The Gezi Park Protests in the summer of 2013 began in response to Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdoğan’s plans to demolish Istanbul’s Gezi Park, one of the city’s few remaining public green spaces, and to replace it with a shopping mall and luxury apartments. Initial protests were held by environmentalists opposed to the project; when forcibly removed, a wider coalition of protesters came together and demonstrations evolved into a wider critique of the AKP’s neoliberal economic policy and what protesters called Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian style of leadership, as well as calls for freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, and accusations that the AKP was eroding secularism. As the Gezi Park protest grew, other Turkish cities witnessed local demonstrations.
Despite this wide range of grievances the AKP, and the AKP’s Islamic support organizations such as the Gulen Movement have represented the protests as an encounter between Kemalist secularism and Islam, referring to protesters as anti-religion. Erdoğan pushed this image by stating that protestors, who had entered a mosque for refuge from tear gas, had not removed their shoes and even drank alcohol inside. The international media, too, reproduced this binary in its coverage, characterizing it as a populist demonstration against an Islamist leader and a component of the wider Arab Spring protests that had shaken the region in recent years.
This portrayal dismisses the varied and specifically political critiques made by protestors, and ignores their diverse political and religious orientations, including environmentalists, feminists, radical leftists, ultranationlists, trade unions, some of them observant Muslims, others not. Protestors denied accusations of disrespect towards Islam; as the protests fell during the Islamic month of Ramadan (during which Muslims are religiously obligated to fast) protestors gathered for fast-breaking meals at sunset. Calling them “earth tables,” protestors broke their fasts in different areas of the city, including in Alevi neighborhoods and in the conservative Fatih area in an effort to show solidarity with diverse Muslim groups. Despite the protests’ proximity to the Arab Spring, in reality the coalition of protesters and protest camp that evolved had more in common with the global Occupy Movement that sprang up in 2011.
The government response to the protests was critiqued as heavy-handed, both within Turkey and in the international community. Numerous incidents of police brutality were reported, thousands of protesters were injured, and six protesters died. Erdoğan has announced that redevelopment plans for Gezi Park are anticipated to continue.
Fehim Taştekin, “Turkey’s Gezi Park Protesters Regroup for Ramadan,” Al-Monitor, July 14, 2013, accessed November 4, 2013.