Will Gezi protests divide Turkish society? | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 15.06.2013
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Will Gezi protests divide Turkish society?

Protesters in Gezi Park say Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan is appealing to his supporters' religious sensibilities to turn them against demonstrators, while people outside the park appeal for unity.

For over two weeks, Turkey's protest movement has centered on Gezi Park in Istanbul. Western-oriented students and intellectuals, who regard themselves as the core of the protest movement, have gathered to express their anger at the violent responses to their demonstrations by the police and to what they have called the increasingly authoritarian leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Protestors chat outside the camp at Gezi Park as thousands of people gather at Taksim Square Photo: Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images

Protesters say all are welcome at Gezi Park

Erdogan's speeches were the reason why the words "civil war" could be found proliferating on social media networks as well as sprayed on countless walls in Istanbul. Despite Erdogan's appeals to leave the park, demonstrators on Saturday, (15.06.2013) said they would continue their protests there.

Meanwhile, the prime minister's supporters have demonstrated in the Turkish capital, Ankara. Many observers in Turkey have said they believe Erdogan is attempting to split the populace between Islamic conservatives and others with more Western views.

Shy supporters

Many supporters of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) live in the area directly surrounding Gezi Park, where veiled women and men with prayer beads are common sights. And unlike in Gezi Park, few here are willing to share their political views.

"Erdogan is the best. We cannot imagine anyone else" one woman told DW, adding that she wouldn't say anything else about politics.

Okan Özdemir, who said he voted for the AKP, said society was not divided into religious and secular groups. "When you look around, you don't notice any dividing lines," the 28-year-old told DW, adding that any such divisions were created by the media.

Societal split

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the mayors from his ruling Justice and Development Party in Ankara, Turkey, Thursday, June 13, 2013. Photo: AP

Erdogan has called for an end to demonstrations

Over the last two weeks, Erdogan has dismissed the protesters as rabble and said their mothers should go to the park and take their children home. He has also said the protests, which spread from Istanbul across the country, were organized by "extremists," and threatened legal consequences for the organizers.

At the same time, he praised his supporters saying at Istanbul airport, "In recent days, you have behaved honorably and with common sense. You do not have pots and pans in your hands." The banging of pots and pans has become a national symbol for the protest movement.

His supporters responded that they were ready to go to Taksim Square, where Gezi Park is located, to "destroy the protests." For his part, Erdogan has appealed to his supporters' religious sensibilities saying protesters served alcohol on a Muslim holiday and that some women had their headscarves pulled from their heads.

Diverse group of protesters

"From the very beginning that has been his strategy," social and political scientist Yasar Adanali told DW. "It is the government's attempt to present the protest movement as a cultural war. A war between devout Muslims and villains."

Erdogan accuses demonstrators of not respecting religious symbols, Adanali added. "That is in no way the case," the 32-year-old added. "The demonstrators are a very diverse group."

The government is attempting to generalize individual events and portray them as typical for the entire movement, as anti-religious and anti-muslim, Adanali said, but the wide range of people at the protests shows that no group of society is excluded.

Everyone sinking together

A Turkish riot policeman uses tear gas against a woman as people protest Photo: REUTERS/Osman Orsal

The 'Lady in Red' has become a symbol of the protest movement

It is important for the country to show unity, said Turgay Gülsen, who owns a restaurant in the same neighborhood as Gezi Park.

"I see everyone who lives in this country as brothers," the 42-year-old AKP voter told DW, adding that everyone was in the same boat and "sinking together."

He said demonstrators were within their rights to take to the streets, but criticized the property damage caused by protesters, "Why do they burn busses and ATM machines? That is all paid for by our tax money."

Gülsen said he supported the prime minister for his "down-to-earth charisma" and the economic success he has brought to Turkey. Gülsen has lived in Istanbul for 30 years and said he can remember when the city of millions ran short of water.

"Back then, there were 10 million people with water problems - now there are 20 million people without such problems," he said, praising Erdogan's record.

No one is perfect

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Istanbul protesters vow to continue demonstrations

While Gülsen said there are blemishes on the country's democratic record, he said that no one was perfect and that it was not up to the government to get involved in people's personal lives.

"Whoever wants to wear a headscarf should do it, and whoever wants to wear a mini-skirt should do that," he said.

The protests in Gezi Park have brought together people who have not been together in 10 years, demonstrator Zeliha Ocak told DW. The 26-year-old added that she thought religious people had been made very welcome in the park.

"The people here do not think they are divided," she said. "But Erdogan is trying to pull them apart. Erdogan is the only provocateur in the country."

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