Stepping out for a run the other day I encountered the sign at left along Tarlabaşı Caddesi, the primary auto artery between Istanbul’s historical peninsula and Taksim. This is a new image, but the billboard seems to be owned by the IHH (İnsan Hak ve Hürriyetleri ve İnsani Yardım Vakfı — Humanitarian Relief Foundation), as it always carries an image with their logo. The IHH is the organization responsible for organizing the Mavi Marmara aid flotilla to Gaza in 2010, and this new billboard commemorates the four-year anniversary of the Israeli raid on that flotilla that resulted in the death of nine Turks, one of whom was also a US citizen. (A tenth Turk died last week of wounds received during the raid, after spending four years in the hospital.) The sign says “we’re marching towards freedom” and it tells viewers about a commemoration march from Sultanahmet Square, the heart of Ottoman Istanbul, on 31 May.
The anniversary of the raid was marked with more than a march. Former Turkish ambassador to Israel, Oğuz Çelikkol, released a book detailing the crisis in Turkish-Isreali relations between 2009 and 2010 a week before the commemoration. Days later, a Turkish court ordered the arrest of four Israeli officers involved in the raid, sending warrants to Interpol since the officers have refused to appear at any of the hearings. And, with just three days till the anniversary, news came out that the name of the Mavi Marmara had been changed to Gazi M — a shift suggesting the symbolic significance the ship has taken on. “Gazi” translates as “veteran.” It’s a term of respect, and one that often carries a religious connotation. Clearly, there was a concerted effort to commemorate this major political event and this is not surprising.
31 May was not only the anniversary of the flotilla raid, it was also the first anniversary of the Gezi Park uprising. Though the protests actually started on 28 May, it was on the 31st that they became a nationwide phenomenon, and this is the day that was chosen by Taksim Dayanışması (Taksim Solidarity), one of the organizers of the original protests, to commemorate the event. They issued a call for people to come to Taksim on the 31st.
As in the case with the flotilla raid, the anniversary of Gezi was marked by a number of groups and parties. A guerrilla photo exhibition took place at various sites around Taksim in the weeks leading up to the event (illustration below), a collective art exhibit commemorating Gezi opened up at two galleries in the area on the 28th, and a group of comic artists and fans recently started a kickstarter campaign to fund an anthology of cartoons and graphics related to the protests.
Beyond these artistic commemorations, the recent spate of political unrest in Istanbul can in some ways be seen as a continuation of Gezi, and in some ways as an anticipation of the anniversary. A demonstration that ended in two deaths was initiated in part as call to commemorate Berkin Elvan, a 15-year-old boy who was killed by a gas canister fired by police during Gezi. Also at issue was the government mishandling of the mine disaster at Soma that killed over 300 people, making it the deadliest in Turkish history. While the connection between Soma and Gezi is not necessarily organic, some have noted that both the disaster and the protests highlight the problems of Turkey’s current neoliberal governmental regime. Taksim Dayanışma clearly took up with this cause, incorporating numerous references to Soma and mining in the small words that compose “meydandayiz” (“we’re in the square”).
For those who have observed Turkish politics over the last year, it will come as little surprise that the call to assemble in Taksim was not welcomed by the Turkish government. Days before the 31st, Istanbul Governor Hüseyin Avni Mutlu stated that such a demonstration would not be tolerated, and that 25,000 police and 50 TOMAs (tank-like water canon vehicles) would be present in the area to prevent such activity. This was followed by PM Erdoğan’s statement that the police were not to allow protestors to enter Taksim or Gezi Park under any circumstances.
And thus we were confronted with a rather striking situation: two anniversaries at the two most prominent squares in Istanbul, and two very different approaches taken by the government. The Sultanahmet rally was allowed and perhaps tacitly encouraged by the AK-Party, as the politics of the party and the IHH align quite closely. The Taksim rally was actively and violently and stamped out. (A brief note about that in the follow-up post to this one.) A politics of place is hard to ignore in this situation, and it is certainly one aspect of the context, so I will address it briefly.
Sultanahmet is steeped in the Ottoman legacy, which the AK-Party has increasingly come to adopt as its own. Last year, the square took on a pan-Islamic character, as it was home to a rally in support of (then) Egyptian President and Muslim Brotherhood leader, Muhammed Mursi. (A march in Taksim on the same day, 6 July, was prevented by police.) The IHH poster obviously works with this pan-Islamic sentiment, as an image of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem hovers over the Mavi Marmara, indicating a religious cause for the flotilla and, by implication, the anniversary demonstration.
This religious sentiment is tied to Sultanahmet for a number of reasons, but two of the most obvious are architectural. The square is home to both the Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia) and the Sultanahmet Mosque among its many treasures. On Saturday, the rally for the Mavi Marmara was preceded by an early morning prayer in front of the Aya Sofya attended by thousands. This event was not, strictly speaking, in conjunction with the flotilla commemoration but was, rather, the latest in an increasingly active campaign to have the status of the Aya Sofya, currently a museum, shifted to that of a mosque. The event was timed on the weekend closest to the 29th of May — the date in 1453 on which Constantinople was conquered and the Hagia Sophia, which had served as a Christian church since the 6th Century, was turned into a mosque.
Taksim, on the other hand, is defined, in spatial terms at least, by the Republic Monument on one side and the Atatürk Cultural Center on the other: both prominent markers of the Turkish republican and secular legacy. It was at least in part for this reason that the plans to (re)build an Ottoman-barracks-themed shopping center and a new mosque next to the square aroused such discontent.
More generally speaking, Beyoğlu, the part of the city centered on Taksim, was historically the center of non-Muslim Istanbul, housing first trade colonies and, eventually, many foreign embassies, particularly of “western” countries during the Ottoman period. This state of affairs lingered on in the early republic until a series of tax penalties, ethnically charged pogroms, and government expropriation programs took place from the 1940s through the 1960s, forcing many non-Muslims to leave the country.
Taksim has, more recently, had the historical legacy of being the meeting place for labor parties and leftists, particularly on May Day. In 1977, it was the site of a May-day massacre that ended in the deaths of at least 34 people. The perpetrators, presumed to be right-wing militias working in concert with the government, have never been caught.
As striking as this politics of place may be, neither Sultanahmet nor Taksim can be contained within the ideological borders I have sketched above — both places supersede these meanings on countless fronts while nonetheless being steeped in the legacies that I’ve highlighted. A simple enough example of this can be found in the image below.
It’s a 2012 billboard from the exact same location as the one with which I began this post, and it has a very similar message and motivation. In this case, the Al-Aqsa Mosque is pictured but not mentioned with text. This image tells us that the IHH was marking the anniversary two years ago as well, but, with one crucial difference: that time the march took place in Taksim.
Places and public squares, like the movements that travel through them, the ideologies that briefly inhabit them, surely don and slough meaning with the times. It would be inconceivable for the IHH to hold a demonstration in Taksim today, given the way Prime Minister Erdoğan, with the willing help of an increasingly propagandistic media, has stigmatized the space and the people who wish to use it for anything other than shopping. But two short years ago, when the Mavi Marmara was still a cause that tended to unite rather than divide people in Turkey, Taksim was the clear place for the rally. And, it should go without saying, the space was available for such a cause.
What Turkey has lost in these two years is immeasurable: the population is deeply divided not only in terms of the direction the country is taking, but even over the most basic notions of what constitutes truth. It would be difficult to exaggerate the role of media in this state of affairs. Tensions are high, the economy is fragile, and notion of Turkey as a beacon of democracy for the Muslim-majority world has been tarnished beyond repair. Sections of cities across the country are ruled as a police state in which violence has become normalized to the point of banality. This is simply a description of the country’s current state; it is true regardless of where one stands politically.
For those who wish to change this state of affairs there have been gains in the past two years as well. Gezi politicized a generation and brought out a creative approach to political engagement that is still developing. Perhaps more importantly, it encouraged a spirit of openness to others that had not before been seen in Turkey. In as much as the population here has been divided, coalitions between extremely unlikely allies have also been formed.
Perhaps the clearest challenge ahead is to broaden this coalition. In all likelihood 31 May 2015 will, once again, see the commemoration of these two key political events: probably, once again, in Sultanahmet and Taksim. The IHH billboard stands prominently on the main road connecting these two squares. The task for the year to come may be one of imagining and then creating a state in which these public spaces and public commemorations could be brought together, (re)connecting the squares and the people who come to occupy them for the day.