In cities around the world, public space is an essential platform for voicing calls for change. Whether Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, Athens’s Syntagma Square, or Tahrir Square in Cairo, this space is the hippocampus of the nation: the first to experience unsettling tremors in the body politic.One of the most fascinating things about the occupation of Istanbul’s Gezi Park
was that many of the issues were tied to the use of urban space to promote a contentious version of national identity. It was an expression of widespread frustration
with an autocratic urban transformation that has raised questions over which heritage represents the nation in the 21st century.
Protesters were brutally suppressed after attempting to use Taksim Square as an agora
to address urban and national concerns. Over the past decade of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rule, the Turkish economy soared as Istanbul experienced increasing class segregation
and an “Americanization” of the built environment in the form of gated communities
and horrendous traffic jams. Real estate development has been accompanied by wholesale demolition of historic neighborhoods
and removal of Roma communities
in Istanbul. The plan to place a rebuilt Ottoman military barracks
and shopping mall in Gezi Park was a major spark for the protests. Another was construction of a third bridge across the Bosphorus, named after an Ottoman sultan known for massacring people of the Alevi religious minority. The barracks and mall are fitting symbols of the AKP’s urban transformation, in which Ottoman cultural heritage is used to build regional support for aggressive market-oriented development.
Source: France 24
Reconstructed Ottoman military barracks and mall planned for Gezi Park. Source: KH
The protests focused national attention on the AKP’s increasingly oppressive desecularization
of society. The party’s deputy chairman recently denounced
the reforms of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who brought an end to the Ottoman Caliphate and established the modern republic. While such jibes have been isolated and oblique, there have also been more-direct attacks
on Atatürk’s secular policies.
Turkish flag with a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Source: Kathimerini
Portraits of Turkey’s great modernizer still adorn public buildings and private shops in Istanbul, and many of the Taksim protesters feel a connection between their efforts and those of the national patriarch. Flags with his photo have been used as symbols of what’s at stake if Erdoğan is given a free hand at widespread reforms.
Members of the AKP suggest that, while acknowledging Ataturk’s achievements, they believe his policies were pushed through too quickly and the country must now reclaim its soul. Many in Istanbul feel the same way about Erdoğan’s urban transformation.