Monday, June 10, 2013

Taksim Square and the Fight for Turkish Identity

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
On Tuesday, May 28, builders and construction crews moved into Gezi Park, a small public park on the north east side of the Taksim Square in Istanbul.  The redevelopment of the park, as designed and implemented by the current ruling government, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), includes plans for cultural centers, an opera house, and a mosque. In addition to this, the plan also entails that an Ottoman-era military barracks be rebuilt on the site. In order to implement these plans, the current park must be razed, including its historical sycamore trees, and the historic Ataturk Cultural Center must be demolished.[1]

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 answer is that these protests have little to do with the symptoms of development and everything to do with growing discontent about the ruling AKP in general and with Prime Minister Erdogan specifically.

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.[2] 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.[3] 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 the same vane, the government’s plans to raze Gezi Park have hit a nerve with Turkish secularists. The first problem is with the erection of the Ottoman-era military barracks. Turkey values its military and has honored it with parks and museums throughout the country. These specific barracks, however, represent something more. The barracks being reconstructed were the sight of a failed mutiny attempt by Islamic-minded soldiers intent on incorporating Sharia law into the fabric of society.[4]  Again, secularists see the choice of rebuilding this specific barracks as an affront to the country’s secular foundation.

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.[5] 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).[6] 

Makeshift hospital for wounded demonstrators
The protests that have erupted in Turkey are not about Gezi Park or the environment in general.  Rather, they are about Turkey's identity. Protestors are concerned about what Turkey has become and where it is heading; they are concerned about the reality that the AKP has been in power for 11 years and will be in power for at least another two more; and they are concerned about the state of democracy under a government that on occasion lacks transparency and practices in-group bidding, if not corruption. How these protests play out will leave a definitive mark on Turkey’s identity. If the protestors elicit concessions from Erdogan and his AKP government, the country could move forward toward more collective decision making and increased compromise in the political arena. If, however, the protests continue without evoking political change, Erdogan and the AKP’s days will be numbered.

1 comment:

The World Around Me said...

This is a very interesting article. Thank you for sharing your sources. It is extremely interesting to see this turkey situation unravelling.