Taksim Square, Istanbul,
Sunday June 9th
By Simon McKeagney
In one of the largest and most populated cities on Earth, it’s understandable that a revolution could go unnoticed, just around the corner. And although three nights in this extraordinarily beautiful city gave me only snapshots (literally) of continued anti-government protests, it’s worth bearing that in mind; it’s business as usual in most areas of the city beyond Taksim Square.
The reason I make this point is because I’ve been generally uncomfortable about the rush to ‘revolutionise’ an aspect of a democracy that has, more or less, performed as it should; the right to assembly and protest. I believe democracy is not an entitlement, but a responsibility, and Turkish citizens seem to have performed their duty outstandingly. But given I am no expert on Turkey and had nothing but a brief hour soaking up the atmosphere on Taksim Square yesterday, I’m limiting my below comments to the very general impressions and feelings I experienced in Istanbul over the last few days, specifically, some that surprised me.
If lasts week’s reporting on Istanbul was an attempt to scare us into not going, the media did a top notch job. TV and online sources filled us with dread- could this be the beginnings of another Arab Season? Summer perhaps? Could it spread, and could we be caught in the middle of it? The world media seemed to think so straight off the bat, elevating a woman in a red dress to the stardom of resistance icon, focusing on the burnt out news media vans, talks on the need for an early election. Worried emails and phone calls from family and friends further emphasised the limited scope reports had.
Of course, in reality, the city still bustled to its usual rhythm, the cafes and bazars remained thronged with sellers and buyers, the parks and mosques and sea-taxis were still alive with families and couples and playing children. We breathed a sigh of relief once we arrived on Thursday morning. It was mentioned that intense international media attention may have helped to calm the situation, with the government wary of being seen to overreact (this is a city bidding for the 2020 Olympics after all), and that the violent element had moved to Ankara and other cities.
The wider issue at play here is the international media’s obsession with trying to equate happenings with wider regional changes, thus the words ‘protest’ and ‘revolution’ became inextricably linked, and I think this is misguided in this case, or at least is at time of writing. Yes, it is true to say that government attempts to end unrest have been violent, heavy-handed and lacking due consideration as to the implications of their actions on Turkey as a whole. But police heavy handedness in this instance should not be confused with what has gone before on squares and roundabouts across the Middle East and North Africa. There, brutal suppression broke either the functionality of the state, or in some cases like Bahrain, the will of a yearning population. Having won a record-breaking landslide vote in democratic elections, the current prime minster cannot be tight-cast into playing the character leader we’ve been used to seeing in the last three years in the region- a dictator, whose days are numbered.
And yesterday afternoon scuttling around the edges of Taksim square, I was amazed by how TV images failed to match reality on the ground. Over barricades of street furniture and paving slabs of concrete, mothers were guiding their seven year olds, Turkish flag in hand. A dad hoisted a toddler no more than three up on to his shoulders, gaggles of women as old as my grandmother giggled with each other as if out shopping, and teenagers in Nirvana t-shirts hung about in groups. The atmosphere was positively jovial in the short time I was present. People played music, drank cans of beer and ate lunch.
It’s easy to understand why the media focuses on the negative, framing it in a wider context befit to the region. It’s more readable, eye-catching, and fits into an understandable narrative. And although it is an unquestionable fact that violence, especially at night, and in three cases, death have arisen as a result of the protests, it’s worth bearing in mind the positives too, mainly, that this popular show of anger is what democracy is all about.
My other main reason for being cautious with the use of the word ‘revolution’ was directly related to events on Friday morning. TV screens showed the prime minister arriving back from a four day trip in North Africa, waving to what is an estimated 10,000 fans who flocked to the airport in his support. These sometimes staged, but earnest attempts at changing the narrative have been a tactic of Assad in Syria among others- and for western audiences, are often jarring in a news reports, presenting further complexities for audiences to digest, but they must be counted as facts too, all the same. With a deep chasm-like divide between religious and non-religious elements in Turkey, Islam plays an underlining, albeit quiet role in these protests too.
What was truly refreshing about the city was the multi-ethnic mix of Muslim subgroups, differing in either religious sect or country of origin, and that of a clearly pro-secular, liberal Turkey. The result is a wonderful, colourful mix of headscarf styles and rules regarding wearing the hijab by a variety of sects, from full burka to light silk scarf. It made for intriguing viewing for someone from little white Catholic Ireland and to my shame, I’m not well versed on what those differences represent yet.
But what I can say, and this is purely anecdotal, (I’m happy to stand corrected on this) the Taksim Square protests seemed to lack that cross-religious element that would in theory, make this movement truly representative of Turkey today. Really, if I’m honest, in the hour or so that I was present yesterday in Taksim, I was hard pressed in seeing male or female attire relating to more conservative Islam. It was overwhelmingly jeans and tank tops.
Maybe this is nothing, or maybe it represents a divide between the two spheres of influence any Turkish prime minister would most likely be trying to very carefully weigh up right now; that tightrope balance the country plays with Islam and Secularism. Both are beloved by citizens, but it’s unclear to me if both are playing a role in anti-government protests. Creeping discontent and worries by more liberal secularists as to Erdoğan religious leanings among other things (more serious ones detailed here) have quietly been cultivated over a decade, and have been mentioned to me in passing in quite negative terms. That doesn’t mean there’s not hundreds of thousands, millions even, of conservative Muslims who are content to see Turkey’s leadership embrace religion more.
Whether revolution or demonstration, it will be interesting to see how the situation develops, but the language and our framing of events matter. Either way, in his first major challenge in office, how Erdoğan decides to react to it now, will be his making.
MEP Paul Murphy was also at the protests and on my flight back to Brussels yesterday. You can read his opinion piece on events here.
Update: Police used tear gas to clear the square on Tuesday morning, June 11 after the prime minister agreed in principal to meet protestors.