Kritisch, betrokken, onafhankelijk en nieuwsgierig



“Gezi park” is a symbol and initially carried certain structural, political, cultural and emotional meanings. Symbols are, however, open for contestation and interpretation as individuals and groups actively engage with it. The symbol then comes to symbolize various things for a variety of people. There is much space for redefining and reinterpreting symbols, but in some ways, the symbol needs to resemble its initial core message. And it still does: Gezi park was never just about trees, but about deeper lying unjust political processes. It is precisely this factor that manages to symbolically unify the diverse motivations of the protestors.

People protesting plans to convert Istanbul’s Gezi park into a shopping mall was met with Turkish police using tear gas and water cannons. These events ignited nationwide anti-government rallies and even led to demonstrations among the Turkish diaspora. What resonates among the different protestors are the dynamics surrounding the initial events: a failure of the government and the prime minister to involve citizens as co-producers and owners in the democratic process, decision-making and the future of Turkey. The obvious police brutality toward the first Gezi park demonstrators is the most manifest and visual refusal of the government to listen to the wishes, demands, dreams and hopes of its citizens. At its core, the underlying causes for the nationwide protests are (1) the unwillingness of the authoritarian government, institutions and especially the prime minister to accommodate pluralistic democratic values and lifestyles and (2) the lack of robust democratic arenas and fields for citizens to channel their discontent on democratic representation, inclusion and freedom. The malfunctioning political party system and the weakness of the political opposition have for instance reinforced the powerlessness and dissatisfaction of large groups in Turkish society.

Some accounts insist on the simplistic, stereotypical, strongly politicized and monolithic binary oppositions of secularism/religious-conservatism and Islamism/Kemalism as the main causes for the riots. These ready-made and archaic analyses have already been proven wrong by the ambiguous empirical reality of the protests in Turkey. The protestors cut across ethnic (Turks, Kurd and Arabs), religious (Alevi and Sunni), political (leftists, rightists, environmentalists, liberals, pro-Kurdish parties) and class (both upperclass, middle class and the lower classes) lines as the various groups have different aims, motivations and demands.  The diverse groups are united and their manifold motivations channeled in opposition to another symbol: Recep Tayyib Erdogan, who stands for the authoritarian government and institutions. Moreover, a ‘new’ phenomenon is the large group of individuals that identify themselves as ‘apolitical’ – they are not affiliated to specific political or religious groups, but jumped on the bandwagon due to the increasing police brutality and lack of respect for democratic values.


Robin: “We actually never wanted to cut those trees.” Batman: “Fool, are you still talking about trees!”


Secularism/religious-conservatism is a contributing factor to the riots, but it operates as the politicized outcome of the underlying democratic discontent with an authoritarian government that is imposing its agenda in a flawed political party system. For the liberals protest against the criminalization and imprisonment of oppositional figures, the secularists against the imposition of an Islamic lifestyle, the environmentalists against the urban planning programs, the ‘apoliticals’ against authoritarianism and police brutality, and so on.

What is also forgotten is how the specific local, temporal and historical contexts fuse into the symbol of Gezi park. The protests in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Van, Rize, Trabzon, Tunceli and Antakya have different dynamics, because of specific demographic characteristics, region specific issues and particular historic events. For instance, in Antakya the population is also opposing Erdogan’s approach to Syria and Assad, in Tunceli old historic wounds and the structural marginalization of (Alevi) Kurds appears to motivate rioting too, whereas the ‘secular’ and highly educated students in Ankara are currently in a deadlock with the police and mainly opposing the excessive use of force. Also with regard to these temporally, contextually and spatially varying dynamics, the dichotomous perspective of secularism/religious-conservatism lacks sufficient explanatory value.

All in all, the recent protests should be interpreted as another step in the long, slow, painful and difficult democratization process of Turkey. A democracy with many flaws and with weak institutions. However, today it’s not the army that checks and balances in Turkey, but the people. There is hope.

Dr. Sinan Çankaya is a cultural anthropologist and researches the police organization, security issues and multiculturalism.