ISTANBUL – The small park in Taksim Square in the sprawling metropolis of Istanbul is one of the few green spaces left in the city center. On May 28, a handful of Turkish environmentalists started a peaceful protest against a redevelopment plan for the park that would replace the greenery with a replica of an Ottoman-era army barracks, a shopping mall, and apartments. But heavy-handed police repression launched a massive civic movement that has spread to the entire country.
The redevelopment plan for the park triggered a huge protest against what a large segment of the Turkish public, particularly young people, considers paternalistic and authoritarian political leadership. The movement’s rapid growth was fueled by widespread opposition to what many regard as official efforts to regiment lifestyles, as well as by frustration over perceived economic inequities.
Indeed, though environmentalists and secular youth spearheaded the protest movement, it became remarkably diverse and inclusive almost overnight. Pious Muslims – particularly those who believe that Turkey’s urban development has created too much rent-seeking and too many easy fortunes – joined the demonstrations as well, as did some far-left groups.
Some of the protests became violent. Overall, however, the movement has remained peaceful and even joyous. Moreover, important figures in or close to the ruling Justice and Development Party expressed their willingness to hold a dialogue with the protesters. President Abdullah Gül, in particular, played a calming, statesmanlike role.