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The view from Taksim Square

June 17, 2013

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.