How to escalate tension and destroy peace

How to escalate tension and destroy peace

Last weekend, President Tayyip Erdoğan spoke at an “iftar,” or a fast-breaking dinner, in Istanbul. He said many things, but one theme dominated the night, and soon hit the whole national media. Erdoğan reopened a sensitive subject that had sparked massive anti-government protests three years ago: The demolition of Gezi Park near Istanbul’s Taksim Square, in order to rebuild the Ottoman military barracks that used to be there until 1939.

“One of the subjects that we have to be brave about is Gezi Park in Taksim,” Erdoğan said, looking into the eyes of the mayor of Istanbul, urging him to action. “I am saying it here once again: We will construct that historic building there.” He also heralded that inside the newly-built military barracks there may be a museum in which the misdeeds of “the Germans, the French or the Americans” will be displayed. Moreover, a major Ottoman-style mosque will also be built in the heart of Taksim, he added. This would be a “Selatin” mosque, which typically glorified victorious sultans after their conquests. 

The symbolism behind all this was unmistakable. Taksim is the heart of Istanbul, which says something about the identity of the city. Building an Ottoman military building and a giant mosque there would be a major stamp of Erdoğan’s “conservative” (or Islamist, as some say) ideology. Moreover, a display of the dark episodes of Western history would not only be a supposed answer to the claims of “Armenian genocide” that Turkey faces, it would also be a powerful expression of the anti-Western (or “Occidentalist”) narrative that lies at the heart of the ruling ideology in question.

Yet we know what this ambition to recreate Taksim in the image of the new ruling class cost Turkey three ago: In June 2013, the effort to uproot the trees in Gezi Park led to massive protests, which the police responded to with tear gas, only to make the protests grow national. As a result, Turkey lived through a month of turmoil. Seven protestors were killed by the police during clashes. Turkey’s economy, tourism and international prestige were damaged. The government itself explained the protests as a premeditated foreign conspiracy against Turkey, which in my view was sheer nonsense. But at the very least, it showed that the government too considered the “Gezi Park affair” a bad thing.

Hence one wonders whether we need a second Gezi Park affair. The apparent answer in the past three years was no, because the government had let the park stay and the protests had vanished. Now why is Erdoğan bringing up the issue again, even adding a major mosque to the plan, which will only deepen the ongoing Islamist-secularist tension in Turkey?

My worry is that if this plan comes to life, and bulldozers roll into Taksim to demolish the park, we might indeed have a second Gezi Park affair. I also worry that it might be more tense and bloodier than the first one, because this time both sides can be more agitated. I hope I am wrong. 

The real question is why Erdoğan would take this risk. Some will tell you that he prefers building tension, as a political tactic, which help consolidates his base. That is probably not untrue. But I also think that not just a tactic but also an ideology is at play: Turkey has to be “reconquered” from the enemies of the nation, which are just the citizens with the wrong worldview. And winning this war, apparently, is more important than winning the peace.