A park, a bridge, and our kulturkampf

A park, a bridge, and our kulturkampf

These days, two hot topics are on the top of the agenda of Turkey’s age-old kulturkampf, or culture war: The demolition of the Gezi Park near Istanbul’s Taksim Square, and the building of the third colossal bridge over Istanbul’s Bosphorus strait. And in both issues, several layers of tension are added on top of each of other.

One of those layers is the traditional aversion of the Turkish left to any new sign of economic development. Condemning every new project in Turkey as a heinous plunder of “capitalism,” this mindset has traditionally opposed many things that has made Turkey a more livable place. The very first Bosphorus Bridge, for example, was condemned by the CHP (Republican People’s Party) of the 1970s, whose Marxist tone was then more visible than today’s. The same CHP, and the likeminded, have also protested the construction of hydroelectric damns and big highways. More recently, they have been condemning the buildings of TOKİ, a public housing project of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. They, apparently, were happier when Istanbul was surrounded by not TOKİ towers but shantytowns.

The other layer is the recklessness of the AKP. The ruling party, in line with its center-right predecessors, in fact deserves my praise as the real (technical) modernizer of Turkey. Unlike the Kemalists, who obsessed with importing “Western lifestyles,” the Turkish center-right focused on building a vibrant economy and better infrastructure. (Hence Demirel built the first Bosphorus Bridge, Özal built the second one, and the AKP is now building the third.)

However, the AKP is doing all this with little, if any, sensitivity to opposing views and urban aesthetics. The criticism that while Istanbul has been filled with drones of shopping malls, no new public parks have been established is valid, for example. It is also true that some of the new towers in Istanbul have harmed the city’s historic skyline. (Luckily, a court recently decided on the demolition of two of those towers in the Zeytinburnu district.)

All this creates a vicious cycle: the left opposes whatever the AKP does, while the AKP dismisses all criticism, including legitimate criticism, as ideologically motivated. Moreover, the AKP moves forward with its decisions, forcefully and defiantly, only creating more reaction.

One recent result is the clashes in Taksim Gezi Park between the protestors who resist the demolition of the park for the New Taksim Project, and the police who have tried to disperse them aggressively. Although I do not share the outlook of most the protestors, I do condemn the police violence that they have been subjected to.

The other controversy of this week is the name of the Third Bridge on the Bosporus: Yavuz Sultan Selim, the ninth Ottoman Sultan. The problem is that while Selim is widely respected in Turkey among Sunnis, Alevis see him as an “Alevi-slayer.” The AKP would certainly prove much more sensitive and responsible had it chosen a less controversial name.

At the end of the day, what all these prove is that Turkey needs a much more “participatory” democracy, in which major public decisions will be given by active participation of the people. Had the New Taksim Project and the name of the bridge been voted on the internet, for example, there probably would be less tension. But perhaps tension is what we Turks, from the government to opposition, enjoy, and that is the real problem.