I have been reading the mainstream coverage of the events unfolding in Turkey from the get go, in large part because of my interest — after two visits to Istanbul — in the nation’s complex blend of European secularism (think France) and a variety of approaches to Islam. In the midst of all that, religious minorities have not fared well at all, including the tiny remnant of Eastern Orthodox believers who huddle in what was once the New Rome.
Is it just me, or are way too many mainstream reporters either (a) ignoring the historic and religious themes in this story altogether or (b) trying to boil this complex drama down into another Arab Spring showdown between heroic young people clashing with the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that leans toward a “moderate” Islamist stance, whatever that combination of labels means?
Yes, believe it or not, there are newsrooms ignoring the religious themes altogether. Surprise, surprise. For example, check out this new piece from The Los Angeles Times. After the usual description of the riots, and police response, there is this background material:
The unrest began as a peaceful sit-in to protest plans to destroy the adjoining Gezi Park to make way for redevelopment, but it quickly swelled into nationwide demonstrations when police attempted to clear the park of demonstrators. Violence has also flared in other cities, notably in Izmir and the capital, Ankara. At least three people have died, including a police officer, and thousands have been injured, according to a doctors union.
The protesters are made up mostly of middle-class youths largely unaffiliated with any political party. Instead, they represent a fiercely nationalistic and secular current and feel threatened by what they see as Erdogan’s authoritarianism and the ruling party’s increasing focus on Islamic strictures.
Parts of the full equation can be seen in this chunk of the story. You need to read the whole thing to see how truly tone-deaf it is to the religious themes in these vents.
Even in this passage, it really would have helped to have mentioned that the planned redevelopment would have included symbolic elements of both parts of Erdogan’s power base — a mixture of big business and a new mosque, built on sacred ground for Turkish secularists.
Thus, it also helps to know something about secularism in Turkey, which has roots far deeper than the interests of a pack of young students and coffee-shop intellectuals. In addition to modern secularism, Turkey has its own legacy of a secularized, modernized brand if Islam — backed by the military. The key is a fusion of European secularism, Turkish culture and military control.
Erdogan has stressed a turn back toward Islamic law and traditions, such as women covering their heads and even wearing traditional forms if Islamic attire. His actions have infuriated those loyal to the old Young Turks, while not going far enough for the full-tilt Islamists. Did you note at least three forms of Islam in that statement?
So what’s up with this park? Look at this background material from BBC and see if you spot any important facts about Gezi Park, a strategic piece of real estate in the highly modern and secular city of Istanbul.
Gezi Park — an area inside Taksim Square, filled with sycamore trees — is one of the few green spaces left in central Istanbul. It has been compared with Cairo’s Tahrir Square — the focus of the demonstrations which toppled President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 — and protesters’ banners claim that redeveloping the park is akin to the commercial takeover of Central Park in New York, or Hyde Park in London. …
The redevelopment plans include the construction of a shopping centre, which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists will not be “a traditional mall” but will include cultural centres, an opera house and a mosque.
An Ottoman-era military barracks will be rebuilt near the site, and the historic Ataturk Cultural Centre will be demolished.
So the destruction of a cultural site built in honor of the legendary Kemal Ataturk, the creator of that previously mentioned fusion of European secularism, modernized Islam and Turkish nationalism. And in its place, the people of Istanbul get more shopping and another mosque. Note also the change from an Ottoman-era military establishment — yet another symbol — to a facility explicitly linked to the new government.
So many symbols. So many ghosts, in a land where even the word “secular” usually refers to a specific approach to Islam.
This Los Angeles Times story seems to think that these riots are, well, just a bunch of young people rioting.