Resistance in the face of a regime crackdown

Sherry Wolf, author of Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation, was invited to speak in Turkey at an LGBTQ conference. Here, she describes the intensifying repression that she witnessed on her visit--along with the brave protests against an increasingly authoritarian regime.

Hunger strikers Nuriye Gülmen (left) and Semih Özakça (Sherry Wolf | SW)Hunger strikers Nuriye Gülmen (left) and Semih Özakça (Sherry Wolf | SW)

SINCE LAST summer's failed coup attempt in Turkey, the state under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been intent on revoking basic democratic norms in order to shut down all political opposition.

The ongoing state of emergency includes a purge that has left nearly 140,000 civil servants fired, more than 4,000 judges and prosecutors dismissed, 50,000 people jailed, more than 8,000 academics sacked, hundreds of journalists arrested and dozens of media outlets shut down.

When I visited Ankara, Turkey's capital, in mid-May at the invitation of the LGBTQ journal Kaos GL, I encountered a society in transition to authoritarianism. One fired professor of Women and Gender Studies at Ankara University explained:

The rules change every day--every hour, really. You don't know what to expect, whether you'll be left alone or bashed over the head and hauled into jail. I'm 50, and my career is over. Most of us who were terminated had our passports taken, so we can't even leave the country to work elsewhere. It's Kafkaesque.

That sentiment was echoed among many of the students, professors, journalists and civil society activists I spoke with during my brief visit. Some wondered whether Kaos GL's 12th annual queer gathering, featuring socialist author Peter Drucker and myself, would even be allowed to take place.

Turkey's relative openness to LGBTQ expression, especially in cosmopolitan centers, stands out in the region, but it is in question right now, along with other expressions of dissent.

In 2014, more than 100,000 marched in Istanbul Pride--the following year, police fired tear gas at marchers and revoked permission for the demonstration, claiming it coincided with Ramadan. Since 2016, Pride has been banned because of "security concerns."

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THE SHIFTING political climate was palpable the evening I spoke at the conference.

Other attendees and I joined hundreds of people at a nightclub that could be mistaken for any bar and dance club in New York or London. Alcohol flowed freely, and we danced to a techno version of the Eurythmics--until 2 a.m., when police arrived and demanded that the bar owners cut the music. The music stopped for 20 minutes, the police left--and lesbian and gay couples resumed dancing and drinking.

When I asked what was going on, my companion shrugged and replied: "Queer state of emergency."

The next day, I went to the central square in Ankara to meet two fired academics on the 67th day of a hunger strike to demand their jobs back. As of this writing, research assistant Nuriye Gülmen and elementary school teacher Semih Özakça, who have not eaten since March 9, are both extremely weakened, but defiant. As Gülman told Al Monitor:

We will not end the hunger strike until the authorities fulfill our expectations. There is nationwide support for the protest that just the two of us sparked. I have experienced health problems, but I will not yield to the darkness and oppression. I have faith that I will regain my rights and job. I am incredibly happy for such support rallying around us.

In fact, each afternoon, the two arrive at the square for a demonstration in front of a human rights monument. They are accompanied by hundreds of solidarity activists who must pass through cordons of well-armed police, carrying shields, wearing helmets and staring menacingly at chanting protesters.

Emre, a political science student, explained that police periodically charge into the crowd of solidarity activists, but each day, the protest resumes, recorded by iPhones and witnessed by hundreds of passing tourists and shoppers.

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NEWS ABOUT Turkey in the U.S. most recently focused on the Turkish president's visit to Washington, D.C., when Donald Trump rebuffed Erdoğan's request to end all aid and collaboration with a group of Kurdish fighters in Syria.

After their meeting at the White House, Erdoğan's security forces in Washington brutally beat peaceful protesters as he looked on passively. Claiming diplomatic immunity, none of the guards who assaulted the Kurdish protesters will be charged with a crime.

The Kurdish minority in Turkey is violently repressed. Over the last two years, thousands more have been killed and imprisoned, and more than 500,000 have been displaced in the eastern part of the country.

Many of the dismissed Turkish academics are signatories to an Academics for Peace solidarity petition with the Kurds.

Turkey, which shares a border with war-torn Syria, is also home to more than 3 million Syrian refugees, whom the European Union powers are desperate to keep out. That calculation is never far from mind as Western governments relate to Erdoğan's increasingly authoritarian state.

In April, Erdoğan claimed a narrow victory on a referendum to give the presidency sweeping new powers. Reports of brazen vote fraud sparked nightly protests after the April 16--it was lost on no one that the regime still nearly lost despite stuffing the ballot boxes.

A statement by Turkish socialists described the government's campaign:

Religious discourse, nationalist rhetoric, anti-Western populism based on conspiracy theories which were brilliant in their imbecility...everything was done to stigmatize the defenders of a "no" vote. Despite this, even according to the results declared by the regime, the vote was won by a margin of only 1.3 million out of 80 million people.

Turkish leftists and civil society generally seem caught between the growing authoritarianism of the state and the terrorism of ISIS, which has targeted cosmopolitan centers with recent bombings, killing friends and family members of several of the activists I met.

They need and want solidarity from the West.

And we in the U.S., facing intensified repression of our own, have to learn from the Turkish experience of how the state manipulates nationalism, religion and terror to divide, frighten and blunt resistance--and yet the struggle still continues.