Istanbul: Across this vast city, a capital for three former empires, cranes dangle over construction sites, tin walls barricade old slums, and skyscrapers outclimb the mosque minarets that have dominated the skyline for centuries – all a vanguard for more audacious projects already in the works.
For many Turks, though, the development is not so much progress as a reflection of growing autocratic ambitions by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government. Anger and resentment boiled over onto the street over the past three days, as the police barraged demonstrators with tear gas and streams from water cannons – and as the protesters attacked bulldozers and construction trailers lined up next to the last park in the city’s center.
In full public view, a long struggle over urban spaces is erupting as a broader fight over Turkish identity, where difficult issues of religion, social class and politics intersect. And while most here acknowledge that every Turkish ruling class has sought to put its stamp on Istanbul, there is a growing sense that none has done so as insistently as the current government, led by Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party, despite growing resistance.
On Sunday, Erdogan went on television to reject accusations of dictatorial behavior while flatly discounting the protesters’ legitimacy.
“We would not yield to a few looters coming to that square and provoking our people, our nation, based on their misinformation,” Erdogan said, in a speech that managed to feel provocative even as he called for a return to order, and as protesters returned to Taksim Square. Demonstrators also took to the streets of Ankara, the capital, and several other cities and were met with tear gas from the police.
Edhem Eldem, a historian at Bogazici University in Istanbul, has criticized the government for undertaking large-scale development projects without seeking recommendations from the public.
“In a sense, they are drunk with power,” he said. “They lost their democratic reflexes and are returning to what is the essence of Turkish politics: authoritarianism.”
The swiftly changing physical landscape of Istanbul symbolizes the competing themes that undergird modern Turkey – Islam versus secularism, rural versus urban. They highlight a booming economy and a self-confidence expressed by the religiously conservative ruling elite that belies the post-empire gloom that permeates the novels of Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate and most famous writer.
Erdogan’s decade-long rule has dramatically reshaped Turkey’s culture by establishing civilian control of the military. It has broken down rules of the old secular order that now permit the wide public expression of religion, seen in the proliferation of women wearing head scarves, by the conservative masses who comprise the prime minister’s constituency. His rule has also nurtured a pious capitalist class, whose members have moved in large numbers from rural Anatolia to cities like Istanbul, deepening class divisions.
The old secular elite, who consider themselves the inheritors of the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey’s secular founder, have chafed under these transformations. So, too, have liberals, who do not label themselves Kemalists and are tolerant of public displays of religion. But they object to Erdogan’s leadership style, which they describe as dictatorial, and are put off by many of the development projects on the grounds of bad taste, a view imbued with a sense of social elitism.
For many, it has also created a sense of resentment and loss – for longtime residents, urban intellectuals and many members of the underclasses who are being pushed from their homes so that upscale housing complexes and shopping malls can be built.
And there is much more on the drawing board that evokes greater ambitions and controversies: the world’s largest airport, the country’s biggest mosque, and a proposed canal that would split Istanbul’s European side and is so audacious that even the project’s most vocal supporter, Erdogan, has called it “crazy.” Ground has already been broken on a third bridge over the Bosporus, named for a contentious Ottoman sultan who was accused of massacring Alevi Muslims, a large minority in Turkey.
“I was born and raised here, and there is nothing from my youth that I can connect to anymore in this city,” said Ersin Kalaycioglu, a professor of international relations at Sabanci University. “Istanbul is seen as a place where you earn a living, where you get rich. It is a gold rush.”
Reflecting a sense of elitism that is widely shared by secular Turks in Istanbul, he complained that the city had “been invaded by Anatolian peasants” who were “uncultured.”
Ara Guler, who is 84 and Turkey’s most famous photographer, having produced volumes of black-and-white photographs of Istanbul’s cityscapes, sat in a cafe that bears his name. He said there was only one neighbourhood left that reminded of him of his city and where he still liked to take pictures: Eyup, a waterside district that is home to a famous mosque and many conservative Muslim families.
“The Istanbul that we grew up with is lost,” he said. “Where is my Istanbul? It’s all about the money.”
A government plan to convert Taksim Square, historically a place of public gathering, into a replica Ottoman-era army barracks and shopping mall – what Eldem, the historian, called “a Las Vegas of Ottoman splendor” – is what incited the demonstrations. But there are many other contentious projects that have drawn public outrage.
The city’s oldest movie theater was recently demolished for another mall, raising howls of protests, including an objection from Turkey’s first lady, Hayrunnisa Gul, the wife of the Turkish president, Abdullah Gul. A 19th century Russian Orthodox Church may be destroyed as part of an overhaul of a port. And in ghettos across the city, the urban poor are being paid to leave their homes so that contractors – many with ties to government officials – can build gated communities.
The neighbourhood of Avcilar, near the airport and historically a place for Bulgarian immigrants, is another area where residents are being uprooted. As the process unfolds, it has become complicated by opaque property records in which it is sometimes impossible to determine ownership.
“One day we just got a notice, and bam, before we could put up a proper fight, 300 to 400 police came and held us back from intervening with the bulldozers that knocked down our restaurant,” said Coskun Turan, who owned a fish restaurant. “They said we didn’t have deeds for the property, but we do. We showed them. They argued that we only had a deed for part of the property, so they knocked the rest down.”
At 87, Dogan Kuban is perhaps Istanbul’s foremost urban historian. He has written numerous books and worked with the United Nations on preservation issues in Turkey. He complained that he has never been consulted by the current government. “I am the historian of Istanbul,” he said. “They don’t consult with anybody.”
He criticised the government for ignoring the country’s pre-Islamic history by not protecting certain archaeological sites and structures, an issue he cast as highlighting Turkey’s turn away from Western culture under Erdogan’s rule.
“The only things being preserved are mosques,” he said. “Preservation is a very refined part of the culture. It’s very much a part of European civilization.”
The outcome of the protest movement is still uncertain. With Erdogan still able to count on the support of religious conservatives, which make up a large voting bloc, few believe that his hold on power is in jeopardy. But there has been a hint of potential political damage, and the pulling back of police forces Saturday, and allowing tens of thousands of protesters to demonstrate in Taksim Square on Saturday and again Sunday night, was seen by some as a sign of weakness.
“This is the first battle Erdogan lost in recent memory,” said Soli Ozel, an academic and columnist here. “He overreached, his hubris, arrogance and authoritarian impulse hit a wall.”
But on Sunday, Erdogan struck a defiant chord, and while he said no shopping mall would be built in Taksim, he vowed to build another mosque in the square.