Behind the Taksim Square Protests

One surprising thing that you may not know about the recent anti-regime protests that rocked Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past week (and which show every sign of continuing) is that the premier, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the main target of the demonstrators’ wrath, was not even in the country as they erupted, but rather off on a state-visit tour. But he’s back now, as of Thursday evening.

Erdogan keert strijdbaar terug in roerig Turkije


De Volkskrant

Roerig: “In turmoil.” Yep, that’s the scene to which he returned. But he was strijdbaar as he did so, “combative,” boosted in his self-belief by thousands who turned out to the airport to welcome him back. He showed no indication of taking anything other than a hard line on the demonstrations, terming them mere “vandalism.”

It’s all sort of strange when you think about it, all this “vandalism” – isn’t this supposed to be about whether they tear up a park in order to make a shopping mall? In other words, isn’t this at bottom just a municipal Istanbul dispute? Why is the prime minister getting involved?

Writing in the Volkskrant, the linguist and editor-in-chief of the Dutch political magazine De Republikein Rik Smits brings up some other, more significant things you also might not be aware of concerning these Turkish troubles. The title of his piece (quotes in the original): “On Taksim Square a giga-mosque will be erected.”

Taksim Square is of course the ground-zero of the dispute, the location of Gezi Park that is in danger of being razed. The general point here is that it’s not really the supposed new shopping center that is at issue, the authorities have more far-reaching ambitions for that location – ambitions which, by the way, even if the Turkish press were aware of, it would not mention given the notorious heavy hand that the State holds above it.

Smits has not come up with anything particularly new here, it’s just a matter of going back to the historical record – in particular, back to the mid-1990s when Erdogan served as Istanbul’s mayor. Then he also had plans to have a gigantic mosque built on Taksim Square. But Turkey has always had to maintain an uneasy balance between the secular and the religious, and he did not then get his way. Indeed: the military regarded him as rather a bit too religious, and jailed him for six months. But now, of course, he is rather more powerful as Prime Minister (having already taken his revenge on the military – sorry, that’s a blog-post’s worth of material by itself).

There’s even more to it than that, though: Why this spot, why must this particular park die? Is Erdogan perchance the ultimate anti-Green? No, Smits rather shows us how Taksim Square holds a special significance, to those Turkish citizens of a secular persuasion. You have there a big monument from 1928 commemorating Turkish “independence” – in reality, its conversion from the Ottoman Empire, the work of Atatürk. Right next door is the Atatürk Cultural Center. Presumably, according to Smits’ argument, these would have to make way as well for the new mosque – the perfect symbolism of the displacement of the secular by the religious that Erdogan has allegedly been searching for since his mayoral days.

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