Photo by Meghan Rutherford
Middle East / Turkey

The Trouble in Istanbul: Not Just Another Arab Spring

When protests broke out in Istanbul’s Taksim Square in May 2013, the world braced itself for another of the Arab Spring uprisings that exploded across the Middle East’s landscape in 2011. Though technically a secular democracy since 1923, to many a Western eye, Turkey continues to be lumped with its authoritarian-ruled, Islamic Republic neighbors. People taking to the streets and mobbing Istanbul’s central square thus came as little surprise; the very name “Taksim” eerily echoing Cairo’s “Tahrir Square,” which erupted in anti-government protests in January 2011. However, unlike the pre-revolt administrations in nearby Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was democratically reelected by a large majority in free and fair elections in 2011. So, when 50 Istanbulites set up camp on the edge of Taksim Square in Gezi Park, one of the only green spaces remaining in the city’s sea of concrete, they had no intention of emulating their neighbors and bringing down Erdoğan’s government. They were environmental activists, peacefully protesting the planned construction of a shopping mall on the park’s current area. When the government’s police forces responded with tear gas, water cannons, and fully armed SWAT teams however, the protests expanded, exposing a set of tensions and issues at work in Turkish society that go far beyond the desire to save a few sycamores.

The environmental factors in Istanbul’s protests are the result of contention surrounding Prime Minister Erdoğan’s lofty urban development schemes. Since coming to power in 2003, his administration has sponsored colossal building projects all over Istanbul, time and time again transforming historic neighborhoods or the city’s rare forested hills into ritzy shopping malls and residential skyscrapers. The renovation of Gezi Park is just one of many proposed projects that would further decrease the city’s limited green space. Mr. Erdoğan’s administration is beginning construction of a third bridge across the Bosphorus, the mile-wide body of water separating Istanbul into its European and Asian halves. Despite relieving some of the city’s severe traffic congestion, the bridge will destroy one third of the 14,000-acre Belgrad Forest on Istanbul’s northern edge, causing immense environmental damage and substantially diminishing one of the few oases in Istanbul’s chaotic cityscape.

This urban development issue also hints at the Turkish urban populations’ religious grievances. In addition to a shopping mall, Erdoğan’s development plan for Gezi Park and Taksim includes the construction of an immense mosque complex. Given Turkey’s majority Muslim population, it is, perhaps, counterintuitive that building a mosque in the center of Turkey’s most treasured metropolis would provoke countrywide protests. However, when viewed alongside Erdoğan’s host of other Islamist-leaning undertakings, the mosque’s construction carries quite a bit of symbolic significance, representing the current administration’s increasingly heavy-handed religious policies.

Though ideologically moderate Islamist, Mr. Erdoğan’s political party, the Justice and Development Party (A.K.P.), is somewhat constrained in its public pursuit of religious endeavors by Turkey’s secular constitution. Behind the scenes however, Mr. Erdoğan has quietly but effectively pursued a far more conservative Islamic agenda than any administration since the Ottomans. In the past 10 years, Turkish urban populations have felt mounting pressure from Ankara to increase their piety and return to more traditional Islamic values. Turkish women are finding it more and more difficult to be seen in public showing skin or without head coverings. Erdoğan’s administration has sponsored conversions all over the country of churches and museums into mosques. And, in an attempt to curb alcohol consumption (prohibited under Islam), he has enacted limits and increased taxes on liquor sales. Erdoğan’s administration’s policies, and the cultural atmosphere they create, have added fire to the Gezi protests, leading to complaints from urban centers around Turkey that the government is trying to impose its religious beliefs on the people.

Given that the Istanbul protestors’ long list of grievances against the current government quickly provoked similar demonstrations in cities all over Turkey, it may come as a surprise that Erdoğan has won the last three general elections by huge margins, increasing his share of the popular vote with each election cycle. His support comes primarily from the rural poor and conservative Islamic communities, while the protesters represent the younger, more educated, urban middle class. The protests have thus brought to light a demographic tension within Turkey; one that ultimately hinders the country’s recognition as truly “Western.” While the West has long hailed Turkey as the example for the rest of the Middle East of a successful marriage of Islam and secular democracy, Turkey has still not been granted membership to the European Union. Although Turkey’s urban class predominantly supports secular policy and has, in many ways, come to be very “European,” the rural populations make up the moderate Islamic base thought to be incompatible with the EU system. The Gezi protests thus dig much deeper than their environmental roots, revealing a stark ideological divide in the country that follows along its demographic fault lines. Up to this point, Prime Minister Erdoğan has successfully toed the line between modernization and moderate Islamization. However, in the midst of this tumultuous landscape, his reelection will certainly be no walk in the park.