the Union is absolutely critical to its long-term survival and global relevance. It is an ironic twist on history, but an important one that must be managed very carefully. Fortunately Europe has plenty of soft power to project - and now is the time to use it intelligently in Turkey. John Z, NYU

voting in someone without having any further say is not democracy. countries are run for the economy, instead of the welfare of the citizens, and the economy is the instrument of the capitalists. the eu is not good for democracy as the decisions are made further away, and are not accountable. we should vote in independents who are accountable to the people who voted them in, and then form an alliance.

The EU cannot interfere with the uprising in Turkey without seeming to be manipulative and political. Rather, the EU should support the movements by continuing, financially, to support those rallying for democracy and commercialism. These people are rallying for a better life for themselves and their children and nothing reinforces the fight more than the promise of a better tomorrow. There are approximately 150,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey and the country is trying to close it's borders to more. Change is upon Turkey at a time when those fleeing Syrian oppression have a front row seat. Support them in the aspirations to become an EU member by showing them that there IS a better way to live without putting their lives on the line every day. It will give the refugees something to take back to Syria with them, too.
And then please go back to countries that have already been admitted to the EU with sanctions and crack down on their lack of compliance. Romania has been admitted into the EU because of its strategic location and the government's willingness to sell the country out. It is the next domino to fall and Basescu has already lined it up as a resettlement country. All of this is happening despite driving its population into poverty and hosting a growing population of stateless children who will be further lost with the encroachment of refugees. What happened to the sanctions imposed by the EU there????????

When Radio and Television came on board, the Canadian media scholar described the world as a global village. But with the invention of the social media, the world has become a global room, whose corners are very visible to everyone and everyone is very accessible to everyone. So we can communicate with both verbal and non verbal cues. We can also read and interpret verbal and non verbal cues of one another. So nothing is hidden again including the activities of leaders. In fact governments and governance have become pregnancy which can never be hidden and which needs only time to manifest fully and clearly.
Having done with that invitation to accept the fact that nothing is hidden and nothing can be hidden again, Turkish government is singing the swan song. The dictators are already gone. Democracy has come in as everyone in the room can no talk and clearly express feelings and views. All efforts to muzzle and silence the media are clear expressions of backwardness and suicide. With the social media in place every corner of the world is seeing Turkey as it is including the ostrich posture of the already collapsed government.
It behoves on the EU to act on the reports of citizen journalists who are feeding the world with the goings on in Turkey. The EU should open their hearts an doors to support all who genuinely fight for the restoration of democracy in Turkey. Any socio-economic and political strategies that would empower the citizen to fight to the end, EU should adopt, with minimal desire to make profit and expand territories.

Dissent in any society should be tolerated- since someone criticizing the government is telling an obvious truth factoid.There should be a Facebook/Twitter alternative for people to exchange views- misfortunes-intolerance. (Turkey's PM Ergodan is trying his very best in cutting access or having himself access to private conversations..Teuffelberg's new role comes to mind in Berlin). ECHR just fined Turkey/PMErdogan for the 'right to life' murders of Kurdish juveniles (Article 23)and finding Turkey guilty of violation of Article 2 (covers ill-treatment and ineffective investigator in the case of 59 yr old Mustafa Aldemir (soldiers mistook him for a PKK militant). PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan's is the biggest problem in any plurality- whereas Pres.Gul seems to have better relations with outside and inside Turkey. So far there is a Housing/Planning Administrative Court that issued a ruling on Gezi Park- insufficient input by locals etc.- in abeyance of any razing/building. It is not Speculators/Diaspora Jews/Greens/PKK/ Syriacs,Vatican,EU,Greece+ Cyprus,France- that are stung by his actions/verbal lashes-orders. German and American soldiers are manning Patriot missiles inside Turkey/Syria border in NATO defense pact- what does Erdogan do? He+his cohorts approved buying the Chinese long-range auto-missile and air defense systems never in sync with NATO radar as first warning- making NATO see the obvious- the gold exchanges with Iran- the backing of extremists in Syria (some named after Ottoman Sultans). The erasure of minorities' home zones for pies in the sky architecture- including Roma too. Trying to claim Greek antiques belonging to Greece in various world museums as theirs (also any mausoleums located outside Turkey as belonging to Turkey). There is great need for common people in minorities (plural) complaints to be addressed legally. In US during Revolution Gen.Washington discouraged dueling- instead all complainants took umbrage in Military Tribunal (Courts were closed). PM Erdogan will not change- but Pres.Gul and others might- for them it is not personal- some are toeing Erdogan's line for their job security. Most important for Turks of any stripe is to have unconditional access to news sites- orgs - in other words an open society with dissent.

As to the question of what the EU can do, it needs to keep them engaged. An open Turkey is critical to the entire region. Patience and continued engagement can allow needed social systems to take hold and assert themselves.

A small item, but I just traveled in the region and I was very impressed by Turkish Airlines. In the string of flights to and from there and North America, they provided, by far, the best service, the best planes, and the best experience. I didn't appreciate the 15 euro charge for a visa to enter the airport, but even that may be a nod to competitive acumen.

Excellent article. As mentioned in the article Chapters 23 and 24 are very critical for the European future of Turkey. Turkey has a dynamic entrepreneurial youth who have embraced EU values. EU should not waste this constructive energy.

While I can agree with the gist of the article - change is needed - I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss mainstream press and praise facebook and twitter. While FB and TW may give immediate information, they also have the weakness of having no perspective. Facts without context is next to useless noise. You are able to write this article because of a long and considered thought process, filtering out some facts and bringing others in the and that takes time - something that FB and TW do not engender. I would contend that far from bringing positive outcomes, these channels only stir up a false sense of change. Airing your views on FB or TW and being read by millions instantly is not the same as talking and arguing your case bit by bit. There is no meeting of minds or exchange of ideas which allows people time to reflect change their own thinking. Europe has had hundreds of years to develop plural societies. The world of FB and TW want it in a week. It also assumes that the "written" word is the same as reality. i.e if some one posts a "I Love You", they really do when in fact it may be not true at all. Its just words on a screen. Witness events in Egypt, where FB and TW were lauded as harbingers of change. All it has done is allowed more entrenched views to develop as each side has used technology as an excuse to avoid real dialogue. Encouraged by modern media each side puts out statements via FB and assumes that's all that's needed. Its like a child shouting and assuming its wishes will be fulfilled. In fact a cynic might say that's what the west is really doing here, using its technology to sow more division and all the while the $$$$ come back to its corporates through mobile phone and internet business. There is a time for quick communication and a time for slowing down. But the world of FB and TW knows only the former and creates an illusion of understanding.

I think this is a crucial moment, UE must go ahead in the negotiating the access of Turkey in UE because, left alone, this country could get far from the path of democracy and search for alliances in countries where old models of government are used.

What is a person who does not make the world a better place!? Requires us to "change the way we think!" Otherwise, everything will remain the same, even as technology advances.

Ojalá que movimientos sociales como estos y en particular lo que está sucediendo en Turquía, nos sirvan para comprender los profundos cambios que se producen en el mundo y sobre todo en lo que significa en el fondo la verdadera democracia, el ejercicio manifiesto de la voluntad popular, la del ciudadano común y corriente sin intervención del Estado, sólo en lo que respecta al ordenamiento de las Leyes. Los Medios de comunicación deben entender estos cambios y saber que la Libertad de Expresión no constituye su patrimonio, sino el derecho de los ciudadanos a decir lo que siente y expresarlo sin cortapisas. Ya este tipo de periodismo de los dueños de los medios considero que está por concluir. Nosotros mismos somos los protagonistas de las noticias y tenemos el deber y el derecho de contribuir al mensaje positivo y a la verdad, sin precio ni duda.

Add your voice