O Istanbul. Crown jewel and epicenter of Turkey. Literal crossroad of the world, east and west. Beloved city of many world travelers, who find themselves immersed in a multi-millennial mix of cultures. In Istanbul, you are simultaneously located and dislocated in geography and time.
The hours of coverage of the clashes in Taksim Square will not make this quite clear. Protests against the demolition of Gezi Park, one of the last green spaces in modern growing Istanbul, ripened into broader complaint about the direction of the democratically-elected government of Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan.
Today in Taksim, Erdogan acted on his threatend lost patience, setting the police on occupying protestors, whom he believes to have been infiltrated by violent political activists and radicals. Tear gas, water cannons, and other dispersal techniques followed.
Turkey—and particularly its world-class city Istanbul—does not fit easily in any of the usual boxes. The anomaly is the work of a single man, a visionary autocrat who managed to give autocracy a good name, who took one of the most culturally rich but tradition-bound countries in the world and pushed/dragged it into the twentieth century.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938) disrupted and redirected a country’s trajectory as few have ever done. First President of the Republic of Turkey, and still almost a god-like presence, he was determined to see Turkey regain its former glory not by looking backward but by moving forward and becoming a modern, secular, European-style democracy. Along with universal education and changing the way that people dressed (he banned the fez, for example), he literally changed the language, reformatting Turkish with a Roman alphabet.
It worked for the most part, though with sporadic gaps. The old and the new live comfortably and excitingly with each other, as a visit to Istanbul demonstrates. Turkey is thriving. Those whose image of Islam is informed by skewed sketches find one of the world’s most Muslim countries defying stereotypes.
Democracy has been an on-again, off-again phenomenon in Turkey. As the twentieth century crept into the twenty-first, the progress that Ataturk enabled led to expectations that would not be denied. The rise of Islamism and traditionalism under the current leadership, even as Erdogan pushed important reform, does not sit well with a generation—again particularly in Istanbul—that takes secularism, modern culture and principles of freedom very seriously.
That is how we get here today. Even as Prime Minister Erdogan was intent on ending the occupation of Taksim Square, dozens of lawyers joined in and were arrested at the courthouse. These tensions are nothing new for Turkey; the military has been in charge more than once, and was then turned out. What is new is how much of the world is watching.
This isn’t about whether a little city park in Istanbul should make way for a shopping center, or whether drinking alcohol should be restricted in Turkey (another issue that has seeped into the discussion). It isn’t the same as other “springs”, Prague or Arab, about moving from dictatorship to democracy. This is a democracy already, one of the most interesting in the world. We are watching the kind of challenges that twenty-first century democracies will be facing, and seeing whether purportedly enlightened leaders can find appropriate ways of meeting them. For the sake of Turkey, and especially for the sake of glorious Istanbul, let’s hope so.