Gezi Park Protests: An Introduction

At last I get round to blogging on Gezi Park.  That is the movement of protest in Turkey sparked off by a government project to bulldoze a historic park in the centre of Istanbul, in order to build a replica of an Ottoman barracks which would serve as a shopping centre and apartment block for high end flats. That simple issue brought together a variety of issues stimulating protest, which are listed below, roughly in ascending order of complexity and historical depth.

1. Erosion of secular republicanism by neo-Ottomanist ideology referring to religious conservatism and imperial glory of the past.

2.  Destruction of the green parts of Istanbul, a city already lacking in large parks and open green spaces.

3. The numerous construction projects in Turkey, which bring enormous financial advantages to members of friends of the the AKP (governing party, from the Turkish acronym for Justice and Development Party). These beneficiaries include the son-in-law of the Prime Minister, a major investor in construction projects and media companies.

4. The lack of consultation with local communities regarding construction and urbanist projects which transform environments where old communities exist, often leading to those communities leaving their old environment for high rise residential blocks built by a government agency.

5. The aggressive and authoritarian personality of the Prime Minister, which matches a very non-consultative style of government even at high levels of the AKP, and in the expectation that even the Mayor of Istanbul will accept detailed intervention from the Prime Minister in the development of Istanbul. The rulings of administrative courts are routinely ignored, which is legal because of the level of executive privilege in the Turkish political system, but of course a more democratic consultative government would be inclined to implement those decisions.

6. Underlying concerns about government intervention in the Syrian civil war, with the accompanying phenomena of large numbers of refugees in eastern Turkey and a bomb attack which killed many in an eastern Anatolian town. All of this has largely been ignored by the media. Members of the biggest religious minority in Turkey, Alevi Muslims (a heterodox branch of Shia Islam)  are particularly anxious about government support for the opposition in Syria, because the power of the Assad family rests in its own religious community of Allawites, also a branch of Shia Islam and like Turkish Alevis leaning more to secularism than most Sunni Muslims.

7. That reference to the media brings us to another underlying issue which quickly came to be at the centre of the Gezi movement, which is the domination of the media by the government. It has always been the case in Turkey that the state television and radio expresses a government point of view, and there has been previous government leverage of influence on private media companies, effective government control of private media companies has reached unprecedented levels. The consequence has been close to zero coverage except occasionally on government terms of issues embarrassing to the government, including the Gezi Park protests themselves.

8. The protests themselves drew attention to another underlying issue which is police brutality (leading to the deaths of five demonstrators) and the political character of the police who are nearly all religious conservative in culture and openly scornful of leftist and secularist demonstrators. The upper ranks of the police, and other key state institutions including the judiciary, university administrators, and the national intelligence agency are dominated by members of The Community, that is members of the Nurcu Muslim community, founded by a leading critic of the formation of a secular republic, now led by Fetullah Gülen who is Turkish but lives in a giant compound in the United States.

9. Failure of the government’s promise to end conflict with Kurdish radicals and eliminate the underlying problems of the conflicts. A top down and an very cautious approach has disappointed those Kurds who emphasise identity and autonomy for the southeast of Turkey, while antagonising left and right nationalists who were infuriated by contacts between the government and the PKK (armed Kurdish autonomy group, inclined towards terrorist methods, PKK is the Kurdish acronym for Kurdistan Workers’ Party). Kurdish radicals were infuriated by the continued state oppression of unarmed expression of Kurdish radicalism. Left and right nationalists, along with radical Kurds have all been present at Gezi, part of its extraordinary nature.

10. Another issue which is not obvious most of the time, but is important to the Gezi protests is the status of the largest religious minority in Turkey, Alevis, an issue introduced in point 6. Alevism, like Shiism in general, seems rooted historically in communities who felt marginal compared with the Sunni centres of power. Alevis were sometimes in violent conflict with the Ottoman sultans, and one issue that came up around Gezi was that the projected third bridge across the Bosphorus was going to be named after the Sultan who massacred most Alevis, Selim Yavuz.  In the time of the secular republic, formally inaugurated in October 1923, Alevis have both been enemies of the laic state and its strongest supporters. The early Republic carried on Ottoman projects to assimilate Alevi communities in southeastern Anatolia in to the national mainstream, resulting in armed conflict in which tens of thousands of citizens died, focused round the city of Tunceli (also known by the older local name of Dersim). Despite this Tunceli Alevis, and Alevis in general became part of the core support of the Republican People’s Party, which ruled in a one party system in the early Republic (1923-1950), particularly from the 1960s onwards as a way of opposing domination by conservative Sunnis. The ultranationalist and religious conservative right in Turkey has anti-Alevism as a core emotion. Alevis have been disproportionately present in leftist and protest movements for many years, and this has been the case for the Gezi moment. All five of the protestors killed by police and pro-AKP civilians were Alevi, and protests have been particularly fierce and prolonged in the Alevi districts of Istanbul.

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One thought on “Gezi Park Protests: An Introduction

  1. Pingback: Turkey September-October ’13 | Roving Abroad

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