What began as a nonviolent sit-in by a small number of environmentalists protesting the demolition of the quaint Gezi Park in the busy tourist district of Istanbul’s Taksim Square has escalated into full-fledged popular demonstrations against what many Turks perceive as an increasingly authoritarian regime.
Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has accumulated a myriad of successes since its formation in 2001, holding a two-thirds majority in parliament for more than a decade.
In this timespan, it has managed to consolidate its stance as a regional economic and military power and has considerable influence in both European and Middle Eastern affairs.
These accolades did not come without a price.
Escalations between Turkey’s military and Kurdish separatists have produced thousands of civilian casualties. Municipal protests against corruption have resulted in unwarranted detentions, media censorship by state agencies and police violence. And Turkey’s secularist approach to social policy has slowly descended under the control of a more religiously active minority.
In the broadest sense, these riots are indeed a reaction to prolonged censorship , human rights violations and the government’s complete lack of regard for popular consensus, as in the most recent case of the destruction of Gezi Park and the ensuing backlash.
But more specifically, it symbolizes the Turkish peoples’ demands for the restoration of their historically secular heritage.
Days before the Taksim Square demonstrations, the Turkish parliament passed sweeping measures to limit, and even prohibit, alcohol sales during certain hours and in certain locations — a move that many concerned business owners believe may dampen, if not extinguish, the Turkish nightlife and tourist industry, according to NPR.
Though Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has assured the public that the campaign is simply to curb alcoholism and protect children, many are
receiving it as the hidden agenda of a growing Islamic influence in the legislature.
The public’s concern toward the Turkish parliament’s right to legislate morality is highlighted by a more recent small keynote event that evolved into a mass demonstration when a loudspeaker announcement at a crowded Ankara metro station requested that all passengers behave in accordance to “moral code” and encouraged the youth to refrain from “acting inappropriately” or otherwise showing affection.
Demonstrators mobilized immediately, staging a “kiss-in” at an Ankara subway stop and attracting opposition protestors, who were separated by riot control police.
The culmination of these sporadically growing revolts have convolved into a nationwide call for revision. Turkey’s protests are not unique in that they demand a more transparent central government, a less censored media and a curb on corrupt politics. They are unique in that the citizens are extensively concerned in preserving the separation of church and state associated with Turkey’s pluralist, non-denominational approach to social policy and most importantly, keeping religion out of politics.