ISTANBUL, Turkey — Gezi Park has the air of a carnival to it these days. Thousands of Turks fill it each night. Fingers whirl rapid-fire across hand-drums. Demonstrators hand out portions of baklava and small glasses of juice. Some people sing, others dance. Intermittently the chant will go up: “Erdogan! Tyrant!”
Things were not quite so upbeat when Tamati Coffey, a Television New Zealand presenter taking time off to travel the world on his OE, arrived in Istanbul just over a week ago. Within 24 hours, Central Istanbul was caught in the midst of thumping street fighting, as protesters and police squared off.
“We were walking down a street to get to the other side of town, and people started running downhill towards us,” he says. “Tear gas canisters were being fired at us. One landed next tome and I legged it. We escaped into a restaurant first and a car parking building when it happened again, an hour later.”
The previous night, the receptionist at his hotel explained what the protesters wanted. The Government had pushed through plans to demolish the area, making way for a gaudy Ottoman-era themed barracks and a shopping mall.
The protesters were angered that one of Central Istanbul’s last green spaces would be lost to another large-scale construction project.
Yet, for Coffey, there was “no sense of chaos”. Then the police stormed the park. “I just wanted to stay safe. The protest wasn’t violent. It was the police throwing the tear gas canisters that turned it violent,” says Coffey.
“I was shocked at how the protesters were being dealt with – and us, the tourists.”
Police rampaged through the area, sending tourists and dissidents scrambling for cover. They burned protesters’ tents, sent thousands of tear gas canisters flying high velocity into the streets while taking headshots with plastic bullets: a 23-year-old was shot in the face, losing an eye.
“My only fear was of the police, the tear gas dropping from helicopters and the pepper spray – not of the protesters,” says Coffey.
The raid prompted two days of full-blown street violence. Around 1,000 people were injured. Flames licked cars, buses and tyres, sending plumes skyward. The streets around Taksim Square and central Istiklal St – replete with boutique fashion shops, coffee-houses serving sickly sweet tea as sheesha pipes bubble, and chic bars pumping all night – resembled a war zone.
The police crackdown was brutal. “Turkey has a long tradition of repressing free speech and protest,” says Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. “And this government has inherited that tradition, living comfortably with it. In light of this response, they need to review the approach to public-order policing and open investigations into the well-documented allegations of the excessive use of force.”
By Saturday evening, what had started as a marginal environmental protest had morphed into something much bigger, as protesters took to the streets.
Tens of thousands of protesters overwhelmed Taksim Square – reminiscent of Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011 – and were demanding the resignation of the country’s Islamist Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as Turkey’s major religious-socio-political schism steeled.
“The protesters seemed young,” says Coffey. “They want Turkey to continue being secular and feel that the Government is leading them back into the Islamic world.”
For the past 10 days, secular protesters and the Islamist-dominated government have been eye-balling each other, part of a tense stand-off over Turkey’s future.
Turkey is a country caught between worlds. Stand on one side of the Bosphorus Strait – the glistening waters that cut Istanbul in half, linking the Aegean and Black Seas -and you’re in Europe. Cross to the other, you’re in Asia.
Following the fall of the Ottoman Empire at World War 1’s close, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – who led the defence against Allied forces at Gallipoli – established the Turkish republic and set about implementing dramatic reforms, fiercely prescribing a secular identity while insisting on a homogeneous “Turkish” ethnicity. It amounted to social engineering.
Turkey’s famed secular state has been welcomed by Western politicians, who have long seen it as a bulwark against the creep of Islamist regimes on the doorstep of Europe. Turkey, too, welcomed the West.
Its people have embraced the planeloads of young New Zealanders and Australians flying in to explore their family histories. “Kia ora, gidday,” the carpet sellers of Sultanahmet call out to every passing white face.
The malls and boutiques around Taksim Square, the elegant bars and restaurants, like New Zealand chef Peter Gordon’s acclaimed Changa and Müzedechanga, the tourist hotels, the friendly tour guides fluent in English all present a face of 21st-century sophistication and cosmopolitanism.
But much of that has been created under the iron fist of Ataturk’s secular and military state, a force that, for instance, banned women wearing veils in an attempt to crush conservative Islam.
The country’s military staunchly defended the secular wave for decades, staging a post-modern coup in 1997 and forcing the resignation of Turkey’s first Islamist Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan. Yet Islamic forces, severely repressed, pushed back. Now, through Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP), they’ve been in power since 2002. A secular-Islamic rift splits the country.
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Derya Bozkurt stands in Gezi Square and she’s making a statement: drinking a tall beer and smoking a cigar. Thousands of people hold cans of beer.
“The Government is passing laws that go against our freedom, that take away our rights,” says Bozkurt, holding her boyfriend’s hand.
The Turkish parliament, dominated by Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party recently pushed through legislation to restrict alcohol sales – no wholesales within 100m of a mosque, for example – while the price of alcohol has soared during its tenure.
In the first seven years of the AKP’s rule, taxes on beer increased a staggering 737 per cent. Critics note that while alcohol hasn’t been banned, its consumption is now largely restricted to the middle and upper classes.
“I wouldn’t even have been drinking a beer tonight, but the Government treats us like children, tells us you can’t drink, you can’t kiss, you can’t have fresh air in a park. We won’t stop until they listen.”
Much as Ataturk imposed an identity on Turkey, demonstrators fear that Erdogan is doing the same thing: engineering a society according to his vision. During his rule, the state has built around 17,000 mosques and he says he dreams of constructing a “religious generation”.
Yet the opposition gathered in Taksim Square – whom Erdogan characterises as extremists “running wild” – illustrates Istanbul’s cosmopolitan makeup. The diversity struck Coffey, walking around the area earlier this week with his partner, Tim Smith.
“We went to Taksim Square and were in among all the different political groups, and community groups huddled in different sections of the park,” he says.
“We stumbled on the LGBT faction showing support with a table offering food and snacks and water. Nobody had a problem with it.”
The AKP is a centre-right political party, appealing to a conservative Muslim base, with strong Islamist leanings. Its chairman, Erdogan, emerged from Istanbul’s radical Islamic underground and rose to become the city’s mayor in the mid-90s. Critics view the Government as authoritarian, intolerant of criticism and accuse it of leading a creeping assault on the country’s secular identity.
Blasphemy laws are invoked. The country’s rich-poor gap is among the highest in the OECD. The press suffers extreme intimidation; Turkey is “the world’s biggest prison for journalists”, according to Reporters without Borders.
Coffey noticed the “heavy hand” of the Government. “In New Zealand, we take it for granted that if something is going on, you can hear about it on the news,” he says. “Being a news junkie, I was upset at how long it took for the Turkish media to cover it. While the biggest city was in chaos, all that was to be seen on the television were cooking shows and travel programmes.”
According to the Turkish Medical Association, more than 4,000 protesters were injured in clashes with police; 42 of those are in a serious condition.Three protesters and one police officer have been killed.
And with Erdogan unbending on the issue of the park, protests look set to continue.
Coffey and Smith high-tailed it across town on Saturday evening to the mosques and palaces in the historic neighbourhood of Sultanahmet, across the waters of the Golden Horn, a fabled inlet of the Bosphorus. The apartment they were staying in near Taksim Square had filled with teargas during the previous day’s clashes. In Sultanahmet, Coffey got a chance to “chill out”.
“It makes me realise that we have the right to protest, to gather and to express ourselves. That’s what puts us up there as a First World democratic nation,” he says.
“If the police acted like that to a group of protesters, heads would roll. It would be a national outrage.”
Sultanahmet fringes Istanbul’s Fateh district. In Fateh, where the sprawling mosques’ minarets pierce the sky, support for Erdogan runs strong.
A sense of calm pervades the district’s winding backstreets, perched on a series of hills beside the Golden Horn.
Barbers’ scissors snip rapid-fire, trimming back hairlines. Streetside shoe polishers’ brushes scrape against leather as women buzz past mannequins adorned with hijabs of every shade and hue.
The violent clashes that swept Istanbul, spreading through much of Turkey, seema universe away.
While the cosmopolitan hodgepodge of protesters point to Erdogan’s often brazen unilateralism, increasingly steeled authoritarianism and Islamist leanings, many in the much more restrained Fateh district counter by rattling off his government’s achievements.
During Erdogan’s reign, Turkey aggressively pursued its EU accession plan, driving through substantial reforms. The economy grew rapidly, riding waves of foreign investment. Per capita income trebled, large-scale building projects feeding the economy. And Turkey became an important player on the global stage.
Meanwhile, by scaling back the military’s power, the Government without doubt made the country more stable and less coup-prone.
“This (AKP) is a very good party and Erdogan is number one,” says Abdullah, sitting inside a bookstore, its shelves packed with Islamic literature. “The economy is strong, tourists come from all over the world to visit Turkey.”
“These protesters number maybe 50,000 people. What is the population of Istanbul? 13 million. They have no support.”
Regardless of the turmoil and standoff, Coffey, who studied political science at Auckland University, feels there is a “vibe” that places Istanbul alongside the world’s other major cities. “Despite being the only country I’ve been tear-gassed in I will return,” he says.