Claire Berlinski divides her time between Paris and Istanbul. She’s lived in Turkey long enough to understand the nation better than most journalists, so she’s a valuable read.
As I began to write this, at 4:00 AM on May 31, protests against Turkish police—prompted by their crackdown on demonstrators opposing the demolition of Taksim Square’s Gezi Park—were spreading from the heart of Istanbul to the entire country. As of today, the headline on Drudge reads—not inaccurately—TURK BERSERK.
The story began when the government in Ankara decided that Gezi Park, in the center of Istanbul, should be demolished and replaced by a shopping mall. Now, Gezi Park is hardly the Jardins de Luxembourg. It’s a shabby rat trap that you wouldn’t walk through alone at night, and you’re more apt to find used condoms on its lawns than daisies and cowslips. But it is, all the same, one of the last remaining spaces with trees in the neighborhood.
Over the past decade, Istanbul has seen a massive construction boom. Lovely old buildings have been razed by the hundreds and replaced by shopping malls. Until this week, I would have said that while this transformation was not to my taste, it was very much to the liking of the people who live here: after all, they were certainly doing a lot of shopping. Apparently, I was wrong.
When the company building the shopping mall began cutting down trees, protesters occupied the park—peacefully. But in truth, these protests weren’t about the park or even about the shopping malls. They were about a people exhausted by Istanbul’s uncontrolled growth; by its relentless traffic; by the incessant noise (especially that of construction); by massive immigration from the countryside; by predatory construction companies—widely and for good reason believed to be in bed with the government—which have, over the past decade, destroyed a great deal of the city’s loveliness and cultural heritage. But most of all, they are about a nation’s fury with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s growing authoritarianism, symbolized by Istanbul’s omnipresent police, the phalanxes of so-called Robocops. They are so notoriously trigger-happy that journalists on Twitter post a daily tear-gas report.
Of late, almost every sector of the electorate has felt unease about one part or another of Erdoğan’s agenda. Restrictive new alcohol legislation, rammed through parliament, as usual, with contempt for the minority opposition, has prompted outrage; the so-called peace process with the PKK, which no one understands, has caused great unease. Anxiety is growing as well, not only about press censorship, but also about the prosecution of those who insult government officials or “Islamic values” on social media. There is outrage about the bombing in Reyhanlı that left 52 Turks dead and which appears to have been attributable to a series of inexcusable police and intelligence blunders (but no one knows, and no one believes what the press writes); there is fear of war with Syria; there is concern about strange reports that al-Nusra, a Syrian militant group affiliated with al-Qaida, has been cooking up Sarin gas in Adana, five miles east of the United States’ Incirlik Air Base; and there is deep skepticism about Erdoğan’s plans for grandiose construction projects—such as a third airport, a second Bosphorus canal, and a gigantesque mega-mosque intended to exceed in size every mosque left behind by his Ottoman predecessors. The thing will dominate Istanbul’s already-martyred skyline, and replace yet another pleasant and leafy park…