Thousands of protesters continue to gather at Istanbul's Taksim square over plans to demolish Gezi Park and create a new shopping mall. Demotix/Marooncomtr
Over the past few days Turkey has been gripped by large-scale social unrest not seen since the disastrous economic crisis of 2000-2001. The protests started on the 28 May in Istanbul when a collection of environmentalists and local activists occupied Gezi Park against the uprooting of one of the few major green parks in the sprawling urban metropolis that is Istanbul - a city of over 13 million people – to make way for a shopping mall.
However, what started out as a protest by a small number of people turned into a nation-wide crisis after images began to circulate on social media sites of the repressive approach the police were taking to the protests. The pictures of fully armoured riot police spraying tear gas and pepper spray onto unarmed and peaceful protestors, many of them women, provoked widespread indignation and disgust that resulted in a cacophony of ‘that’s enough’ across Twitter and elsewhere.
The protestors were joined by many well-known journalists, famous actresses, actors, and singers whose popularity helped publicize the police brutality. Being a well known public figure however offers no protection from police brutality in Turkey. The police attacked them with equal vigour and so twitter accounts across the country saw images of well known journalist, Ahmet Şık with his face covered in blood from the police repression.
The participation of those involved in Turkey’s cultural world - Taksim, the site of the protests is Turkey’s cultural hub - reflects a growing discontent among the liberal classes against the government’s increasingly authoritarian interventions in cultural output. From dictating the dress codes of popular soap operas, to replacing critical voices on TV and newspapers, as well as placing pro-government administrators in charge of editorials, many are lamenting at the demise of an independent media in Turkey.
The extent to which the media has become muzzled in recent years has in part actually fuelled the protests, indeed while it became clear to most in the city what was happening on the ground in Taksim, the mainstream media simply ignored what was happening – in spite of the fact that Haber Turk – a major TV station being literally around the corner from Gezi Park! This act of staged ignorance, inflamed people’s sense of disgust towards the government and the government-led media and confirmed many peoples fears that the country is slowly sleep walking into an authoritarian regime. In one amusing story a man in Besiktas threw his TV out of his apartment window in frustration, as rather than reporting on riot police attacking protestors and saturating his neighbourhood with tear gas, a major Turkish TV channel chose to run a program about penguins.
Commodifying the city
The fear of authoritarian rule amongst Istanbul’s liberal bourgeoisie is also keenly felt by Turkey’s organized working class, who less than a month before, faced large-scale repression at the hands of the police during the annual Mayday protests. The government decided to prevent the annual protest under the pretext of safety fears due to the construction work. However, a couple of weeks later, football fans were allowed to celebrate Galatasaray’s victory in the football league in the same place which was deemed unsafe a few weeks earlier.
This drove home to many that the government is deliberately shutting down spaces in the city for dissent, the redevelopment of Taksim is seen by many as the beginning of a wider project to depoliticize and increase surveillance of the city centre and as part of a wider reconstruction strategy to gentrify and commodify the area. Taksim holds a particularly emotive place in the hearts and minds of progressive forces in Turkey as it was the site of a massacre against mayday protestors in the late 1970s.
This process of urban commodification is a major feature of Istanbul’s development, with gecekondu slum’s being raised and replaced with multi-billion dollar developments for Istanbul’s wealthy elite, massive modernist constructions of huge, towering sky scrapers, and an additional Bosphorous bridge construction that are dramatically changing Istanbul’s historic skyline. All of which have forced the UNESCO World Heritage Committee to threaten classifying Istanbul’s heritage as ‘endangered’. The minarets of the city’s historical architecture are being overshadowed by the desire of the municipal government and investors to sink latent capital into building ever taller buildings and ever more shopping malls – ironic when you think that the AKP is considered to be a conservative and islamic rooted political force.
Old divisions and new solidarities
The AKP’s ‘Islamic’ roots is a card often used to portray conflict in Turkey as being determined by a cultural war between the ‘secularist’ Kemalist establishment of old and the emerging Islamic middle classes. This is a narrative popular amongst a large segment of the CHP’s supporters – Turkey’s largest official parliamentary opposition.
Indeed, the perception of these divisions was not helped, when last week the AKP decided to rush through legislation banning the sale of alcohol after 10pm without significant discussion. In addition, it was revealed that the third bridge would be named after an Ottoman Sultan; Yavuz Sultan Selim – who was infamous for persecuting the Ottoman Empires Alevi’s.
This narrative also suits the AKP because it can bind it’s supporters together by constantly reminding people of the ill treatment endured by pious Muslims prior to the AKP’s rise to power. It allows them a way to distract attention from its relaxed attitude to finance capitalism by furnishing neoliberal development with an ‘Islamic’ veneer as away to cement a broad coalition in order to maintain a form of neoliberal hegemony.
It is therefore convenient for both the AKP and the CHP to portray the divisions within Turkish society in these terms.
It is true that many of the slogans and language used by a significant portion of the protestors on Saturday were Kemalist inspired, but perhaps more significant was the fact that the protests were not wholly dominated by a Kemalist narrative. This makes the current unrest qualitatively different from previous widespread protests organized in 2007 by the Kemalist elite against a plan by Erdogan to stand as president. These protests in contrast are constituted largely of young people without political affiliation, and therefore more akin to the forms of protest we’ve become accustomed to in recent years across Europe and the occupy protests in America.
Most significantly however, for a country that is very patriarchal, women have made up a huge portion of the protestors. Thus, the one clear generalisation that can be made of the protests with certainty is that they are pluralistic; reflecting many different segments of Turkish society. Turkish nationalists marching alongside Kurdish nationalists, liberals marching with socialists, straight and gay, men and women, environmentalists and trade unionists. And perhaps must strikingly of all, in a country passionately divided by which football team you support, the scene of rival football supporters coming to each other for protection in the face of police oppression.
If you ever work, or spend an extended amount of time in Istanbul, one of the first things you have to adjust to, is the daily struggle to squeeze yourself on to the crowded public transport system. It’s a physical affair in which no quarter is given to the compromising of us. It’s push and shove or be pushed and shoved, but on the protests solidarity is everywhere to be seen. And it cuts across all divisions with people from nearby homes offering food and shelter, medical students helping to offer on the spot medical attention, or businesses opening their shops, and residents opening their wifi accounts so that protestors can circumvent the governments disconnection of the 3G network.
It remains to be seen whether the unrest can evolve into a serious movement which can build an effective, open and progressive opposition to the AKP’s authoritarian neoliberal project. This is a question that is not unique to Turkey, but to others across Europe and the Middle East. With the presence of so many old opposition parties tainted by past excesses it will be a difficult task to create a wholly new vision. But one thing is clear, following the liberation of Taksim and Gezi park, as people sat down on that precious, reclaimed park grass, anyone mingling amongst the crowds would have got a clear sense from the carnival like atmosphere, that something has changed in Turkey.
 Cassano, J (2013) ‘The Right to the City Movement and the Turkish Summer’, http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/11978/the-right-to-the-city-movement-and-the-turkish-sum
 For a thoughtful conservative Muslim account see: http://hkubra.tumblr.com/post/51837417670/from-privileged-activism-to-an-outcry-against
 Cemal Burak Tansel, (2013) http://adamdavidmorton.com/2013/06/the-gezi-park-occupation-confronting-authoritarian-neoliberalism/.
Get our weekly email