Speaking in İstanbul during the weekend Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan displayed some elements of panic in the face of growing discontent over the Taksim Gezi Park project.
The clearest sign of his panic is the idea that he will build a mosque in Taksim. Reviving such a project can only come out of desperation to disperse growing criticism coming even from the grassroots of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) about the government's policies of generating economic benefit to some people with construction projects.
Gezi Park in Taksim has been the center of such criticism during the last week. Demolishing the park and building a shopping mall and luxurious residences in its place was pointed out as proof of the ruling party's benefit-driven policies in İstanbul. Countering this argument last week proved to be very difficult for the AK Party.
Now trying to shift the debate from building a shopping mall in Gezi Park to the building of a mosque instead is a prime example of how religion is used to cover up and generate popular support in Turkey. The ruling party seems to have been aware of the discontent in its grassroots and is trying to unite them behind the idea of building mosque in Taksim.
This is obviously a populist tactical move that attempts to imprison conservative and religious group within the AK Party block. The ruling party knows that as the debate revolves around Islamic symbols and references it can control and rely on the support of the religious masses. Polarization along secular and religious lines is expected to benefit the AK Party because it has the potential to mobilize the religious masses. In the past this was the method used by the Kemalists and secularists. They used to expect that raising secular themes and symbols would rally the people behind them. It did not work as people were interested in democracy as much as secularism and supported the AK Party, which promised greater democracy.
The broad support given to Gezi Park in İstanbul indicates that it would be wrong for the AK Party to take the support of religious and secular people for granted. But still resorting to religious symbols and references may win the hearts of at least some religious people who recently have grown critical of the AK Party.
Here are a few more thoughts on the recent protests in İstanbul and other cities during the last week: Violence used against people who oppose demolishing a park in the center of İstanbul has brought the right to peaceful demonstration in Turkey into question. Moreover, the lack of media coverage of the event resulted in people not knowing about the casualties raised doubt about freedom of the press.
Among the casualties of the events in İstanbul are basic rights and freedoms like the right to peaceful demonstration, freedom of expression and a free press. This is indeed not what I would expect from the ruling AK Party that came to power 10 years ago with promises of greater liberties and a deeper democracy. What people encountered in İstanbul and other parts of Turkey was a brutal state and insensitive administrators. This just proves that the holders of power change, but the nature of the state and its attitude towards people remain as it was. For five days not only demonstrators, but also almost the whole of İstanbul were subjected to tear-gas.
Thus, the disproportionate and indiscriminate violence used by the police under the command of the government turned an environmentalist movement into an anti-government protest. In this no doubt the paternalistic and patronizing attitude of the ruling party in recent times played an important role. Growing reactions against such an attitude came out in the Gezi Park demonstrations. They were certainly utilized by anti-government political groups, but the onset of the protests was to a large extent non-partisan. People with different backgrounds and ideological positions came together to protest the hegemonic and patronizing political attitude of the government.
I expected that the government would take steps to reduce the tension. But the speeches made by Erdoğan show that he has chosen confrontation in which religious symbols and references are used as last resort instruments to mobilize conservative and religious masses against the opponents of the government.