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The view from Taksim Square

Published Jun 17, 2013 04:22am


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I FIRST went to Istanbul’s famous Taksim Square as a teenaged student fifty years ago. Since then, I have been back many times as it is the city’s hub with many important arteries leading to different points. On my first visit, my hostess, an old friend of my parents’, took me for dinner to the then-new Intercontinental Hotel overlooking the Bosporus. This was the smartest place I had ever eaten at in my life.

My favourite road leading to Taksim is Istiklal Caddesi, a pedestrian zone with many restaurants, shops and cinemas. A tram rattles down it, and is the only motorised vehicle allowed to run along the wide avenue.

From Taksim, you can walk towards one side and catch a view of the Bosporus. Gezi Park, Ground Zero in the current stand-off between the government and civil society, provides the only bit of greenery in that vast concrete space. There’s a lot of history in and around Taksim, so one can understand why many citizens of Istanbul are opposing the prime minister’s plans to build a mosque, a shopping mall and an apartment complex there.

Over the years – and especially during this government’s ten-year rule – Istanbul’s skyline has been transformed, with tall and tasteless structures mushrooming around the city. On each trip, I find yet more old landmarks obliterated by this frenetic building boom. No wonder so many people now protecting Gezi Park are saying “Enough!”

On earlier visits, few women, apart from street vendors, could be seen wearing a headscarf. Indeed, they were a rare sight on the European side of the city. Over the years, they have become increasingly visible across the city: even in the smartest restaurants and shops, colourful headscarves are now a common sight.

The resistance to Gezi Park’s desecration has now morphed into something far bigger than an environmental battle. Above all, it has grown into a rejection of Tayyip Erdogan’s autocratic ways, and his attempt to impose his conservative values on a secular society. Importantly, this confrontation reveals a fault-line that is increasingly dividing the Turkish nation: the cultural differences between the deeply religious Turks from the Anatolian hinterland and their mostly urban, secular, Westernised countrymen.

As the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party has boosted the Turkish economy, it has widened its support base, enabling it to win three successive elections with increasing majorities each time. In the last election, it won fully half of all votes cast. This appears to have given Erdogan a self-confidence that many see as arrogance.

For decades, secularism was at the heart of the Turkish constitution, with the military regarding itself as the guardians of secularist values appointed by Mustafa Kemal Pasha, the father of modern Turkey, However, the powerful and coup-prone generals have been pushed back to their barracks by the government which has simultaneously placed society on a more conservative path.

Privately, many of Istanbul’s sophisticated elite view the rising Anatolian middle class as backward peasants. In a sense, this fault-line also divides European and Asian Turks, with the latter in power for the first time in a century. Understandably, this has alarmed educated, secular Turks who see their personal freedoms and lifestyles coming under threat from Erdogan and his AK Party.

One reason Erdogan was able to neutralise the military is that he has led the country very ably, overseeing annual economic growth of around nine per cent. Simultaneously, he has carved out an independent foreign policy that has raised Turkey’s standing in the Muslim world. But this high growth rate has been accompanied by a rising foreign debt and a falling lira. It is significant that Erdogan sees the hands of the ‘interest rate lobby’ behind the current unrest.

He has also dismissed Twitter as a ‘plague’, and imposed fines on TV channels giving viewers live coverage of the disturbances at Taksim Square. In this, he has reacted as so many autocrats do when faced with opposition, and accused unseen enemies of conspiring against him.

But Erdogan has only himself to blame for his predicament. With his large mandate from religious Turks, he forgot that he was also the leader of those secular Turks who had voted against him. When I was last in Istanbul two years ago, a Jewish couple talked to me about their apprehensions from the rise of Islam in the public domain. Even old Muslim friends have watched the increasing role of religion in shaping society with considerable alarm.

Now a beleaguered prime minister has managed to unite a whole range of opponents from Kurds to Alevis, and from environmentalists to mainstream political parties. The irony is that this is happening at a time when the Turkish government had finally extended an olive branch to the separatist Kurdish PKK party, and agreed on a ceasefire.

Erdogan is currently serving his third and last term as prime minister as he is constitutionally barred for running for a fourth time. According to observers, his plan was to amend the constitution to give more powers to the president and then become the head of state. For this, he will need a two-third majority in Parliament. Given the ongoing unrest, his plans could well be unravelling unless he can persuade the opposition to put recent events behind them.

To this end, he has finally come off his high horse and said he will wait for the court to decide on the case against the demolition of Gezi Park. And if it rules in the government’s favour, he will call for a referendum on the construction proposal. While cautiously welcomed by many, others insist on continuing their occupation of the park.

Clearly, harsh police methods such as those used at the outset of the stand-off are self-defeating. Already, four protesters are dead and some 5,000 injured with hundreds under arrest. Similar ham-handed tactics will only damage the prime minister. More importantly, they will damage Turkey.

Comments (34) Closed

Kamal Gupta Jun 17, 2013 08:48am

Another Putin in the making.

Engr.S.T.Hussain Jun 17, 2013 08:50am

Turkey is considered a role modle for other Muslims Countries, but unfortunitly the recent happening and Prime Minister personal wishes are damaging the Turkey Image in the World

graham Jun 17, 2013 01:19pm

Would the author, a learned man in his own right, kindly explain why muslims in general, are obsessed with religion.

Raj Sharma Jun 17, 2013 03:36pm

I am reading a book " Did Muhammad exists" by Robert Spencer. It is a must read for all Muslims. Spencer makes a convincing case that Muhammad is not a historical figure based on the available evidence. Muhammad and Islam were the constructs of Arab conquerors who needed a religion, a prophet and a book to unite the conquered. The book will most certainly change the future of Islam and the Islamic world if it is allowed free circulation in the Muslim society. I doubt that will be allowed to happen but I am sure some Muslims will read the book and try to make changes to Muslim societies.

NMA Jun 17, 2013 04:12pm

This is the problem with left wing liberal elite types - democracy is only good and acceptable as long as it is in line with your own left wing views. As soon as it is goes the other way supporting the more conservative right wing thoughts, the leaders become authoritarian hard handed dictators taking the country backwards and so on..... When it was the unelected military imposing secular left wing religiously liberal views on the country these types were quite content!

Erdogan represents the large silent majority (the type who go to uni and study a real subject and eventually do a real job), and if they are religiously conservative then so be it.... being a one man one vote democracy these values should be propagated, shouldn

Bakhtawer Bilal Jun 17, 2013 05:19pm

Though very common among the Muslims, the self righteousness is seen among so many others. When ever it is inflicted, good men and leaders go wayward. They consider their leadership THE only solution to the problems faced by their country, neglecting the fact that they themselves have become a part of the problem. Alas, so much gained in by Turkey due to its moderation and secular behavior is at the verge of being loss, due to the leaders desire to make a place for himself in paradise. Turks ought to look very closely to the happenings in Pakistan.

Ahmad Jun 17, 2013 06:58pm

Mr. Irfan Hussain is trying to be, who he is not. Turkey is a Islamic country and secular country. The protesters are hoodlums and modern hippies like the " occupy Wall Street " protesters in the USA. How come they are there in the park day in day out, lazy bums. I will trade hi-rise fancy buildings for a park any time. Ask a poor man, he will agree with me.

Sameer Jun 17, 2013 07:34pm

Apparently personal freedom were never threatened when women were not allowed to wear headscarves in university. There is clearly hypocrisy on the part of secular Turk. Next time when you go to Istanbul can you please ask Jewish couple and your old Muslim friends why did not they have problem when women were not allowed to wear headscarve in universities

Ghadaffi Jun 17, 2013 07:50pm

@graham:Nothing to do with religion.E.T wants to hang on to power. The real estate is valuable so in order to grab it build a mosque, ops a shopping mall and apartment complex. hmm. Remember General Zia.. General Musharraf.. They all wanted to hang on power. not to mention F. Castro, Putin,Mao etc.Roosevelt 4th term president. Queen of UK reigning for eternity.

Rashid Sultan Jun 17, 2013 08:05pm

@graham: Unfortunate as it sounds we even commit heinous acts of extreme violence with the cry "God is Great.." We also start good things by commencing it in the name of God - "Bismillah." It is always God willing too - "Insha-allah." Just custom and practice. It like exclaiming "Jesus Chris." on matters totally unrelated to the maker, assuming there is one. Live with it. Don't blame us, blame the Arabs.

Abdul Khan Jun 17, 2013 11:11pm

@NMA: Everything you wrote is thoughtful and true, but you have to remember that in a democracry it is crucial to safeguard the rights and aspirations of the minorities also...another halmark of a true democracy is the devolution of the power to the local bodies. There is no reason for the central government to force its own vision of a city and interefere in local zoning laws...

Iqbal Jun 17, 2013 11:15pm

@Raj Sharma: Why do you not leave Muslims and Islam alone and look into the deficiences and vices of Hundusim and Hindu culture like the Caste System, status of widows and superstition.

Emm Jun 17, 2013 11:57pm

AKP has on the balance done more good for Turkey than most other Turkish rulers of the past. Is a secular society the answer to all ills? Debatable question. Many such societies have lost their values and others are fast in the process of doing so. This is not to say that current "Islamic" states are Utopia in any way. Aping the West as Mr. irfan Husain seems to implicitly advocate is probably also not the answer. So where do we go? I wish I knew the answer!

sk Jun 18, 2013 12:08am

@Raj Sharma: One could write such a book about most religious figures from Christ to Moses to Ram.

naghman qureshi Jun 18, 2013 12:09am

democracy does not mean you forse and impose the the will of the majority on the minority.

Ahmad Jun 18, 2013 12:24am

I will disagree with the analysis. Why the Muslims have to be liberal only. Only because West with Christian population and Jews want that way from us. The Christian and Jews have not and are not doing their share. European Union has always taken the position that Europe is for Christians and have refused.Turey membership in EU since its formation. As a matter of fact the French Foreign Minister and the President has said publicly. Why Mr. Hussain's Jewish friend is concerned about Turks going back to their faith. Has he forgotten Shatila and Sabira massive killings of Muslims. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim boys and young men were slaughtered in Kosvo and Yougoslavia by the Serbs in ninety nine. Turkey has history of giving refuge to Jews when kicked out from Balkans and Bulgaria, The Jews have enjoyed good life in turkey as long as Judaism has existed. We should as Muslims should be proud of our past and of our liberal and secular attitude toward others. If were like others there would have been no Hindu in India, no Jew In Turkey and Iran. Yes Turks are going thru difficult time, partly due to western interference and local misguided young people. Young Turks should ask themselves, are they better off today than ten years ago. If the answer is yes, then shut up and give the regime a chance.

saqib ali khan Jun 18, 2013 02:56am

I don't think it is reasonable to attach this incidence with the conservative leanings of the turk president. When he has already said that he will follow court's ruling in this matter, then why these people are saying that the matter is not of park only, but has become a wider issue of opposition against the government itself. After all, there is democracy in Turkey. It is Turk people who will decide through polls that whether they want Justice and Development party or not. What the Turk President is doing is just a show of committed administration. We don't need to put ourselves in pain to link this issue with the obliteration of secular values in Turkey. It is better to think of our own country first where religious fundamentalism is one of the main issue.

Mustafa Jun 18, 2013 03:55am

This is a struggle between two types of secular groups, those who want separation of Islam and state and those who want separation of Muslims and state. The West and it's lackeys including our own Jhurloo intellectuals would not tolerate a Muslim at the helm even if he or she keeps his or her religion out of the affairs of the state.

There has been an old debate in Pakistan about how to translate secularism in Urdu. The self styled "progressive" group has taken much exception to secularism being translated as "La-Diniyet", apparently claiming that they do not object to people having individual faith. Protesters in Turkey have proved that this is a fraudulent claim and they do indeed intend to enforce La-Diniyet on individuals.

A European journalist once asked a former Iranian president if he thought that freedom was being suppressed in the name of religion, to which the president responded affirmatively, however the reporter's broad grin was cut short when the president added; However, it is also true that religion is being suppressed in the name of freedom. Let us be fair and broadminded like a large majority of the Turks and accept the ballot box as the final arbiter. I have one advice for all our Jhurloo intellectuals, when they said think out of the box, they were not referring to ballot box.

M A Hussain Jun 18, 2013 04:05am

@graham: Oh, by the way, are you not 'obsessed' with your routines so duly directed by your country's laws?

M A Hussain Jun 18, 2013 04:04am

@Engr.S.T.Hussain: Better educate yourself about the growing Turkish economy and creation of actual role model to follow by the current Turkish government. This is not rocket science. I wonder how people can stick to their own worn out and outdated opinions despite facts and figures being shown in their faces.

Rao Jun 18, 2013 03:49pm

@Rashid Sultan: Funny! Why blame Arabs for all the problems related terrorism, Muslims killing other Muslims (Allah Ho Akbar) what else? Why not for lack of education , poor governance, corrupt politicians, lack of jobs, high prices or inflation etc?

Rao Jun 18, 2013 04:00pm

@graham: The introduction to religion starts at a very young age, in eating halal food, 5 times a day up&down prayers , mandatory Haj journey once in a life time and above all inculcating in them a belief that there is no need to look beyond the Holy Book of Islam. These are some of the main causes. So is the addiction to one's faith

xizer Jun 18, 2013 05:06pm

@Ghadaffi: The examples you give are for the most part, accurate. However, the Queen is a constitutional monarch & has no political power, unlike the dictatorial monarchs of the Middle East.

Kumar Jun 18, 2013 05:28pm

Its not Shopping Mall or Mosque, It will be a military Barack as a Museum which demolished in 1940.

Umer Jun 18, 2013 05:33pm

What the Police did in Taksim Square initially was not right and extreme and I will not support such actions no matter who is doing that. But at the same time the protesters should also realize that the government has made concessions as well. They should work with the government to bring the tension down rather than escalate. All of this is seriously hurting Turkey's chances for hosting the Olympics and the World Expo in 2020. In terms of passing verdicts on the current government and its "clampdown" I am not sure what were your thoughts when you visited Turkey in the fifties at a time when Turks were not even allowed to go to Hajj or practice their religion freely. I have not seen anyone decrying the almost draconian measures to eliminate Islam from turkish lives. Lastly, Turkey is a democracy and the elections are only next year. If the population is so fed up with AKP then they should vote them out the democratic way in the elections and not on the streets. Jun 18, 2013 06:23pm

@Kamal Gupta: Putin is playing musical chair with his partner in line -Mededev. Erdogan has himself vowed to leave the post of premiership after 3 successive win, and no clause in our constituion requires him to do so ! Mr. Irfan Hussein, first of all should take note of that.. After 3 successive victory with increasing majority in favour one has to think twice before concluding that it is only the anatolian muslims giving him the mandate. The anatolian muslims is not a party or if it is a sizable majority, there is also the "Saadet Party" of late Erbakan still vying for the power which bags their votes. The gist of the matter is that all those secular and left fraction WHO have not tasted the win in any election for last 60 years ( and there is a long list of their deeds which makes them ineligible for power in the view of voters from all over Turkey ) apprehanded that if the Kurdish uprising also give way to present government there will be an enormous increase in AK-Party's vote in coming elections. Resorting to the mean and vulgar ways ( of calling names and abusing Erdogan-putting AK party offices here in Izmir and elsewhere on fire) they found the 7 trees cut down in Gezi Park ( also a park where no respectable family used to go for a walk even) as a plank in stormy waters to save them from a horrible defeat in the next election .

Raj Sharma Jun 18, 2013 07:00pm

@sk: We have no problem in admitting that Ram as described in the Ramayan is a mythological figure.

Raj Sharma Jun 18, 2013 07:03pm

@Ahmad: Let us not forget it was Islam that gave democracy, equal rights for women, DNA, mobile telephones, airplanes, automobiles and all the rest that has been discovered or invented to humankind. It is all there in the Quran. If Muslims would just take some time and read the Quran they would be so far ahead of us non-Muslims.

Raj Sharma Jun 18, 2013 07:08pm

@Iqbal: This article was about Muslims in a Muslim majority country. You should read the book " Did Muhammad exist" before attacking what I said. It may change your life forever.

Imran Sheikh Jun 18, 2013 09:55pm

Let us remain objective please.. Democracy is about the will of the majority. A prime minister elected three times with an increasing majority is doing what the majority wants. He is clearly aware of modern requirements of statecraft. And he understands how to move his country forward. The very fact that people are able to consider moving on issues beyond the basic shows his success. And if he can get a pact with the Kurds in place his should be a memorable term. Demonstrations are a good way of expressing one,s views b ut breaking the law to do this is not. The westernised who consider themselves the elite would do well to remember the rising rural middle class has contributed to the economy also and are entitled to respect. As long as Erdogan doesn't break the law or go against the Constitution in executing his plans towards development the pro per recourse is to replace him at the elections. If the buildings he erects in Gezipark are indeed monstrous they can then be razed and the park reinstated complete with full grown trees if that is what the people want.. Talibanlike behaviour in forcing a minority viewpoint on the majority is indefensible.

Mustafa Jun 18, 2013 10:34pm


Would you explain why are you obsessed with controlling the beliefs of others?

Mustafa Jun 18, 2013 10:54pm

@Raj Sharma:

So what if someone claims that our prophet did not exist?. But an elementary sense of fairness would tell you that among all the major religions, Islam is in much better focus of history than any other. If you can question the existence of Mohommad, with any sense of fairness you would first question the existence of your own gods who were all born in hundreds of different places in India and are endowed with all kinds of supernatural powers.

Name of Muhammad was being called out from mosques in India barely 80 years after his death ( or what you may say purported death). If you want to say Muhammad never existed, that is fine with me, but remember mind is like a parachute, if it is not open your you arrive at the conclusion much more quickly.

s.khan Jun 19, 2013 02:43am

@Raj Sharma: Robert Spencer is a virulently anti-islam. You have to take his views with a grain of salt or may be handful of salt. It is like reading a book on communism by a capitalist or vice versa.It is the least likely to be objective. Carping on Islam is Robert spencer's life mission.

TamzaK Jun 19, 2013 08:07am

@Raj Sharma: you can read any amount of trash; Jesus didnt exist, Moses didnt exist, Rama didnt exist. They have no way of saying if one di or not exist. What matters is that over 1 billion people believe that Muhammad existed, over 2 billion believe Jesus and Moses existed, and perhaps about 1 billion think Rama existed. Lets not stir up that pot; there is much else to do.

The main point is that no group has the 'right' to 'deny' another group their belief.

The author exposes his biases by comments such as "even in the smartest restaurants and shops, colourful headscarves are now a common sight". I assume by smart he means 'western' or 'expensive'. He might think it is 'smart' to consume alcohol. Maybe he gets smart at that activity, many will argue, and consider alcohol not just 'haram' but also 'bad for health'. [about 50K people are killed every year due to alcohol related conditions in the US, and a large portion of the 40K annual auto deaths are also attributed to alcohol .... smart, indeed]