Where does religion end and politics begin in Turkey: through the prism of The Gezi Park protests
It has been a few months now since Turkey, was shaken by Gezi Park Protests- an environmental outcry turn countrywide demonstration. The protest itself showed the side of Turkey many thought was long forgotten- civil popular dissent, unity, and solidarity. For the first time in years in a country of some seventy million, people rose against their government and its gripping authority of the ruling Justice and Development party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi) and its leader, the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. If someone said that hundreds of thousands of Turks raising their voices against the ruling government’s patronizing and increasingly more conservative policies would take the streets in more than 60 towns few months ago, it would have been hard to believe. The Gezi spirit brought people together as well as left many baffled by what Turkish citizens are capable of and among those scratching their heads is also the Turkish government officials.
Gezi protests: religious storm in the making?
It all began with few environmentalists’ attempt to prevent bulldozers from entering a small park in the heart of Istanbul near Taksim Square on May 27. The Prime Minister, Erdogan envisaged a new development plan for the park- a new shopping center, with cultural centers, opera house, a mosque, Ottoman- era military barracks, and the historic Ataturk Culture Center demolished. The plan was not open to public discussion or a vote, just as it has been the case with other past and recent development projects- construction of a third bridge across the Bosphorus entailing destruction of thousands of more trees (not to mention naming it after Yavuz Selim, an Ottoman Sultan under which thousands of Alevis (1) were slaughtered), a third and biggest new airport, the largest mosque on another green space on the Anatolian side of Istanbul, (2) a canal connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and many others.
When the popular unrest escalated (given the heavy handed tactics of police who used tear gas and water cannon to disperse peaceful protesters and burned their tents) on May 31st, Turkey’s Prime Minister could have prevented the approaching storm. Instead he chose to press with the development plans. He refused to accept the debt of the events and left the country for a three- day trip to North Africa. Following his return it was clear his government wont budge from its earlier stand. Shortly after came the religion card. It was a (mis)calculation on behalf of Erdogan’s government to rely heavily on religion and discredit the protesters based on their spiritual affiliation (or lack thereof). Little did he know that Turkey was made up of more than just his staunch supporters (of which he said later he could hardly keep at home (3) as the protests spread across the country) and simply anti- government hoodlums (4) or “chapulcu” in Turkish, a term that was embraced (5) by the protesters following Erdogan’s fiery statement that he wont “seek permission from hoodlums to implement” his plans for Taksim. (6)
From the very start of the protests up until today, Erdogan’s inflammatory rhetoric portrayed and continues to do so, the demonstrations as the work of secular, westernized elite with a goal to repress religious and conservative majority. One must note that it was the Prime Minster himself who started playing the religion card, not the protesters.
The miscalculation of that action was fatal. All throughout the protests the protesters and organizers of the occupy Gezi movement did all they could to “embrace everyone”. And it was a religious sermon organized on a 9th day of protests which coincided with the Lailat-al-Mi’raj also known as Mirac Kandili in Turkish, that left the leaders even more so baffled. The unity among protesters was highlighted in the sermon of Ihsan Eliacik, a religious author from the anti-capitalist Muslims group who spoke that night at the park. “Mirac means ascendance . Muhammed the Holy Prophet has brought Islam by ascending to God. Islam means peace. Peace is a state of harmlessness. Do not harm anyone. Greet everyone; greet also those who are different from you. Be brothers and sisters, spread love and compassion. Today this energy is spreading out from Gezi Park. With God’s grace, completely new things are happening in Turkey” Eliacik (7) said at the park.
Few weeks later, as the holy month of Ramadan came to Turkey, once again the regime was baffled. The so- called unreligious Turks set up “earth tables” in the streets for iftar (dinner to break the day-long fast) with the first one set up on Istiklal Avenue of Istanbul, the city’s main pedestrian and shopping street. Everyone brought something to join the “table”- even those who have never fasted before- as a sign of solidarity. As the time went by, other “earth tables” were set up in other Istanbul neighborhoods. Among these were Fatih, and in Sarigazi Cemevi- a neighborhood known for its Alevi population long ostracized by the conventional Sunnis and the ruling party. (8)
Ironically, this idea of one community is something that Erdogan’s government once promised when it first came to power in 2002. Back then there was rhetoric of a different Turkey- a non-ideological approach to politics, responsiveness to demands of the people, change, development, liberty and democracy. (9) In the initial years of leadership, Erdogan took steps to distance himself and his party from the country’s earlier Islamist parties that were anti- west. In fact he was viewed as a “Nixon-in-China, a man who understood the need for Turkey’s closer integration to Europe and the global economy because of and not despite his political initiation in an openly Islamic political movement. He promised to rewrite Turkey’s international role The new Turkey would not simply be a bulwark but an agent of change- as a beacon of sound governance, a powerhouse economy, and a reservoir of good diplomatic sense”. (10)
It is unfortunate that only a decade later the AKP, especially following its second re-election is shifting further apart from its original rhetoric of a new Turkey. Turkey today no longer is united or at least not for the time being. For the ruling Justice and Development Party Turkey consists of the 50% who voted for Erdogan in the last elections in 2011, and the rest of the country. As for Erdogan himself, many see him and his party more as “xenophobic, anti- Western, inward-looking, anti-globalization and pro-status quo” (11) than what he once used to be.
1) Alevis are the non-Sunni Muslim group in Turkey. Since AKP coming to power Alevi population have had problems as the ruling government refused to recognize their “cemevi”- Alevi places of worship.
3) Constanze Letsch, Ian Traynor, “Turkish protests: John Kerry voices concer over police use of force”, June 4, 2013, last accessed on July 21, 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/03/turkey-protests-us-voices-concern
4) Marc Champion, “A lesson for Turkey from Romania’s ‘Golaniad’ Protests”, June 17, 2013, last accessed on July 21, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/20130617/erdogansgolaniad.html
5) Needless to say, the demeaning term was widely embraced by the protesters, as they proudly labeled themselves “capulcu” and coined an English verb “capuling”
6) Luke Harding, “Turkish protesters embrace Erdogan insult and start ‘capuling’ craze”, June 10, 2013, last accessed on July 21, 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/10/turkishprotesterscapulingerdogan
7) Ates Altinordu, “Occupy Gezi, beyond the religioussecular cleavage”, last accessed on July 22, 2013, http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2013/06/10/occupygezibeyondthereligioussecularcleavage/
8) Fehim Tastekin, “Turkey’s Gezi Park Protesters Regroup for Ramadan”, July 14, 2013, last accessed on July 2013 http://www.almonitor. com/pulse/originals/2013/07/turkeygeziparkprotestersobserveramadaniftars.html
9) Al Jazeera Magazine, “Turkey: a master of its own” in “Turkey: a country in Transition” issue, July 15, 2013, last accessed on July 21, 2013
10) Andrew Finkel, “Turkey: master of its own” in “Turkey: a country in transition?” Al Jazeera magazine, July 2013
11) Ihsan Dagi, “What is behind the veil of conspiracy theories”, June 16, 2013, last accessed on July 21, 2013, http://www.todayszaman.com/columnist318426whatisbehindtheveilofconspiracytheories.html