The Contemporary Istanbul Art Fair, which took place November 13-16, is among the most popular art events hosted in Turkey. One of the pieces that attracted significant attention this year was titled ‘FEZ: Diorama of a Turkish Street Protest’ by the English artist Slinkachu. The work, portraying the Gezi protests of 2013, features miniature riot police assaulting protestors carrying Turkish flags with a whisp of white cotton posing as a cloud of tear gas. The torrid scene is staged on top of a fez, a felt hat widely worn during Turkey's Ottoman past.
Thankfully there was an explanatory panel adjacent to the piece to reassure the observer that the choice of stage is not pandering to a fanciful Orientalist aesthetic that connects any mention of Istanbul with camels, flying carpets, belly dancers, and of course, the fez. Instead, the panel informs, the fez exists as a “reminder of the past, not of the future.” Following a brief description of the ‘hat law’ — one of the more absurd episodes in modern Turkish history — the blurb suggests that the presence of the fez in the work serves to “highlight the schools of thought of both ‘sides’”.
The contrast between flag-waving protestors representing the forces of progress and the villainous reactionaries interested in reinstating the fez and political Islam is problematic for a variety of reasons, however. Firstly, the banning of the fez in 1925 was a whimsical authoritarian move enacted by the single party regime of the period, whose ‘modernity’ the piece implicitly celebrates. Its use in this context brushes over the same regime’s more serious crimes, including the systematic use of violence against ethnic and religious minorities under its protection.
That prefaces the piece's use of the Turkish flag to symbolise a force for good in a dumbed down Rebel Alliance vs Empire narrative. Ultra-nationalist discourses in Turkey have long had the habit of sweeping discontent and diversity under a rug by claiming all ethnic and religious groups in Turkey are ‘united under the same flag.’ The issue with this statement is that great atrocities like the forced ‘repatriation’ of Greeks, the confiscation of Armenian families’ properties and the suppression of Dersim’s Kurdish Alawite uprising by aerial bombardment and invasion have all been committed under that flag, too.
Slinkachu obviously is not the only commentator to place the 2013 protests in these binary terms. The construction of the secular vs Islamic dichotomy as an epic struggle between good and evil is an old cliché and one that was rolled out repeatedly in ‘explainers’ of the events during their peak. Luke Harding's article for the Guardian, for instance, was billed on social media as a ‘must read’ piece for the political background to Gezi:
— Luke Harding (@lukeharding1968) June 9, 2013
But the suggestion that Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the single party state responsible for banning the fez, was the ‘symbol’ of the protests creates the same false impression as the claim that the protestors were ‘united under the same flag’. In reality different people from different factions, including ethnic minority political parties very distant from the jingoism associated with Atatürk, participated in Gezi. As one Istanbul-based Twitter user implored Harding: “Please see the diversity.”
Also that summer, in a twist almost as perverse as a nationwide ban on a certain type of headwear, the name of the founder of the Turkish republic crossed the lips of English comedian Russell Brand in a TV interview for CNN. Having previously come out on Twitter to support the protests, Brand clarified his reason for doing so during the interview: “a powerful symbol of the Turkish people — Atatürk — has, in their minds, to a certain degree, been desecrated.”
Again and again, when it comes to discussions of Gezi and Turkish politics, we see ill-informed foreign commentators falling back on the cut and paste of a dialectical confrontation between an authoritarian, secular, single party state from history and the current, elected, authoritarian government which plays to a religious base.
What is worst about this dichotomy is that it reveals a troubling lack of faith in the idea that Turkey specifically and the Middle East in general can develop a viable alternative to either secular or religious authoritarianism. As a number of participants will testify, this is a great shame, since the Gezi protests were the first time anything close to a genuine popular dialogue about such an alternative was discussed across the country.
For many of these participants, awakened to the injustices hidden under chauvinistic slogans for the first time, the spirit of solidarity and unity came not from the national flag, shared opposition to a hat, or the need to support a bygone autocrat against a modern one, but from a desire to explore a third alternative and launch an experiment in direct democracy.