Guest contributor Caitlin Scuderi, a Ph.D candidate in the Department of Political Science at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, USA, is a former Boren Fellow who has conducted extensive research in Turkey.
|Banners of demonstrators in Taksim Square|
The same morning construction crews moved into the park, environmental activists from around the city converged on Gezi Park – some of the last green space in a quickly developing city. On Thursday, May 30, police raided the protestors at dawn and two days later, protests erupted in major cities across Turkey in solidarity. Police have responded with teargas and water cannons.
Protests against environmental degradation, urbanization, and pedestrianization are a hallmark of developing and growing cities throughout the world. The question then is, what makes the protests that began in Gezi Park and spread throughout Turkey different?
|A wounded demonstrator|
The AKP has been in power since 2002 and in the 11 years that have passed, the party under the leadership of Erdogan has become increasingly more overt in its prescription of adherence to Islamic mores and directives. In early 2011, the AKP government placed controversial restrictions on alcohol and alcohol-related advertising. This move was promptly labeled as a nod to Islam by secularists in Turkey.
While the AKP has fervently denied any hidden agendas relating to the implementation of Sharia Law throughout the country, secularists have pointed to the details of the party’s plans as evidence of their ‘real’ agenda. For instance, just prior to the 2011 round of alcohol restrictions, the government increased a special tax on alcohol by 30 percent – making Turkey one of the world’s most expensive countries for alcohol. Importantly, this increased the price of raki, an anise-flavored drink widely consumed throughout Turkey, to about 35 USD per liter. Raki is associated with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and it is a widely held belief that he enjoyed the drink frequently. In this way, an attack on alcohol – and specifically on raki – is considered an attack on Ataturk, the man attributed with the founding of the cosmopolitan and secular Turkish state.
|Barricades in Taksim Square|
In order to even build the military barracks, the historic Ataturk Cultural Center must be demolished. In the same way that levying a tax on raki and rebuilding the barracks reaffirms some secularists’ ideas that the AKP government has a hidden agenda, demolishing a center with Ataturk’s name sends a message that the AKP government envisions an identity for Turkey different from that of its founders.
Last, secularists and Turks concerned with the state of democracy in general have voiced their discontent with the government’s choice of Kalyon Group as the project’s main contractor. Kalyon Group’s close ties with the AKP government raise questions of transparency and corruption within the government (this isn’t the only time the AKP’s transparency has been question, however. The 2008 1.1 billion USD acquisition of Turkuvas Media Group by Calik Group raised eyebrows: Calik’s chairman and CEO is Erdogan’s son-in-law).
|Makeshift hospital for wounded demonstrators|