Istanbul’s Taskim Square: Sycamore Trees vs. Shopping Malls
Date: July 18, 2013
The arc of the Arab spring was supposed to be different in Turkey based on Prime Minister Erdogan’s economic accomplishments, Turkey’s new found respect as a regional power and its success in demonstrating that Islam and democracy were compatible.
But now, as in so many countries – Egypt, Brazil, England, Portugal, India, China, come the protests. Did you know that half the demonstrators participating in the Istanbul protests are WOMEN – scarves or no scarves!
And why is that? Could it be because Erdogan is silent on violence against women, attempts to shape their personal freedoms, such as abortion rights, and proposes that women have three children? Could there be an internal contradiction within the Justice and Freedom Party’s strategy of solving all of Turkey’s internal contradictions with a stronger dose of globalized commercialism?
Erdogan more or less, seemed to have succeeded in integrating the two halves of Turkey’s population – the pious, hitherto excluded by Ataturk, the founder of the modern state – and the secularists. Turkish friends of mine, diehard secularists, applaud Erdogan for bringing together these two disparate segments of Turkey more or less. Further, Erdogan’s economy reached new heights, spurring new economic growth – and scrabbling into the queue for admission to the European Union – a dream Turkey has long aspired to.
Turkey confronts three key pitfalls: First is the battle between environment and development, in the Turkish context of public space vs. privatization; second is the century old conflict between Secularists and Islamists and third the millennial Mediterranean challenge of Pluralism vs. Authoritarianism.
Environment vs. Development: The bottom line here is Trees vs. Malls, public assets being requisitioned for private gain. This key point of contention between Erdogan and the protestors became the central crux and cry of the protestors at Gezi Park, off Istanbul’s Taksim Square.
The Turkish youth registered their initial protests in peaceful sit- ins with song and dance. But Erdogan over reached. He rebutted the protestors with tear gas and police brutality; he bloodied and blinded them with plastic bullets. He ignored Tom Friedman’s central lesson from 2013 – there is no such thing as a one way conversation between governments and the governed. Erdogan had walked a fine line – even as he pursued his economic and development drive. That is now history: 7,000 peaceful protestors plus a dozen journalists were injured in Erdogan’s crackdown against the protestors, defending public space, parks and trees; 5 people died while several lie in critical condition.
Secularism vs. Islamism: Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s founder fiercely championed secularism from 1922 when the country was established. Under Ataturk, religion lacked respect or public space even though the Turks had a long history with Islam which they had made their own. Erdogan attempted to ease the divide between Islamists and secularists, again with a sharp focus on spurring economic growth. Turkey became the 17th largest economy and Erdogan’s reform kept it in the queue for the European Union, awkward as that proved for EU politicians like Angela Merkel and Silvio Berlosconi
Pluralism vs. authoritarianism: The back story is that the riots are but an expression of the “long” stifled resentment felt by nearly half the electorate who did not vote for the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AK) party. There is a strong sense that Erdogan has overstepped his limits. As one foreign diplomat in the Economist said: “This is not about secularists versus Islamists, it’s about pluralism versus authoritarianism.” The Turkish riots could be interpreted as showing the incompatibility of democracy and Islam. Yet, observers believe that the real problem seems to be Erdogan’s “authoritarianism who as a middle class democrat cannot act like an Ottoman Sultan.”
The riots resulted in one major positive outcome: They down played the differences among the protestors for “Those with or without headscarf, Marxist or communist, believer or not – we walked all together, and should continue to stand for each other” said a man in Ortanca Park in Istanbul. Many of the protestors in Erdogan’s largest political crisis are the critics of the mega development projects supported by government, including the third bridge over the Bosphorus, a new airport for Istanbul and a canal joining the Black sea. The opposition coalition is uniquely diverse with young and old Turks, secular and pious as well as gays, Armenians, anarchists, atheists and the long ostracized Alevi minority who practice a liberal Islam.
Going Forward: Where lies the hope? Unequivocally for me, hope lies in our youth. On a recent trip to Mostar in Bosnia, I met four fresh young coed women from Istanbul enrolled in the local college.
My dear friend, Rina, who accompanied me to visit the Koski Mehmet Pasha Mosque in Mostar, is the daughter of holocaust survivors. She and I interviewed the four engaging young undergraduates – Rumeysa Ezber, 20, studied architecture, while Seyda Oner, 22, Afra Akinci, 20, and Feyza Nur Ak, 21, all studied psychology. All four chose to wear their head scarves but their two younger Turkish friends who were visiting were not yet “spiritually ready” to embrace the scarf. Yet, one cannot assume that the head scarf connotes certain markers in politics or public demonstrations, in education or in religion.
The four young students attended co-ed classes at their college in Mostar and were quick to point out that “local culture” differentiated them from their college counterparts. While asked would they would pick their own husbands, they assured us they would and explained it by saying: “Our parents will support our decision because they love us.” Faith, modernity and culture seemed deeply intertwined in the lives of these college students – not so different, I thought, from the young women I know in the United States or in India where I grew up. Youth is where hope lies!
Khadijah’s daughters is a blog by Shahnaz Chinoy Taplin, board president of Invest in Muslim Women, a non-profit project of the Global Fund for Women. Invest in Muslim Women focuses on the economic empowerment of Muslim women, justice and peace. The blog is inspired by Khadijah, Prophet Muhammad’s first wife and the quintessential role model for Muslim women. She was the first convert to Islam, the first Muslim woman entrepreneur, a globalist and a feminist.