Ms. Howe is a former reporter for The New York Times and author of Turkey Today: A Nation Divided over Islam's Revival (Westview Press, 2000). Her latest book is Al-Andalus Rediscovered: Iberia's New Muslims (Columbia/Hurst, 2012).
Turkey's first lady, Hayrunnisa Gul, recalls that in the beginning, she was sympathetic to the environmental protesters at Istanbul's Gezi Park, but became concerned when the demonstrations, which shook much of the country, turned violent. Emphasizing that Turkey has achieved progress "in every way" in the last decade, Mrs. Gul wondered whether "all our efforts have been in vain."
I had gone to Ankara to interview Mrs. Gul about women's rights in Turkey, including the contentious headscarf problem. My visit and the interview were overshadowed by the explosion of discontent against the democratically elected conservative Islamic government. What should have been a local town-planning issue easily resolved by compromise was brutally suppressed by riot police. The excessive use of force served to galvanize secular critics on the left and right and an apolitical youth against what was seen as an increasingly authoritarian government, determined to impose an Islamic agenda on the deeply rooted secular state.
Ironically, I had first met Mrs. Gul in 1998, during street protests that had threatened to tear Turkey apart. At that time, she was a leader of the movement for the freedom to wear headscarves and wife of Abdullah Gul, parliamentarian from the Islamic opposition party. The headscarf had come to epitomize the division of Turkey's Muslim society between the dominant secular elite and the traditional Islamic majority.
This dichotomy dates back to the founding of the Turkish Republic 90 years ago by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. In his drive to create a modern, secular, Western state, Ataturk abolished the Caliphate, closed Islamic orders and schools, eliminated the Arabic script, replaced Islamic law with a European civil code and denounced Islamic apparel — everything that he considered trappings of a decadent Ottoman Empire. Ataturk's revolution led to the bipolar Turkey I first came to know in the 1980s: a thoroughly westernized, ardently secular, Muslim, urban society and a rural, largely devout Muslim population. But then, I witnessed the birth of a new Turkey as the rural population flocked to cities and towns, intermingled with their urban peers and was no longer willing to be dominated by the arch-secular minority.
Thus, true to the tenets of democracy, the pious conservative majority has taken the reins of power from the secular establishment known as Kemalists. Since 2002, the Justice and Development Party, better known by its Turkish initials AKP, has swept three consecutive parliamentary elections. Under the leadership of the charismatic former mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayipp Erdogan, and economist Abdullah Gul, this conservative democratic group with Islamic roots has made Turkey a model of stability and growth in a volatile region.
The most serious challenge to AKP's 11-year rule came from several dozen young environmentalists who organized a peaceful protest against the government's development project for Taksim Square, the heart of modern Istanbul. What especially angered the protesters was the unilateral decision to raze Gezi Park, the only green space in the area, and replace it with a shopping mall, a replica of Ottoman barracks and a mosque. At the outset, the protesters were badly mauled by the police, who used excessive doses of pepper spray, tear gas and water cannons. Some activists responded to the assault with Molotov cocktails, firecrackers and paving stones, causing considerable damage to surrounding buildings and vehicles. Soon the protesters weeded out troublemakers and imposed an order of passive resistance, winning widespread support. Within a week, the mostly young, apolitical defenders of Gezi Park were joined by left- and right-wing oppositionists, members of the Kurdish and Alevi minorities, labor unionists, anarchists, atheists, anti-capitalist Muslims, soccer fans and LGBT militants. The disparate groups had their own axes to grind but were united in denouncing the "authoritarianism" of Prime Minister Erdogan and urging him to resign.
Characteristically, the scrappy Erdogan answered the demonstrations by pledging to pursue his Taksim development program, organizing mass rallies of his devoted fans and attacking the protesters as "vandals" and "looters." When the protests continued, the prime minister lashed out against a favorite scapegoat: "foreign forces" — terrorists; the media, namely CNN and the BBC; international rating agencies and Twitter.
Initially, the root cause of the conflict appeared to be the eternal struggle between secularists and the devout Muslim majority. There were virtually no headscarves in Taksim and Gezi Park. I counted five on one day, out of tens of thousands of protesters. Meanwhile, Istanbul's Old City, where many traditional families live and foreign tourists hang out, was completely calm, and the streets were full of headscarves. Most of the women at Erdogan's mass rallies were also covered.
In frequent visits to the Gezi Park camp and later Kugulu Park in Ankara, I spoke to scores of protesters. A few were worried about Gezi's linden trees and Erdogan's policy of "rampant cementization." Most demonstrators, however, focused their attacks on the prime minister's "dictatorial manner" and his desire to change people's lifestyles: The complaints were always the same: He wants us all to have three children. He's against abortion and even cesarean sections. He says anyone who takes a drink is a drunkard and has pushed legislation to limit alcohol. He'll be banning mini-skirts next and forcing us all to wear chadors. He's trying to change the constitution to establish a strong presidential system and get himself elected president for life.
What was new was open criticism of Erdogan's confrontational style, even in the AKP leadership. Without challenging his longtime friend and political ally, President Gul repeatedly called for calm and recognized the protesters' messages as "well intentioned." Other AKP officials, like Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc and the governor of Istanbul, apologized for "the excessive use of force" and met with the protesters. "We achieved in just five days what the opposition would never have been able to achieve in years, which is the bringing together of every imaginable group and societal faction in the midst of all this swirling dust and clouds," lamented Minister of Education Nabi Avci. Several columnists in the usually pro-government daily Today's Zaman were critical of the police violence and Erdogan's unyielding attitude, with headlines like "Can the Damage Erdogan Caused Be Repaired?"
During a temporary lull in the protests while the prime minister took off for a four-day state visit to North Africa, I flew to Ankara to meet Mrs. Gul. A friend in the president's office had suggested I attend a ceremony in the presidential palace for the first lady's favorite social project, The 81 Stars, bringing together some of the best and brightest high school students from around the country.
I hadn't been in the Turkish capital since the AKP had come to power and wondered if the Cankaya Palace had undergone the Islamization my secular friends had warned me about. Now I observed more security; a double metal gate; no metal detectors, but a passport and several phone calls were required. The presidential staff, charged with escorting visitors, were mostly pretty young girls in western attire, no headscarves. The marble reception hall with 11 huge chandeliers and cream-colored padded seats for several hundred guests was strictly European. And the 81 Stars, dressed in white shirts and jeans, no headscarves in sight, were the best-mannered teenagers I had seen in a long time.
The first lady, wearing a striped pastel headscarf, fashionable short plum-colored jacket and long dark skirt, was given a standing ovation when she entered the hall. The master of ceremonies, a popular comedian, introduced the stars by province. The winner for this year's prize essay, a girl from Mersin, read her work, "No One Can Stop Us." After a short film about the Turkish team at the London Olympics, Mrs. Gul, appearing cool and confident, took the podium.
"You have brought joy, enthusiasm, and a great synergy to Ankara, at a time when we really need them," Mrs. Gul said, in an indirect reference to the protest movement outside. In her brief address, she explained that for many years, she had dreamed of reaching out to children in need in the farthest corners of the country. "I just wanted them to get help through me, whenever and whatever they needed, so they could realize their dreams in life...." Addressing the new stars, she said: "You are the ones who will build the brighter future of our country. You are the ones who will make our nation proud of the achievements you will have in science, culture, arts and sports. We have received news of the success of our children each day," Mrs. Gul said, naming Nur Tatar and Gamze Bulut, who won silver medals in the 2012 London Olympics, and several other well-known sports stars.
Later, Ayse Yilmaz, who is in charge of the first lady's social-responsibility projects, explained to me that Mrs. Gul had started the 81 Stars program five years ago, in coordination with the national-education departments in the country's 81 provinces. Open to students from the ninth to eleventh grades, the project provides full scholarships for those who excel in studies and sports. Out of the 324 students currently enrolled in the program, 115 are in university. Yilmaz, who wears a headscarf, told me there were only two girls wearing headscarves among this year's 81 Stars. "There are usually so few covered girls in our ceremonies because most scarved girls in Turkey prefer to wear headscarves after graduating from high school," she said, noting that this could be related to the ban or to cultural habits. Yilmaz stressed that this year more than half — in fact, 58 percent — of the winners were girls. "We may say that we usually make positive discrimination in choosing the stars from the provinces in favor of girls," she added with a smile.
After the formal ceremony, President Gul joined his wife and her guests for a meze picnic lunch under tents on the palace lawn. The talk was mostly of sports — soccer, of course, but also volleyball, tennis, karate, chess, skiing, running and athletics. The relaxed outing was cut short by showers, and I was escorted to a salon in the palace residence for my interview with the first lady. We were accompanied by Ayse Yilmaz, who helped out as interpreter, although Mrs. Gul is quite fluent in English.
She began our nearly two-hour conversation with kindly observations about the young protesters in the streets of Istanbul, Ankara and other cities.
"Our youth did not experience the difficulties of the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, and therefore perhaps do not recognize the value of our democratic and economic achievements. The youth who are in their twenties now were children ten years ago, when the AK Party government headed by my husband as prime minister came to power. They cannot remember the days of high inflation: how the interest rates increased to 90 percent; how the Turkish lira lost its value day by day, and the people were using foreign currencies instead; how many banks went bankrupt and the people became impoverished because of the devaluations. They cannot remember the period, before the AK Party, when there were State Security Courts and emergency rule in many provinces, and the freedom of expression was so limited.
"Turkey has become richer now, the situation normalized, bans lifted and taboos broken, and it is an example for other countries. A lot of work went into what was achieved. Our democracy managed to clear many hurdles. Protests are normal in democracies but ... protests should not be violent; they should be peaceful. Frankly speaking, I could not reconcile the scenes of violence that we watched on the streets with the new Turkey. It made me sad and concerned and I wondered whether we were going backwards and all our efforts have been in vain..."
I suggested that one motive for the protests was the widely held suspicion that the government was preparing to impose an Islamist agenda. Secularists claim the Old City in Istanbul is overrun by headscarves and that the country is becoming Islamicized under AKP rule. "On the contrary," Mrs. Gul responded. "There are no more headscarves than before; the headscarved women have begun to be more active, and as a result of this, are more visible in social life."
On the headscarf ban, Mrs. Gul was surprisingly sanguine: "The problem is resolved in universities," she stressed, pointing out that many girls who had dropped out in the 1990s have returned to school now, with their heads covered. When I interjected that there were still no headscarves in the diplomatic corps or anywhere in government service, she acknowledged that even she had had problems in the presidential palace because of her headscarves. In the early years, it was not possible for her to preside with her husband over National Day receptions because senior military officials would not attend. She had to host separate all-women's gatherings. Nor could she receive official guests at the main gate until three years ago. "I am in favor of letting the headscarf issue take care of itself in time. We have been observing normalization in everything in recent years. People view each other with greater tolerance compared to the past. They have more tolerance for each other's culture, tradition and values."
Questioned about women's rights in general, Mrs. Gul emphasized that Turkish women got the right to vote and be elected to public office in 1934, before many European countries.
"Today, Turkish women are actively part of social life. The number of working women continues to grow rapidly. There are successful women in all areas. Because of my husband's previous position as foreign minister, I know a significant number of women serve as diplomats and many ambassadors are women. There are many more successful women in business today, and almost half of academic positions are filled by women.
"This of course is not sufficient. It is not possible to say that women are actively involved in decision-making mechanisms. Women are underrepresented especially in politics and the bureaucracy. We should have more ministers, members of parliament and mayors who are women. The fact that there have only been two women governors in the 90 years of the republic should give us food for thought."
Mrs. Gul highlighted the fact that measures are being taken so that the legal achievements are practiced in daily life. For example, in August 2012, Turkey adopted a new Law to Protect Family and Prevent Violence against Women, in accord with the Council of Europe's convention on domestic violence. This law established a Violence Prevention and Monitoring Center to serve as a shelter for victims. "There are also new opportunities for women in education, health and employment, based on positive discrimination for women in many areas," she added.
Mrs. Gul admitted there has been an increase in violence against women in recent years in Turkey, as in other countries.
"There is a great erosion in moral values. In the past, several generations of a family lived together in an environment of love and respect. Now as families get smaller and more urbanized and life becomes difficult, such an opportunity is lost. Also we present violence as a means of solving problems especially to children through films and computer games. If we would like to have a peaceful world, we must, in my opinion, take our children out of this spiral of violence. We watched with great sadness the school massacres in America and Norway."
On social issues, I had the feeling I was talking to a moderate Republican in the United States, not an Islamist. Her views were conservative but not radical: firmly pro-life, anti-abortion, opposed to c-section delivery, and in favor of large families. She has three children and wished she had four or five. "I can't imagine ending a life, but it should be up to the woman to decide," she said. Under questioning, she added, "Of course, I'm not against family planning. I'm keen on my freedom. If I am forced to do something, it has the opposite effect on me. I'm against things being imposed on people by saying it should be this or that way."
In many ways, Mrs. Gul is very much her own woman, not the stereotypical Muslim woman hiding behind a veil and her husband. She spoke freely and answered all my questions, except one: what was her position on gay marriage? No comment.
How did she see her role with the president: as critic, supporter or adviser? "All three," she responded without hesitation. Then she added: "You might say I have been his greatest supporter and critic at the same time. He sometimes remonstrates with me saying ‘everyone appreciates what I do but you are the only one I could not convince.'"
Asked to assess her main achievements, she responded simply: "I suffered a lot as a woman covering her head in Turkey, but today the taboos are broken." Then she singled out her main social projects: the 81 Stars scholarships, Education Enables for children with disabilities, Stop Diabetes — a national public-awareness program — and the Talking Books Festival, now in its sixth year. She added that she has been personally involved in renovating Cankaya Palace and in the restoration and preservation of art objects: historic calligraphy, furniture, porcelain, silver and glass. Most of the art works are from the Ottoman period, brought to Cankaya when Ataturk was president. The collection has been enlarged to include modern art, paintings and sculptures.
If her husband is reelected president next year for another seven-year term, what would be the top priorities on her agenda? "We have many more projects, particularly in health and education. I do not know what God has planned for us. That's why I do not want to make long-term plans."
Speaking about family life, Mrs. Gul recalled when her husband went into politics, they agreed she would have the main responsibility for raising the children and giving them spiritual direction. Explaining why she had sent her children to universities abroad, she said: "There are very good universities in Turkey but when my husband became president, it was difficult to keep them out of the public eye. I tried to protect them and sent them away so they would not be so visible and targets for the media in Turkey." Her elder son and daughter graduated from the Industrial Engineering Department of Ankara's Bilkent University and went to Britain for internships. Then the son obtained an MBA from Stanford University and is now working in the family manufacturing company in Istanbul. Her daughter worked there too, but is now home caring for her baby. The younger son continues his education at Harvard. "I believe the greatest benefit from studying abroad is to make friends from all over the world," she concluded.
For an enlightened secular view of the state of women's rights in Erdogan's Turkey, I visited Feride Acar, a longtime defender of gender equality and wife of the president of Middle East Technical University, Turkey's leading English-language school, with a student body of 26,500. I had seen reports of student demonstrations of solidarity with the Gezi protests at METU, as the university is known. But that day, the campus on the outskirts of Ankara looked like a green island of calm. The students were preparing for final exams, Dr. Acar explained. We first met in 1987, and I found her very knowledgeable about the Islamic revival underway in Turkey. Dr. Acar, who has a Master's degree and PhD from Bryn Mawr, is a professor of political sciences and gender and women's studies at METU. She is also an independent expert with the Geneva-based UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Over pungent glasses of Turkish coffee in the president's residence, Dr. Acar patiently updated me on the current state of women's rights in Turkey.
Howe: What has been the impact of 11 years of AKP rule on women's rights?
Acar: Turkey is still the most advanced Muslim country regarding women's rights and, legally speaking, there's no reversal. The laws based on equal legal rights for women have not changed. In fact, as part of Turkey's efforts to adopt European Union standards, there have been some improvements. Judges are no longer so lenient regarding perpetrators of honor killings and rape; legislation to protect women against domestic violence has been improved. But the problem lies in the resistance to identifying the root cause of the problem, gender inequality in traditional Turkish society.
Howe: Why hasn't the AKP administration lifted restrictions on headscarves in government service and public buildings, which was one of the main demands of the Islamic movement before coming to power?
Acar: They have been hesitant about tackling the headscarf problem in legal terms. There's talk now about liberalizing the civil service to admit headscarves. Maybe, in the early years, they felt insufficiently powerful to tackle such a contentious issue. Or perhaps they had more important priorities such as dealing with military and civilians they suspected of plotting against the government. Hundreds are in jail awaiting trial, including many officers, academics, politicians and journalists, some not yet charged.
Howe: How about head coverings in universities?
Acar: In universities, there has been a de facto lifting of restrictions on headdress. At METU, there's freedom of choice. In general, it's a non-issue for students.
Howe: What's the Ministry on Women's Issues doing now?
Acar: It no longer exists. What used to be Ministry of State responsible for Women's Issues has been replaced by the Ministry of Family and Social Policy. Women have disappeared from its name. The minister, Fatma Sahin, is hard-working and devoted to protecting women, but much of what is done is in the name of protecting the family. They haven't focused on the rights of women; there's just not enough effort to expand women's rights.
Howe: What's happened to the Women's Movement that used to be so active?
Acar: The Turkish Women's Movement is made up of a number of different groups, including secular feminists, Islamic women and Kurdish women. It is a vocal and visible movement, but to what extent it represents all women can be debated. These groups don't always see eye to eye on issues and don't always agree on strategy, but they keep in contact and cooperate on some of the critical issues.
Howe: What are the most pressing issues on the agenda of the women's movement?
Acar: While violence against women gets the most attention, another crucial problem is low employment. Women are not encouraged to seek employment outside the home. Another urgent issue is to get more women into politics at all levels. At present, women make up only 14 percent of Parliament. We need the government to ensure positive discrimination, but the prime minister is against quotas. For women's political empowerment, we need percentages spelled out in the electoral law or law on political parties.
Howe: How has life changed for Turks under AKP majority rule?
Acar: This depends on where you look. For many, it's been a good 10 years: a rise in living standards, urban-renewal projects, better homes and living conditions. Yet, obviously, many are dissatisfied, primarily with the conservative policies on social issues.
Howe: If the AKP is doing such a great job, what are all the protests about?
Acar: The main problem is the polarizing personality of the AKP leader. He's charismatic, and many people like him, but he has not been able to unite the different segments. Many, including those young people in the streets, resent his authoritarian, patriarchal attitude and his intervention in their lifestyle. For example, there's no excessive drinking in Turkey — per capita alcohol consumption is the lowest in Europe — and further limitations aren't really necessary. According to our laws, a woman can get an abortion free of charge in a public hospital up to 10 weeks. This has helped bring down infant mortality and complications for women's health rising from backroom operations. But, suddenly out of the blue, the prime minister declared he is against abortions and cesarean sections. Many people fear a possible regression, that he wants to take away modern lifestyles and limit individual rights and freedoms.
When I returned to Gezi Park, the protest was well into its second week, with the largest turnout to date that Sunday, June 9. Thousands of people were massed in Taksim Square and the park, with security forces stationed on the periphery. Most of the political banners had been removed, and there was a festive atmosphere about the encampment, with civic teams cleaning up the refuse. The protesters seemed prepared for the long haul. The amorphous movement now had a structure and a name, Taksim Solidarity Platform, which issued statements but remained leaderless. The offerings of free cakes and bottled water had been transformed into a regular soup kitchen providing thousands of meals daily to the tent city. And nearby, the "hospital" — a first-aid station — claimed to have 100 doctors on call. The doctor in charge told me they treated about 30 traumas a day, mostly cranial wounds from gas canisters, but also injuries from plastic bullets, burning eyes from tear gas and fractures from falls as people fled police charges.
Back from North Africa, the prime minister met with AKP leaders about the ongoing protests. Heeding counsel to cool things down, Erdogan delegated the mayor of Istanbul to declare a change of plans: no shopping mall, hotel or residences would be built at Gezi Park, only the Ottoman barracks, perhaps as a city museum. But the prime minister retained his defiant stance, calling the protesters "marauders" and now blaming "the interest-rate lobby" for the protests. Erdogan also announced five "massive rallies," which would be the start of his election campaign. His message to cheering followers in all these counterdemonstrations was: "In seven months' time, there will be local elections. I want you to give them the first lesson through democratic means, through the ballot box.... We have been brought to power by the people, and only the people can remove us from power."
Clearly satisfied that he had shown a spirit of compromise, Erdogan proclaimed on June 11 that order would be restored in Taksim Square. The police invaded the square at 7:30 a.m., driving everybody out with pepper spray, water cannons and percussion bombs. The governor insisted no one would be hurt, pledging not to touch the Gezi Park camp site. But pepper spray doesn't respect boundaries, as I discovered for myself, when I visited Gezi Park later that day.
Meanwhile, there was still no sign of protest in the Old City. Skirting the University of Istanbul, I made my way to the Vefa-Fatih district and the office of Mazlumder, the main Islamic human rights organization. Cuneyt Sariyasar, head of the Istanbul branch, expressed admiration for the young people of Taksim struggling against the government's "authoritarian attitudes." But he noted that "marginal groups" were trying to hijack the peaceful movement and had threatened and insulted women wearing headscarves. For example, two days before, a group of Kemalists who had been drinking attacked a young woman and her five-month-old baby at Kabatas, down the hill from Taksim. She has taken her case to court. Mazlumder received eight such complaints in one day but has not reported them "to avoid inflaming the situation," he stressed.
By now, many of Turkey's foreign friends and allies had expressed dismay over the brutal suppression of dissent and urged the government to come to terms with the protesters. In Strasbourg, the European Parliament held a special debate on the Turkish crisis and approved a firm resolution, warning the authorities against using harsh measures to quell peaceful protests. Predictably, at a rally in Ankara, Erdogan responded angrily to the European parliamentarians: "How can you pass such a decision on Turkey, which isn't even an EU member but a candidate? Shame on you!"
Whether due to the stern messages from abroad or the persistent pleas for reconciliation by President Gul and other AKP leaders, or perhaps the disastrous decline of tourism and the Istanbul Stock Market, Erdogan finally demonstrated a change of heart. After a two-week standoff, the prime minister met with a group of 11 prominent opponents of his Taksim development plans and agreed to wait for a final court ruling on the project and then hold a plebiscite on the issue. At the same time, he issued a 24-hour ultimatum to the protesters to clear the park. "Our patience is at an end," he warned ominously. But the Solidarity Platform said they could not subscribe to the accord because none of their members had attended the meeting, Erdogan immediately invited eight representatives of the Solidarity Committee and made them the same offer.
When I went to the Solidarity Platform tent the next morning, a spokeswoman for the movement told me the district leaders were debating the government's proposal and would vote on a response. "Our initial reaction is that leaving the matter to the court is a delaying tactic," she said. Also, the prime minister failed to address their five basic demands, which she listed as the end of the Taksim development project, a ban on the use of tear gas against protesters, prosecution of middle- and high-echelon police involved in the violence, release of all detained protesters, and a guarantee that the square would remain for public rather than private use. Later, the Solidarity Platform issued a communiqué stating firmly that they would "continue the resistance against all unfair and unjust treatment around the country," emphasizing that four people had been killed and dozens seriously wounded during the protests. They accepted Erdogan's proposal to let the court decide on the Taksim-Gezi project and agreed to remove the barricades, political banners and all the tents except one, which would serve as headquarters for the 116 organizations that make up the Solidarity Platform.
But for Erdogan, the uprising was over; on June 15, police were ordered to evacuate Gezi Park. That night saw some of the worst violence since the beginning of the crisis. Riot police drove thousands of campers from the park with streams of water and pepper spray, even firing tear gas into a nearby luxury hotel, where protesters had sought refuge. The next day, bulldozers destroyed what was left of the camp, city workers swept the area, and Taksim Square and Gezi Park were declared off limits. A government spokesman said menacingly that anyone who returned to Taksim would be considered "a member or supporter of a terrorist organization."
In the weeks that followed, Solidarity Platform activists held small meetings in Istanbul and other cities as a sign that the resistance was continuing. Their actions, however, appeared increasingly irrelevant as the state reimposed order. The world, with its invasive television cameras and reporters, had moved on to bigger and fiercer protests in Egypt and Brazil.
Turks were left to pick up the pieces of the heady fortnight when old adversaries had embraced one another and joined forces to defend 600 linden trees and the democratic ideal of minority rights. But something had changed. Diehard antagonisms began to wither as different Turkish groups now came together to express their demands. People no longer seemed afraid to voice dissent.
Barely a week after the lockdown of Gezi Park, some 10,000 pro-Kurdish demonstrators — including many Gezi protesters — marched to Taksim to condemn the killing of a Kurdish teenager and the wounding of nine others by security forces at Lice in southeastern Turkey. Taksim was blocked, but the marchers held sit-ins in the side streets chanting slogans like "Murderer police, get out of Kurdistan." Originally, the march had been called by the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party to demand political and cultural rights as part of the peace process aimed to end the 30-year insurrection. Peace talks had been engaged by Erdogan's government and Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) late last year. Ocalan, who is serving a life prison sentence, called a ceasefire in March and began withdrawing armed guerrillas from Turkey in April. The Lice shooting was the worst incident since the ceasefire and threatened to disrupt the peace talks.
The following day, more people than ever turned out for the eleventh Gay Pride parade along Istanbul's main artery, Istiklal Street, leading to Taksim. Some 20,000 people, led by gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders joyously waved rainbow flags and banners calling for peace in Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian and Arabic. Other Gezi Park activists joined the marchers, whose main complaint was that, despite Erdogan's promise of legal protection, LGBT's are still victims of police abuse.
Next came the turn of the Alevis, a Shiite minority, to express their grievances. This time, the authorities participated in the events that commemorated the twentieth anniversary of the Sivas Massacre. Well-known liberal Alevi intellectuals who had gathered in the Central Anatolian city for an arts festival were attacked by an angry mob of Sunni zealots. They burned down the Madimak Hotel, where the visitors were lodged, resulting in the deaths of 33 Alevis, two hotel employees and two attackers. Subsequently, 33 radical Islamists were sentenced to life in prison, but details of the incident were never clarified. Alevis have accused the secular authorities of complacency, even connivance, in the attack, but the case was closed last year under the statute of limitations. Hoping to calm spirits, the minister of labor and social security, Faruk Celik, insisted that the massacre was not the deed of Alevis or Sunnis but "some provocative groups trying to push Turkey into a chaotic situation." In Istanbul, some 10,000 people assembled at Yogurtcu Park at Kadikoy on the Asian side of the city to pay tribute to the victims of the Sivas Massacre. Many of these demonstrators were alumni of Gezi Park.
The Anti-Capitalist Muslims, a small fledgling group, gained prominence in the post-Gezi period, which coincided with Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. These young, devout libertarians, who oppose the government's developmentalist policies, organized several open-air Iftar dinner debates in Istanbul, attended by some secular protesters. But Mazlumder, the independent Islamic human-rights organization, and Islamic observers stressed that the Anti-Capitalist Muslims are not significant or influential in Turkish society. In reality, the group acquired a certain visibility because they were the only association of devout Muslims amid the host of different interest groups, although some pious Muslims took part in the protests as individuals.
It was as if Turkish society had suddenly awakened to an accumulation of abuses by the present and past governments and wouldn't take any more. Then out of the blue, 57 women from Turkey's intellectual elite called for the freedom to wear headscarves as a basic human right. Emphasizing that they do not wear headscarves, the women — academics, artists, journalists and politicians — published a petition urging all political parties to take immediate action to change legislation that prevents headscarved women from enjoying their rights. "The biggest victim of the politics that marked Turkey's last 20 years on the Muslim-secular axis has always been women," the Group of 57 declared. "We oppose every kind of practice that creates inequality for women who wear headscarves. We demand the removal of all legal and non-legal obstacles that impede headscarved women's employment in the public sector and elections to general and local offices."
Naturally I contacted Ayse Yilmaz to know the reaction of Mrs. Gul, who has so tenaciously fought for headscarf freedom. Emphasizing that the petitioners are well-known and successful individuals, the first lady declared: "They made this announcement through a democratic and modern attitude. They approved women's solidarity. They see the headscarf issue as a matter of human rights. I believe that everyone should be evaluated according to his or her capabilities. Wearing a headscarf should not be an advantage or disadvantage."
This is the first time a group of uncovered women has taken a strong stand against the headscarf ban, according to Sevgi Akarcesme, a columnist for Today's Zaman, who is not a member of the Group of 57. "I'm glad that finally common sense has begun to prevail in Turkey!" she said, adding that it was high time for everyone to condemn this unacceptable practice. Asked if she thought the women's initiative was linked to Gezi Park, she replied affirmatively: "As far as I can see, after Gezi, the demand for more freedom has become stronger everywhere."
Although there had been no headscarves at Gezi Park, the Group of 57's petition for freedom to wear headscarves, which was posted online on July 2, had received 5,700 signatures by July 10. Noting the growing public support for headscarf freedom, Today's Zaman columnist Ali Aslan Kilic announced that the government planned to cancel the directive banning headscarves in public service, which had been instituted in the wake of the 1980 military coup. Kilic stressed that the measure would have a much broader impact because covered women had often been denied employment in the private sector, although there was no ban.
Barely one month after the Gezi Park protests, the Turkish court announced its decision to cancel the Taksim Development Project, on the grounds it violated preservation rules and changed the identity of the square. It was a major victory for the protesters, who, empowered by the results of passive resistance, announced another round of events for Gezi Park. But their triumph was short-lived. Security forces barred protesters' access to Gezi although they were free to hold demonstrations in outlying parks. And on July 22, it was learned that the Istanbul Regional Administrative Court had overturned the lower court's injunction against the Taksim Development Project. The decision could be appealed, but the future of Gezi Park and the movement it had spawned was unclear.
Another court decision threatened to further polarize the nation. On August 5, severe sentences were announced in the five-year-old Ergenekon trial of 275 senior military officers, politicians and journalists accused of plotting to overthrow the government. Nineteen defendants were sentenced to life in prison, including General Ilker Basbug, former chief of the General Staff, and there were only 21 acquittals. Oppositionists denounced the verdict as political and unfair, and even the European Union expressed concern over the rights of the defense. Pro-government commentators praised the court for taking an important step in establishing civilian rule over the military and asserting that coup attempts would no longer go unpunished. Between 1960 and 1997, Turkey suffered four military coups. President Gul, the conciliator, expressed "sadness" over the verdict and expressed hope that any flaws would be corrected in the long appeals process.
The unanswered question on the minds of many observers and ordinary citizens was whether Prime Minister Erdogan and the AKP leadership had learned any lessons from the Gezi Park rebellion. Many columnists and bloggers are persuaded that the AKP leader is irrevocably set on a path of authoritarianism. An exception, Mustafa Akyol, presented a hopeful view of the situation in the opposition Hurriyet Daily News: "If the AKP takes a lesson from the Gezi Park events, which are really a big political phenomenon in Turkish history, our democracy might grow more liberal and participatory. Erdoğan and his cadre might realize that winning elections is not the only thing that matters, and that they have to listen to opposition groups and show full respect to peaceful protests."
It would be foolhardy for me to make predictions about Turkey's leadership, which has always eluded simplistic definitions. But in the wake of protests that spread across this nation of 76 million inhabitants, the government has returned to business pretty much as usual. The police are continuing to make raids in connection with the acts of violence, but there has been no harsh crackdown on the Kurdish or Alevi groups that have been so outspoken in the demonstrations. In fact, the government renewed its "Alevi opening" to provide the religious minority the same status as Sunni Muslims. Erdogan personally proclaimed the Kurdish peace talks would not be derailed by provocateurs. And, despite Europe's sharp criticism of the mishandling of the Gezi Park protests, Turkey has pledged to pursue its EU membership bid. The military coup in Egypt, however, came as a serious blow to Erdogan's Middle Eastern policy, based on a partnership with the Muslim Brotherhood leadership on regional issues like Syria and Palestine. "What we have in Egypt is the minority imposing their will on the majority," Erdogan said, slamming the West, particularly the European Union, for not condemning the coup in Cairo.
Whether or not the push came from Gezi Park, there's a new mood of freedom in Turkey nowadays. In mid-August, the opposition Hurriyet Daily News announced that the parliamentary Constitution Conciliation Commission, charged with drafting a new charter, has reached "four landmark decisions" under the section of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms. Turkey's main political parties have agreed to remove all obstacles to women's enjoying their full rights (i.e. the freedom to wear headscarves); to establish quotas to increase women's participation in political, social, economic and cultural life; to ensure equality of citizens regardless of sexual orientation and ethnic origin; and to classify everyone under 18 as minors.
Erdogan has demonstrated over the past decade that, in spite of a bombastic temperament, he can be flexible and pragmatic. I believe the prime minister can read tea leaves, especially those in the form of opinion polls. On June 12, the independent MetroPOLL Strategic and Social Research Center published what was widely viewed as a wake-up call for Erdogan and his government. The survey showed AKP still in the lead if elections were held now, with 35.3 percent saying they would vote for the ruling party over 22.7 percent for the CHP, the main socialist opposition. But nearly half (49.9 percent) said the government was moving toward authoritarianism, and 54.4 percent thought the government interfered in their lifestyle. A majority of respondents disapproved of the handling of the Gezi Park crisis and 62.9 percent wanted the place to remain a green space. The soft-spoken President Gul was the politician with the most favorable rating, 72.5 percent. Erdogan came in second, with 53.5 percent, down seven points in one month.
Turkey is set to hold both presidential and local elections next year.
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