In Gezi Park, the Seeds of a More Pluralistic Turkey Have Been Planted
ANKARA, Turkey—Between June 1, when police withdrew from Istanbul’s Taksim Square, and June 11, when they came back in full force, Gezi Park turned into a commune of sorts. Protected by rudimentary barricades and abandoned cars turned into pieces of art, it became home to a cafeteria and an infirmary, where news, medicine, and food were provided free of charge, supported by in-kind donations.
Colorful tents — surrounded by young people reading, eating, drinking, and singing — replaced the vehicles of law enforcement agencies. While one could easily have dismissed Gezi as an amusement park attracting leisurely youth, random pedestrians, and curious tourists, there was more going on in this unlikely gathering. Looking at the signs and posters, one could easily have been fooled into thinking that the Taksim Square area was occupied by communists. In reality, the inhabitants of Taksim Square and Gezi Park did not have strong ideological affinities. People of different political backgrounds, lifestyles, and identities co-existed, displaying a level of tolerance that is not typical of Turkey.
Fans of rival football clubs carried each other’s flags, homosexuals walked around with pride, and people of different political orientations sang together under unlikely banners. While most of the protesters were secular, there were a considerable number of conservative men and women among them. What brought them together was their shared grievance against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, their desire to be more visible in the public space, and, yes, a festive, playful way to become engaged as active citizens. Marginal political groups were overrepresented, but this did not cause major problems, other than some derision of posters of the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). One can assume that had the police raid not turned Taksim Square into a battle zone, some of the political differences among protesters would have surfaced in time. There has been one question that commentators in Turkey and abroad have been raising since the beginning of the protests.
Are the Gezi Park protests part of the kulturkampf between secularists and conservatives in Turkey? Will the movement further polarize Turkish society or will it, instead, reshuffle allegiances and bridge age-old divides in a manner that improves social cohesion? It seems that the Taksim Square demonstrators were trying to achieve the latter. On June 5, an Islamic religious day, even those protestors who drink alcohol publicly as an act of protest toward Erdogan avoided its consumption. On the first Friday after the protests started, a group of left-wing Muslims observed prayers under the symbolic protection of their fellow protesters.
Following rumors that veiled women were being verbally assaulted in parts of Istanbul, women with and without headscarves marched together chanting “who attacks the headscarf is not one of us!” Secular protestors were trying to make a gesture, and it did not fall on deaf ears, with several conservative opinion leaders and politicians, including a former minister from Erdoğan’s party, expressing sympathy for the demonstrators’ cause. Turkey has suffered greatly from polarization along cultural lines, validating Samuel Huntington’s characterization of it as “a prototypical torn country.”
The country’s political stability, democratic development, and international influence all depend on achieving a measure of social cohesion. As protests continue, several questions remain outstanding. Are Gezi Park’s secular demonstrators embracing conservatives out of genuine sympathy or for tactical reasons? Will conservative Muslims accept their symbolic gestures and reciprocate? And will unacceptable violence taint the movement after discrediting state institutions? Last, but not least, will Erdoğan realize that while polarizing Turkish society along cultural lines might help him in elections, it actually turns Turkey into a house divided against itself?
While all these are pertinent questions, there is no doubt that far from being a place for amusement only, the Gezi Park commune has provided a window into what Turkey could become if tolerance and social engagement continue. Turkish society seems to be well ahead of its political parties and leaders. In Gezi Park, which was due to be converted into a shopping mall, trees may not fall after all. If anything, the seeds of a more pluralistic polity may have been planted.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.