Turks gathered at Taksim Square, in Istanbul, for unprecedented protests against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan over what they see as his authoritarian rule. REUTERS/Osman Orsal
Protests in Istanbul rage on after police violence transformed an occupation by a handful of activists in a public park into massive anti-government demonstrations around the country.
The occupation of Gezi Park, located in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, was initially spurred on by government plans to develop a shopping mall over the park, one of the last remaining green spaces in the sprawling metropolis. Media outside of Turkey wrongly characterized this as a tree-hugging environmental protest, rather than a battle over the nature of urban space. After the protests became world news, Western media got it wrong again by characterizing the uproar as a revolt against Islamic influence in Turkish politics.
For The New York Times, Tim Arango frames the protests as a fight over the country’s identity as Islamic or secular. And the BBC aired a segment portraying the growing movement as a secular revolt against Islamic rule, falsely claiming that 50 percent of the Turkish public is Islamist.
The latter claim is a reference to the fact that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) received nearly 50 percent of the popular vote in the 2011 general elections. But it overlooks the fact that support for the AKP came from many sectors of society, not just devout Muslims.
For journalists with only passing familiarity with Turkey’s internal workings, noting that the country is deeply divided by the debate of religion versus secularism has become as tired and worn-out as travel writers noting that Istanbul sits at the “crossroad of cultures” between Europe and Asia. But “the Taksim excursion park protests cut across the clichéd secularist-Islamist divide that dominates the Western image of Turkish politics,” said Asli Bali, an assistant professor at the UCLA School of Law, in a statement released June 3. “They give voice to widespread frustrations with the prime minister’s arrogant and dismissive treatment of all forms of dissent.”
This view is confirmed by the opinions of protesters on the ground. “Saying the protest is about secularism or religion misses the point completely,” says Zeyno Üstün, a demonstrator who participated in the occupation of Gezi Park on the very first night, May 27. Üstün was one of only fifty activists who occupied Gezi Park on the 27th. Now the movement she helped launch has been taken up by hundreds of thousands.
She continued, “Sure, there are hardcore secularists in the crowds. But there are also feminists, LGBT activists, anarchists, socialists of various stripes, Kurdish movements leaders, unionized workers, architects and urban planners, soccer hooligans, environmentalists, and people who are protesting for the first time! Someone wearing an Atatürk [the founder of the Turkish Republic as a secular, ethnically Turkish nation-state] T-shirt walks alongside another waving a flag of [imprisoned Kurdish leader] Abdullah Öcalan.”
The protests have in the past days manifested as general anti-government protests, transcending the original focus on public space in Istanbul. With every tear gas canister launched by police, demonstrators’ beliefs that the Turkish government is drunk on power are verified.
“Demonstrators numbers have grown exponentially as the police violence escalates,” Elif Ince, a reporter for the Turkish daily Radikal, told The Nation.